In a destination where cultures collide, I'm off to a good start. I have just checked into my hotel room when a staff member arrives with a brocade-lined picnic basket from which she produces a pink and yellow pot of Chinese tea accompanied by a Malay sweet-rice snack dolloped with coconut custard.
The Majestic Malacca is determined to offer its guests an array of tempting cross-cultural nibbles. In the lobby, glass jars are filled with Chinese sour plums and Malay condensed-milk sweets. At the bar, afternoon tea lulls me with smug scones and egg sandwiches, then springs surprises: fat curry puffs and pai tee pockets filled with shredded vegetables and prawn paste. My fragrant tea is flavoured with cinnamon.
Melaka is a city full of fusion delights, and not just in its food. The Malay trading port was conquered by the Portuguese in 1511. The Dutch, British and Chinese and Indian settlers followed. The result is curious blends of cultures, cuisines, religions and languages. The best known is the Baba-Nyonya or Straits Chinese, formed from the intermarriage of Chinese merchants and Malay women. Another ethnic group, the Kristang, are of mixed European and Malay descent.
No surprise then, in Melaka's magpie cultures, that Mediterranean tile work and Victorian chandeliers decorate The Majestic Malacca, once the 1920s mansion of a Chinese tycoon fond of colonial architecture. Nothing is straightforward in this port town. When I set off on a complimentary historical tour with informative hotel receptionist Radhayu, she frequently points out mixed influences on shophouses, which are British-Chinese creations fronted by arcaded footpaths likely of Spanish origin. Facades sport ornate Malay woodwork, Portuguese shutters, traditional Chinese or art deco decorations, and typical Baba-Nyonya pastel colours.
Many shophouses, laments Radhayu, have been abandoned as businesses shift into malls or new residential suburbs. "But don't be fooled by the dilapidated exteriors," she says as we walk down Lorong Jambatan. "This shophouse has been converted to an Airbnb and is luxurious inside." Another houses one of Radhayu's favourite cafes. "I love sitting there reading," she says. "When I moved to Melaka from Kuala Lumpur I thought it very quiet, but now I really appreciate the slow pace, the cafes, the river walks."
We continue into Jalan Hang Kasturi, with its colourful Chinese facades, some embedded with Portuguese stone blocks or long, thin Dutch bricks. Signboard maker Fwu Chang is one of the last remaining shophouse business here, Radhayu says. The shop produces the calligraphy-carved boards that hang above and down the sides of Chinese doors, indicating a family name or business. These days, it also produces cafe signs for the hipster establishments gaining a foothold in the old town.
In Harmony Street, Melaka's comfortable coexistences are symbolised in the Hindu temple, mosque and Chinese temple that sit almost side by side. The minaret of the 1872 Kampung Kling Mosque shows distinct Hindu influences, and the interior is adorned with Portuguese tiles, Corinthian columns and a Chinese-carved wooden pulpit.
A short walk away, a shop specialises in intricately designed, beaded Baba-Nyonya slippers. Craftsman Lim Tian Seng is a rare species: his expensive creations can't compete with cheap factory-made versions. He sits beneath a clanking ceiling fan in dim light, sewing beads on slippers as if to defy the relentless march of change.
Melaka is a city of change. Foreigners, trade and business have come and gone, and now the action has moved away from this lovely old town into more modern neighbourhoods. Still, bits of old Melaka remain. Retirees trade coins and stamps in the morning market on Jalan Hang Lekir; craftsmen make clogs and buckets; rickshaw wallahs still operate, albeit in cycle-rickshaws garish with Hello Kitty decorations.
It's easy to assume this fabulous concoction of cultures is fading until I'm reminded that, like any culture, it just continues transformed. Returning to The Majestic Malacca, I notice that staff wear Baba-Nyonya inspired uniforms, that the spa offers a Straits Chinese spa treatment. That evening, my hotel's turndown service leaves a little plate of nyonya kuih on the coffee table. The sweet, steamed snacks are assembled for their various textures, colours and flavours. Onde-onde is green, flecked with desiccated coconut. Kuiah lapis has custardy mauve layers, as colourful and tempting as all the other layers of Melaka.
The Majestic Malacca has rooms from $115. The historical walk is free for guests. Its restaurant Melba serves delicious Melaka Kristang cuisine, characterised by spicy sambal, coconut curries and light vegetable dishes. Phone +60 6 289 8000. See majesticmalacca.com
Malaysia Airlines flies from Adelaide, Darwin, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney to Kuala Lumpur, a two-hour drive from Melaka. Phone 13 26 27, see malaysiaairlines.com
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Malaysia Airlines, Tourism Malaysia and The Majestic Melaka