Partner country feature: Cultural immersion… Malacca style

Villa Sentosa in Malacca is known as a “living museum”, because this unique village house, open to the public, is still inhabited by the original family whose relatives built it almost 100 years ago.

The Villa is a traditional Malay timber house from the 1920’s that has been largely preserved as it was in the first half of the 20th century. The house itself is an architectural gem, with an open courtyard, 14 windows, potted plants and intricately carved air vents which keep it cool, even during the hot mid-day sun. The house, near the river in Kampung Morten (Malacca’s most famous Malay village), provides a great insight into the history of Malaysia and the colonialisation of Malacca.

We are shown around the home by one of the family members, Hashim Ibrahim, a former veterinarian, now retired, who explains that the villa receives visitors from 9am to 6pm. “This is one of the first houses to have been built in this Kampung, in 1922, the same time the village was originally opened by my grandfather.”

International tourists are fascinated by the home, which even attracted a very special ceremony in 2017. “There was a Malaysian-style wedding ceremony whereby an American man married a Japanese woman,” explains Ibrahim. A newspaper cutting on the wall describes the ceremony in which the groom stated, “I will recommend to my friends in Japan and the US to come to Malaysia if they want to experience a true and memorable traditional Malay wedding.”

A Swedish top model even flew in for a photo shoot at the villa for Italy’s Bella Magazine. Swedish stylist Pia Johansson was reported to have said that the ambience of the villa made the job an easy one for the photographer and the model.

As is customary, the house opens to a small central courtyard or breezeway, the main function of which is to provide ventilation and natural light in the central part of the house. A family meeting room has walls totally lined with family photos – in this case three girls and nine boys – all the brothers and sisters of our host: “I am the youngest of the 12,” he smiles.

He goes on to lovingly outline the other photos – one of his father, who passed away in 1990 at the age of 92, along with others of his two grandfathers. “These two gentlemen were the founders of this village, which was officially opened in 1922, the same year the construction of this house was completed.”

While showing a swathe of awards won by the villa as being the best of its kind as a tourist attraction, Ibrahim is most visibly proud of one photo and artefact in particular. “The one in the glass case is a gift from the King and Queen of Malaysia. On their Majesties’ state visit to Malacca, the King chose specifically to visit this house. While here, the King did seize the opportunity to strike this gong which is well over a hundred years old. In the earlier years, only a select few would be allowed to strike gongs on behalf of the community, in order to send messages. Just like the indigenous Americans sent smoke signals, likewise here they used gongs, with a code something like Morse, but which unfortunately I never learned.”

Ibrahim with The Wishing Gong
Ibrahim with the “wishing gong” once struck by the King

The gong, a family heirloom from Indonesia, is quite special for another reason, according to Ibrahim: “This is a wishing gong. The visitor may be given the chance to strike the gong, making their wish while knocking the gong three times in the centre. There are many occasions that after people have done so, they come back on their own initiative to convey their personal thanks, because their wish came true. They of course, at that point, ask for another wish!”

An impressive pile of visitors’ books from 1991 onwards (the year the home was opened to the public) pay testimony to the origins of visitors to this now mythical place. “We receive people every day from every corner of the globe, even from Iceland. Among the European visitors, the French are number one, followed by Germans in second place.”

The villa is situated in the heart of Kampung Morten, a quaint and picturesque Malay enclave in the centre of Malacca, the originality of which was one of the reasons for the city being placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Although it now nestles amid modern infrastructure such as the Malacca tourist monorail and a skyscraper, the village along the Malacca River has managed to retain much of its traditional heritage. The majority of its brightly coloured houses are built in typical “Minangkabau” style along the banks of the muddy river, dotted with sampans and today much travelled by modern river boats packed with tourists.

Villa Sentosa 3.jpgThe banks of the river were bolstered some years ago thanks to a multi-million dollar fund from Denmark, as part of a plan by the Malaysian government to beautify all its six rivers and convert them into recreation areas.

Where the Kampung Obtained its Name

Kampung Morten was named after the then British State Commissioner of Lands, Frederick Joseph Morten, thanks to his dedication in ensuring the realisation of the village.

“Originally, the settlers here were staying in another place, Kampung Jawa, about two kilometres away, but when part of that area was gazetted by the government for the construction of a market, one of those affected was my grandfather, who happened to be the leader of the community. Wherever he went, the others would follow. He identified this particular area, which at that time had no constructions on it. It was just palms and mud crabs, and when the tide was high it was often under water. Money was needed for its development, and it just so happened that at the time, the Commissioner of Lands was an Englishman by the name of Frederick Joseph Morten. Through a special government fund, he was able to obtain, for my grandfather, a loan of ten thousand dollars in the year 1920. With that amount of money, the land was developed to be able to host 100 housing lots, individually allocated to the previous settlers who had been displaced from Kampung Jawa.”

Ibrahim explains that Othman was the only guarantor and the loan was of course eventually paid.

“When the families had all moved in, there were several proposals for its name, including Kampung Baru, Kampung Bunga Raya and Kampung Tanjung. As suggested by my grandfather, they decided to call it Kampung Morten, in appreciation of his help.”

Othman’s role and contributions to the village have not gone unrecognised however. The Malacca state government recently honoured him by naming the main street surrounding the village, as Persiaran Datuk Othman, or Othman Crescent.

Entry to Villa Sentosa is free, but donations are welcome. “We do not treat people coming to our house as casual visitors or tourists, but friends of the house”, concludes our host, adding, “Being friends of the house, any time you feel like coming back again you are most welcome to do so.”

Homestay at the Kampung

Of the 96 remaining houses in Kampung Morten, 13 are “Homestay”, nine of which are “very active”. Little known in the international community, most rentals are to local people when hosting family members. “On special request, foreign visitors are able to stay in the homes”, explains Ibrahim. A house can be rented for around 320-350 Ringgit per night, enabling an entire family to stay comfortably in “local style”.