The oldest Chinatown in Malaysia is Malacca Chinatown and it is one of the few Chinatowns in the world located within a UNSECO World Heritage site.
Founding of Malacca Chinatown
Malacca Chinatown was founded by Ming Chinese migrants (mainly Hokkiens) who arrived around 1400 to participate in the Malacca centred trading economy.
There were also many visitors and the most famous was Admiral Cheng Ho (郑和). The Chinese population grew larger toward the end of the Ming dynasty as many who fled the Manchu rule headed for Malacca.
As in other Chinatowns, the migrants built institutions to serve their social needs. The oldest and most well know of these is the Cheng Hoon Teng (青云亭).
Many of these Chinese migrants married Malay ladies and Malacca became one of the Peranakan Culture centres of the region.
As the Qing dynasty was disintegrating in China, many Chinese left for Nanyang in search of work and opportunities.
Some arrived in Malacca, a British colony at that time, further boosting its Chinese population. Today, most of the sites and attractions in Malacca Chinatown date to this period.
Today’s Malacca Chinatown centres around three streets; Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, Jalan Hang Jebat, better known as Jonkers St, and Jalan Tokong.
The entire Chinatown is very touristy but its traditional Chinese temples, clan associations and food stores remained very authentic.
For example, the Wang Kang festival (王舡遊行) is organised based on spiritual consideration and not marketed as a tourist event. Perhaps because of this, even more tourists flock to observe the event.
Malacca Chinatown does not seem to be articulated enough and there are no official signs marking it as a Chinatown. It does however have an archway although it Jonker Street.
Malacca Chinatown – the culture
Malacca Chinatown is extremely picturesque and invokes a sense of nostalgia but the bigger attraction is the culture and even the people.
Chinese festivals are celebrated in an authentic way and very creatively. To welcome the year of the dragon, a dragon was suspended in the air visible from afar. It immediately became a major attraction luring people from afar and stopping visitors in their tracks to admire the dragon.
On important religious days, families, clan associations and shops offer their prayers with a make shift altars sometimes at the entrance of homes or outside shops. Walking along the street during these events allows visitors to engage and feel the atmosphere of the celebrations.
Even during non-festive seasons, pastry shops offering traditional Chinese pastries and Peranakan goodies provide enough sensorial delight anytime of the day.
UNSECO World Heritage site
Malacca Chinatown is one of the few Chinatowns in the world that is located within a UNSECO World Heritage site. The others are Penang Chinatown and Luang Prabang Chinatown in Laos.