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.
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.
*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.