In April and May we spent some time in Malacca, for a story on the state of the city three years after its listing as a Unesco World Heritage Site. (In July 2008 Unesco jointly listed Malacca and George Town, Penang as Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca.)
Read all about it (and view some mighty nice photos) in the August 2011 issue of Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia.
I began my reporting in Malacca feeling pretty disheartened. For one thing, I intensely dislike what is probably the city's most touted tourist attraction: Jonker Walk. Maybe that's because I have -- thanks to this wonderful book -- an idea of what the street was like before tourism officials decided that Malacca's old town needed a kitschy night market. Until the Jonker Walk scheme was hatched the street was home to a community of long-time (century-old, some!) businesses and family homes in which real Malaccans lived and worked.
Or maybe I was discouraged because Malacca's charms aren't as obvious as those of George Town, an achingly nostalgic city with a certain low-key urban buzz ... and one that we've come to love over the last 5 or so years.
Those charms are all but invisible every weekend when masses -- I mean masses -- of visitors (and their cars) descend on old Malacca's narrow streets. "We basically go inside at noon on Friday and don't come out until Sunday evening," a conservation zone resident told me.
I'm not optimistic about the future of Malacca's historic core. The Hard Rock Cafe being built on one bank of the Malacca River (among other things) fairly sums up official Malacca's views regarding the non-importance of conserving and preserving the city's historic assets.
But after spending time with native Malaccans and newcomers, people who love their town and are fighting against grim odds for its future, I was able to see its beauty and its uniqueness.
Go on a weekday and stay the night, wander the old town's lanes and tiny alleyways early in the morning and in the hours approaching sunset, and you'll see them too. Skirt Jonker Walk, skip the chicken rice balls (yes, I wrote about them years ago, but I wouldn't spend a meal chit on them now) and seek out the old-style nosh holes that, for lack of flash and/or signage, fly under the radar of visitors.
Here is Malacca as it's always been, Malacca for Malaccans, undisturbed and unperturbed by expensive 1.6-kilometer monorails to nowhere, water wheels claiming a questionable pedigree, and revolving towers with a bird's-eye view of landfill over the point at which the Malacca River meets the Straits of Malacca, the former site of one of the most important ports on southeast Asia's spice route.
Long Fatt's business card says it all: Traditional Teochew Porridge.
This small family-owned and run restaurant was established over eighty years ago by an immigrant from Shantou (aka Swatow), Guangdong. It sits near the western end of warehouse and wholesale thoroughfare Kampung Pantai, next to dimunitive Aw Hai Tien Buddhist temple. Imagine this: when Long Fatt started up the back doors of warehouses across the street opened right onto the Malacca River; deliveries were made by boats ferrying goods from the big ships anchored at Malacca port.
At half past ten Long Fatt's accordion doors are folded open wide enough for the good smells of long stewing to escape into the street. Inside the restaurant all is quiet save for the thwack and sizzle of chopping and frying, the swish-swish of shuffling feet as the family's oldest working member ferries dishes from kitchen to display counter, and the chirps of songbirds flitting about cages hung over the kitchen.
One of Long Fatt's specialties, found on nearly every table at lunchtime, is a neither aggressively sour nor especially spicy version of asam (sour) fish, made with forefinger-length specimens cooked over a low flame for twelve hours. The fish's bones become appealingly gelatinous, soft enough to eat. Even if you avoid anything piscene at the table it's a dish you can't help but admire at the display counter: a spiral of silvery head-on fish prettily layered in an old-fashioned enamel bowl and submerged in thin orange gravy.
Long Fatt's stewed pumpkin is notable for an almost nutty richness balanced by the pungency of scallion leaves, and its mustard is reduced to southern American-style velvety sweetness. Whitebait caramelized with shallots is an irresistible relish that cries for main dish status. Vinegary taucu (fermented yellow bean paste)-based chili sauce is the condiment of choice.
By 1pm Long Fatt's morning hush is forgotten, its narrow dining room hums with conversation, and the dishes on display at the front counter are greatly diminished.
[Dave shot a number of portraits of some of the wonderful people we met in Malacca. Have a look on his photo blog Sky Blue Sky, here.]
Long Fatt, No. 15 Kampong Pantai, Malacca. 06/283-0129.
Malacca: Voices From the Street can be purchased at Malaqa House on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock.