The Fading Charm of the Little Netherlands

51 comments
Asia, Indonesia
The Peace-Exuding Gereja Blenduk

The Peace-Exuding Gereja Blenduk

Semarang is known to have one of Indonesia’s most exquisite collections of colonial buildings. On a recent visit to my hometown I took the chance to do what I should have done much earlier, exploring Kota Lama – the old town quarter. Rows of Dutch buildings fill 31 hectares (77 acres) in what was once a fortified quarter called Vijhoek.

Tracing back Kota Lama’s history to its heyday in the 19th–20th century when this gated area was called the Little Netherlands, one would typically start from Gereja Blenduk, the old church which is a prominent landmark of Kota Lama and Semarang. Owing its affectionate nickname from its copper dome (blenduk means dome in Javanese), the oldest church in Central Java has been in use since 1753.

Meanwhile the former office of Nederlandsch Indische Levensverzekering En Lijfrente Maatschappij (The Dutch Indies Life Annuity Company), which was later used as the old city hall of Semarang, occupies a plot right across the church. Adjacent to it, a businessman turned the old courthouse for Inlanders (non-Dutch people) into a fancy restaurant.

Due to its significance as the commercial center of the Dutch East Indies, Kota Lama attracted people from all over the world to do business, including a Yemeni merchant, Marta Badjunet, who built a beautiful red brick building named after her (MARBA – Marta Badjunet).

Not only did businesses thrive; Kota Lama was also a center of intellectual and creative societies of the Dutch East Indies. The prestigious Sociëteit de Harmonie called the present-day Bank Mandiri’s branch their home back in 1756. A much more conspicuous building called Marabunta Theater, after the two giant army ants perched on top of the structure, was the place where one of the most famous spies during World War I, Mata Hari, performed.

Walking further north towards the perimeter of Kota Lama, Semarang’s Tawang Central Station stands graciously as the country’s oldest major train station, serving the region since 1868. Today Tawang is still very much an important train station connecting cities in Java, but the pulse of Kota Lama, unfortunately, is starting to fade.

The Landmark of Kota Lama (Outstadt)

The Landmark of Kota Lama (Outstadt)

Marba Building, Built by a Yemeni Merchant

Marba Building, Built by a Yemeni Merchant

A Dilapidated Old Building

A Dilapidated Old Building

The Marabunta Theater

The Marabunta Theater

Tawang Central Station

Tawang Central Station

An Indie Cigarette Manufacturer

An Indie Cigarette Manufacturer

The Quiet Alleys of Kota Lama

The Quiet Alleys of Kota Lama

The Office of State-Owned Telecommunication Company

The Office of State-Owned Telecommunication Company

Plants Slowly Taking Control of the Old Buildings

Plants Slowly Taking Control of the Old Buildings

Formerly the Building of Sociëteit De Harmonie

Formerly the Building of Sociëteit De Harmonie

Another Building Left to Decay

Another Building Left to Decay

Djakarta Lloyd Building

Djakarta Lloyd Building

Nature vs Concrete

Nature vs Concrete

The Old Courthouse for Inlanders (Local People)

The Old Courthouse for Inlanders (Non-Dutch People)

The Old Office of the The Dutch Indies Life Annuity Company

The Old Office of the The Dutch Indies Life Annuity Company

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

51 thoughts on “The Fading Charm of the Little Netherlands”

  1. It all looks so beautiful, Bama! I really hope the abandoned buildings get renovated and taken care of, it would be a shame to allow them to decay like the ones in Jakarta’s Kota Tua. Thanks for showing us another side of your hometown – I’d love to visit one day. 🙂

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    • Thanks James! Unlike Jakarta’s jam-packed Kota Tua, Semarang’s Kota Lama is a relatively quieter place. Some of the building are well-maintained, but others are left decay so the owners have a reason to raze them down and build new buildings on the same plots. When you do come to Semarang, I will make sure you won’t miss this part of the city. 🙂

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    • I agree with James, please continue to update and photograph, its amazing how much influence you have on preserving your areas history right now.

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      • Thanks for the support Michael! I guess today more and more people are becoming more aware of the importance to preserve colonial buildings. Not only because they’re beautiful, but also because of the benefits they bring to the society; education and tourism to name some.

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  2. Great set of shots, such a diverse style of buildings and I found myself drawn more to the dilapidated ones…they show character. Super series, beautiful shots.

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    • Thanks Randall! I really appreciate your encouraging comment! It was a nice and clear morning so I felt the urge to go and take some photographs of the quarter I’m quite familiar with but hadn’t explored properly.

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  3. thingsitaughtmyself says:

    These photos are beautiful, the warm light really adds to the character of these buildings. Great work.

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    • Thanks Ashley! I’m glad that I decided to push myself to wake up earlier that day so I could be at Kota Lama just after sunrise. 🙂

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  4. Jaden says:

    Lovely post! I’ve had such a wonderful time meeting my family in Semarang. Both of us come from different sides of the world, but our ancestors are the same: Javanese and Dutch. We come from the same lineage. I could meet my real live family thanks to meeting my ancestors spirits first! They showed me the way back home. Furthermore I can really recommend Ikan Bakar Cianjur in the old courthouse. My Javanese cousin who’s an architect who worked on this building took us there. The food is great and the atmosphere too. He hopes all of the above buidlings will be renovated. Thanks for posting these pix so orderly!

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    • Thanks a lot Jaden! Actually I did try Ikan Bakar Cianjur when I went there last year, and as you said, the food was great! It’s really interesting to learn how everything around you seems to be related to Semarang or Kota Lama itself, not only the history of your family but also the fact that your cousin worked on one of the buildings. I’ve heard that the government has been trying to renovate most of the buildings in Kota Lama, but improvements seem to move at a snail’s pace.

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      • Jaden says:

        Well, who knows what the future will bring. Restoring the glory of some of these buildings seems right, much better than again creating another soulless shopping mall. My memory, as well as my families, actually merely goes back to getting to know Kota Lama in these present times. Our ancestors come from Jateng. Blitar and other places. Bondowoso. Personally I’ve been more Yogyabound. I have this amazing love for trees. Turns out my greatgrandfather used to be a planter. He wrote and held lectures about the importance of preserving trees. Thinking about Dieng Plateau. That must have been around 1909. His elder brothers were still hunting macan these times. Me and my cousins wouldn’t mind at all if there would be a TimeMachine. Luckily there are still places where time has stood still. Possibly even in the shade of trees. It’s great you share your creativity, it helps me feeling lively about my relatives from bygone days. Thank you, maturnuwun!

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      • Ahh, same here. I feel really intimate with Jogja because my ancestors were from there. It’s really nice to know that even back then there were people, like your great grandfather, who cared so much about the environment. It’s really my pleasure to be able to bring some nice memories to you and your visit to Indonesia.

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  5. Great post showcasing the fading glory of your hometown Bama! The buildings, even the decaying ones look gorgeous! The reflections of the train station, and the light in the quiet alleys of Kota lama are particularly eye catching..

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    • Thanks a lot Madhu! The last time I went to Semarang I realized that I hadn’t taken decent pictures of the old quarter despite passing through it so many times. When I went there the streets and alleys were rather empty and I often found myself the only person walking down the alleys. It was a nice morning stroll indeed.

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  6. Halim Santoso says:

    I Love Kota Lama so much, Bama… and i think Semarang’s tourism is nothing without Kota Lama hehehe…
    If you still stay in Semarang, please attends #KunoKiniNanti which held in ‘Gedung Spiegel’ at 22-28 August 😉

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    • You’re right Halim. It’s pretty much the most interesting quarter of the city. Semarang without Kota Lama would only become a culinary adventure destination. Unfortunately I’m back in Jakarta now. From the name (#KunoKiniNanti) it sounds like a very interesting event to attend. Maybe next time. 🙂 Thanks for the info!

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    • You noticed! 🙂 Well, actually both are my favorite subjects. I love taking pictures of the architectural features of a building as they’re usually ornate and very detailed. But for landscape, I love any breathtaking views as they’re simply…breathtaking! So I try to balance my posts on both subjects. 🙂

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  7. Hi Bama,
    What an interesting colonial architectures. I have to say I found charm in those decaying beauties. I found them more endearing than the ones that are well-preseved. Maybe because they evoke more sense of nostalgia? Lovely images as always.

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    • Thanks for your encouraging comment Marisol! As always. You’re right, old and decaying buildings are somewhat more ‘photogenic’ than those which are well-preserved. Such a beautiful irony, isn’t it?

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  8. These are unique heritage structures and it would be a real shame to just let them rot. I agree, there’s more photographic appeal in decaying buildings but given its urban location and proximity to people, it would be wise to ensure its structural integrity and keep anyone from getting potentially harmed.

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    • There has been pros and cons to the preservation of historical buildings. Some people think that decaying buildings look somewhat more appealing and mysterious than those which are well-maintained. But I guess we all agree that decaying or not, it’s way better to have them around, instead of letting them fall apart. Thanks Dennis!

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  9. Bama, this is wonderful! I didn’t even know this area existed. After living in Amsterdam, I’m a huge fan of Dutch architecture, and I must admit that I hope preservation prevails. Thanks for opening my eyes to Kota Lama – another place I want to explore. All the best, Terri

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    • Thanks Terri! What I heard was that the local government has been doing some preservation works to Kota Lama, but as we can see it’s still far from over. Semarang was once a thriving commercial center during colonial time, hence the beautiful Dutch buildings. But now I feel like it’s the most laid back provincial capital on the island of Java, compared to the much more crowded and busy Jakarta, Surabaya and Bandung.

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  10. This is a reminder that there’s so much of my own country I haven’t explored. I don’t even remember the last time I was in Semarang. It takes a good eye to see the history and the beauty behind these buildings. Sometimes you see them so often they quickly become simply part of the background.

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    • That’s exactly how I felt when I was in Semarang two weeks ago. On one day I got a bit bored and wondered where I should go. Then I realized how often I have passed through Kota Lama but haven’t truly walked on its alleys and absorbed its beauty. The next time you come to Indonesia, make sure you don’t miss this part of Semarang. 🙂

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  11. These are absolutely beautiful! I’m so glad that you’re preserving them – at least on film. I’m inspired to get out and walk my neighborhood. While we don’t have such beautiful buildings as these, I still see the value of capturing on film what I do have. Thank you again for allowing me to travel to your area.

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    • Thank you! Sometimes we don’t have to travel far to see beautiful places. This part of my hometown is only 10 minutes away by car from my parents’ house. Go around your neighborhood and see beyond things you normally see everyday. Then you’ll be surprised! 🙂

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    • My pleasure! Yes, you need to go to Semarang the next time you set foot on Indonesia again. Apart from its culinary treats, it has a wealth of beautiful colonial buildings. Quite a sight, I must say.

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    • It’s a nice place to walk around, indeed. But you have to hold your breath when you’re near the artificial lake right across the train station. It can smell really bad sometimes. I do hope more efforts will be taken to preserve this gem of Semarang.

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      • Well I hope so! The government should look at Malacca, where they turn the old building into hostel and shops while preserving the building 🙂 … This should be interesting 🙂

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      • Actually that’s what Ahok has in mind for Jakarta’s Kota Tua, or at least that’s what I read from the media. He said the only way to preserve an old quarter is by ‘commercializing’ it so both business and tourists come, instead of squatters.

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  12. Pingback: Places of Worship: Beyond the Structure | What an Amazing World!

  13. Ah so beautiful, I hope the government put their concerns to preserved those buildings and the area. I remember when I was a kid, this area often got flood in the rain season. I think that is one of their big homework as well.

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    • Preserving old buildings not only makes the city look beautiful, but also brings more tourists. That’s good for everyone, right? We all surely hope those buildings will see better days ahead.

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