Medan’s Chinese Heritage
It was only half past eight at night but the streets were mostly deserted. Alexander and I walked around the small alleys of Medan to find a place where we could have some authentic Medanese dishes, off the more touristy Kesawan and Merdeka Square. We were looking for Selat Panjang, a street both of us barely knew until earlier that night, when a woman told us about a place for sampling some of the most delectable cuisine the city has to offer.
We kept walking to get to Selat Panjang which proved a little harder to find than we anticipated. As we walked down the streets, a green-lit water tower suddenly emerged out of the darkness. I investigated closer before realizing that it was no ordinary water tower. Tirtanadi Water Tower has been one of the most prominent landmarks of Medan even though its popularity is overshadowed by the more exquisite Grand Mosque and Maimoon Palace.
Right across the street from the water tower, an alley seemed devoid of any activities, giving both of us doubts. But as we continued walking, after a turn all of a sudden the sleepy alley turned into a lively place dotted with modest restaurants and food carts. The aroma of various dishes filled the night air, the showcases were such a visual feast, and the sound of condiments fried in hot oil on a skillet enlivened the whole area. We had found Selat Panjang, where Medan’s reputable Chinese-influenced dishes are in abundance.
We walked the length of the alley, which was rather short, before deciding which of the mouth-watering dishes we wanted to try. Apart from the ubiquitous noodle-based delicacies, some of the unique and tasty food that we tried were keladi – a savory steamed cake made from taro and shrimps with fried shallot, red chili, and dried shrimp for the topping; and Tau Kua Heci – chopped tofu, crab, and whole shrimp on crackers, served with boiled water spinach in thick sweet and sour soup. One can truly feel the strong oriental influence on those dishes – the former was said to be influenced by Cantonese cuisine.
However the Chinese culture could be felt not only through the food, but also the old houses. One of the most important examples of such structures is the beautiful Tjong A Fie Mansion, which was modeled after the more well-known Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Penang, Malaysia, whose owner happened to be Tjong A Fies’s own cousin. Tjong A Fie Mansion incorporated many elements of Chinese, Malay and European architectural styles, a stark contrast to its neighbouring houses with a Dutch architectural style.
Tjong A Fie – born Tjong Fung Nam – was a prominent figure in Medan. Hailing from a small town in Guangdong Province, China, he sailed for months to get to Sumatra to search for a better life. In the late 19th century, he had established himself as a respected businessman, owning tobacco, tea, palm oil, and sugar plantations to name some. Apart from managing his businesses, Tjong A Fie was known for his altruism – donating his wealth for the Chinese, Indian, Muslim, and Christian societies in North Sumatra.
But in 1921 when he was 60 years old, the people of Medan were shocked when the generous businessman died of apoplexy.
The mansion is now owned and managed by one of Tjong A Fie’s grandsons, who did thorough research about his late grandfather to present an accurate history of his family to visitors, even if it meant conducting research as far away as the Netherlands.
One of Tjong A Fie’s legacies to the cultural diversity of Medan is the abundance of Tamil Hindu temples, which is where we headed right after our brief visit to the mansion. Unfortunately on that day the temple was closed, so we could only marvel at the indisputable beauty of a Tamil temple from the outside. But Medan will always be an open city, welcoming students, traders, businessmen, and others to find their fortunes in the North Sumatran capital.
All photographs were taken with my phone camera. Hence the unusual dimension.