“Semarang is squeezed in the middle,” a pun my father once told me about the Central Javanese provincial capital which is also my hometown. We were discussing about how slowly Semarang developed compared to other major cities in Java – Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung and even Yogyakarta. Jakarta and Surabaya have become Indonesia’s financial hubs since the country’s independence, while Bandung and Jogja – Yogyakarta’s nickname – are thriving thanks to the energy and creative minds of students from all over the country who study in both cities, home to two of Indonesia’s three most prestigious universities.
Every year, I return to Semarang to celebrate Idul Fitri – an annual festival comparable to Thanksgiving or Chinese New Year where millions of people flock to their hometowns and gather with their families. Flying in to Semarang, the majestic view of Mount Sumbing and Sindoro (Sundoro) is always a treat for the eyes. But as I get off the plane, the modest airport never fails to remind me of what my father said many years ago. The city’s sole airport is so small the ones in Manado (North Sulawesi’s capital which is home to half as many people as Semarang) and even Ambon (Maluku’s capital with a population half that of Manado) appear larger and more modern. A house is how I always describe Semarang’s airport to my friends and coworkers in Jakarta who have never been.
Semarang does develop, though, albeit in a very Indonesian sense. A new shopping mall was opened a few years ago, while new hotels keep springing up in the city, making its skyline more crowded every time I come. But taking in a bird’s eye view of Semarang (in my case from the observation deck of Asmaul Husna Tower in the grounds of the Grand Mosque of Central Java), one will notice that all tall buildings in the city seem to abruptly halt once they reach a certain height. This is, in fact, largely caused by the regulation that limits building heights in Semarang due to the location of the airport, roughly 4 km (2.5 miles) from the city center.
Similar to other Indonesian cities, motorbikes proliferate in the streets of Semarang as procuring one becomes much easier and cheaper these days. Following in the footsteps of Jakarta and Jogja which have implemented relatively successful Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems, Semarang rolled out its own BRT network which has been in operation for eight years. Until a few years ago, the red Trans Semarang buses were emblazoned with Saatnya Semarang Setara, ‘it’s time for Semarang to be equal [with other cities]’, yet again confirming what my father told me. However, it has now been replaced by Semarang Hebat!, ‘Semarang is great!’. What is not so great is the fact that these buses always belch out black smoke, making me wonder whether traveling with one’s own car is actually better for the city’s air.
Speaking of the air, Semarang is notorious for being really hot and humid, even more so than Jakarta. So why do Jakartans as well as people from other cities often go to Semarang for their holiday? For a big city – more than 1.5 million people call Semarang home – the food in Semarang is incredibly cheap. The same kind of dishes cost only half, or even a third, of the price in Jakarta – that is of course if one stays away from the malls. But exactly because of this, Semarang’s food scene has been relatively slow to catch up with that of other cities because for many of the city’s residents, paying more for a new and foreign dish while you can get a delicious meal of local food for a fraction of the price just sounds ridiculous.
Then there is the eclectic amalgamation of cultures that enriches the city’s soul. Semarang has a thriving Chinese community that has contributed to some of the city’s most famous dishes, including lumpia (a local version of spring rolls), as well as rich Dutch heritage which is not only reflected in the plethora of colonial buildings, but also in some dishes, including ganjel rel (a dense cake made with cinnamon, fennel, sesame and palm sugar). Semarang’s Javanese community, obviously, has also added a lot to the city’s long list of sought-after dishes.
Out of the city center, up the rolling hills of Upper Semarang and beyond, ancient Hindu temples dating back to the eighth century – when Hinduism and Buddhism were the dominant religions in Java – provide a glimpse to the past. While the five remaining temples of Gedong Songo compound are spread all across the slopes of Mount Ungaran, lesser-known Candi Ngempon is hidden amid rice paddies on a river bank. Over the course of millennia peoples from far-flung places come and go to this part of Java, each leaving a thread that has been woven into a colorful tapestry Semarang is known for today. A home for a diverse populace, it is not surprising that Semarang resisted the formation of a hardliner group’s local chapter to prevent toxic religious rhetoric from disseminating among its residents.
As for the city being a rich and colorful tapestry, one teacher hailing from a poor area in downtown Semarang took this literally by initiating a movement that would drastically transform his neighborhood. Wonosari, now better known as Kampung Pelangi, ‘Rainbow Village’, was quick to become an internet sensation thanks to countless selfies that people took there and shared on Instagram. It certainly was not the first rainbow village in the world, but it transformed into one at a time when social media has become part of people’s daily lives. Predictably, this once drab neighborhood suddenly attracts a huge number of visitors, most of them joining the colorful selfie craze. Local businesses are benefiting too, with shop owners at the lower level of the hilly village reaping the most profits. However, it is yet to be seen whether this creative approach to fighting poverty will also benefit those who live at the upper level as going up to the very top of the village can be quite challenging to some people.
A few hundred meters from the village lies one of Semarang’s most iconic landmarks. Lawang Sewu is an early 20th-century Dutch building which until recently was more well-known for being a haunted place, rather than its beautiful colonial architecture. On public holidays, tour buses now also make a stop at this historical monument, conveniently located just a short walk away from the city’s hub for buying local snacks (Indonesians have a preference for edible souvenirs). The local kids, on the other hand, like to play at a small garden across Lawang Sewu where a phallic monolith stands in the middle of a pond with fountains.
My father, who has always been a biking enthusiast, used to make the roundabout in front of Lawang Sewu the starting point of his round-the-city cycling excursions. As he retired two years ago, he made new friends who are even more crazy about cycling than him, and since then they have traveled exclusively by bike to places hundreds of kilometers away from Semarang. Never has he been so active and fit! Meanwhile, my mother, who was born and raised in Semarang but had to move to other cities following my father’s assignments in places as far as Borneo, has been able to reconnect with her high school and college friends, even some people from primary school as she told me. Together they occasionally arranged trips to places around Java with my father joining them most of the time.
Despite being one of the major cities in Java, Semarang still, to some extent, retains its small city charm. The pace of life is slower than in Jakarta, and the people are friendlier. It is a perfect place for my parents to retire – where they have a lot of friends while still being able to access the conveniences of a typical big city – as well as being an increasingly attractive place for young people to start their businesses. New cafes and restaurants are springing up in the city – with some young entrepreneurs turning dilapidated old buildings into cool hangout spots – and the art scene appears more visible in recent years. But to truly sense how the city is progressing, I don’t need to look far. Almost every time I come back to Semarang, I always take my mother to a frozen yogurt shop which also serves donuts and cool drinks. Frozen yogurt only entered the Indonesian market back in 2008, but it seems to make very slow progress in Semarang in spite of the city’s oppressive heat. But there she is, my mother enjoying every scoop of silky smooth frozen yogurt with tart fruit toppings of her choice in her own quiet and slow-paced way, at the city’s trendiest mall, epitomizing Semarang itself: it progresses slowly, at its own pace and taste, but it’ll surely get there.