Friday, April 17, 2009

Serendipity - Roadside Surprises

Sometimes, on our journeys around Java, we'll be driving along, and suddely ask each other "what was that?"

A screeching halt,( with a look in the rear view mirror, of course!), turn around, and find ourselves looking at a forgotten jewel. This one was on the way to Lasem, East Java. It is in a style we've seen before, and guess may signal a Chinese owner/buider, and is certainly prewar. From the details we would guess early 20th Century.
There were squatters living in the outbuldings, but they could tell us nothing about the place. So what should we call it? Java Dutch Chinese Rococo?.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Pecinaan Pesisir - Chinatowns of the North Java Coast - Part One

The old cities of the North Java Coast have a long history of contact with China, India and Arabia that date from the first millenium, but it was the economic expansion under Dutch rule that brought large numbers of Chinese immigrants, both traders and artisans. In 1959, President Soekarno ordered Chinese in rural areas to relocate to larger cities. The anti- communist and anti-Chinese pogrom of 1965 further reduced the Cninese presence outside major cities in Java. On a trip along the North Java Coast in December 2007, we found nearly deserted Chinese quarters that once housed properous communities. Great warehouses, family compounds and temples remain, but many have been converted into aviaries for swifts, whose nests, as they have for the the last two millenia, find a ready market in China. Driving down the main street in Lasem, a small town known for its dark red batik.we saw ewer many charming dutch-era structures on the main street, but this building next to a Dutch stule school, was the only evidence of Chinesese occupation we could seesaw We will have to go back - today's(Sep 13, 2008) has a feature on the front page illustrated with a picture of an old temple in Lasem. A heartening sign of growing interest in Java's' past. We stayed thenight in Rembang, center of the regency of the same name.

Arriving at night, we saw the usual set up - long streets lined with new shop houses, advertising banners and billboards everywhere, and the obligatory massive government complex. Since the move towards decentralization, these country towns have gotten quite lively, but the commercial activity means that the kind of architecture we are looking for is being torn down in a fury of economic expansion.

On the plus side, while accommodation in these places not long ago was limited to roach infested rooming houses, where one sweated the night away molested by insects and worse, most regency centers now have a decent commercial hotel. After a good night's rest, we went for a turn around the town before moving on. We knew we were on to something wen we saw a large building with the characteristic Chinese roof curving to a double peak. We were dumbstruck. The building was the largest in a quarter Chinese quarter thatappeared empty. Rather than Chinese, the inhabitants were walet (swifts), kept for their nests. We heard their chattering and saw the plastic pipe sticking out of the walls to vent methane. Where once merchants clacked abacuses, surrounded by workers and family, the huge interior spaces were filling with guano.
We parked and walked, silent as we imagined the empty street thronged with Chinese in mandarin robes, caps and queues. Decorative touches on the exteriors gave some echo of the magnificence that must have been within.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Surabaya Synagogue

I first became aware of the existence of a small Jewish comuinity in Surabaya when I walked past this bulding around 1978. It was locked up tight - and there was no internet to google - so I learned nothing about it. Now there are many posts by afficianados of colonial history and Judaica. In 1978, the street was rutted and barely paved; now it is lined on the canal side with florists, as well as some dives of low repute, while the other side has a range of commercial buldings. So far, the synagogue appears in good repair, but the few remainig prewar structures in the neighborhood are coming down rapidly. The Synogague was opened in 1948, in a house boughtfrom a Dutch doctor. Since the 1960s, the Jewish community has dwindled to near extinction through emmigration and intermarriage.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


While the old Surabaya is largely vanished, development has been sporadic, and not in any discernible patter. Small pockets of older buildings – and an older way of life – remain tucked away between high-rises, endless shop blocks, roads, and construction sites. This is Pemuteran,, a market not far from my office.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Kalimas: Surabaya's Old Port

Kalimas, the"River of Gold," was indeed such for the merchants in colonial times. Sailing craft and barges unloaded directly into warehouse shop houses, much as in old Amsterdam. These Sino- Dutch edifices are now crumbling ruins, many occupied by squatters. In the mid 70s, I had occasion to to work in the area, loading cargo for an LNG project in Bontang, East Kalimantan. Four years ago, when we poked through the alleys and byways, there was little sign of commercial activity, but still a great deal to evoke what had been. The Chinese have moved to more properous areas, but signs of them remain.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Old Surabaya

I first saw Surabaya as a backpacker in 1970. The city was shabby, and like the rest of the country, still recovering from the excesses of the Soekarno years. Untouched by the Second World War, the buildings and housing stock of the colonial era remained, run-down, but enduring. I had steak and chips at the Olympic Hotel restaurant, and went to the bar at the Majajapahit. There was nothing on offer save flat orange crush. The liquor botles on display were dusty, cobwebbed, and empty.

By the mid 70s, when I returned in the course of business, there were a few semi-hi rises such as the Mirama(now Mercure) Hotel, but little else had changed. It was to a nearly unrecognizeable city to which Elly and I moved in 2004. We set out immediately to see and document what remained of the one-time Queen of the East. Not far from our house, in the Darmo Kali area, we found a rich store of Indische- style buildings.

The warehouses lining the south side of the canal are now largely gone; the old Hotel Dahlia was demolished and replaced with a pastel multi - story that might be in any large Javanese town.

We poked around an old factory where the guard told us that children of the Dutch family that once owned it came back from time to time for a bit of nostalgia. On the northern side of the canal are magnificent old homes that have been well preserved, many being used by businesses. These will be in another post.