“Jonker” Street, the heart of the Chinatown in seaside Malacca, Malaysia, means “Second-class Gentlemen” Street, referring to how the prewar road was the home of the servants who once worked for the rich owners of better homes along nearby Hereen Street. But of the 12 Chinatowns I have been to, this one is second to none.
The Chinese were one of the most important trading communities in Malacca in the 1400s and 1500s, when the city was the biggest trading post in Southeast Asia.
With great walkability in the relatively compact old town, a reasonable amount of people milling about in the streets that are not too crowded yet not too empty, authenticity, and ideal balance of shops, shrines, restaurants and associations making homes in a funky variety of colonial-Chinese-style two-storey buildings, this Chinatown aims to thrill visitors while not shirking its ability to cater to local Chinese-Malaysian needs.
Indicative of how smoothly these Chinese establishments blend into one another, the convenience-store Choice Shop at 100 Junker St is often mistaken for a shrine. The same can be said to a somewhat lesser degree to the shops selling statues of Buddhist and Taoist deities along this charming, richly cultural street. An Islamic sultanate before the arrival of Portuguese and Dutch colonisers, Malacca, has the most international and unique history of any other city in Malaysia. As with most towns in Malaysia, there is also a small Indian community, and of course many Malays.
As with any Chinatown worth its noodles, the various Chinese curios stores on Junker Street here make good places to get gifts such as jade or gold pendants with Chinese characters that mean “long life” or “prosperity”. They also have all manner of old coins and lamps, paintings and an array of Chinese trinkets.
Other Chinatowns in Malaysia have similar old Sino-Portuguese shophouses, such as in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Kuching, but they lack the charm and better preserved architectural beauty—colourfully decorated tiles, curling gables—of Malacca’s Chinatown and are not as physically well maintained. Meanwhile, Singapore’s old Chinatown, which may have been over-prettified and gentrified, may look too good, and does not have as many original buildings—especially shrines—intact, while its restaurants are mostly upmarket and touristy.
And the wearying Yaowarat (Chinatown) of Bangkok is too geared towards basic shops needed for locals, without enough to interest visitors, and have a glut of copycat red-and-yellow-theme gold shops. It is also dissected by the major thoroughfare Yaowarat Road, which increases the pollution and decreases the livability of this Chinatown.
Meanwhile, London’s Chinatown is too focused on restaurants, and the same can be said for those across the Atlantic in Washington and Boston, which have seen much of their earlier Chinese settlers move to the suburbs. Also, even the bustling, fun Chinatowns in New York and San Francisco seem to too much take on the traits of their US capitalist home, and are centred on the money to be made in restaurants and curios shops, with less of a soul, though at least the scenes here are lively.
Built by Teochiew, Hacca and Pernakan (Straits Chinese) and other Chinese peoples who immigrated to west-central Malaysia in past centuries, Malacca’s Chinatown keeps its roots alive and celebrates its ancestors, in accordance with Confucian tradition. The oldest and most important temple here is the Buddhist Cheng Hoon Temple.
Older Sino rhythms are felt along Tun Tak Cheng Lock, formerly Heeren Street, where affluent Baba Nyonya Chinese—Chinese who became assimilated by marrying locally and becoming Muslim—built their mansions with wealth from trading rubber and other goods. The Baba Nyonya heritage, in decor and food, is celebrated at the hip Geographer Cafe, at 81 and 83 Jonker Street. The hungry also regularly savour the chicken rice of Nasi Ayam Hoe Kee restaurant at 8 to 4 Jonker Street, or the local, widely available staple laksa, a spicy Malaysian noodle dish made here with coconut. Nearby are shops specialising in local desserts and catering both to local Chinese and Malays, as well as visitors from around the world. At 165 Jonker Street, the Teo Chew Huay Kuan centre offers tai-chi, aerobics and more opportunities to get in shape after enjoying so much of the filling local cuisine.
For half a millennium, Malacca has been home to a mix of cultural traditions thanks to the visitors it attracts to its deep harbour and favourable location along the path of trades winds. The Dutch Heritage Trail takes visitors to the other side of town across the Malacca River to visit-worthy sites including the sturdy Dutch structure 17th-century Stadthuys town hall—which is now home to the informative History Museum Ethnographic Museum—and St Francis Xavier’s Church and Christ Church, which was built with red bricks from Holland and now houses the Melaka Art Gallery.
A grand view of this coastal town, the Straits of Malacca and the large Chinese cemetery on China Hill is granted from the Menara Taming Sari, a 360-degree viewing tower with a sky-high viewing platform. Malacca is about one hour by vehicle from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.
Old Malacca’s plazas, government buildings, temples, churches and mosques have Unesco World Heritage status for their cultural and historic worth. Such structures ring the excellently situated ruins of St Paul Church—a Dutch church built atop a Portuguese one—with its Dutch tombstones on St Paul Hill. Children holding the hands of their parents are led down the hill to Porta de Santiago, the one remaining section of the Portuguese fortress A’Famosa (The Famous); less well-preserved Portuguese-built structures can be found in the Portuguese Settlement & Museum.
My most important stop in town was a cool jewellery and Chinese knickknacks store on Jonker Street, where I bought my Chinese-Thai wife Mai a jade and silver pendant with the Chinese character for “longevity”. It is great knowing that as long as we are together, I will feel right at home in Asia.