Architectural Gems of Old Cirebon

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Asia, Indonesia, Southeast

The City Hall of Cirebon

Six giant golden shrimps shine brightly under the sun, perched above the half-moon portico of the fine white building. The Indonesian flag flies proudly over a well-manicured garden filled with all sorts of tropical plants. On top of the structure, an emblem also depicting a shrimp seems to further affirm the city’s reputation. Bart, Badai, James and I are standing in front of the City Hall of Cirebon, marveling at this vestige of the Dutch colonial period in the port city. Constructed in the 1920s as the Raadhuis – city council – the Art Deco building also served as a meeting place for Europeans who lived in Cirebon until the Japanese took over and turned it into the city’s seat of administration.

The modern city of Cirebon traces its history back to the 15th century when it was still a small fishing village on the northern coast of Java. However, over the centuries it grew into an important port thanks to its strategic location along a busy maritime trade route in the Indonesian archipelago. Long under the control of the Hindu Galuh kingdom, Cirebon became an independent sultanate in the early 16th century precisely at the time when Islamic polities began to emerge on the northern shore of the island. Two centuries later, amid the increasing Dutch influence in Java, Cirebon became a Dutch protectorate nominally ruled by the sultans, a strategy imposed by the European power to control the island’s economy without completely stripping the local rulers of their power.

In the 19th century, the Dutch implemented cultuurstelsel, ‘cultivation system’, or better known in Indonesia as tanam paksa (forced planting) which required a portion of agricultural production in the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia) to be devoted to export crops. This attracted many Chinese entrepreneurs to the city to reap benefits from the policy. But on the other hand, this policy led to a famine in Cirebon since a big portion of arable land was converted into cash crop plantations. Tobacco was among the major crops to be commercially cultivated in Cirebon, attracting one of the world’s biggest tobacco companies, British American Tobacco (BAT), to invest in the city. After acquiring the factory of a smaller company called S.S. Michael, in 1924 BAT refurbished the building in Art Deco style. Today it stands elegantly in Cirebon’s old town district, home to a number of surviving Dutch colonial monuments.

Other vestiges of the Dutch period in Cirebon are the old churches. Gereja Santo Yusuf (Church of St. Joseph) is a late 19th-century Catholic church which is in fact the oldest church in the western part of Java. Meanwhile, not too far from it the Protestant Gereja Kristen Pasundan (Pasundan Christian Church) occupies a small house built in the late 18th century. Next to the church is the former office of Internationale Crediet & Handelsvereeniging Rotterdam, one of many private-owned banks that thrived in the Dutch East Indies.

During the Dutch colonial administration, Cirebon was a important port from which tobacco, sugarcane and indigo, among other cash crops, were exported. However today the city is more often associated with shrimp thanks to its terasi (shrimp paste, called belacan in Malaysia and Singapore), which is well known among Indonesians for its good quality. The city’s association with shrimp was acknowledged by the Dutch as reflected in the six golden shrimps adorning the city hall. Almost one hundred years after they were mounted, those giant crustaceans are not going anywhere, just like the city’s bright white Dutch buildings which survived the pressures that have demolished many historic vestiges in other cities in the name of development.

Golden Shrimps out of the Water

An Angkot (Public Minivan) in Cirebon’s Old Town District

Another Colonial Building in Cirebon, Currently the Local Branch of One of Indonesia’s Largest Banks

Echoes from the Past

Gereja Santo Yusuf (Church of St. Joseph)

Gereja Kristen Pasundan (Pasundan Christian Church), Occupying A Late 18th-Century Building

James and Bart in Action

The Former Office of Internationale Crediet & Handelsvereeniging Rotterdam

The Local Office of Bank Indonesia (Indonesia’s Central Bank)

Centuries-Old Klenteng Talang (Talang Temple)

Stepping Stones to the Future

A Quiet Afternoon at Cirebon’s Old Harbor

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

39 thoughts on “Architectural Gems of Old Cirebon”

    • Glad this brings back some memories from your childhood, Catherine. Judging from the photos, how much do you think the old town has changed since you left the city?

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      • Quite a lot, I lived there in 2000 and last visited 2015. Felt busier, more shops around and buildings look more polished. Absolutely adore these photos you’ve taken.

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      • I noticed that in the years between the 2000s and 2010s there have been a lot of developments in Indonesia as the country slowly recovered from the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis. Hopefully those pretty colonial buildings are here to stay for generations to come.

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  1. Great article, I’vd learnt a lot reading this. Being Dutch it is always interesting to see what our ancestors have done in certain countries in the past. A bit controversial at times, and I am not always proud of it though, it is great to see that this part of history is showcased.

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    • Glad you enjoyed this post, Marcella. I’ve always wanted to visit the Netherlands given the history our countries share. It’s true that Dutch colonization in Indonesia has left scars, but the modern country I’m calling home today is a direct product of it. We should look back to the past to learn, not to seek revenge. Reconciliation is the only way to go.

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      • Very well put. Looking to the past to learn is indeed the way to reconciliation. I’ve never been to your country but I am very interested in it. If at any time you will travel to the Netherlands, feel free to reach out to me helping you build your trip!

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      • Thank you so much for your offer! Likewise, should you come to Indonesia one day, feel free to drop me a message! There are direct flights from Jakarta to Amsterdam, naturally. But I want to explore other places as well — Den Haag is high on my list — so I need an ample amount of time in the Netherlands.

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      • Thanks that’s sweet! Amsterdam en Den Haag are indeed a must but there are so many different cities that are worth a visit as well, Utrecht being one of them, Delft being pretty nice as well. If you like to something crazy, the flower auction in Aalsmeer is pretty impressive, some of the flowers, world’s largest auction hall. So yeah I would plan a bit of time depending on how many cities or villages you want to explore.

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      • I heard that there are a lot of Indonesian students in Utrecht — actually one of my aunts studied in the Netherlands for her masters. Ahh, I can’t wait to go there one day! Thanks for the brief but very appealing introduction!

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  2. It’s wonderful to think that the buildings managed to survive till today. I hope that it will still be maintained so that it can last longer. To think that this place is good for belacan!! Didn’t think there could be a place in Indonesia specialising in it but good for belacan lovers then…I love sambal belacan…hehehehe

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    • I surely hope that they will survive for many years to come. Speaking of belacan, as much as I love sambal terasi (as how belacan is called here), I don’t think I’ve tried Singapore’s sambal belacan. That’s definitely something I should try when I go back to Singapore one day.

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      • Haha, is our sambal belacan very different from sambal terasi? Hmm, maybe I need to give that a try next time I’m in Indonesia..haha

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  3. I lived in Cirebon in 2014 when I worked in a retail company, this post reminds me of my short life in the City of Shrimp. I love taking a stroll at Pasuketan Street, Harbour area, and Yos Sudarso Street, where most buildings you featured above exist. I went to Cirebon two weeks ago with some friends of mine, but we didn’t have enough time to visit the old town district.

    Cirebon has such potential to be a tourism city. Hope the local government soon understand this opportunity that Cirebon is more than Keraton and Batik Trusmi.

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    • We all surely hope that Cirebon’s cultural treasures can be managed well not only to cater to tourists, but also to preserve centuries-old traditions and heritage sites. One more thing I loved about the city was actually the food. I had the best empal gentong there, naturally!

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      • You never go wrong with Empal Gentong, haha. I don’t know but, even the unpopular empal gentong has a delicious taste! Did you try Nasi Jamblang and Pedesan Enthog? The second one is my favorite!

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      • I didn’t try pedesan enthog, but judging by its name it sounds like a dish I would enjoy. I guess I should go back to Cirebon!

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  4. Isn’t this what colonial powers forced on every country they invaded — cash crops? In Africa they imposed a monetary tax as a way to force farmers to grow cash crops to be able to pay the tax.
    On a more positive note, Art Deco is my favourite architectural style. A nice surprise to see your photo of such a well maintained building.

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    • Because money is the main drive for some countries to subjugate others, whether it’s oil, gold, cash crops, spices, there’s always an economic reason behind colonialism.

      As you probably have noticed from your past travels in Indonesia, there are quite a lot of Art Deco buildings in the country. Have you been to Bandung? Many beautiful buildings in the city were built in this architectural style.

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  5. Beautiful building Bama. Heartening to see heritage architecture being treated with respect. Will be sure to check the label of the shrimp paste I buy.

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    • Heartening indeed to see how people are becoming more and more aware of the importance of preserving old buildings. I’m not sure if the shrimp paste from Cirebon reaches India. But hey, who knows?

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  6. Another first class post with many beautiful images of the Dutch cultural heritage in the city of Cirebon! The sacrifice of top agricultural land for the production of cash crops for export has a familiar ring even in our modern time. How many people are starving today, because big corporations control the export market of developing countries?

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    • Thank you for your kind words, Peter. It’s very frustrating to think of the way those corporations do their business. Food is one of human’s basic needs, yet some people reap big profits out of others’ misery.

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  7. I had several disconnects before I got going here and realized what I was reading about! First, I saw the opening photo and thought it was a movie theater. Then I got to the first words about golden shrimp, and I assumed we were going to see another of your mouthwatering food posts. Finally, I realized these crustaceans were ON the bright white building and that it was the City Hall in a place I’d never heard of! What a lovely little whitewashed city with a fascinating history!

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    • Now that you mentioned it, the City Hall does look like a vintage movie theater. Most people go to Cirebon to see the (rather humble) royal palaces, buy colorful shirts sporting traditional motifs, and try the local food. Those Dutch colonial buildings are unfortunately often overlooked despite their beauty and interesting history. Thanks for reading, Lex!

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  8. A gorgeous series of photos, Bama! I too enjoyed Cirebon and wished we had another few hours (if not half a day) to explore more of the old town. As with Mallee, Art Deco is also my favorite architectural style. I feel like it expresses the sense of optimism and the wave of technological advances that happened between the World Wars, one of those being the rise of cinema. Then there’s the intricate, sometimes whimsical detailing – and I love how Art Deco bridges the gap between 20th-century modernism and the Neo-Gothic and Neoclassical styles that went before.

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    • Thanks James! (and thanks for becoming a candid model for one of the shots! :)) I would love to visit another centuries-old Chinese temple in Cirebon’s old town district. Maybe next time — and I will surely look for that pedesan enthog Nugie mentioned earlier! To me Art Deco is fabulous for its bold departure from the prevalent architectural styles the world had seen for so many generations. If only Jakarta retained some of its Art Deco buildings that can only be seen on history books today.

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