Part 2 of 4
Only time will tell.
This cliché has been proven over and over again. We’ll never know what the future has in store, and despite our best efforts to anticipate what lies ahead, in the end we have to let time do its magic. And many events around the world are a testament to this.
Going back to the 18th century, at a time when Singapore was beginning to position itself as one of Southeast Asia’s most important trading ports, which attracted many Chinese migrants to resettle on the island, and when Hong Kong – in the wake of Imperial China’s defeat to the British in the Opium Wars – was starting to see a surge in its once diminutive economy, Semarang on the northern coast of Java was also on the cusp of change. Around this time in history, the Dutch and the British who were the most dominant players in Asian trade – especially that of spices – had already fought multiple battles against each other to secure their own economic interests. And because of this, Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger brother who was also the King of Holland, commissioned the Great Post Route (De Grote Postweg in Dutch) in Java to aid the Dutch defense of the island against the constant threat of invasion posed by the British.
Semarang, which was strategically located in the middle of the newly-built road that stretched from west to east across the island, immensely benefitted from its construction. The port city’s economy grew and soon enough it became a major trade center in Java. This prompted the Dutch colonial administration to give concessions to private businesses to establish railway companies, connecting Semarang with other port cities along Java’s north coast as well as to the island’s hinterland, making transporting crops from plantations to ports much faster and easier. These thriving trade activities led to a construction boom in Semarang’s central business district. An 18th-century Protestant church – now better known as the Blenduk Church – which sat right at the heart of this area underwent a major renovation that gave it its current iconic look. Grand office buildings sprang up on the east bank of the Semarang River (which in the past was navigable by small boats) as well as along the busy streets within this commercial quarter.
The city seemed to be doing quite well for decades despite some challenges it faced: the port could have been better managed and it would give the economy a further boost had the existing railways owned by different companies been linked and integrated.
Then came World War II that ended in 1945. A few days after Japan’s surrender to the Allies, the nationalists in the former Dutch East Indies declared the independence of Indonesia, not only from the Japanese who controlled this archipelago since 1942, but also from the Dutch who had been reaping huge economic benefits from this vast colony for centuries. Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president who was staunchly nationalist, then shunned almost everything that was a reminder of colonial times. His attitude inevitably had an impact on many buildings constructed by the Dutch, leading to the neglect of some and the abandonment of others. This condition was exacerbated by Suharto, the country’s second president and an authoritarian military figure who ruled the nation for 32 years. Contrary to his predecessor whose ideological idealism seemed to be of utmost importance in the way the nascent republic was run, Suharto was more focused on the economy – stabilizing it and laying out the path toward future growth – and on enriching himself, his children and his cronies. This money-first approach led to the demolition of many historic buildings in the name of development. Modern offices, hotels and malls are often constructed right on top of their foundations.
Those that survived, including the ones in Semarang’s Kota Lama – the former commercial center of the city during the Dutch colonial administration – were often left to slowly decay although many of them were still being used as office buildings. At night time, however, when salarymen had returned home, something else came and filled the dark corners of the streets: crime. Many people recall a period of time when Kota Lama was a place to avoid after sunset. My mother who was born and raised in the city told me that in the past there were a lot of gali, Javanese for thugs, in and around this part of Semarang. To make matters worse, due to the combination of land subsidence, rising sea levels and Kota Lama’s proximity to the coastline, this area frequently suffered from coastal flooding. So much for what was once a thriving business and trade hub of the then-important port.
After moving around Indonesia for more than 20 years due to the nature of his work, in the late 2000s my father eventually returned to Semarang, the city where he went to university and met his future wife – my mother. Coincidentally, for a few months from late 2007 to early 2008, I was taking a break after running an unsuccessful food business and before entering the job market. In this slow period of my life, I took the time to know more about the city where I was born but had never really lived. With an old 2 megapixel pocket camera in hand, I visited Kota Lama for the first time – early in the morning, of course. I remember parking near Marba Building, a 19th-century two-story structure that is easily distinguishable by its red-brick façade, and wandering around the old town district’s quiet streets and alleys. Many buildings were empty; it was clear that they hadn’t been occupied for years, probably even decades. The people I met were mostly local residents who stayed in this area despite its crumbling state. If only I still had the photos I took from this visit.
Little did I know that it was also around this time when the idea to restore Kota Lama to its former glory was conceived.
Many people give Kota Lama the moniker the Little Netherlands for its purportedly Dutch layout and appearance. Upon closer inspection, however, some buildings in this area bear architectural features that were specifically designed to suit the tropical climate so that those people from the Low Countries could live a relatively comfortable life in their constantly hot and humid colony. Due to Kota Lama’s architectural heritage and the state of some of the structures within the old town proper that were still largely intact, architects, scholars and historians began voicing out the importance of restoring this rundown part of Semarang. Some even spread the news far beyond Indonesia by showing images and footage of Kota Lama when it was still under Dutch rule and how it looks now. This piqued the interest of some experts, notably from the Netherlands, who then flew thousands of kilometers to Semarang to see what remained of the city’s old town. Then they surveyed the old buildings, bridges and other infrastructure built by the Dutch and pointed out features regular people wouldn’t notice but are actually pivotal in pinpointing different transitional periods of architectural styles in the Dutch East Indies.
These “discoveries” contributed to the increasing aspiration to showcase Kota Lama’s historical significance to a broader audience, which in the end pushed not only the city government of Semarang, but also the national government in Jakarta to submit an application to UNESCO to enlist the old town district as a World Heritage Site. The success of neighboring Malaysia with Malacca and George Town which made it to the coveted list in 2008 was another rationale for the move.
As politicians and government bureaucrats were busy preparing for the submission, new businesses kept coming in to this area which not long ago attracted almost no one. Ikan Bakar Cianjur, a restaurant chain that started its business in 1989 in the West Javan city of Cianjur, was among the first to venture into once crime-laden Kota Lama. Occupying a handsomely-restored 18th-century landraad (the court for Europeans) building which is now among the oldest surviving structures in Kota Lama, the restaurant provides a glimpse of European grandeur the Dutch brought upon their subjects.
Then there’s Spiegel, probably the most iconic of all projects that have transformed Kota Lama in the past decade. Originally established by Viennese businessman Herman Spiegel with two other partners in the late 19th century as a shop that sold a wide variety of goods from clothing to home decorations, the building eventually became a warehouse over the course of a century. By the time of my first visit, it practically looked deserted from the outside, and most people wouldn’t even think of peeking inside. However, in 2012 a young entrepreneur from Jakarta who has roots in Semarang purchased the building and in three years’ time she breathed new life into this two-story edifice and turned it into a modern, cozy restaurant that serves good food with an equally pleasant music playlist.
Seeing how Kota Lama gradually transformed itself into a place that is actually interesting to visit, thanks to the vision and passion of those who really care about preserving heritage buildings, others began to vie for their own piece of cake out of the burgeoning business opportunities in this part of Semarang. In other words, after the right people came, so too did the greedy ones.
If one visits Kota Lama today, there is only a little hint left of its gloomier past, especially on its main thoroughfare. Lampposts now line both sides of the street and provide illumination when night falls, so much so that there are probably more street lights than people at any given time. If you ask the people of Semarang what they think of Kota Lama these days, many will probably say they like how the city’s old town district now looks. But if you ask the same question to those in the know – architects, historians, heritage building conservationists and scholars – they will most likely be horrified by the changes, especially in the last few years when the city government began showing their keen interest in Kota Lama.
On the one hand the city government had been heavily promoting Kota Lama as a candidate for the World Heritage Site by 2020, but on the other hand many things they’ve been doing are against heritage building conservation principles. Those Parisian-style lamps, for example, were never a part of the original Dutch design of the old town, and then there are now Victorian-looking water fountains installed in some parts of the area (it would have made more sense if Indonesia was colonized by the British). Among the worst decisions the city government have made is approving the demolition of several buildings that were once part of a Dutch-era printing company to make space for a car park.
“It’s as if they went to Paris with the intention of going to UNESCO’s office to learn from them, but ended up seeing Euro Disney instead and took inspiration for Kota Lama from it,” a frustrated lecturer told me and James.
The conversation happened on a sunny day inside a well-restored building on Jalan Kepodang, a narrow street in Kota Lama with a different ambiance and character compared to the often crowded main road of the old town. On a map I received from Shita, the current owner of Spiegel, which shows the different designations within Kota Lama, apparently Jalan Kepodang acts as the southern boundary of the so-called Culture Zone. Along the northern side of the street, she’s working on another, more difficult project to restore an old building that is in a much worse state compared to Spiegel when she bought it. Just a few meters away, work has just begun to restore another derelict, albeit smaller, structure. Interestingly, the restoration of this rather ornate building is handled by a famous Indonesian architect better known for his clean and minimalist approach. I can’t wait to come again when all these exciting projects have been completed.
According to the same map, the eastern part of Kota Lama is the Modern Economy, Education and Services Zone. Curiously, Jalan Cendrawasih which makes up the western boundary of this zone is filled with cafés, restaurants and pubs that scream “fun” louder than “education”. And the addition of a new clubbing place on this street doesn’t really help the designation either. However, this will make more sense if we look at what lies right behind all those entertainment venues: a convent with the oldest Catholic church in Semarang, a Franciscan nunnery with a chapel, a Catholic school, and a catechetical and pastoral school. Imagine on one side people are jumping to fast-paced music and singing out loud, living their best night ever. Meanwhile, those on the other side are solemnly thinking of the divine, finding their inner peace, and also living their best night, albeit in a different manner.
On the other side of Kota Lama, behind the towering dome of the Blenduk Church and rows of unassuming buildings, is a small open-air space called Taman Garuda. It’s another quieter part of Kota Lama which I think, if done right, has great potential to be a very cool and inspiring place. At the end of Jalan Garuda is a fine building that was once the office of the Liverpool and London Globe Insurance Company as well as the site of the British consulate in Semarang. Directly across from it is another interesting building that is now closed off to the public. If some visionary entrepreneurs open an independent book shop, or a local comic store, or an art space which doubles as a venue for discussion where experts and the general public alike meet and mingle, it will be a great addition to Kota Lama’s cultural value as well as an homage to Semarang’s past as a rather progressive city. If a good bakery or a local produce store occupies one of those unused buildings, it will bring even more color to this area and make it more lively. Today, however, the kind of business most people are pursuing in Kota Lama is a coffee shop. A relatively small area can only have so many such places, though, and a variety of retail offerings will certainly be appreciated.
Those, of course, can only happen if the direction is clear: either to restore Kota Lama thoughtfully and bring it back to its heyday, or to reinvent it as a theme park and measure its success through the number of people using it as a backdrop for their selfies. A senior businesswoman we met said it’s currently a waiting game. Will those in power with a lot of money but no vision win, or will those who want to do things right and set an example for future generations prevail?
Only time will tell.