Local Heart, Global Soul

November 5, 2012

Stadthuys / Stadhuis … Still Mysterious in Red…

(photograph © Kiwidutch)

In this page of my travel diary we are in Dutch Square in Melaka, Malaysia.  In yesterday’s post we saw the most obvious Dutch building: a windmill,  but one of the oldest and most famous is situated just across the square: the Stadthuys.

Stadthuys”  in Dutch means “Town Hall” but this spelling is the outdated one and has long since been superseded in the Netherlands by the word “Stadhuis”.

The Stadthuys in Melaka dates back to 1650 and was built by the Dutch as the offices of the Dutch Governor and (say some sources:his deputy)  because Melaka was at the time the administrative capital of the region here under Dutch occupation and control.

The Square here has various names: “Dutch Square”  is one of them and another is “Red Square”.  This second name came about because  although the buildings here are made of bricks, the British  painted over it in a shade of salmon pink for maintenance reasons and then year later the state government tweaked the colour to the present day hue of  pinky-red for  they are now famous.

The Stadthuys is the oldest remaining Dutch colonial building in Asia and currently houses the Museum of History and Ethnography and inside are displays of  the history, artifacts and traditional costumes of Melaka.

I found a detailed article on the Stadthuys here: http://www.hollandfocus.com/v2/index.php/magazine/contributors/dennisdewitt/99-dennisdewitt/111-ddwstadthuys

and from it learned (somewhat edited for brevity) :

(photograph © Kiwidutch)

The Stadthuys of Malacca is a reproduction of the former Stadhuis (town hall) of the Frisian town of Hoorn in the Netherlands. However, the former Stadhuis of Hoorn only existed from 1420 until 1796.

Hoorn’s former Stadhuis was replaced in 1796 by a building that is now known as “het oude stadhuis” (the old town hall), which is still  there and in use until 1977  Hoorn’s current Town Hall is a modern building.

Therefore, anybody who wishes to see what the former Stadhuis of Hoorn looked like in the 15th to 18th centuries,  only the Stadthuys of Malacca can give an excellent representation of the now extinct Frisian building.

The Stadthuys was situated within the walls of Malacca fort and located opposite the northern gateway into the fortified town, across the river. The fort itself encompassed a considerable area surrounding the hill of St. Paul’s, which accommodated offices and warehouses for the VOC and all the amenities needed by its colony. The fort walls no longer exist today thanks to the folly and vandalism of the British who maliciously ordered its destruction while safeguarding Dutch possessions in Asia from the French, during the Napoleonic wars.

The Stadthuys is a massive complex. The building’s interior has two floors and it is 30 metres wide. Apart from being the governors’ house, the Stadthuys also includes the Secretary’s office, a prayer room, a dining room, a guest house, servant’s quarters, the home of the Chief Merchant, a prison, trade office, warehouses, courtyards and a detached bakery. 

The spacious records room of the Stadthuys is exceptionally suitable for the preservation of official documents, even though tropical climate is often the cause for the swift deterioration of paper. With massive metre thick walls, a high ceiling and big floor tiles, it provides a cool interior atmosphere and apparently has a dry-cellar effect.

Standing at the Dutch Square, the Stadthuys appears majestically impressive with its big windows, doors and stairs. On the outside, a stone balustrade leads a dual stairway to a small balcony that is also accessible through a door on the first floor. 

(photograph © Kiwidutch)

During the Dutch rule of Malacca, the Stadthuys, like all the other Dutch administration buildings in Southeast Asia, was painted white. By way of the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824, Malacca was given up by the Dutch and the town became a British colony. In 1911, the British painted the Stadthuys and the Christ Church a salmon red.

The actual reasons as to why these buildings were painted red by the British is now lost in time but legends and theories are abundant.

One opinion was that the buildings were painted red to copy the colour of red brick stone houses in Holland. Apparently, the Dutch painted the buildings red to remind them of their homeland. However, this theory is flawed because it was the British, and not the Dutch, who painted the buildings red.

Another theory was that the British wanted to differentiate British built houses from the old Dutch houses. Therefore, the British painted the old Dutch buildings red. However, there were other old Dutch buildings in Malacca that were not painted red by the British.

Most amusingly, it was also suggested that the red discharge from chewing sireh (betel) was constantly spat onto the white walls of the buildings by the locals in venting their hatred and contempt for the Dutch. Later, the British simply decided to cover it up with red paint. A witty tale probably perpetuated by anti-Dutch propaganda and contrived by nationalistic British colonials.

A more plausible reason given was maybe due to the lack of maintenance, the red laterite stone used to build the Stadthuys showed through the whitewashed plastering. Also, perhaps heavy tropical rain often splashed the red soil up the white walls. So, the British decided to paint it all red to save maintenance costs.

There are also tales of secret pathways and tunnels that were suppose to serve as strategic hidden entry and exit points in the building. 

(photograph © Kiwidutch)

The famous Malacca-born Malay scholar and teacher, Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, who as a young man worked as a scribe for Sir Stanford Raffles in Malacca, wrote in his historically acclaimed autobiography that there was a tunnel that ran through St. Paul’s hill into the Stadthuys. Abdullah also remarked that the building had a door which gave direct access to the Malacca river, located about 200 metres away. It was thought that the river exit provided the governor with an escape route out of the fortified town, in case there was trouble.

Although the rumours of secret tunnels have perpetuated in Malacca throughout the generations, these stories have never been substantiated. Dutch conservation architect, Laurens Vis, in his thorough investigation of the Stadthuys in the 1980s found no evidence of any secret tunnels or hidden pathways. But maybe the building still closely guards its age-old secrets?

Today, the Stadthuys is Malacca’s premier museum, welcoming over 48,000 visitors annually. However, it now goes by the name of Museum of Ethnography and it is used for displaying bits and pieces of the different eras of Malacca’s colourful history and the culture of its people.

Unfortunately, the museum provides no information on the architectural layout, historical function and past activities of the Stadthuys itself. The only feature that gives a somewhat true representation of the history of the building is the governor’s room, a single room that attempts to recreate the atmosphere of how it was during Dutch times there.

(Dennis De Witt is a Dutch Eurasian from Malacca who as a hobby studies the history of Dutch influence in Malaysia and the surrounding region. He is currently the Project Co-ordinator of the Malaysian Dutch Descendants Project, a community effort working to bring together the forgotten Dutch descendants in Malaysia. For further information, please visit www.dutchmalaysia.net)

Whilst I was delighted to be able to see the local Melakian market in full swing on the day we visited, the one downside was that it made getting decent photos of the Stadthuys very difficult indeed. In fact I ended up with more Market than Stadthuys… also probably because of the presence of the market, the front entrance area was rather restricted in space so there were people everywhere, taking photos, coming out, waiting to go in, and my photos didn’t come out well at all.  We also saw the queue and knew immediately that there would be no hope of even a super quick tour on our tight schedule… but yet another reason to return one day for a longer stay and a closer look.

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