Sun, 13 Mar 2005


Kota Lama: Grand old Dutch matron

Syofiardi Bachyul Jb, The Jakarta Post, Padang

Padang, the capital of West Sumatra, was the most important city in Sumatra during the Netherlands East Indies era, serving as an urban hub and famous as a melting pot from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century.

The Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) started to take control of Padang in February 1665 when it established a loji (fortified trading post) at Muara Padang on the estuary of the Batang Arau River.

Located on the western coast of Sumatra, Padang was seen as a vital center not only by the Dutch but also by the British and French. In the mid-18th century, the British attacked and seized the Muara Padang fortress, and held it for some time, followed by the French. But the Dutch managed to recapture it and then ruled for over two centuries until 1942.

While under Dutch rule, Padang grew into a strategic commercial gateway for the export of spices from the central part of Sumatra. At the same time, it also served as the Netherlands East Indies military headquarters for the conquest of the island's interior and Aceh. The Dutch built military facilities and trade offices around Muara Padang and Jalan Batang Arau on both sides of the river.

Interestingly, the city developed into a metropolis through the participation of entrepreneurs of diverse nationalities and ethnic groups. They comprised the Dutch, other Europeans, the Chinese, Arabs, Indians, Malays and local Minangkabau people.

The city's business people built markets next to the Dutch East Indies offices. Among the major markets were Pasar Gadang, Pasar Hilir and Pasar Mudik, all erected by the Minang ethnic group, and Pasar Tanah Kongsi, which was built by residents of Chinese descent.

Padang made further headway after the development of primary modern infrastructure and industry, including the port of Teluk Bayur in 1891, the Ombilin coal mines in 1892, the Indarung cement plant in 1910 and the railways from Ombilin/Sawahlunto to Teluk Bayur and Muara Padang in 1891.

The grandeur of metropolitan Padang in colonial times is still to be seen in the area now known as Kota Lama -- the old city. It is a two-square-kilometer zone extending from Muara Padang around the Batang Arau River to Pasar Mudik and Kampung Cina (Chinatown).

Since Indonesia gained independence, Padang's development has shifted to the north and Kota Lama has become a lonely, almost forgotten corner characterized by a wonderful stock of historic buildings, including warehouses, decaying residential neighborhoods and a number of impressive government offices.

The neo-classical Dutch-style architecture of the early 20th century, as adjusted to the tropics, still reigns here and bears witness to the city's past splendor. With the declaration of Kota Lama as a heritage protection area in 1992, the original design of 74 of its over 100 buildings have been preserved.

The historic structures in Kota Lama, though situated close to one another, can be grouped into four locations: those around Muara Padang and Jalan Batang Arau, and around Pasar Gadang, Pasar Mudik and Tanah Kongsi. In Muara and along Batang Arau, there are former colonial government offices, banks and the offices of trading houses built in the early 1900s.

Among the outstanding buildings are the former offices of NHM (Nederlandsche Handels Maatschappij), a Dutch private sector trading company, which were built before 1920 in an exclusively VOC style. The office building, which is 24 meters in height, has two ventilation shafts. Overlooking the Batang Arau, NHM formerly also housed the offices of private sector insurance and banking firms. Today it's sad fate is to serve as a storehouse for PT Panca Niaga, a state-owned trading company.

Other outstanding buildings in this area are the office buildings that formerly belonged to the Javansche Bank, NV Internatio, Geo Wehry and the Padangsche Spaarbank. Erected around 1930, the Javansche Bank building boasts modern architecture and has some touches reminiscent of a mosque. The offices of Geo Wehry, built before 1910 for a Dutch export firm, now serve as a PT Kerta Niaga warehouse. Some 200 meters away is the Internatio building, which once housed a trading firm and was built around 1910.

The most attractive building is the one that stands beside Internatio, with the river circling round its back: the Padangsche Spaarbank (Padang Savings Bank) building, which dates back to 1908. This two-story, 35-meter-high building is constructed in neo-classical style influenced by art deco. Now converted into the Batang Arau Hotel, which is managed by American couple Chris Scurrah and Christina Fowler, the former bank contains a safe left behind by the Dutch.

Behind Jalan Batang Arau are three old market areas in the Dutch colonial style with a blend of Chinese, Arab, Indian and Malay architecture, and typical Minangkabau roofs. But with their main purpose being simple trade, these shophouse buildings have more modest designs than those of the once grand Batang Arau offices.

Pasar Tanah Kongsi, built by traders of Chinese origin, has a mixture of local and traditional Chinese architectural models. The most prominent structures in this market are a 17th century shrine and a HBT (Himpunan Bersatu Teguh) social building.

Unlike the slightly renovated Pasar Tanah Kongsi, Pasar Gadang and Pasar Mudik, both of which are located on the same road, still preserve the market atmosphere of the colonial era. Over 100 shophouse structures retain their original form.

A round building in Pasar Gadang almost in the middle of the street, though renovated, retains its former location and shape. It used to be called the Bulat (round house) and served as a food stall. Pasar Gadang itself was formerly named Pasar Batipuh and Pasar Hilir, as many people from Batipuh near Bukittinggi sold goods there.

The mid-19th century Pasar Gadang and Pasar Mudik were thriving commercial centers with textile importers and agricultural commodities exporters from West Sumatra, Kerinci and Tapanuli engaged in thriving trade. Gedung Juang (the Struggle Building), previously the Hotel Sumatra, is also in the market zone. The Hotel Nagara, interestingly, still has its original logo intact.

On Jalan Pasar Malintang, some 60 meters from Pasar Gadang, a large and impressive building can be found. Now a residence, it was once a batik shop and was built around 1902. This two-story mansion is decorated with brick ornamentation in the pre-1910 classical style.

Kota Lama is only about four kilometers from Pasar Raya Padang. Owing to the absence of public transportation between the two areas, the easiest way to travel from one to the other is by bendi (horse-drawn cart) from Pasar Raya, next to Padang City Hall. This is sure to give the visitor a memorable trip. Fares have to be haggled over but should be in a range of Rp 25,000 to Rp 50,000 for the trip, depending on one's bargaining skills and perseverance.


Enjoying the colonial air at the Batang Arau Hotel

Though the Padang municipal administration declared its intention of developing Kota Lama as a tourist destination three years ago, the former Padangsche Spaarbank (Padang Savings Bank) is the only accommodation available for tourists to date.

Built in 1908, the bank was converted into the Batang Arau Hotel by Norma Duelfer from Germany. Chris Scurrah and Christina Fowler, both US nationals, have been running it since 2001.

The two-story hotel has a restaurant on the first floor. Many overseas tourists visit the hotel daily, especially those wishing to go surfing in Mentawai and Nias. The hospitality and comfort it offers make visitors feel truly at home.

The favorite place for relaxation is the rear veranda, where one can sit and savor hotdogs, steak, pizza and various drinks.

Rates in this jasmine-class hotel range from Rp 350,000 (about US$38) to Rp 500,000 a night. Staying in such an historic and beautiful old building, reminiscent of the splendor of the colonial era and overlooking the Batang Arau River, which is usually crowded with fishing boats, offers a unique and memorable experience.