A woman with long black hair wearing plain, white long cloth appeared, but her eyes looked menacing, her skin so pale, and her feet not visible. A man waved to the infrared camera, signaling his defeat to the challenge and a call for help. A few moments later the TV crew assisted him to get out of the near pitch-black underground chamber only to be interviewed by the host of the program shortly afterwards. It happened one day on the eve of dawn back in 2003 at Lawang Sewu, an early 20th century Dutch colonial building in Semarang reputedly to be haunted and the center of paranormal activities in the city. That episode of the reality show program ended up winning an international television award the following year.
Regardless the authenticity of the footage – we all know too well how reality show often is a staged show – the reputation of Lawang Sewu as a place better suited for the setting of a horror movie rather than a beautiful historic place where people can learn about the history of the city is deeply instilled in people’s minds. Fortunately in recent years efforts have been made to renovate its crumbling parts in hope for preserving the building and bringing it back to its heyday, also changing people’s perception of the Dutch heritage.
Named after the many doors it has – lawang is Javanese for door and sewu is thousand – Lawang Sewu was completed in 1920 and served as the headquarters of the Nederlands-Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij (NIS), the Dutch Indies Railway Company. Consisting of two main buildings – A and B – and two smaller structures – C and D – Lawang Sewu was built in Dutch colonial style incorporating many doors and large windows which gave the building compound its moniker.
Lawang Sewu remained the office of NIS until the Japanese forces took control of the city in 1942 and turned the basement of Building B into a prison where executions purportedly took place. Three years later after Japan’s surrender to the Allied Forces and Indonesia’s proclamation of its independence a number of Japanese soldiers were still stationed around Semarang although most of the elite personnel of Kido Butai were already captured by the Indonesians.
But in October 1945 – only two months after Indonesia’s independence – Semarang was engulfed in a battle between the Indonesian armed forces and the remaining Japanese soldiers following the escape of some Kido Butai personnel from prison. Lawang Sewu saw one of the fiercest battles in the city during a five-day period which ended up in the victory on the Indonesian side.
The executions and the fierce battle later provided an inspiration for an urban legend which gradually shaped people’s perception of the site as a spooky place, leading up to the abandonment of the building altogether.
In the early 2000s all sections of Lawang Sewu were worryingly dilapidated and the so-called ‘Mystery Tour’ – independent tour arranged by local young men who often claimed to be able to see ghosts – which was quite popular at that time only made things worse for the already derelict edifice. The TV program which further affirmed Lawang Sewu’s reputation as a haunted place only made such tour even more popular.
Following public outcries and concerns by old building conservationists, in 2009 Lawang Sewu saw its first significant renovation work in decades, and two years later the then-First Lady of Indonesia opened the newly restored Building A as an exhibition center. Lawang Sewu’s revitalization plan includes turning Building B into a commercial building with offices and restaurants, but at the moment works are suspended and Building B remains largely untouched. Wooden panels hang down from the ceiling in some rooms and the hall on the upper floor still looks somber with resident bats preventing this part of the building from utter quietness.
It is still a long way to go to completely shed Lawang Sewu off its eerie image, but under a more professional management by its current owner, the Indonesian railway company, the building compound today opens its doors to visitors who are more interested in its history and architectural beauty than its supernatural stories.