Asia, late 19th century. The long-contending British and Dutch colonial forces have by now settled on their respective colonies. The British realm in this part of the world was unrivaled, straddling vast swathes of land from the entire Indian subcontinent (modern-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka), to Southeast Asia (Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei), to Australia and New Zealand in the Oceania.
Epitomizing its prominence were grand colonial buildings, built to showcase the power and prowess of the British Empire, and to impress the monarchs back in Westminster. Singapore’s Raffles Library and Museum (1849), Kuala Lumpur’s Sultan Abdul Samad Building (1897), and Yangon’s – then Rangoon – Supreme Court (1911) were all commissioned during this period of British administration in the region.
The Dutch, on the other hand, with its colonial jewel spanning more than 8,500 km from East to West, were planning to move its capital from the unbearably humid port of Batavia (present-day Jakarta) to the scenic, mountains-surrounded retreat town of Bandung for its year-round temperate climate and fresh air.
Bandung was also chosen to be one of the places where the soon to be built Grote Postweg (the Great Post Road) would run through – mandated by King Lodewijk Napoleon of Holland to strengthen Dutch colonial establishments in Java to anticipate any possible attacks by the British. The Great Post Road eventually connected the western coastal fishing town of Anyer to Panarukan in the eastern end of Java, almost 1,000 km apart and the first of its kind on the island.
It was Willem Daendels – Dutch’s first governor-general in the Netherlands Indies after the state took over the assets of the bankrupt Dutch East India Company (VOC) – who in 1810 visited Karapyak, some 16 km from present-day Bandung, and met its regent, Raden Wiranatakusumah II.
“Make sure that when I return, a city has been built here!”
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In the decades that followed, Bandung had grown into a major city where beautiful Art Deco buildings sprung up along its main thoroughfares, as well as places far enough from the increasingly busy and pretentious city center. Flowers-filled gardens gentrified the streets and plazas, adding more beauty to the city up to a point where a new moniker was coined: Parijs van Java – Paris of Java.
The Concordia Society – an exclusive club boasting membership that of Dutch aristocrats, plantation owners, wealthy businessmen, as well as high-rank officials – occupied a large building at the southern end of Braga Street, arguably the place to go and to be seen during its heyday. Perpendicular to it was the Grote Postweg itself where the Savoy Homann and the Preanger hotels – owned by a German and a Dutch respectively – together with other Art Deco structures lined Bandung’s most important street.
Started as a modest bamboo building, then renovated into a Neo-Gothic structure, the Savoy Homann underwent a final face-lift which gave the hotel its current, Art Deco look. Its heavily-curved façade witnessed guests coming from far-flung places, including Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, to stay in the undoubtedly one of the most prestigious hotels in the entire Dutch East Indies at the time.
Meanwhile the Preanger saw a young college student by the name of Sukarno assisting C.P. Wolff Schoemaker’s renovation works to the hotel in 1929. 16 years later the young man became none other than Indonesia’s first ever president, leading a nation of 78 million people.
But of all Dutch colonial heritage in the city, none was as grand, impressive, and expansive as the Gouvernement Bedrijven (Government Companies), a huge complex of government offices fronted by a large plaza. Its Moorish, Italian, and Indonesian architectural and decorative elements intertwined on the multi-storeyed building’s exterior, capped by the iconic enlarged ‘skewer’ or sate (satay) in local language. Hence the nickname Gedung Sate (Sate Building).
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Then there came the World War II, an event which eventually became a catalyst for independence struggle across the region with Indonesia gaining its own in August 1945. In the wake of decolonization spirit sweeping across Asia and Africa post-WWII, the leaders of Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Ceylon, and Burma – all obtained their independence following the end of the WWII – organized a conference uniting leaders from the two continents to reach the same goal: independence from colonialism.
The conference – dubbed the Asian-African Conference – took place in 1955 and was held at the same building used by the Concordia Society for their social events decades earlier. Gedung Merdeka (Independence Building) as it is now called houses a museum showcasing relics and documents from the unprecedented conference which successfully brought together Asian and African independence leaders, from the Kingdom of Afghanistan to Gold Coast (present-day Ghana), from Yugoslavia to the Ethiopian Empire.
The Savoy Homann, due to its proximity to the main venue of the conference, was chosen as place of stay for the dignitaries, while the Grote Postweg was renamed Jalan Asia Afrika (Asia Africa Street).
Today the name Parijs van Java only remains in school books and as a fancy mall in the city offering sumptuous dining experience and upscale fashion boutiques. The city itself has now grown into Indonesia’s third largest, home to more than 2.5 million people thanks to the ease of access to and from Jakarta. Long gone the beautiful gardens, replaced by two things many people come to Bandung for: fashion outlets and unique restaurants.
A toll road, completed in 2005, significantly reduced travel time from Jakarta to Bandung by two hours, while the city’s small airport now serves a growing number of domestic and international routes. However as the city’s popularity soars, so does its residents’ spirit to revive the city’s colonial heritage and all the charm it has long lost. A new, reformist mayor, Ridwan Kamil – an architect himself – strives to make Bandung a more livable city by improving its public transport, creating decent public parks, and continuously reminding Bandung’s residents to live more healthily through his extensive social media campaigns.
It may take a while for the city to rightfully regain its past moniker, but it certainly is moving towards the right direction.