Holland in Java: the old town of Semarang
It isn’t long after daybreak when Bama and I find ourselves in a small slice of Europe. Across the tree-lined street, not yet spoiled by the din of motorcycle traffic, the painted copper dome of a church glints in the first rays of the morning sun. Around us rise noble structures in brick and stone, some crowned with the narrow, steep-sided gables of a country halfway across the world. Semarang has one of the best-preserved historic centres of any major city in Indonesia, and we are standing at its very heart.
The genesis of the old town can be traced to 1678, when the Javanese Sultanate of Mataram gave the area to the Dutch East India Company, the formidable VOC. In the space of a decade the Dutch began building a riverside fortress named De Vijfhoek, ‘The Pentagon’, its five corners fitted out with sturdy, projecting bastions. The fort controlled Semarang’s access to the sea – anyone sailing upriver to the bazaar would have to pass under the cannons of the VOC.
The Dutch were notoriously brutal in their colonisation of Indonesia. In October 1740, prompted by the killing of 50 Dutch soldiers by a mob of Chinese labourers, the authorities retaliated with two weeks of uncontrolled bloodshed. 10,000 ethnic Chinese were massacred within the city walls of Batavia (present-day Jakarta) alone, and the survivors fled east to the Sultanate of Mataram, organising themselves in a bid to foment an uprising against their European overlords.
For a time the Javanese monarch, Pakubuwono II, complied with the VOC’s requests for assistance, but he tacitly supported the revolt. His soldiers staged mock battles with rebel forces to satisfy the Dutch commander, and he diverted manpower to a palace renovation project. Buoyed by the success of a Chinese army sweeping across the northern coastal region of Central Java, the ruler soon turned on the VOC. Several thousand Chinese troops had massed at the gates of Semarang, and 20,000 Javanese men would also take up arms. But the siege – and the wider rebellion – ended in defeat.
Fearful of future attacks, the Dutch tore down their pentagonal fortress and enclosed Semarang by a wall two metres thick. The Javanese and Chinese communities were relegated to districts outside the battlements. What began as a fortified European enclave, centred on a town square and church, eventually developed into the core of a booming metropolis.
Semarang flourished on the commodities that grew in the fertile Javanese hinterland. Apart from rice and timber, the coastal region of Central Java was a major source of sugar for the VOC. Plantations in the interior supplied tobacco for export, and Javanese cloth from production centres to the south also made its way to the harbour. By 1775, the volume of trade passing through Semarang would make it the second-largest port in Java. Merchants from China, India and Arabia set up shop in the growing city, as did European settlers. In time, the character of the wealthy business district would lend it the nickname the ‘Little Netherlands’.
Dutch Protestants in the old town worshipped at Gereja Blenduk, named for its distinctive cupola (blenduk is Javanese for dome). Although the church was founded in the middle of the 18th century – making it the oldest in Central Java – most of the present building dates from 1787. The signature dome and twin towers were added more than a hundred years later, in 1894.
Opposite Gereja Blenduk, the Jiwasraya Building is Semarang’s monument to tropical Art Deco. Equipped with the first elevator in Central Java, it was built in 1916 for the largest life insurance company in the Dutch East Indies. The whimsical Marabunta Building stands several blocks away, its front doors depicting Snow White and the seven dwarves in stained glass, while two enormous fire ants gaze out from the roof.
The turn of the 20th century also saw the construction of Semarang’s most prominent landmark: Lawang Sewu, literally ‘A Thousand Doors’ in Javanese. Taking shape at a major roundabout outside the old city, it served as the headquarters of the Dutch East Indies Railway Company. The design employed New Indies Style, which fused Dutch Rationalist architecture with the practical needs of the tropics: covered galleries to shelter people from torrential rainfall and the harsh sun, hundreds of doors and windows to aid cross ventilation.
After Indonesia gained full independence in 1949, the Little Netherlands experienced a gradual decline as the city centre shifted to the south. Recurring floods, exacerbated by ongoing land subsidence, spurred on the exodus of businesses from the district. But decades of neglect and flooding were a blessing in disguise – developers had little incentive to destroy its wealth of colonial architecture.
Today the old town, Kota Lama, shows welcome signs of rejuvenation. An empty field in front of the railway station is now a beautiful reservoir, part of the city’s flood control efforts. Meanwhile, a handful of dilapidated buildings have been restored, with several turned into upscale bistros and restaurants. Perhaps the Little Netherlands is not far off from returning to its former glory. ◊