Though Colonialism is often viewed as a turbulent time in history, it still had some positive influence, like enriching the colonized countries’ architecture.
When we hear about the historical period of Colonialism, we often associate it with racial discrimination, slavery, repression, and other negative things. Though it is not usually discussed in schools or in the general public as something positive, there are still some positive influences to come out of this period. The aim of this article is not to ‘glorify’ Colonialism, but rather to show how this history has had lasting effects that enrich the city’s culture to this day, particularly in architecture.
The city of Vigan in the province of Ilocos Sur (404 km north of Manila) is one of the few remaining Spanish colonial towns in the Philippines whose ancient infrastructures remain intact. In order to reach this UNESCO World Heritage Site, travelers usually take an 8-hour bus ride from the capital, Manila. Walking through the cobbled streets of its Old Town quarter ‘Calle Crisologo,’ adorned with vintage street lamps and horse carriages, (locally called ‘kalema‘) will give you the impression that you are in a Latin American or Spanish city.
Originally a coastal trading post long before the Spanish arrived, the locals first traded with merchants coming from southern China at around 960-1127 AD. They would trade products such as gold, hemp, and pearls for products like Chinese porcelain, silk, and ironware. During the Spanish colonial era, Vigan was an important settlement post for Spanish soldiers and priests. While in recent history, the city of Vigan was one of the first cities in the Philippines invaded by the Japanese imperial army during World War II, only 3 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
A must-try activity in the city is making a specific pottery local to the area called ‘burnay’ jars that were used in the olden days as a beverage container and nowadays as house ornaments. While in Vigan’s local cuisine, a must-try is their version of a sausage empanada called ‘Vigan longganisa.’ The city is also home to numerous historical museums with a focus on Spanish colonial periods up to the early years of the Philippine Republic (See here for the complete list of museums in Vigan).
Though not as touristy as the city of Siem Reap or as historic as the capital Phnom Penh, the smaller city of Battambang has been nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2017. The primary means of reaching the city is by bus from Bangkok, Phnom Penh, and Siem Reap. A notable aspect of Battambang is its well-preserved French colonial architecture. Window shutters like in the photo above are commonplace on infrastructures originally built during colonial times.
Battambang was first established as an important trading city in the 18th century because of its proximity to the Sangkae river. Before the French colonizers arrived, the northwestern part of Cambodia, in which the city is located, was first annexed by Siam (modern-day Thailand) from 1795 to 1907. After ceding to French Indochina, its urban development was the first priority for the French: building roads, bridges, and railways to connect it to other important posts of the colony. Then public facilities for the populations such as hospitals and schools followed later on.
Nowadays, the city’s main products are rice and textile thanks to the investment by French and Chinese companies. Besides its picturesque colonial architectures, it is also famous for its bamboo train ride (locally called ‘norry‘ coming from the French word ‘lorry’). Other interesting activities in the city include wine and rice liqueur tasting at Chan Thai Choeung Winery and watching the circus, which is a popular nighttime activity in the city at Phare Battambang Circus.
When visiting Malang, which is in the eastern part of Java island, you might notice right away the milder climate of the city compared to other places in the tropical country of Indonesia. This is because it is located on a plateau, meaning it’s at a higher altitude than other cities in the country. The city has a domestic airport and railway train station with travel routes coming from bigger cities of Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya, and touristic Bali.
The city has a history dating back to the Singhasari Kingdom (1222-1292) and during Dutch colonization, (1800-1949) it was a favorite weekend destination for the Dutch and other European residents to escape the heat of the lowlands. To this day, Malang remains a famous touristic spot both for local and international travelers. Some top universities in the country like Brawijaya University and Malang State University are in Malang, making it an ideal city for research and start-ups.
If you are to ask a local in Malang where in the city you can find beautiful colonial architectures he/she will tell you to walk along the Ijen Boulevard which starts at the ‘Alun-Alun Tugu’ city park. Ijen Boulevard, where the church of Mount Carmel (as seen above) is located, earned a reputation as the most beautiful boulevard in the colony during the Dutch period. Most foreign tourists use the Grab app (merged with Uber in Southeast Asia) to get around the city, or you have the option to use the motorcycle version, which is the GO-JEK app.
GEORGE TOWN, MALAYSIA
Recognized by UNESCO since 2008 as a World Heritage Site, the historical core of George Town has always been one of the most popular travel destinations in Malaysia. Famed for its infrastructures originally built during British colonization, such as the Penang Museum and the old Town Hall, the city is served by the Penang International Airport and the pier of Swettenham as the entry points for foreign travelers. Perhaps the two of the most common denominators of all the colonial infrastructures built during the British occupation are white facades or brick roofs.
Looking through the history of the British colonies in Southeast Asia, one would find that George Town was their first settlement in the region during the colonial times in 1786. From 1867 to 1946, the city was a part of what they then called ‘Straits Settlements‘ which also included Malacca and Singapore. After the Japanese invasion of the Straits Settlements during World War II, George Town was eventually recaptured by the British in 1946 and earned its city status shortly after Malaysia gained independence in 1957.
As Malaysia’s third most populous city and the capital of the Penang state, George Town is also known as a gastronomic haven which started when CNN named the city one of Asia’s best street food cities. Throughout its history, a lot of ethnicities arrived at its shores, thus contributing to its rich cultural heritage. Other than British colonial architectures, other interesting things to see in the city are Buddhist and Hindu temples and museums and art galleries where you can also see Chinese and Indian influences in the city.
HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM
Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s most visited city by international travelers (despite Hanoi being the capital) because of its beautiful historic remnants like the Saigon Post Office, Saigon Opera House, and Notre Dame Cathedral which are well preserved (Click here to see more information regarding other historic remnants in the city). As the country’s biggest city by population, Ho Chi Minh City is also Vietnam’s financial and business center. The city has the busiest international airport in the country named ‘Tan So Nhat‘ making it very accessible to foreign tourists.
The city was an important part of the historic kingdoms of Funan, Champa, and Khmer. When Vietnamese settlers arrived in the area around the 17th century, it became more prosperous and the establishment of a city started from 1623 to 1698. When the city was transferred to the French colonizers in 1862, the area was named ‘Saigon’ and massive urbanization took place to make the city an important economic center in the region.
After gaining independence from the French in 1945, Vietnam was partitioned into two countries (North and South Vietnam) and Saigon became the capital of the capitalist south from 1955 to 1975. What followed after the 20 years of division is the fall of South Vietnam to the hands of the North Vietnamese (communist-led) army. The city’s name was then changed to Ho Chi Minh City, which remains the name to this day in honor of the communist leader Ho Chi Minh.
Just like with other periods in world history, there is always the good and the bad side. Southeastern Asian countries are more than tropical beaches, temples, and cheap parties for backpackers—contrary to their stereotypes. It is a region where ‘East’ meets ‘West’: A melting pot of cultures and histories that the rest of the world should see and discover.