Sun, 25 May 2003

Colonial history haunts mystery city of Semarang

Simon Marcus Gower, Contributor, Semarang

"This is a strange and scary place," says our guide, Heru. Walking around Semarang's notable architecture, we have arrived at a sad looking but once grand building.

Heru continues, "This is Lawang Sewu, the building that is supposed to have one thousand doors but nobody can say for sure exactly how many doors the building really has."

This sounds mysterious but apparently every time anybody has attempted to count the number of doors in the building, the final total is always different. Sometimes a little more than one thousand, sometimes less but never the same figures twice.

Some might put this down to simple human error and miscalculation but according to Heru it is one of the mysteries and supernatural aspects of this now derelict building. Numerous ghosts have apparently been seen wandering the building's balconies too, mostly taking the form of colonial Dutch figures.

Lawang Sewu was once an administrative center for the Dutch but now it is a sad, empty shell that is being left to fall down, so it seems. This is really sad because architecturally it is intriguing. Seeming to combine mosque-like Arabic elements with European colonial designs, its now derelict state creates a quite eerie sight with shattered windows, doors swinging in the breeze and lost grandeur pervading the whole site.

Similarly eerie are the tales of street people using the empty building for shelter only to never be seen again -- so the stories go. The uneasy spirits that reside at the site have apparently abducted them. Within the grounds of the building is a monument to Indonesians that fought off attacks from the Dutch, which reminds us of the battles that have been fought in and around Semarang.

Indeed it is possible to believe that Semarang would be home to many "uneasy spirits" because it has a history that at times has been quite bloody.

The city is one of Indonesia's oldest. Established by the Mataram kingdom, it was the Mataram king Amangkurat I that first tried to hand-over control of the city to the Dutch in 1677. But the people of Semarang were not so passive and resisted for around 30 years.

Only after much conflict did the colonial powers manage to quell the rebellious Semarang population.

About 30 years after that, another series of bloody events shook Semarang. In 1741, in retaliation for the murders of Chinese people in Batavia (now Jakarta), the Chinese community of Semarang rose-up and attacked the Dutch. But the Dutch did not tolerate this, and with Madurese fighters as their allies they slaughtered a significant portion of the then resident Chinese population.

The Chinese community of Semarang did, however, survive this. To this day there is a significant Chinatown in the city that includes the oldest Chinese temple in Java -- Klenteng (Temple) Sam Poo Kong -- also known as Gedung Batu, that dates from 1772. Also, it is estimated that upwards of one-third of the city's more than one million total population is of Chinese extraction.

There are, also, some remarkable architectural survivors from Dutch times in the city but many of these are suffering a similar fate to that of Lawang Sewu.

Perhaps the finest example of Dutch colonial architecture, which is also surviving and in reasonable condition, is that of Gereja Blenduk (Domed Church).

It is immediately obvious why this church is named this when you see its brown dome shining in the brilliant Semarang sunlight.

Again, the depth of history is clear here because this church is the oldest in Central Java. When originally built in 1753, it must have had spacious surroundings but now the roads that cut close by its classical portico means that traffic noise can disturb the worshipers within the church. Inside there are only a few decorations, with a Baroque organ and the pulpit being about the most decorative and dominant items.

Generally, the church is rather solemn looking but again it is easy to imagine colonial spirits lingering in the building and occupying the simple church pews.

Immediately opposite Gereja Blenduk is another building with a dome. This office building shines brilliant white in the sunshine and looks good but it is not fully occupied. Like Lawang Sewu it seems to combine Arabic and European influences and although better maintained than Lawang Sewu, this office of PT Asuransi Jiwasraya still seems in need of better conservation.

Further down the road from this office building stands a quite unusual architectural sight for Java.

The building, known as Marba Maatschapy, has fine redbrick construction that is rarely seen in Java. At street level the building seems sadly underused with cigarette kiosks and boards blocking up most of its frontage. Only by standing back from the building can you get a sense of its fine construction by looking at the upper story.

Today, it partially contains a regional headquarters of one of Indonesia's many political parties but the fine detailing of the building and its robust construction stand as a testimony to times gone by when it would have been more fully utilized. In some respects it looks out of place because it is a quite typical European form of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It looks more Central Europe than Central Java.

Mostly Semarang's architectural heritage is of colonial origin and perhaps this haunts Semarang to this day and makes people more reluctant to conserve these significant buildings. Most of them are either empty and falling down as with Lawang Sewu or just partially occupied as with Marba Maatschapy.

One small exception does, though, exist. Tucked between an ugly glass paneled 1970s building and a busy little street, Toko Oen sits on Jl. Pemuda.

This antiquated cafe/restaurant was established in colonial times and so might even have a few ghosts of its own but it remains in active use.

Despite the best, or worst, efforts and effects of the endless fast-food outlets that infest all of Java's cities, Toko Oen remains active and a living reminder of a time, perhaps, rather more elegant and restful.

You will not find plastic furniture or disposable cups and plates here. The furniture is original colonial wood and wickerwork and you may restfully relax amongst wood paneled walls and high ceilings with gentle fans doing little more than circulating the air.

There is another Toko Oen in Malang, East Java, and it too has the restful, antiquated colonial feel that Semarang's Toko Oen has. But the waitresses in Semarang will tell you that the two have no business relationship now. However, they share many characteristics.

Semarang's Toko Oen (like Malang's) has a pastry counter at the entrance and offers Western, Chinese and Indonesian dishes. In addition, an exotic and extensive variety of specialty ice- creams adds to the quite unique quality of the cuisine on offer here.

Toko Oen is an original and pleasant experience but you can't help feeling that it is being squeezed and pushed closer to closure.

Semarang, like so many other cities in Indonesia, has in recent years seen a growth in its shopping malls and fast-food chains that all sideline original and one-off places like Toko Oen.

Modern Semarang seems to be turning its back on the past but there are still remnants of that past that seem to haunt this city. A significant portion of the city (from its central post office to the railway station) includes outstanding examples of colonial architecture. But like the colonial people that once occupied them, these buildings too may be gone before too long.

Semarang is perhaps haunted by its sometimes difficult history but its remaining architectural reminders of that history are worth conserving.

In the 19th century the Dutch effectively abandoned Semarang as Jakarta's and Surabaya's ports became more dominant. It would be a shame if Semarang now really did abandon its architectural treasures.

Tourist guides will still describe them as "beautiful buildings" and "colonial masterpieces". So even if they are haunting and haunted they must be worth saving. Tourists and local people can still feel enriched by their presence.