Surabaya: Brash and Brave

Asia, Indonesia, Southeast

A Soaring New Skyscraper in Surabaya

Once upon a time in the 12th century, a Javanese oracle foresaw an epic fight between a giant shark and a giant crocodile in the Brantas River in eastern Java. About a century later, an event interpreted as the manifestation of this prophecy occurred: the Mongol invasion of Java in the late 13th century. The Mongols – invaders from the sea with a powerful military – were perceived as sharks, while Raden Wijaya’s land-based armies were seen as crocodiles. The crocodiles first helped the sharks to subdue a kingdom in the heart of eastern Java, but then turned on them and drove the sharks away to rule the land themselves. While more events that were deemed as the fulfillment of the prophecy happened in the centuries that followed, nothing was more defining than a major struggle more than 700 years after the prediction was made.

Months after Indonesia’s declaration of independence following the Allied victory over Japan in 1945, the British landed in the nascent republic to help the Dutch (their ally during World War II) regain control of their former colony. The city of Surabaya which had already been established as an important trading port in Asia for centuries – where Admiral Zheng He made landfall in some of his treasure voyages – was among the fiercest battlefields between the British and the Republican forces. On 19 September 1945, the red-white-and-blue Dutch flag was hoisted on top of Hotel Yamato (formerly Hotel Oranje) which provoked the Indonesian nationalist militia. Subsequently, they stormed the hotel and tore off the blue part of the Dutch flag to make it the red-and-white Indonesian flag. In the ensuing weeks, tensions escalated and the city witnessed sporadic skirmishes.

On 10 November 1945, after a series of negotiations and miscommunication, the British began a full-scale military action against the Indonesian forces in Surabaya. Supported by naval and air bombardment, in just a few days the British eventually conquered the city and forced the ill-equipped Indonesian forces to flee. Thousands of people were killed, making it the bloodiest battle during the Indonesian National Revolution. In memory of the bravery of the Indonesians who died in the war, the 10th of November is now commemorated in the country as Heroes’ Day.

Some things have changed in 21st-century Surabaya, but many aspects remain the same. Home to 3.5 million people – Indonesia’s second largest by population after Jakarta – Surabaya is unsurprisingly one of the country’s most important economic hubs. Its port is the nation’s second busiest and the industrial areas surrounding the city contribute significantly to the Indonesian economy. When it comes to the people, Surabayans – known as Arek-Arek Suroboyo (Teenagers of Surabaya) – have a reputation for being brash straight talkers. A close friend of mine in college who is native to Surabaya once told me that when he moved to other parts of Java he found the people very soft-spoken. “Even when they challenge you in a fight, they don’t sound intimidating to me,” he said.

Bonek, fanatic supporters of the city’s main football club, are known as the hooligans of Indonesia, although in a city which traces its creation myth to a shark and a crocodile this is hardly bewildering. However, the benefit of dealing with straight talkers is that you’ll always get what you see, although admittedly as a person who was born and raised in communities where people prefer to talk indirectly, I found Surabayans generally very intimidating at first. To present-day Indonesians, Surabaya is also known for its much-loved mayor, Tri Rismaharini (popularly nicknamed Risma), who has been in office since 2010 and has successfully transformed the city into a more livable place through her hands-on, no-nonsense approach.

Surabayans can now be more proud than ever to have a mayor who dedicates her time to improving the quality of life of its residents. Inspired by the customer handling systems of fast food restaurants, she overhauled the city’s complaint handling mechanism and made necessary improvements so people are now able to get a quick response to their problems. Her innovative solutions for Surabaya’s environmental and social problems hasn’t gone unnoticed beyond Indonesia as she has been awarded multiple accolades, including from the U.N., and consistently ranks as among the world’s best mayors.

In mid-May 2018, however, she and all Surabayans were confronted with horrific acts of terror as several radicalized families carried out suicide bombings at churches across the city, killing 27 people including the perpetrators themselves. In a true Surabayan way, widespread sympathy for the victims was expressed not only on social media under the #KamiTidakTakut (We Are Not Afraid) hashtag, but also through a groundswell of support for the mayor and the police. Surabayans were defiant and refused to be cowed into fear. “Normalcy returned to the city three days after the bombings,” my resident Surabayan friend told me. Surabaya’s signature Javanese expletive, this time directed to all terrorists, also went viral, unifying Arek-Arek Suroboyo, bonek and other people in the country and giving a clear message to those who are trying to tear the city’s social fabric apart: back off because we are not afraid!

The 18th-Century Grahadi Building, the Official Residence of the Governor of East Java

The Statue of Governor Suryo, East Java’s First Governor in Post-Independence Indonesia

Surabaya’s City Hall at the End of the Street

One Corner of Indonesia’s Second-Largest City

A Bridge at Prestasi Park (left) and the Early 20th-Century Youth Hall

Centuries-Old Statues at Apsari Park

The Hindu God Vishnu (left) and the 13th-Century Statue of Kertanegara, the Last King of Singhasari (right)

Vestiges of the Past

New Construction along the Mas River

A Lovely Afternoon Stroll at Taman Prestasi, A Small Park in the City

Local Kids Playing at the Park

The Mas River (A Tributary of the Brantas), Where the Javanese Fought Against the Mongols in the 13th Century

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

36 thoughts on “Surabaya: Brash and Brave”

  1. Hendi Setiyanto says:

    sekilas, kalinya bersih,,,semoga memang demikian, jalanannya juga lebar dan tak semacet jakarta…


    • Seingat saya sih ada sedimentasi sedikit di sana-sini, tapi secara umum sungai di sana memang cukup bersih. Saya sebenernya pengen menghabiskan lebih banyak waktu di Surabaya, pengen mengeksplor taman-tamannya, bangunan-bangunan tuanya, dan sudut-sudut lainnya karena katanya sejak dipegang Bu Risma Surabaya jadi tambah rapi dan teratur.


    • Kalau dari cerita teman saya yang orang Surabaya, Bu Risma memang kelihatan hasil kerjanya. Semoga lebih banyak pemimpin daerah lain bisa mencontoh beliau.


  2. Soorya says:

    Very good read! Intriguing to know about this place that has seen history in so many shades!


    • Thanks Soorya! To be honest I didn’t do Surabaya justice as my time was very limited in the city. There are corners that I really want to explore but I have yet to get the chance to do that.


  3. An insightful walk through of Suraybaya’s history, Bama. It has come a long way from colonial times. The Indonesians I’ve met in Singapore and Australia tend to be soft-spoken, so I’m quite surprised to hear that people in Surabaya can be brash straight talkers. Well, at least you get an honest opinion when talking to them 🙂

    I found it interesting in your comment that you said Surabaya isn’t what people normally think when they think of Indonesia. I’ve met a few people who have traveled for leisure and some have visited Surabaya, and I’ve had some family friends fly there on occasion to work for work trips. A nation that is not afraid is one that will prevail and stand tall for a long time to come. The mayor sounds like she has puts the people’s interest first, and hopefully she brings about another revolution soon 🙂


    • My college years were the time when I got the chance to know Indonesians from all over the country, including those from East Java. I have to admit I was a bit intimidated by East Javanese at first, but now I’m getting used to their way of talking. In the end they are good people who happen to speak in an accent that can sound unfriendly.

      I should’ve made myself clearer when I said that Surabaya isn’t what most people think when they think of Indonesia. It’s quite a popular destination for business travelers, and what I know is that a lot of Surabayans have relatives abroad. But when it comes to regular travelers, usually Bali, Lombok and a few other places are what come to mind when they think of Indonesia. Sorry for the confusion.

      Surabaya is lucky to have a mayor like her who really cares about the city. I wish I could say the same about my own hometown Semarang.


  4. Oh my goodness Bama I had not heard of these recent bombings! The people sound very resilient and perhaps their reputation for brashness gives them courage to stand up. As always a delight to have you as my tour guide through a city I knew nothing about.


    • This happened in May and it really was shocking. Until ten years ago Indonesia witnessed large-scale bombings on its soil almost every year, but the government has stepped up security measures and forged closer cooperation with countries in the region to limit terrorists’ movements. Surabayans really are tough and resilient people; I wasn’t surprised at all when my friend told me that things returned to normal in a very short time. Glad you enjoyed this post, Sue!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It is a real treat to view your amazing photos, Bama. I’d wish I could say more, but our home internet is down.


    • Thanks Peter! While the internet is down I guess now you have more time to read some good books and just relax. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • True! But I use the Internet of some of my friendly neighbours. How else could I respond to your nice comment, Bama?!


      • Well, I hope your internet connection will be restored soon, Peter. In the meantime, enjoy your offline time! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Judging by her people, Surabaya could be the Glasgow of Indonesia! It’s always sad to hear about terrorist attacks and such, however I suppose it’s to bee expected, with Abu Sayyaf practically next door. I’m surprised about the lack of lovely food pictures here Bama, did they let you down in Surabaya? 😀


    • That’s an interesting comparison. I’ve never been to Scotland, but I’ve heard so many good things about the country and the people. Yes, there’s Abu Sayyaf in the southwestern part of the Philippines, but those who carried out terror attacks in Surabaya were mostly homegrown. The most devastating thing is perhaps the fact that innocent kids, as young as eight years old, were used by their parents to kill other humans.

      Ha! You noticed the absence of food photos here. There were some interesting dishes I tried, including cow lips salad, but it was one of those rare moments when for some reason I didn’t take out my camera and decided to dig in right away.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s more of an acquired taste… or texture to be precise as the lips themselves should taste plain without the sauce.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Surabaya sounds like a lovely city. I think I’d be right at home with their outspokenness, and the mayor sounds fantastic. I love to hear stories about good leaders who actually help the people.


    • I heard that of all big cities in Indonesia, Surabaya is actually the most well-planned — the current mayor is determined to keep all the improvements on track. You can fly to Surabaya and stay a couple of nights there before going south to see some of the most breathtaking landscapes in Indonesia; I think you would enjoy Mount Bromo and all the ancient temples in East Java.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Bama, this is a timely reminder that we should return to Surabaya and really explore the city at some point. Apart from our short overnight stay before heading east to Banyuwangi, I have only ever seen the inside of its airport (and that Ibis Budget hotel beside the terminal). My impressions from the afternoon stroll you captured here were all positive: the streets were cleaner and more well-maintained than those of Jakarta, and things just felt more organized somehow.


    • And the fact that the city has recently been praised by Singapore’s URA for its bold strategy in developing its poor neighborhoods and promoting the local culture makes me want to go back and stay longer. Photos of Surabaya’s leafy streets have also been circulating among my friends, another reason to go! Next time I’ll make sure to take some food photos, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for informing me about Surabaya. If I recall correctly, the city didn’t have the best reputation 20-25 years ago and we dismissed it during our backpacker days. Great to hear about the good work being done by Surabaya’s mayor.


    • Exactly! I grew up with this image of Surabaya being a very rough city. However, many things seem to have changed dramatically ever since. I really should plan a visit to the city and stay longer, and probably also cross the bridge that connect Java with the island of Madura.


  10. Bama, what an absolutely fascinating series of events for the city of Sunabaya. I would truly love to visit sometime. I loved the photos you captured – somehow they portray an unusual stillness that can sometimes occur in a bustling city. I also especially like the photo of the boys playing with squirt guns – makes me nostalgic for the simpler days of being young. This inspires me to do a historical storytelling of my city.


    • Foreign tourists usually fly in Surabaya to visit Mount Bromo, more than 100 kilometers to the south, which has one of the most iconic landscapes in Indonesia. Here’s an old post on the national park (it was written almost six years ago, so apologize for the writing skill):

      So I think it would be nice if you stay for a few days in Surabaya before/after the trip to Bromo. I would love to hear your stories on your city too!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you Bama! This is why I LOVE blogging, because it connects you with people from all over the world and introduces you to places you know nothing about!

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Whoaaaaa….. mas Bama dapat foto bagus di Apsari… waktu itu saya kemalaman disana… fotonya ajaib jadinya hahaha…
    BTW, Mas Bama kalau nginep di Surabaya aman-aman aja ya? Kalo saya kenapa selalu di’ganggu’in yaa.. jadi agak males kalo kesana hihihi…


    • Saya kayaknya di Surabaya pas hari kerja, jadi banyak taman yang sepi, termasuk Taman Apsari ini. Saya nginep di hotel murmer sih mbak, dan gak ada keluhan apa-apa selain fasilitasnya yang memang standar banget (ya iyalah, ada harga ada rupa, hehe).


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