A Change of Heart about Semarang

Asia, Indonesia, Southeast

Gereja Blenduk (Blenduk Church), Kota Lama’s most prominent landmark

Part 1 of 4

In a post I wrote about my 2018 trip to Semarang – my hometown and where my parents live – I recount the moment when I thought the city no longer excited me, for I’d visited most of its must-see places multiple times. At the end of the post I was wondering whether the following year there would be new venues for me to check out or not. In the end, in my 2019 trip to my birthplace, I did spend most of my time staying at my parents’ house, savoring my mom’s delicious dishes which is a big reason why James is always keen on returning to this city of 1.5 million people. Both of us revisited Kota Lama (Semarang’s old town district), tried nasi goreng babat (fried rice with beef tripe cooked in sweet soy sauce and spices) just across the river from Kota Lama proper, and took my mom to one of the new cafés that had sprung up in this part of the city that has made it more alluring not just for heritage building enthusiasts, but also most people in general. On another day, James and I enjoyed the live-action rendition of Aladdin at the very same theater where I watched the animated Disney movie as a kid more than twenty years ago. But apart from those highlights, we didn’t do much, and as expected, we did eventually get bored.

Then, 2020 happened.

As per tradition, I was supposed to go back to my hometown toward the end of Ramadan (the fourth week of May last year). However, the large-scale social restrictions put in place in Jakarta since April until early June (when the city government began easing some rules) forced me to spend the public holiday at my apartment. My parents completely understood the situation although it was clear how sad they were not only because of my absence on such a special occasion, but also the prospect of not being able to see their only child throughout the pandemic.

Around September, when domestic travel was possible again, James proposed the idea of going to Semarang sometime in October to cover Kota Lama’s ongoing restoration project for his magazine. Little did I know that this trip, and another one just two weeks later as well as a third one in December, would leave a long-lasting impact on me and drastically change the way I see my hometown.

Due to the nature of this trip for James, which was not only for leisure, but also for work, we encountered some inspiring locals who made me realize what had been missing from my past visits to Semarang, especially in the last five years: the people. Most of the time, the locals that I met were either my relatives or my mom’s friends as this capital of Central Java province was where she spent her formative years. And I have never had deep and meaningful conversations with them. On the other hand, since I didn’t grow up in this city, I don’t really have friends here which made every trip revolve almost exclusively around sightseeing and having my mom’s home-cooked food.

This time around, we met a lot of new and interesting people, including a young entrepreneur who turned a derelict building in Kota Lama into a beautiful, atmospheric restaurant through a careful and thoughtful restoration. There was also a young historian who runs a travel company focusing on exploring Semarang’s lesser-known corners on foot; a heritage conservationist (or urban and industrial archaeologist, as he prefers to be called) who helped restore some of the city’s historic buildings; another conservation expert who was involved in reintroducing the city’s Chinatown not only to Semarang residents, but also to other Indonesians; an architecture professor who teaches Javanese traditional music and wayang (Javanese shadow puppetry) to children on weekends; a third-generation businesswoman who returned to Semarang from the Netherlands to revive Kota Lama’s grandeur; an artist and Indonesian language lecturer whose passion for wayang brought him to places never associated with art – like a traditional fish market – where he performed a contemporary version to those who don’t usually have access to such spectacles; and an incredibly talented young polyglot who told us about his exciting four-month stint in Colombia (and spoke to James in perfect Spanish) and who explained how words in Turkish change depending on the name of the subject. These are the kinds of people I had never met in Semarang on my previous trips, and they are the prime reason why I had a change of heart about a city I call home even though I have never actually lived there.

Actually, we were also supposed to meet two other people: a contemporary art advocate as well as a cartoonist who stands out among others due to his witty criticisms of the government. But the worsening Covid-19 situation by December forced us to postpone our meet-ups.

Jiwasraya Building (left) where the first elevator in Indonesia was installed; the iconic church

White doves resting at the church

A row of restored warehouses behind Blenduk Church

Walking along the main thoroughfare of Kota Lama

This was once the office of the Netherlands Trading Company (NHM)

NHM’s office viewed from across Berok Bridge

A short walk from the bridge will get you to this vantage point

Next to the bridge is a street vendor famous for his nasi goreng babat

I had known that Semarang was where the Dutch East Indies’ (present-day Indonesia) first-ever stock market was established, signifying the port city’s economic significance during the colonial period. And from some of the Indonesian movies I watched on Netflix during the first few months of the pandemic, I learned how Semarang was once a progressive city that drew many Indonesian intellectuals to come and discuss a wide range of subjects and ideas at a time when decolonization movements began gaining momentum in the Netherlands East Indies. Semarang was an entrepôt for people from different backgrounds, as well as an entry point for industrial innovations, including the first tram system and elevator in the Dutch colony, before these new technologies were introduced to the hinterland of Java and other places in the vast archipelago. Semarang was also where revolutionary ideas were conceived and embraced, including Communism, as the city was the stronghold of the now-disbanded Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

Although Communism as an ideology is officially banned in Indonesia today, Semarang is still known as a left-leaning city. The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI)* – Indonesia’s most notorious Islamic vigilante group that often acts with violence toward minorities and those it deems “immoral” – faced fierce resistance from local people when it tried to establish a chapter in the city, forcing it to cancel those plans and leave Semarang out of its physical reach. Yogi, the young historian/tour guide told us how in his neighborhood the best friend of a vendor of alcoholic beverages is a devout Muslim who runs a stall next door. And Umam, the artist/lecturer, added that finding beer in Semarang is quite easy and no one makes a fuss about it, unlike in some other cities in Indonesia. Even a Semarang-native friend from my first job who has now become more religious told me that in this city a lot of people seem to have no interest in minding others’ business, for they care more about keeping the city peaceful.

On our three separate trips in 2020, James and I revisited some of the places we’d been to, including Lawang Sewu, the former office of the NIS (Nederlandsch-Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij – the Dutch East Indies Railway Company) which was one of the first railway operators in the colony. Pak Kris, the urban archaeologist, explained to us that Semarang was one of the first places outside Europe (the others were the U.S., Chile, Argentina, Australia and India) to have railways by the mid-19th century, another evidence of the city’s importance in the past. This golden era is palpable at Lawang Sewu, a handsome 113-year-old building whose many doors have given this architectural jewel its current nickname (In Javanese lawang means door and sewu means thousand). However, we were more interested in seeing its beautifully-made stained glass windows whose bright colors shone brilliantly in the morning sun.

We also went to Toko Oen – one of Semarang’s most legendary dining institutions serving Dutch-influenced dishes and different flavors of ice cream – twice, the second time coinciding with my parents’ anniversary. My not-romantic-at-all and picky-eater dad didn’t join us, so it was just the three of us including my mom, who ended up ordering huzarensla, a Dutch-style fruit and vegetable salad with a mustard and egg yolk dressing. Meanwhile, James was surprisingly delighted by ganjel rel, a dense brown cake made with palm sugar, cinnamon and sesame seeds, among other things, that is a Semarang specialty.

Throughout my multiple trips in October and December 2020, I never perceived Semarang as a boring city as I once did in the past. There was barely a dull moment, especially after meeting one interesting person after another throughout my stay. What started as me helping James as a translator/interpreter tremendously changed the way I experienced my hometown. In the upcoming posts of this series, I will share more about what we’ve learned from the people we met: about Kota Lama’s multi-year restoration project, changes in the city’s Chinatown, and the youthful spirit that seems to have finally permeated not only its old structures, but also the residents’ old-fashioned mentality, which altogether make a trip to Semarang an appealing one. To me, this is probably among the best things that has come out of the pandemic: the opportunity to reconnect in a different way with the city where I was born.

Tugu Muda (Youth Monument) sitting at the end of an avenue that runs straight from Kota Lama

De Vredestein, the former residence of Dutch governors in Semarang

Lawang Sewu, one of Semarang’s most well-known landmarks

Family photo time

Lawang Sewu from the outside and inside

A museum on the history of railways in Indonesia

Standing before a magnificent triptych of stained glass

Echoes from a glorious past

This corner must have been bustling with office workers a long time ago

The former archive room (in the past this section had double roofs as protection against the tropical rain)

The inner courtyard of Lawang Sewu with Semarang’s cathedral in the left background

Toko Oen, a culinary institution that has been in business since 1936

The vintage ambiance inside the restaurant

Bistik lidah (Dutch-Javanese beef tongue steak)

Huzarensla, my mom’s choice for her anniversary lunch

Old-school cakes and biscuits on display

While others serve a softer, more moist version of it, Toko Oen’s ganjel rel is more authentic

Kambing gongso (half-braised goat) at Mbak Tun, a popular place to try the dish just outside the city

*The FPI has now been officially disbanded by the Indonesian government, which cited its poor track record (dozens of its members were affiliated with terrorist organizations) and its stance toward the state ideology (in its deed of establishment it advocates for a caliphate) as among the main reasons for the ban.

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

57 thoughts on “A Change of Heart about Semarang”

  1. How wonderful that you got to look at your hometown with new eyes Bama! I’m always impressed by how much of colonial architecture has been preserved in Indonesian towns. The stained glass triptych from Lawang Sewu is especially lovely. I am most intrigued by the people you got to meet, however. Also heartening that locals “have no interest in minding others’ business, for they care more about keeping the city peaceful.” The world needs more cities like yours. The food seems a delicious bonus 🙂

    Happy new year to you and your parents!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Luckily now there’s a growing awareness in Indonesia about the importance of preserving heritage buildings, including those from the colonial period. And Semarang’s Kota Lama happens to be the home to arguably among the most intact old quarters in the country. I must admit, all these years I thought the locals in my hometown had a rather old way of thinking, that’s why I was so delightfully surprised to meet those people from different backgrounds who are actually very progressive.

      Happy New Year too to you and Ravi!


  2. Well, I’m glad you went back to your hometown and could enjoy it to give us this look at the city. We didn’t go to Jawa on our trip to Indonesia. Semarang looks very lovely. The colonial architecture is beautiful and the town looks very clean and a nice place to visit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Next time you’re in Indonesia, you shouldn’t miss Jawa for the world’s most densely-populated island has so much to offer. In general, the streets in Semarang are quite clean by Indonesian standards. Just don’t compare it with Singapore 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What an inspiring post Bama. I wonder if many of us are seeing locations through new eyes since the pandemic? The appreciation of a place through a different lens. So glad you found a new appreciation for your hometown. Hoping this finds you safe and well as we are here, albeit under tight restrictions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I believe so, Sue. The pandemic forced us to pay more attention to places we often overlooked in the past. However, the idea of exploring new locations far from home always excites me. But that has to wait until the pandemic is over. Hope you and Dave are safe and healthy!

      Liked by 1 person

      • We are doing well Bama. Currently we are in firm restrictions but doing our best to stay positive. There now is hope and light. Have they started vaccinations there? Here health care workers are beginning to be immunized.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Health care workers will begin receiving vaccinations in the first quarter of 2021, then followed by the elderly. Overall, the government says the entire process will take approximately 1.5 years to complete, which means probably in the second half of 2022 international travel will be possible again. I’m certainly looking forward to that day to come.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Bama! I enjoyed reading about your unexpected pandemic delight as you saw your hometown in a new way. I’m also happy for your parents– that they were able to see you (I can relate, being the mom of one child who lives away). I had a little giggle about your not romantic dad and how you and James shared a nice anniversary meal with your mom (can also relate). Perhaps I have stereotype notions of large Indonesian cities being crowded and bustling. Semarang, from your photos, looks so peaceful and orderly and green. The architecture is stunning. It is good to learn about the revitalization, restoration, conservation efforts that are taking place. I’m looking forward to reading more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Caroline! My mom actually cried out of happiness when I first went in early October because she thought we all had to wait until the pandemic is over to be able to see each other again. We took precautions, of course — for example I drove my own car for more than 400 kilometers one way instead of taking public transport.

      Semarang does have its fair share of grittiness, hustle, bustle and all those things. But when you go to some places at the right time — in the morning for instance — you’ll be rewarded with relatively peaceful streets. Speaking of the restoration of Kota Lama, to some extent it’s quite successful, but there are also aspects that have turned out to be every conservationist’s worst nightmare. More on that in the next post.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Bama, the old saying is that it’s “the people that make a city” – and it sounds like this is so true in Semarang. And I think we’re all seeing things with different eyes since 2020. What I love is that you’re open and receptive to looking beyond your previous perceptions. From your photos, it looks like the lovely architecture and tantalizing food would be be the icing on the cake! Wishing you a fabulous 2021 … and more time in Semarang. 🙂 Terri & James

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is a perfect way to describe the reason for my sudden change of heart about my hometown: because I got to know its people. I will write a separate post specifically talking about the good and the bad of Kota Lama, and another post showcasing the evolution of the city’s culinary scene, among other things. Wishing you a peaceful and fulfilling 2021, Terri and James, despite the ongoing pandemic. At least now it seems like we’re starting to see the end of the tunnel.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I hope that the city of Semarang can maintain this good change. Can integrate the concept of historical tourism, culture, city, culinary, and transportation. This thing can cover a little how hot this city is hahahaha.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We all hope so. The problem is whenever a huge amount of money is involved, problems usually arise. More on that in my next post. Speaking of the heat, I agree with you. I find Semarang much hotter than Jakarta.


  7. Mas Bama, it such a wonderful story that you can connect again with your city and see Semarang in different point of view. I miss to visit Semarang again, especially after I read this post. I also happy that you can see your parents again!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mbak Ira, all of these wouldn’t happen if 2020 was a normal year. So in hindsight, this newfound appreciation for Semarang is one of the things I’m most grateful for from last year. I hope you’ll get to revisit this city soon in the future!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. It’s always interesting to see how our perspective changes overtime, I know after living in another country for so many years and after traveling to places I never dreamed of before, going back to my hometown in San Luis Potosi, Mexico amazes me more than when I was a kid. The typical foods I used to eat as a kid are now delicacies to me. The dishes from your hometown look delicious especially nasi goreng babat and ganjel rel, some that I would definitely try!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is exactly how I feel. Had I not left the city and traveled quite extensively, probably I would have taken my hometown for granted. I appreciate my mom’s cooking more than ever now, as well as the history of Semarang which turns out to be very interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Bama, thank you for introducing me to your hometown back in 2015. For serious history buffs (and foodies!), it is truly a gem that is hidden in plain sight. And it’s so good that Toko Oen has been safeguarding the original early-20th-century recipes for cakes like ganjel rel. I’m grateful that my work served as a catalyst for us to explore Semarang in a way we’d never done before – I hope my upcoming article does justice to the place and all the wonderful, forward-thinking people we met there!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The pleasure is mine, James. I remember when I went to Toko Oen in 2010, I wasn’t too impressed by the food they served. Either they’ve improved the recipe, or my palate has changed for the better (I think it’s the latter that actually happened), when we went there in October everything was tastier than before — I especially love their rum raisin ice cream. For your article, maybe you can follow my mom’s approach to cooking: make sure everything is balanced, not too much or too little of something, and it must come “dari hati” — from your heart. Good luck!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Semarang is a tasteful city, and not too big. Lawang Sewu is like another world. I even admired the beautiful tables and chairs in Toko Oen. It is great that you have reconnected with your parents’ city as you’ll feel inclined to visit more often once these strange times improve.
    Even if you don’t write more about Semarang, why not repost some of your old blogs? That’s what I intend doing once I finish my current South Korean—Taiwan—Singapore—Brisbane to Melbourne sojourn, because I’m sure travel will be off the cards for at least most of this year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tasteful, I like that word to describe this city. I’ve been looking up some of my old posts, and I realized there were a few factual errors here and there. I’m thinking of fixing them, so when I don’t write (or don’t have anything to write about) I will at least still have something to do with this blog. Apart from that, probably I’ll dig deeper into Jakarta — there are still places in this city I have yet to explore.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. How wonderful that you could reconnect with the city you were born in such a wonderful way, and during such a trying year, Bama. It is a blessing. I also love how it was the people you’ve met that changed your heart.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I knew I would meet some really cool people, but I never expected that they would drastically change the way I see my hometown. And I’m forever grateful for that. Hope you’re doing well in the new year, Jolandi, with those olive trees and everything else.


      • It is freezing cold in Portugal at the moment, Bama. Not quite what I’m used to, but all is well, so no complaints. I love how encounters with people can change the way we see things. I hope there are many more wonderful encounters waiting for you this year.

        Liked by 1 person

    • 10 years ago, Semarang looked a lot different — most of its colonial buildings were dilapidated and the city’s development was far behind other large urban areas on Java. I’m actually quite impressed with the pace Semarang reinvents itself.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Your reconnection to your home city is not only heartwarming but inspirational! I would have to say that my relationship with my hometown is not only hanging on by a thread but almost disdainful. Perhaps there is more there than meets the eye, and perhaps that is based on the people or the history that I have largely ignored. Time (and travel possibilities) will tell if any of that can change for me! As others have noted, the food looks yummy, and I also loved the story of you and James have your parents’ anniversary dinner with just your mom! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It took me so many years to reach this point, and ironically it happened because of the pandemic. Maybe what you need to try the next time you visit your hometown is talking to the people — the right people, to be precise. Finding them can be easier said than done, though, but I’m sure it’s possible. My mom always asks my dad why he never gives her flowers or gifts on her birthday. His response? He always laughs. That’s it. And they’ve been married for 40 years now.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Every time I read your posts I’m inspired anew to taste more Indonesian food. My list of dishes grows after this one. Isn’t it funny how sometimes it takes a totally different perspective to make an old familiar place feel brand new? I love your photos of the archival room roof top interior – fascinating architecture. Happy to hear you enjoyed your time in Semarang with loved ones. Wishing you a most wonderful 2021.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes we have to travel far from home and do it often before our appreciation for that very place we call home starts to grow. Indonesian food is as diverse as the country itself, and even I myself am constantly fascinated by new dishes that I try. When I was in Semarang, I saw on someone’s Instagram a Balinese recipe I had never heard of. Then a few days later when I went to a newly-opened restaurant in the city I found that dish on the menu and decided to give it a try. It was so good! Wishing you a better and happier year ahead!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. The relationship you described with the town of your childhood resonated with me, and probably with many around the world. You are lucky that you discovered the life and culture in that town. I count myself lucky in the same way, but I know several of my friends from school have missed out on this experience. It is also something that I miss when I travel. Watching monuments, landscape, and museum all day can be a little bit of an empty experience. As a tourist when you talk to people you are always happy about the human connection, but it seldom is a deep conversation. Sometimes you wish you could spend time finding out more about a place.

    That case full of cakes, and the jars on top, seemed totally familiar, although I’ve never been to your country.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can relate with every single thing you said. As an introverted person myself, I tend to avoid talking to too many people when I travel, and focus more on sight-seeing and visiting museums, among other things. However, one thing I really enjoy that involves other human beings is people-watching — there’s something interesting about seeing how locals live their lives and do mundane things. Having said that, I do realize that when you meet the right people, your travel experience can be exponentially better than if it’s just limited to visiting places. The former was exactly what happened to me on my multiple trips to Semarang a few months ago.

      Maybe you’ve seen something similar with those things in your country, things that are also vestiges of the Dutch people in India. Just maybe.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, indeed. Part of the fun is to meet ordinary people, not just the ones whose jobs involve tourists.

        Not the Dutch; they haven’t left much of a footprint here.

        Liked by 1 person

  15. An inspirational post, Bama! You just made me google Semarang 🙂 Those buildings are spectacular, especially the Lawang Sewu. I’m glad they are kept in very good shape.
    After reading your post, I think I should spend more time to explore my hometown. I always want to do it, but was blocked by the thought “it’s nearby, so I can do whenever I want”. I guess I should make it a resolution for this year 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    • Luckily Semarang has some of the most beautiful Dutch buildings in Indonesia, because in general what they cared more when they constructed important structures in the then-Dutch East Indies was functionality. The French are known to have left more ornate colonial edifices, though. I think it wouldn’t hurt for you to explore more of your hometown because international travel seems to be still largely out of option this year. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  16. How lovely to be able to rediscover your city of Birth like this. I too have been wanting to revisit the city I was born, but have to take out tonnes of time. I love these restoration projects and it feels Semarang is such a vibrant city of ideas, culture and peace. Should I ever get a chance to visit Indonesia, I would love to be here…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Semarang has come a long way since the day my parents moved back to this city more than ten years ago, and I love seeing how it keeps transforming itself. Just yesterday I learned about another project in the city that has been finished. It looks like a unique retail space which may offer a different experience from the usual malls, and it’s only one of many things I’m eager to check out when I return to my hometown.


    • Iya, dan itu semua masih asli. Padahal dulu pertempuran lima hari di Semarang lokasinya ya di sekitar Lawang Sewu ini. Untungnya gak ada peluru nyasar nembus kaca patrinya.

      Liked by 2 people

  17. Wow, such an interesting post. You had me at your “mom’s delicious Indonesian dishes” – ha! I don’t blame James for wanting to return. But I enjoyed your new perspective on a place that you thought you had become too familiar with, and how meeting new and fascinating people was what made the difference. What beautifully restored buildings, and the food pictures at the end – yeah. Gotta go get a snack now!
    Thanks for the great post, Bama!
    – Susan

    Liked by 1 person

    • She really is a great cook, and I’m saying this not just because I’m her son. 🙂 My dream is to introduce her cooking to a broader audience beyond our family, relatives and friends. One day, hopefully! The people indeed made the difference — I feel so lucky to be able to meet them and to learn so much from them. Thanks Susan!

      Liked by 1 person

  18. I’m late to this. Sometimes I don’t want to rush through your blogs because they are like magazine pieces. I’m glad this trip went well for you and you got to meet your parents and a lot of interesting people. A 400km drive is not trivial. I don’t know how you found new people to meet that made your visit more interesting and memorable. I can only imagine that you have an extensive network.

    p.s. perhaps you can help your mom set up a blog featuring her cooking.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I was a kid, there was one time when I dreamed of having my own magazine. So what you said not only is very kind, but it also reminds me of that period of time. I wouldn’t say I have an extensive network, but I think I just happen to know a few people who know important figures. That’s how I usually get connected to them.

      A blog dedicated to my mom’s cooking sounds like a brilliant idea! Thanks for the suggestion, Matt.

      Liked by 1 person

    • So true, even for those who don’t really have any emotional connection with Semarang — although they usually complain about how hot the city is.


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