Sun, 13 Jul 2003

A piece of history lives on in bustling Surabaya

Old hotels, with their history, mood and character, become like the onetime belles of the ball, wistfully whiling away their days in their faded brocade and beautiful jewels.

They are a constant reminder of a bygone era, but not necessarily one that we want to visit. Instead, there are the new, younger, prettier models grabbing our attention.

For a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Majapahit Hotel was like that. It had seen better days; tattered, world- weary and only providing a hint of what it used to be.

It looked like it was going the same sad way of the Hotel Niagara, the old, art deco hotel in Lawang, about two hours drive from Surabaya, with its rooms boarded up and its rooms rented by the hour.

New management, a new name and a facelift has breathed new life into Mandarin Oriental Hotel Majaphit since 1996, which now has five-star status.

"On a daily basis our banquet is always booked for seminars, meetings, conferences or even wedding parties. Staying guests are mostly businessmen and foreigners," said the hotel's public relations manager, Wike Trisnandhini.

From outside on busy Jl. Tunjungan, the art deco facade of the hotel is little changed from when it was first built in 1910. Some parts of the hotel, like the lobby and some of the suites, have been renovated. If anything, the renovation has enhanced the hotel's old-time charm.

During its nearly 100 years in business, some of the most important people in the country have stayed at the hotel. That does not only include current President Megawati Soekarnoputri and her predecessor Abdurrahman Wahid, who stayed in the expensive presidential suite.

Perhaps only a few people know that Charlie Chaplin and author Joseph Conrad, who based many of his stories in the East Indies, stayed at the Majapahit during their trips to Surabaya.

The hotel also shares some history with the grand Raffles Hotel in Singapore. The Singapore hotel, the Majapahit, The Strand in Myanmar and Eastern and Oriental in Penang, Malaysia, were founded by the four enterprising brothers from Armenia -- Martin, Tigran, Aviet and Arshak Sarkies.

The Mandarin Majapahit was built on the initiative of Lucas Martin Sarkies, son of Martin.

"We have some original pictures, placed in various sections of the hotel, on Surabaya back then," Wike explained.

The Majapahit is probably most famous for a landmark event in the country's independence struggle, still remembered by many Surabayans as the "flag-tearing incident".

During the Dutch colonial era, the hotel was named the Oranje, but it was used by the Japanese as a military barracks and transit shelter for women being sent to prison camps during the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies from 1942-45.

On Sept. 19, 1945, the returning Dutch community gathered at the hotel and raised the red, white and blue flag of their homeland.

It incensed local youths who knew of the proclamation of independence in Jakarta the previous Aug. 17. They gathered about an hour later outside the hotel, with several youths climbing up the flagpole and tearing out the blue section to make the Indonesian flag.

The act became rallied the local people, who gathered to sing the national anthem and continued the independence fight (The hotel was known as Hotel Merdeka (liberty hotel) in the ensuing months). . A grainy photo of the flag being ripped still causes a strong emotional reaction among Indonesians who lived through the struggle.

"The flagpole is still standing strong like the old days. Guests usually ask about that pole," Wike said.

-- Emmy Fitri