Part 3 of 4
Jalan Pandanaran is a busy four-lane street in downtown Semarang, a city of 1.6 million people that is also the capital of Indonesia’s Central Java province. Its prime location connecting the city’s main square with a major roundabout to the west has attracted all sorts of businesses, from banks and media companies to government offices, hotels, restaurants and traditional snacks shops. If you drive its length, however, a bronze animal statue at its south side will likely steal your attention.
At a first glance, you might wonder what kind of creature that is. Is it a dragon? or a camel? or maybe a goat? In fact, it’s actually a combination of the three, a mythical beast called Warak Ngendhog that is believed to have originated in Semarang. In 1881, the local regent initiated a tradition to mark the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. He would go to the city’s main mosque to hit the bedug (a large double-headed drum usually found in traditional mosques in Indonesia) which created the sound “dug”, then followed by the lighting of gunpowder nearby with a “der”, or bang. And Dugderan was born, an annual tradition still carried out in the city to this day. Apart from the cacophony, a night market has also been held since the inception of this festival, where vendors have always sold miniature Warak Ngendhog.
No one knows for sure who invented the creature, but everyone agrees that it’s a product of acculturation among Semarang’s ethnically diverse populace. Although variations exist – some say the head is of a Chinese dragon, the body of an Arabian camel, and the feet of a Javanese goat – one thing is always certain: Warak Ngendhog is influenced by the city’s Javanese, Chinese and Middle Eastern/South Asian cultures. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since Semarang has always been one of the most important ports on Java, even long before the Dutch arrived and began colonizing the island. The city attracted Muslim merchants from across the Indian Ocean who not only traded with but also introduced Islam to the locals, as well as Chinese workers and businessmen – among them were the father of Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.
However, if we talk about the history of Semarang’s Chinatown, we should also look at what happened in Batavia (present-day Jakarta) in the 18th century where a harrowing event unfolded and left a long-lasting impact on Chinese communities across Java.
When the Dutch began their domination on trade routes in the East Indies, they hired many Chinese immigrants to work on construction projects in Batavia – the center of Dutch trading activities in the region – as well as on sugar plantations on Java, among other things. In a relatively short period of time, the port city’s Chinese community grew to a considerable number, and many of them became visibly wealthy. At this point, strict regulations imposed by the Dutch on the ethnic Chinese were already in place with the threat of deportation for those who didn’t comply. However, a malaria outbreak in 1730s further tightened these rules, partially fueled by an increasing suspicion and distrust from the Dutch toward the community. Resentment also grew among the indigenous population partially due to the conspicuously widening wealth gap between local people and immigrants, despite the fact that there were also a lot of poor people in Batavia’s Chinese community.
Rumors spread among the minority group that some people from their community deported by the Dutch were thrown overboard in the middle of the sea, and some died in riots that broke out on ships. Exacerbated by the falling price of sugar in the world market, which badly hit the sugar industry in the Dutch East Indies, discontentment began to boil among poor ethnic Chinese people who felt the brunt of the economic downturn. Adriaan Valckenier, the governor of the VOC (Dutch East Indies Company) at that time, then gave orders to respond to any uprisings from the Chinese community with deadly force. On October 9, 1740 all hell broke loose. Ethnic Chinese were targeted by the VOC soldiers and some locals in a widespread massacre that only ended one and a half months later. It is estimated that in the aftermath of the pogrom, more than 10,000 ethnic Chinese lost their lives, and many who survived decided to flee to the east including to Semarang. In Batavia itself, new regulations were imposed by the Dutch which required all ethnic Chinese population of the city to resettle in a designated area just outside the now-demolished city walls to make it easier for the Dutch to control them. And that was how Jakarta’s Chinatown was born.
On top of what happened in Batavia, Semarang’s Chinatown was conceived from another event closer to the heart of the Sultanate of Mataram, a Javanese-Islamic monarchy which dominated much of what is now Central Java, Yogyakarta and part of East Java provinces from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Internal strife among princes of Mataram as well as separatism in some of its territories brought in the Dutch who saw these crises as a chance to divide the sultanate and conquer it. Amangkurat V, Mataram’s ruler who was waging a campaign against the Dutch and other princes who were allied to the European power, received support from the ethnic Chinese community whose memories of the Batavia massacre in 1740 then followed by another one in Semarang a year later (also in other cities in the subsequent years) were still fresh. However, the VOC ended up on the victorious side, and the same regulations applied to the ethnic Chinese community in Batavia were also imposed in Semarang, a port city that once belonged to Mataram but was then ceded to the Dutch as part of Amangkurat II’s debt payment more than six decades earlier.
In spite of some limitations the ethnic Chinese had to live with from that moment on, they were (and still are) known as resilient people who will thrive even under the most challenging circumstances. Within the confines of the designated Chinatown (Pecinan in Indonesian) area directly south of the long-gone walls of the Dutch commercial district (present-day Kota Lama), businesses flourished. And in the centuries that followed, Semarang’s ethnic Chinese community grew into prominence and contributed a lot to the city, from enriching its cultural identity to introducing new ingredients and dishes that have now become an integral part of its culinary scene.
Apart from being the birthplace of Lee Chin Koon (Lee Kuan Yew’s father), Semarang was also where Oei Tiong Ham was born. Many of us may not know his name today, but in the early 20th century, he was considered the richest man in Southeast Asia, with a business empire comprising sugar plantations, a bank, a steamship operator and a trading company, among other ventures. His conglomerate even had overseas offices in Amsterdam, London and New York. But even for regular Chinatown residents, life was good and things in general worked quite well, until the rise of Suharto – Indonesia’s second president – in 1966 who would lead a US-backed authoritarian regime to rule the country for 32 years. Among his most controversial policies was the prohibition of anything Chinese, from celebrating the Chinese New Year to having Chinese names, as a part of a nationwide Communist purge following a failed coup by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) – he created narratives to equate the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia with the citizens of the People’s Republic of China.
Since then, many members of the minority group kept a low profile, trying to live their lives without attracting too much unwanted attention upon themselves. In 1980, however, Semarang’s ethnic Chinese residents faced another dark chapter of the community’s history in the city. What started as a minor skirmish involving a few Javanese and ethnic Chinese people in the city of Solo escalated into racial riots in other cities in Central Java with the worst of it happening in Semarang, the provincial capital. For several days in November that year, houses and businesses owned by Chinese-Indonesians were targeted by rioters who destroyed, looted and burned those properties. When calm was finally restored, the damage had been done and the wounds had been inflicted, both in physical and mental terms.
Residents of Semarang’s Chinatown began to grow increasingly confined to their houses. What was once a lively neighborhood turned into an area filled with people who sought refuge in their own dwellings, their own fortresses of solitude. Interactions diminished greatly as suspicion became a tool of survival. And to some extent this was the norm until 2000 when Abdurrahman Wahid – Indonesia’s fourth president who led a country severely crippled by the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis that also put an end to Suharto’s rule – revoked the prohibitions directed at the ethnic Chinese minority that had been imposed for more than three decades. In the wake of this, a number of people began implementing gradual efforts to bring the city’s Chinatown back to its former glory. James and I spoke to an architect who initiated this project. She told us how in the beginning it was very hard to talk to the locals about revitalizing Chinatown, and how she had to go door to door to talk to some of the residents and convince them to take part in it. Slowly she started gaining their trust, and a few years later a night market known as Pasar Semawis was inaugurated where residents of Chinatown as well as those from within and outside Semarang can try some Chinese or Chinese fusion (Peranakan) dishes and snacks that might otherwise be quite difficult to find outside this area. I remember around ten or eleven years ago some of my coworkers in Jakarta asked me about it and said how curious they were to go and see the market for themselves.
Today, Semarang’s Chinatown is an area with narrow streets, numerous active Chinese temples and restaurants with Chinese names selling Chinese and Chinese fusion food. I don’t know how much of this was only made possible once the restrictions were lifted in 2000, but life here seems pretty much normal to my visitor’s eyes. Meanwhile, Kota Lama is still undergoing a major transformation that has made it a more appealing place to hang out with one’s family and friends. Nestled between the two, however, is an area that is often overlooked despite its equally interesting history. Known as Pekojan, this was the center of the city’s South Asian Muslim community who came to Semarang mainly to trade. Named after an area called Koja/Khoja in present-day Gujarat, India, it also grew into an important economic center of Semarang which complemented Chinatown and the Dutch quarter. Unfortunately, most of the original houses of the South Asian residents have long gone as many of them were sold to cater to the expanding Chinatown. Among the few remnants of the original Pekojan is a mosque that was built by the Muslim traders in 1878. Despite the multiple expansions it has undergone in the past, one tradition remains unchanged from the time of the original Gujarati settlers: serving a dish called bubur India (Indian porridge) during Ramadan. I have yet to try this, but from what I read this dish is made with a combination of South and Southeast Asian ingredients, including cinnamon, galangal and lemongrass.
A bit further from Chinatown and to the west of Kota Lama is a neighborhood called Kampung Melayu, literally Malay village. Its location right at the western bank of the Semarang River and close to the city’s old port made this area favorable not only to Malay traders, but also those coming from Pakistan, India and even Yemen to settle here. A lighthouse* was built here to guide incoming ships to Semarang. But when the Dutch colonial administration moved the port further west and constructed another lighthouse in the new location, the old tower was then turned into a minaret of a mosque that was built nearby to cater to the area’s large Muslim population. Upon its completion, the early 19th-century mosque had two floors. But due to land subsidence and saltwater intrusion that became more and more severe each passing year, its lower floor was rendered unusable and was eventually filled with earth in 2000. Only the upper parts of its windows are still visible today, and by the 1990s many of Kampung Melayu’s residents had moved somewhere else.
However, last year the mayor of Semarang published a video rendering of a revitalized Kampung Melayu with new riverside promenades, lots of trees, and some parks to complement Kota Lama’s rejuvenation. If you see how the former Malay village looks today and compare it to how the mayor envisions it to be in the future, it takes a little more than just imagination to picture how this seemingly difficult project is going to be carried out. I’d be pleasantly surprised if the result elevates Kampung Melayu’s character instead of taking it away, and I do hope the government learns from some of the mistakes they made when restoring Kota Lama. It would hugely benefit the city if Kota Lama, Chinatown, Pekojan and Kampung Melayu are all sensibly restored and revitalized so the residents can not only be proud of their heritage, but also of the interconnectedness among the city’s different communities. By then the people of Semarang can attest to Warak Ngendhog’s truest meaning as a representation of the city itself.
*Or more precisely a watchtower for the harbormaster