‘Stories of One Malaccan Family’ by Alumna Melissa Chan!

Alumna Melissa Chan (Class of ‘96) was the housekeeper of the well known Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum in Melaka until recently. She is the author  of the ‘Stories of One Malaccan Family’, a coffee table memoir inspired by the  family members who lived in the household before, during and after World War II and how their lives and culture changed because of the war, which she co-wrote with her father. Melissa has also recently started up a new creative heritage hub in Melaka known as ‘The Bendahari,’ which bridges the gap between traditional trades and communities and a new generation of families and businesses. 

The Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum was once home to four generations of a Peranakan Chinese family. It opened to the public in 1986 and is still operated by the Chan family today. Visitors to the house, located in Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock in the UNESCO city of Melaka,  step back through time as they walk through a 19th Century homestead of an early migrant Chinese family to the Straits Settlement. 

If you would like to get a copy of this wonderful historical memoirs by Melissa, feel free to check-it out at Ilham Gallery, Silverfish Bookstore Bangsar, Kinokuniya, Kuala Lumpur, Melaka Baba Nyonya Museum and The Bendahari.


Let’s hear from Melissa about the history behind this museum and her family

The house was bought into the family in 1865, and the most notable family member to have resided in it was Baba Chan Cheng Siew, a planter, and my great-great grandfather. He successfully ‘tapped’ into the economic boom of rubber in the early 20th Century, as many Straits Chinese (Babas) of his day also rode that wave to sizable fortunes.

The house has always enthralled me. My uncle Chan Kim Lay initiated the opening of the house to become a museum, and when he passed on in 2013, my father took over as Managing Director of the house. 

Dad mooted the idea for me to document the oral history stories of the family. As I spent time with my aunts and uncles, I realized their stories were very simple and they told of a time when communities in Malaysia were much simpler. I wanted to capture these beautiful memories and share them with a younger generation, because so much has changed; from when goldsmiths would take months to craft and set jewelry, to our digital lifestyles now where everything is instant and fast-paced. 

Producing this book and working at the museum allowed me to spend time with my extended family (aunts and uncles) beyond Chinese New Year pleasantries. It gave me time to sit with them, to hear their stories, to be with them. It was certainly a precious time which I am so grateful to have had because they are all in their late 80s. It also allowed me to understand my own father better, what is important to him, and to think about what my cultural roots and heritage meant for me personally.


Melissa, please tell us about your current project.

As I was working at the museum, and on the book, I met many Melakans who also had equally rich heritage and cultures as the Baba Nyonya community, such as the Chetti Melaka (Indian Peranakan) and Portuguese Eurasian (Portuguese Peranakan) who are all part of this diverse tapestry of cultures that make Melaka, and Malaysia so unique. I hoped to create a platform that would also share their stories. 

The Bendahari is located in Melaka, in a recently restored collection of shophouses. It is rebranded as a creative heritage hub that bridges old trades people and heritage communities with a new generation of families and businesses. The vision was borne from the observation that many traditional crafts die out as they become less relevant commercially. This also happens with heritage communities in terms of language, culture, food. We hope to empower cottage industries to build sustainable livelihoods through crafts and cultural traditions. One such ongoing project is partnering with Melakan kueh and traditional food makers, to uplift their home-based packaging design, provide marketing support and delivery of the food to a wider market in Kuala Lumpur. 

The space is still new; but thus far houses two eateries, a salon, a fabrication dental laboratory and a cultural retail provision store- all with a tenant mix of old and new generation businesses. We have also collaborated with educational institutions such as University of Nottingham and Multimedia University – to develop workshops for students to contribute new ideas towards the heritage of Melaka. 

We are working towards hosting school holiday programs, workshops and walking tours; engaging both locals and visitors with the cultural history of Melaka. Please do contact info@thebendahari.com for more information, or myself melissa@thebendahari.com 

Thank you, Melissa, for sharing your fascinating work with us. To find out more about other inspiring Alumni stories, click here

Do you have a story to share? We always love hearing from our GIS Alumni. Do get in touch if you would like to showcase your work. You can do this via Facebook or LinkedIn, or by emailing us at alumni@gardenschool.edu.my, because every story matters.