Historic Trading Towns and Cities in Southeast Asia

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My interest in UNESCO World Heritage Sites started some 10 years ago. Ever since then, I have always patterned my trips towards seeing as many of these sites as I can. I have also been lucky enough with a few sites as I was able to pay them proper visits because of fieldwork and assignments. I consider this as my little addiction.

For my next article here, I would like to discuss more the five historic trading port towns in East and Southeast Asia. I just need to find that much sought after spare time to write down my thoughts and observations on Hoi An, Vigan, Macao, Malacca and George Town.

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Hoi An Ancient Town, the best example of a traditional trading port in Southeast Asia dating from the 15th to the 19th century (Viet Nam).

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Historic Town of Vigan, the best preserved planned Spanish colonial town in Asia that was established in the 16th century (the Philippines).

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Historic Centre of Macao, the first European enclave in the region and an outstanding representation of the interchange between Chinese and Western civilizations since the mid 16th century (China).

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Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca: Melaka, a strategic 15th century Malay port that developed further during the Portuguese and Dutch periods beginning in the early 16th century (Malaysia).

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Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca: George Town, a remarkable example of a British-built city in Southeast Asia from the end of the 18th century (Malaysia).

 

For now, may these photos continue to supply me the needed motivation, optimism, and determination to be able to finally sit down, gather my thoughts properly, and write again one of these days.

This is an article in progress.

Melaka and George Town: Trade Hegemons of Colonial-era Southeast Asia

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Since there is not much noise being made about George Town while unanimous praises are given to Melaka (Malacca), I was surprised to find out that the former component-city would be the highlight of Malaysia’s first UNESCO cultural world heritage site that was inscribed in 2008. The character of George Town is definitely more presentable.


Melaka has a rich cultural and trading history, and the role it once played in regional commerce cannot be underestimated. Its current condition, however, does not live up to its glorious past anymore. Without knowing its history, the city simply looks like any other Chinese-Malay trading town.

The red Dutch Square, the most recognizable exponent of Melaka.

Its history dates back to the well-networked and influential Malaccan sultanate, and later gained greater worldwide interest when it was occupied by the Portuguese and the Dutch successively. Though Melaka was never made as a capital of the Dutch East Indies (VOC), it served as the most important Dutch-controlled port-town between India and Batavia (present day Jakarta), monopolizing the trade movements over the narrow Straits of Malacca. Melaka was such a strong city then that it even rivaled the might and wealth of Ayutthaya in Thailand, yet it fell with the rise of the British control over the peninsula.

Porta da Santiago, or A' Famosa, is the only remaining section of the old walls that once protected Melaka.

This ancient city’s important monuments  can be easily explored in a day, on foot. I started off in the residential/commercial district of the core zone, just across the bridge over the Melaka River. From how I recall, nothing really stood out in that area, and its main thoroughfare Jonker Street (popularly pronounced nowadays as /djongker/ despite its original Dutch pronunciation /Yongker/) was a bit sober and empty during my visit as it was post-election time; most shops were closed in protest against the recent results. The spirit of Jonker Street, nevertheless, went to life when I visited some of the shop houses, learning some few things from store-keepers about the items that they sell. Only then can one feel that he is truly in a multi-cultural trading town.

Shop houses along Jonker Street in Melaka

The Street of Harmony, situated parallel to Jonker Street,  is nice, but its religious monuments are not as spectacular compared to those of George Town. The urban planning concept of putting houses of worships along one lane is one of the unique features of the two historic cities.

The oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia, the Temple of the Goddess of Mercy (Cheng Hoon Teng Temple)

The Dutch Square, also called Red Square, is small but very recognizable. While it is indeed picturesque, there is not much that the plaza has to offer other than four monuments: the Dutch Stadthuys  and Christ Church, Tan Beng Swee Clock Tower, and the British Queen Victoria Fountain. The red color of the city is often seen as impressive, but I’m not quite sure if I share the same assessment. After all, the old historic Dutch buildings were originally painted white. 

The better exponent of Melaka where one can feel its colonial past more would be the A’ Famosa – St. Paul’s Hill area. Inside St. Paul’s ruins, there are numerous 16th to 17th century Dutch gravestones on display. This site was also the first resting place of the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier before it was transferred to Goa in India. It is said that during the canonization of the saint, the Vatican asked for his right hand as a relic for its safekeeping. Interestingly, the statue of St. Francis Xavier in front of the ruins is missing its right hand! Apparently, a branch of the tree fell over and broke it.

Dutch gravestones inside the ruins of St. Paul church.

The St. Paul ruins also offers a commanding view of the city and the straits. Other interesting monuments in Melaka would be the watermill along the river, just beside the ruins of the old Portuguese and Dutch ramparts, and the small windmill near the Dutch Square.

The Malacca Sultan Watermill along the Melaka River.


George Town, on the other hand, was a real surprise. Historically, this British-era city rose to prominence with the decline and demise of Melaka. Without expecting much, I originally planned to stay there just for a night. But, seeing how lovely the place was, I ended up staying for three days. I enjoyed going around the city on a bike. Aside from surveying the main sites, there are other things to do here like checking out the street arts (which became a big craze after a Lithuanian artist did some wonderful works in the city), as well as treating oneself with the famous Penang dishes like Penang laksa and char kway cheow.

Georgian architecture-inspired George Town City Hall.

There are more monuments in George Town, and they are more grand, colorful, and definitely better maintained than those in Melaka. Key British legacies include the impressive Georgian-inspired City and Town Halls, the bit worn-out and empty Fort Cornwallis, the two mid-sized churches, and the colonial-era buildings along Lebuh Pantai, the old business lane of the city. By seeing some old photos of George Town, I was surprised to learn that there were more British colonial buildings that stood there before, creating a real “Little Europe” atmosphere during its heyday.

mix-architecture houses in George Town. Most are shop houses.

George Town was intended to be the successor to Melaka’s trade hegemony, as well as the crowning glory of the British empire’s might and supremacy in Southeast Asia. In comparison to Melaka, the historic centre of George Town is larger and that there are more shop houses around.

Fort Cornwallis, a brick fortification built upon the site where Sir Francis Light first landed in Penang.

Furthermore, I enjoyed the city a lot as local colours are much vibrant there. Its Little India, for example, is one of the better Indian quarters I’ve seen so far in the region; Muslim communities (Southern Indians and Malays alike) are largely concentrated around George Town’s three mosques; and the Chinese clan temples are richly decorated. In experiencing the straits Chinese-Malay culture, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion in George Town appears to be better than the Baba Nyonya Museum in Melaka. Also, George Town’s Teochew Temple and Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion have been conferred by UNESCO Asia-Pacific with the Best in Heritage Conservation Awards as well.

Masjid Kapitan Kelling along the Street of Harmony in George Town

Melaka is one reminder of Asia’s close contact with the Portuguese and the Dutch; George Town, with the British. Key to a better appreciation of these sites is to see each city holistically and to understand the diversity and cultural uniqueness that each has to offer.

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As with any South and Southeast Asian trading town such as Vigan, Hoi An, Macao and Galle, the biggest threats at present to the two cities are urban developmental pressures. Buffer zones are obviously weak in some areas. The waterfront face-lifting of the Melaka River and the intrusive development plan in the historic enclave of George Town have been frowned upon by the World Monuments Fund and other international organizations.

Street art in George Town - this is the biggest! Here's a photo of my newly found friends doing some rounds around the city at 2AM (after a night of booze!) :p


PS. Is it possible to have Singapore inscribed, too? Trade control in the Straits of Malacca started in Melaka, then transferred to George Town, and eventually ended in Singapore. It would be nice to see Singapore alongside the two inscribed sites in representing the complete trading history along the straits. The difficulty with Singapore, however, is that much of its old district landscape has already been altered, modernized and compromised.

** Visited George Town and Malacca in May 2013

Jogjakarta in Hindsight

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“It’s Jogja not Yogya!”, I’ve been corrected a hundred of times.

All throughout my stay in Central Java in 2013, I was at the receiving end of the generosity and kindness of Krido and his family. They did not only open their warm home to me, but they also took their precious time in bringing me to the best places there are in the area and endlessly feeding me with the delicious nasi gudeg and different varieties of sambal sauce to pair.

I used this colourful and historic city as my base in exploring three UNESCO World Heritage Sites nearby, namely: Borobudur, Prambanan (together with the Rotu Boko ruins), and Sangiran Early Man Site. The photos in this post, however, are those from Jogjakarta itself.

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The historic Tugu Jogja, the most representative landmark of Jogjakarta

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The Dutch-built Fort Vredeburg and its front moat. The fort was meant to intimidate the then reigning sultanate of Jogjakarta, hence it was constructed right in front of one of the royal palaces (locally called kraton) of the city.

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Mirota Batik is a specialty shop along Malioboro Street, the main thoroughfare of the city. One of the highlights of this boutique is the live demonstration of batik-making. Indonesian batik is in the register of Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

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A wonderful artwork standing at the heart of Jogjakarta. The city center still has a lot of Dutch colonial-era buildings to boast.

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the corridors of the Sumur Gumuling, the eccentric underground mosque inside the Kraton Jogjakarta complex.

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The circular well with five staircases at the center of the underground mosque is considered to be a unique architectural feature of the Sumur Gumuling.

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Modernity and Antiquity: inside Kampung Taman, the village adjacent to the kraton complex.

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Taking a break from the hot weather outside: in an artsy nook in Kampung Taman.

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Taman Sari, known to the Dutch as the “Waterkasteel”, used to be the royal bath of the Jogjakarta sultan’s family.

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On top of the central tower of the Taman Sari is the former private chamber of the sultan. From here, would have been able to see everything that was happening inside the bath.

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The stylized gable of the front gate of the Taman Sari.

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One of the best hangout corners in town: Kalimilk, a truly Jogjakarta brand. Durian milkshake – checked.

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We traveled more than thirty minutes out of the city (at 11pm!) to go to this eatery (locally called warung). Krido and his cousins told me that this one is their favourite.

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Aunt Willy, my “supermom” in Jogjakarta. I felt so safe knowing that I was with her! 🙂

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Krido’s mom and dad, who were also in town when I was there, gave me this traditional Indonesian sarong that is typical from their hometown in the Dieng Plateau.

To Krido – I appreciate the gift of friendship. Ours is indeed another proof that it is possible to cultivate deep and meaningful connections from online platforms such as Instagram. Thank you for being with me from my arrival at the Jogja airport, to the magnificent temples and far-flung dig sites we visited, until my day of departure up in Semarang!

Three years and counting 🙂

A Maranao Woman in Tugaya

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Largely unheard of even among fellow Filipinos, the Maranao of Tugaya in Lanao del Sur are some of the most artistic groups in the country. The humble town beside the ancient Lake Lanao (one of the oldest known lakes in the world) is nearly purely composed of artisans in various pursuits.

The lady in this photo was inlaying shells to a newly constructed wooden chest. This, together with weaving local textiles called ina-ol, is one of the few things that women are permitted to do for work in this still gendered community.

Their unique artistic concept of okir manifests in their wood works, metal crafts, textiles, paintings, and even house decorations. The okir happens to be the strongest component in its nomination to the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List. Their epic, the Darangen, is already proclaimed in 2005 as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. 

As it was in the holy months of the Ramadan — in fact a few days before Eid’l Fitr — when I did this site visit for a project, she was on fast since sunrise and made some short breaks from work only at prayer time until the fasting ends at dusk. Such display of obedience and faith never fails to inspire me.