Kota Lama. That charming part of my hometown Semarang seems to know how to keep me visiting whenever I’m in town. Despite the haphazard “revitalization” done by the city government (although they will be quick to point the finger at the central government in Jakarta), this former economic center of Dutch-era Semarang always has something new to check out. Prior to my most recent trip to see my mother in late May, I looked for the latest information on Kota Lama, knowing that one way or another I would visit this part of the city again. And that was when I came across the Instagram account of Soesmans Kantoor, one of the old quarter’s graceful colonial buildings that has been recently restored. What really caught my attention was not its history or architecture (although they surely are reason enough to see this place), but rather how unapologetically pro-Taiwan some of the posts were. This was definitely worth checking out.
Around noon on a sunny Sunday, after taking my mom to have lunch at a Japanese barbecue restaurant she really loves, we went to Kota Lama before heading home. James and I had walked past Soesmans Kantoor several times before, but this would be our first time inside, thanks to the recently opened teahouse at the front of the building and a restaurant at its rear. The two-story late 19th-century edifice itself started out as the office of Soesman’s Emigratie, Vendue en Commissie, a company known as a supplier of laborers for plantations and mining operations in Dutch-controlled Java and Sumatra. However, those days have long gone. After being fully restored, Soesmans Kantoor is more often used for cultural events, including as the filming location of a period movie telling the story of the composer of Indonesia’s national anthem, as well as the main venue of a literary festival that is known not only for bringing discounted books – from fiction, popular science, religion to philosophy – to a broader audience, but also for utilizing old buildings as its venue. Unfortunately, the pandemic brought this nascent event to a sudden halt.
However, the recent openings of Taiwan-themed businesses in Soesmans Kantoor have once again allowed the public to access this building. First, there is Chun Fun How, a bubble tea chain originating from Taichung, Taiwan that only recently began expanding to other countries. In 2020, they opened their first outlets in Singapore and Vancouver, and in early 2021, they arrived in Semarang which is an interesting decision since it is highly unusual for foreign brands to enter the Indonesian market not through Jakarta or Bali. The door of the teahouse’s branch in Semarang has two stickers that say “Made in Taiwan” and “I come from Taiwan”, a recurring theme visitors will find hard to miss when they visit Soesmans Kantoor these days.
Connecting the teahouse with the restaurant at the back of the building is a space that seems to not quite have found its purpose. A friendly staff member told us that the current owner of Soesmans Kantoor was planning to turn it into an exhibition gallery for wooden furniture, but for now it’s only used on Friday nights for dance classes. Meanwhile, 4U Space, the restaurant at the back of the edifice, is a contrast to the dark central space of the compound. Parts of its roof are transparent, which allows natural light to enter the airy dining hall. On one side, a stage is set for performers to entertain patrons on certain days of the week. Directly above it, a banner that says “UN Global Goals. Taiwan Can Help” acts as a subtle reminder of Taiwan’s increasing isolation on the world stage as China’s clout gets bigger and its pressure on other countries and international organizations to alienate the self-governing island grows stronger. Across the stage, right above the kitchen, is a raised platform for extra seats and tables. This part of the restaurant was not yet ready to welcome visitors, but a mural depicting five happy-looking bears munching on snacks with the backdrop of Taipei landmarks and Taiwan’s flag stole my attention.
There’s another business at Soesmans Kantoor that I found out from its Instagram account but didn’t see when I was there. Asking the same person, I learned that YES Bahasa Budaya, an education consultant that promotes Taiwan’s more traditional version of Mandarin and helps Indonesians to study in Taiwan, apparently still conducts all of its sessions online due to the pandemic. Maybe when its physical classes reopen, Soesmans Kantoor will be more lively than how it was during our visit.
Soesmans Kantoor is tucked amid Kota Lama’s less popularly visited area, even though it’s just a few minutes’ walk from Blenduk Church, the former Dutch quarter’s focal point. And this is where I draw similarities with the situation of Taiwan itself, a republic that is run just like other countries but is currently only recognized by 15 sovereign states – down from 23 since my trip to the island back in 2013. Yet, despite this isolation, the Taiwanese – and their unexpected representation in Kota Lama – try to show the world that they do exist and can contribute even more to global society if the avenues for them to do so had not been blocked. For the food and beverage businesses in Soesmans Kantoor, however, that means they have to provide locals and visitors alike with excellent meals and drinks that will give them a reason to return, and probably pique their interest in Taiwan itself.