Melaka, a destination steeped in history and tradition, continues to charm visitors and locals to this day. But despite being proudly listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2008, the state faces rapid urbanisation that threatens to sweep away its rich culture in the name of development.
To ensure its memories, traditions, art and stories are preserved, 42-year-old Melissa Chan founded The Bendahari Markets in 2019.
The community enterprise is located at The Bendahari, a heritage hub established that year for designers, artisans, chefs, business owners, and others who would like to draw on Melaka’s roots.
Comprising four shoplots, the hub aims to bridge the gap between the old and the new, and develop fresh ways of sharing history and culture.
The Bendahari Markets represents homemakers and heritage entrepreneurs, sharing their handcrafted products and delicious food offerings.
“You will be able to find a variety of interesting knick-knacks here, ranging from books and curios to beautifully woven baskets from the indigenous folk,” Chan, who is also the caretaker and director of The Bendahari, says.
“Each piece has a story to tell, where the tapestry of love and life are interwoven to showcase a connection all humanity shares – that we are but a global village.”
As The Bendahari Markets was just beginning to gain traction when the pandemic hit, it has been a rollercoaster ride for Chan, who shares more about the dreams and challenges of her unique marketplace.
How did you manage to cope throughout the lockdowns?
Chan: When the movement control orders were implemented, we started a delivery service to support local homemakers to bring their food from Melaka to Kuala Lumpur on a fortnightly basis.
This initiative grew over the past two years, and I am so grateful it helped others while allowing the business to sustain. It also opened many doors for new relationships with Melakan homemakers.
I could not have done this without the customers who supported us throughout, and friends alongside who helped build the business.
Do you think the next generation is able to appreciate the effort in keeping such traditions alive? What are some of the challenges you face?
[The challenge lies in] finding like-hearted individuals who would like to dig the ground together, plant, nurture – it is a lot of hard work, and takes patience to see it come to fruition.
We have been testing out a small, monthly marketplace event for startup creative businesses or those in traditional trades. Through this, I have observed that the younger ones are interested in expressing old styles of craft in new ways.
For example, a young girl learnt how to crochet from YouTube and has reimagined new designs using this 19th-century art form. I think having the space to learn, explore and experiment might be key.
Is a community effort alone enough to drive this vision?
It will definitely take the grace and presence of God, and different groups to see this vision come to life. As the saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child”, and it would definitely be the same for this “baby”.
My hope is to build something long-lasting, one that encompasses the solid foundations of relationships and stories shared between generations.
What do you hope the future of The Bendahari Markets will hold? Will it eventually pivot into a different model?
I am working on hosting and curating events, talks, and workshops related to culture and heritage under The Bendahari. The hope is for this hub to become an entity and place that helps communities share an authentic voice and story, be it for exhibitions or as part of their livelihood.
The business model for The Bendahari will probably work as a non-profit, while The Bendahari Markets is a for-profit entity, and has just opened a snack bar. We aim for this to be a platform for local homemakers to feature their food in a cosy café environment.
Do you think the day you achieve your objective is the day The Bendahari Markets becomes irrelevant?
Honestly, I have not thought that far ahead. Both The Bendahari and the Markets are meant to be a bridge between generations, and I think each generation will see things differently.
There will always be a need to maintain a link between the old and the new. Whether The Bendahari Markets remains relevant and true to that purpose, only time can tell.
The Bendahari Markets
Lot 147, The Bendahari,
Jalan Bendahara, 75100 Melaka
Business hours: 10.30am-5.30pm (Thursdays to Sundays)
Edwin Kee dreamt of being a pro-gamer only to have circumstances mould him into a programmer in a past life. He has since moved on to write about consumer electronics and other topics. Check out his blog at manatau.com.