A Slice of Taiwan in Semarang

31 comments
Asia, Indonesia, Southeast

Soesmans Kantoor, a late 19th-century former office in Kota Lama

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.

Looking up to the upper balcony

Refreshments inside

Proudly Taiwanese

Chun Fun How, a teahouse chain from Taichung, Taiwan

It is famous for its floral designs…

…and colorful cups

Soesmans Kantoor’s central hall

4U Space at the back of the building

A reminder of what Taiwan can contribute to the world

Happy bears

A map of Semarang’s places of interest at Soesmans Kantoor

The rear façade

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

31 thoughts on “A Slice of Taiwan in Semarang”

    • That is true. While international travel is still largely very limited, at least for the time being we can add more places in our ever-expanding wishlists.

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    • The pleasure is mine, Phil and Michaela. I hope you’ll get to visit this part of the world one day in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I didn’t realize so few countries acknowledged Taiwan. That is a deep concern for a country that has wanted to be independent from China since the revered Chiang Kai Shek ruled the island.

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    • Most countries shifted their diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in the early 1970s, following a vote in the UN that saw the People’s Republic of China taking over Taiwan’s seat as “the only legitimate representative of China”. Now those who still maintain official diplomatic relations with the latter are mostly smaller countries in the Pacific, Central America and the Caribbean.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I have never heard of little Taiwan anywhere either. That would be cool though, especially these days when more and more people in the country see themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese.

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  2. It was fascinating to see this little cultural outpost for Taiwan in the heart of Kota Lama; hopefully it will continue to evolve by offering classic Taiwanese dishes and street foods, while showcasing the country’s rich indigenous heritage that ties it to so much of Southeast Asia.

    I have a great deal of sympathy for the Taiwanese – it can’t be easy to be in the world and have one’s existence as a functioning, well-oiled, and democratic country categorically denied at every turn. And then to have a belligerent monster on the doorstep threatening to invade at any moment. Other democratic nations seriously need to rethink this flawed “One China” policy and throw more weight behind Taiwan given its progressive outlook and way of life.

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    • If that is the direction Soesmans Kantoor is heading, I’ll be very ecstatic. I believe many Indonesians are still not aware of the shared roots between the indigenous cultures in Taiwan and those found on many islands at home.

      If anything, I think Taiwan’s ordeal only makes its people more resilient, creative and determined to show the world that the island nation has its own values, starkly different from those practiced across the strait, that are shared with other democracies where human rights are respected.

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    • Thanks for sharing that article, Jolandi. If only that proposal for dual recognition went on, South Africa would have set precedent for other countries to do the same. However, today Taiwan must be content with running trade offices across the globe which in many ways act as their de facto embassies. China has been indeed acting like a bully, including to those that have no territorial dispute with it, like Indonesia.

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      • Indeed, Bama, but I guess South Africa also just sold its soul to China in the end. I didn’t realise there is a territorial dispute between China and Indonesia. That cannot be a pleasant situation to be in.

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    • This building has a lot of potential to be a very exciting place. I hope the owner knows what to do with it, during and after the pandemic, so that at least the locals will want to visit it often. Some things in Taipei reminded James of Japan, and I finally understood why after visiting Japan myself. I wonder if you will think the same when you visit this country.

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  3. Thanks Bama for this very interesting post! It must be quite stressful to be a Taiwanese national and observe the PRC juggernaut closing in. Seeing how Hong Kong is being absorbed/reshaped to Beijing’s liking, it must not be reassuring to note the rest of the worlds inaction as the integrity of Hong Kong disappears. So it is with interest that I read this post of yours because while you pose the question of what Taiwan can offer the world, frankly my current answer is, I don’t know… So yes, Taiwan has a very significant PR challenge ahead if it wishes to build a global support system that may help it navigate the inevitable Chinese onslaught. Thank you for raising the subject with this visit. As always I enjoy the architectural information and history as well. Now about that Japanese BBQ……!!!

    Ben

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    • I really think Taiwan should pivot its economy away from its increasing dependency on the mainland, especially because of the hostility shown by the latter across the strait. Taiwan is a global hub for semiconductor manufacturing, but most people don’t think of this despite the fact that a lot of the electronic goods we own might have Taiwanese components in them. Clearly they need to boost their PR campaigns like what the South Koreans have successfully done. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ben.

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  4. It is certainly a coup for Semarang to get the Chun Fun How bubble tea brand before Jakarta and Bali. I assume it’s because of its emerging status as a trendy destination and the recent revitalization of Kota Lama. It’s interesting to read about this Taiwanese presence in your hometown. This post and your previous ones have really piqued my interest in a return to Indonesia and putting Semarang on the itinerary.

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    • That was something I totally didn’t expect. Whether that brand will be successful in the Indonesian market or not is something that is yet to be seen, but then again we’re in the middle of a second wave of the pandemic which hits retail businesses especially hard. I hope when you return to Indonesia one day you’ll have enough time to visit Semarang, Caroline.

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  5. Lovely to see another part of your hometown Bama. I’m certain your Mom enjoyed the time with you. Says this Mom with a son of similar age. 🙂

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    • She always enjoys it when I come and visit her, because she knows I’ll take her to try new dishes that are foreign to her. People tend to think I’m younger than my actual age, though. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I was planning to go to Semarang in May 2020 when I also planned to visit Indonesia, but alas everything was cancelled. Hoping to see Semarang next time I’m traveling to visit my parents.

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    • It’s better if you steer clear of Indonesia these days, especially since we’re having a really bad second wave of the pandemic. I hope your parents and your family here are healthy and safe.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I love seeing these little details of your place. There’s so many layers when you get into the nuances of what goes on behind the facades and you present them in intriguing ways. As you said to me…in the Anthropocene so much of life seems to be taken up by exercising power over one another through exclusion policies.

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    • The pattern of bigger powers bullying smaller ones keeps repeating itself throughout the history. That is why when I found out about the Taiwan-linked businesses in Soesmans Kantoor I was immediately intrigued, because it’s kind of refreshing especially since nowadays so many things are made in its much larger neighbor across the strait.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I have a soft spot for Taiwan based on a very short visit, other friends’ and family’s time there, and its position as underdog to its big neighbor (to put it nicely). How very interesting to read of its presence in your town, a fact that both surprised and didn’t totally surprise me when I thought about it. It’s also great for you to be able to get another cultural experience close to home!

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    • So do I, Lex. When I started reading English-language magazines more than 20 years ago, I remember seeing this advertorial on Taiwan’s transformation to become a democratic society. And since then I have always been interested in following the development of this island nation. We’re currently in another lockdown here in Java. I can only hope that small businesses like the ones at Soesmans Kantoor can survive this crisis.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh – this is interesting, I’m glad to see more Taiwanese businesses looking elsewhere and not just looking at the big cities. I wonder how the owner decided to pick this location instead of a Jakarta.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I think he himself is based in Semarang. And why is that so? I hope one day I’ll get to meet him so I can ask him this question. Seeing Taiwanese businesses growing in secondary cities really is encouraging. But for now I really hope those mentioned in this post can weather the second wave of the pandemic Indonesia is currently facing.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. gemes amaaat gambar2 di chun fun how! Kota Lama Semarang emang selalu sih menyenangkan (terutama setelah dipugar). dan, gue senang lihat bangunan tua yang masih difungsikan dgn baik, bisa dilihat/dimasuki banyak orang.
    soal ketaiwanannya, mungkin semua vendor yg ada di gedung itu memang di bawah naungan satu grup ya.. jadi sekalian gitu nyewa segedung 😀

    Liked by 3 people

    • Beberapa minggu yang lalu mereka lagi buka sayembara buat desain cup yang Semarang, Vira. Entah deh udah ada pemenangnya atau belum. Kota Lama sekarang emang beda banget sih dibanding 10 tahun lalu. Dan sekarang tuh tiap ke sana pasti ada aja yang baru.

      Liked by 1 person

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