Malay Heritage House Still Stands Tall in Melaka

Last update: 24/12/2018

By Shaidathul Suhana Ros

This is the first of a two-part article on the Demang Abdul Ghani Gallery in Merlimau, which used to be the ancestral home of the descendants of the village headman who built the house 187 years ago. 

MELAKA (Bernama) -- The fragrant scent of 'bunga cempaka' (Magnolia champaca) and 'bunga tanjung' (Mimusops elengi/Spanish cherry) permeated the morning air as Prof Dr Noor Hassim Ismail sat sipping tea in the spacious verandah of what was once his ancestral home.

Turned into the Demang Abdul Ghani Gallery in 2011, the stunning wooden house depicting traditional Melaka architecture with a dash of Chinese influence was declared a national heritage by the federal government about two months ago.

Gripped by a wave of nostalgia, the 63-year-old university lecturer recalled his childhood days growing up in this house in Merlimau, Jasin. 

Located about 23 kilometres from Melaka's city centre, the 187-year-old ancestral house belonged to his grandfather Abdul Ghani Abdul Majid, better known as Demang Abdul Ghani, who was a well-respected village headman in Merlimau.

Although Dr Noor Hassim, who is now attached to Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia's Faculty of Medicine, "migrated" to Kuala Lumpur four decades ago, he still has fond memories of playing with his friends beside the pond in front of the house. 

"This old house evokes a lot of wonderful memories but it is not the only house that my grandfather had built in this area. In fact, he had two more houses here. All three houses had high aesthetic value but due to certain factors, only this house remains to this day," he told Bernama.

The house, situated on a 0.4-hectare plot, was built by Demang Abdul Ghani in 1831 before he was appointed chieftain in 1834 to replace his father Abdul Majid. The latter was known to be a wealthy man from Palembang in Sumatera, Indonesia, who was also credited with opening one of the earliest settlements in Merlimau.

According to Dr Noor Hassim, three generations of the family had lived in the ancestral house, starting with his great-grandfather Abdul Majid and grandfather Abdul Ghani and followed by his mother Asnah Abdul Ghani and uncle Md Nattar Abdul Ghani.

When Abdul Majid, Abdul Ghani and later Md Nattar served as the village headman, their house used to be the venue for meetings to discuss community affairs.




Constructed without a single nail and using just pegs and mortar, the house – made of high-grade timber such as teak,  merbau and cengal – still stands majestically, a sturdy testament to the skills of the artisans of a bygone era.

Standing on pillars, its high floors and gable roof and the staircase in the front adorned with coloured tiles are typical of the traditional Malay houses in Melaka.

But what sets Demang Abdul Ghani's house apart from others are the unique decorative panels depicting intricate carvings, including motifs of flora and fauna.

Certain Chinese elements are also evident in the carvings, such as the 'Ang Ling' or Red Dragon which is associated with wealth and power, and 'Eng Ling' or Golden Dragon that is linked to authority and protection.

Dr Noor Hassim said according to his late mother, Chinese artisans were also involved in building the house, besides Malay craftsmen.

"A long time ago, there were several porcelain pillows in this house. In those days, the Chinese slept on porcelain pillows and since some of these were found in our house, the Chinese workers must have used them when they rested.

"It is evident that the combination of Malay and Chinese influence has led to the creation of beautiful architectural elements," said Dr Noor Hassim, who was born in this house and now resides in Kajang, Selangor, with his wife Fauziah Md Som, 62. They have four children aged between 28 and 38. 

The house has a meeting hall, verandah, main section, master bedroom, central section and kitchen. 

"In the olden days, it was in the meeting hall or verandah where the headman would receive guests and also villagers to resolve problems faced by the local community. In the main section, there is a staircase which leads to an attic which was reserved for women," he explained.

In the past, too, the 'demang' or chieftain was highly respected by the people who even regarded their headman as a "little ruler". The sultan had the power to appoint the headman based on his leadership qualities and how well accepted he was by the people.




Elaborating on his grandfather's personality, Dr Noor Hassim said his mother would say that although Abdul Ghani was a firm and strict man, he was a loving father.

"No matter what he did, he always had his own stand. He adhered to the principle of 'Be courteous like the Malays and discuss like the English' in discharging his responsibilities as a leader during his time."

In 2006, Abdul Ghani's house was registered as a heritage building under the National Heritage Act 2005 by the National Heritage Department in view of its unique heritage value.

On Oct 17 this year, the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry declared the house as a national heritage.

To ensure the conservation of the traditional house and that it remained a national treasure, Abdul Ghani's family signed a memorandum of understanding in 2011 with the Melaka Museum Corporation (Perzim) to allow the latter to take over the house and turn it into a gallery. In 2012, it was officially inaugurated as the Demang Abdul Ghani Gallery.

Dr Noor Hassim said the MoU with Perzim was set to expire at the end of this month but his family hoped that the Melaka government would continue to manage the house.

"We're very grateful to the state government, Heritage Department and Perzim for having taken the initiative to restore this house and turn it into a tourism product.

"We are hoping the authorities would continue to preserve the building as a national heritage for the benefit of the future generations," he added.


Translated by Rema Nambiar