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The Historical Charms of Medan

Ask any Indonesian here in Jakarta about Medan and its people, and you will likely get one of several prevailing opinions. Some declare it a rough and aggressive place whose unruly residents speak with a coarse accent. Others rave about the food, particularly the non-Muslim fare of the Chinese and indigenous Batak communities. Still others might say the city has a reputation for crime: cue the Medanese friend who spoke of a break-in at his family home while his mother was around – the thief escaped after hearing her screams and realizing he’d entered the window of a room that had been locked from the inside. Then he told me of a cousin’s encounters with a (sympathetic) local mafia boss who was a regular at her restaurant. Few visitors – if anyone – would describe Indonesia’s fourth-largest city as beautiful, charming, or easy on the senses. But good food is not the only redeeming quality of the boisterous provincial capital of North Sumatra.

Guidebooks never devote much space to Medan: many Sumatra-bound travelers see it as a place of arrival and departure, a useful transit point en route to the scenic highlands and Batak villages around Lake Toba, or the wilds of Gunung Leuser National Park. I too had this mindset until Bama convinced me to budget two days to explore its historic landmarks and take advantage of Medan’s big city conveniences in the earlier stages of our six-month-long Spice Odyssey. But there was still a measure of culture shock, even if we’d just spent five days in the deeply conservative province of Aceh. The Medanese penchant for terseness and direct speech came into focus soon after we left the steel-and-glass terminal at Kuala Namu International Airport. A prospective driver tried to pitch his services to Bama, who was cautious, noncommittal, and understandably spare with his words. “Why are you speaking to me like I’m a criminal?” The driver retorted.

After some discussion about the price, we did in fact take him up on his offer to drop us at our hotel downtown. Much of the journey was spent traveling along the Belmera Toll Road – a ribbon of asphalt cutting through Medan’s sprawl of concrete and corrugated iron – with a turnoff amid paddy fields flanked by humble brick homes. This eventually gave way to row upon row of drab multistory shophouses, often with metal bars and cages over the windows of the upper floors. Once we’d checked in and dropped off our backpacks, Bama flagged down a motorized becak (trishaw) and negotiated a ride to Al Mashun Grand Mosque, better known as the Great Mosque of Medan.

The domes of Medan’s Al Mashun Grand Mosque

Also known as the Great Mosque of Medan, it is a symbol of the city

Moorish-inspired horseshoe arches in the prayer hall

Exuberant wall-to-wall decoration below the central dome

A colonnaded porch outside the prayer hall

Medan can lay claim to having one of Indonesia’s finest mosques

The mihrab (niche pointing to Mecca) and mimbar (imam’s pulpit)

Looking up toward the central dome

An entrance to the prayer hall; resting in the shade of a porch

Stained glass in need of repair; the minaret through a missing windowpane

An eclectic exercise in symmetry

It is easy to see why Medan’s main mosque has been an icon of the city since its completion in 1909. The work of Dutch architect J.A. Tingdeman, it draws inspiration from a wide range of architectural traditions. The building has an Ottoman layout with four secondary domes arranged in a square around the bulbous central dome, and is a gorgeous confection of Arabesque ornamentation, Indo-Saracenic finials, banded horseshoe arches recalling the Moorish-built Great Mosque of Córdoba, and Gothic-style double windows with an oculus, suitably filled in with stained glass.

At first, I was nervous about visiting, but not because of its beauty. I had simply never been granted permission to go inside a mosque. The South Asian ones I had grown up seeing in Hong Kong were strictly off limits to non-Muslims; it was simply unthinkable for those outside the faith to enter. But Medan’s Great Mosque was entirely different. So long as you dress respectfully (covering your legs) and leave your shoes at the top of the steps, you will receive a warm welcome from the smiling caretaker. When our cameras began clicking in the prayer hall, he tapped the shoulder of a sleeping man sprawled motionless on the carpeted floor to wake him. “Hey! People want to take photos!”

Bama quickly told him it was unnecessary and we’d just shoot from another angle. Thankfully, the slumbering man didn’t stir. He had chosen an ideal place for a nap: with whirring fans overhead and small windows letting in limited sunlight, the prayer hall was refreshingly cool. The din of traffic was conspicuously absent, while a clever combination of thick walls, colonnaded porches, and natural ventilation kept the tropical heat at bay. I could just imagine how it felt to awaken to the sight of the mosque’s lofty domed ceiling and its lavish wall-to-wall decorations, enough to make any admirer of architecture inwardly exclaim, “holy smokes!”

You see, this mosque – and just about every other important building in Medan from that period – was financed by the lucrative trade in locally grown tobacco. From the early 17th century a small Malay kingdom known as the Sultanate of Deli had held sway over the area. Its ninth ruler, Sultan Ma’mun Al Rashid Perkasa Alamyah (reigning from 1873–1924), continued his father’s close relationship with Dutch colonial authorities, who proved useful for their introduction of tobacco and the latest cultivation techniques while guaranteeing Deli’s security in the face of threats from neighboring rival sultanates. Deli soon became one of the most important tobacco producers in the world and a chief source of raw material for high-grade European cigars. The ensuing growth and prosperity transformed the small sultanate into a flourishing mart of trade, so much so that it was nicknamed het land dollar, “the land of the money”.

With Medan’s transformation from a village on swampy ground to a burgeoning city, a host of new arrivals came to seek their fortunes. Laborers and budding entrepreneurs flooded in from other parts of the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia), China, and even southern India. European planters hailed not just from the Netherlands but also countries like Poland and Switzerland, a fact remembered today by the district names Polonia and Helvetia. Dutch settlers dubbed the boomtown “Parijs van Sumatra” for its streets lined with handsome European-style buildings, as though the French capital had somehow been transplanted to this sweltering tropical island. And fin de siècle Paris could not claim to have a mosque as beautiful as that commissioned by Deli’s builder-sultan.

No expense was spared in the construction of the Al Mashun Grand Mosque. Sultan Ma’mun set aside a budget of one million guilders (or roughly US$10.3 million in today’s terms), and the palace shared the cost with the Dutch-owned Deli Company and Medan’s wealthiest businessman of the time, a Hakka Chinese immigrant by the name of Tjong A Fie. Only the finest materials would be used: Italian marble, Chinese stained glass, and chandeliers shipped via the Suez from France. The sultan was determined that this public house of prayer would outshine his own palace, the Istana Maimun, which had taken shape in 1888.

The facade of Istana Maimun, which is still used as the Sultan of Deli’s palace

Its exterior is decidedly less ornate than that of the nearby Great Mosque

The throne of the Sultan of Deli

A wider view of the throne hall, with a small souvenir shop on the side

Musicians in traditional Malay attire

Large portions of the palace are painted in the universal Malay colors of yellow and green

Istana Maimun as seen from the street

Dutch-era beauties in the historic neighborhood of Kesawan

A juxtaposition of old and new on Kesawan Street

Moorkop Ice – a Dutch colonial–style dessert – at Kesawan’s Tip Top Restaurant

Present-day visitors to Istana Maimun will no doubt notice the abundance of yellow and green; the former denotes royalty and wealth, and green is the color of Islam, which has become an integral part of Malay culture since it was first introduced by Gujarati traders around the 13th century. The Deli royal family still resides in a wing of the palace, though its members have shed their political power since the Indonesian struggle for independence in the wake of World War II. After inspecting the dimly-lit throne hall at Istana Maimun – where it’s possible to don traditional royal attire for a small fee – Bama and I started out on a 20-minute walk to Tip Top Restaurant, a local institution that first opened its doors in 1934.

Tip Top lies at the heart of Kesawan, a thriving neighborhood that grew up along its namesake artery (now officially called Jalan Achmad Yani), the oldest street in Medan. Today’s Kesawan is a hodgepodge of colonial-era shophouses, stately Beaux-Arts and Art Deco office buildings, and modern utilitarian structures. But with its rattan chairs and homey, old-school decor, Tip Top is something of a time capsule – it hasn’t changed much from its heyday during Dutch colonial times as the preferred venue for social events. The menu still features Dutch favorites like bitterballen and uitsmijter, or open-faced sandwiches of fried egg and ox tongue. Bama had brought me here to try the ice cream made using traditional recipes and vintage pre-war machines. I opted for Moorkop Ice, which describes a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two airy pastries, and a playful riff on a chocolate-glazed profiterole filled with whipped cream.

Another highlight of Kesawan stands less than 100 meters – and just across the street – from Tip Top Restaurant. This is none other than the two-story Tjong A Fie Mansion, a onetime residence of the aforementioned tycoon who had it built in 1895 as a gift for his beloved third wife Lim Koei-Yap (Tjong’s second wife had died several years before his marriage to Lim). The mansion is said to be based on that of his close relative (purportedly his uncle) Cheong Fatt Tze in Penang, on the far side of the Strait of Malacca. Together the two houses hold the distinction of being the only five-courtyard Chinese mansions outside of China.

Tjong A Fie Mansion’s pastel-colored facade

Inside the reception hall, dominated by a gorgeous timber filigree screen

Gilded carvings of life as a nobleman in China

Two perspectives on the mansion’s central courtyard

An auspicious red lantern; shutters and decorative lattices on the second floor

A glimpse of life as a millionaire at the turn of the 20th century

Remembering the ancestors

The expansive upper-floor lounge and ballroom

Looking out at Kesawan Street (officially Jalan Achmad Yani)

Not unlike its counterpart in Penang, Tjong A Fie Mansion is a tasteful blend of Chinese architecture and European aesthetics, with subtle touches of Art Nouveau in the sinuous wrought iron balustrades and flora-inspired light fixtures. The 35-room mansion is also graced with gilded timber filigree doors, original hand-painted Italian tiles, and shuttered windows that are an intuitive response to Medan’s tropical heat and humidity. Despite its importance and sublime beauty, Bama and I found the mansion surprisingly devoid of visitors. We virtually had the place all to ourselves, and happily spent a good hour ambling from room to room, admiring the intricate woodwork and period furniture that recalled the turn of the 20th century.

What makes the story of Sumatra’s first millionaire even more compelling is the fact that he did not come from a privileged background. Born in 1860 into an impoverished Hakka family in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, Tjong A Fie arrived in Medan at the age of 18 to join his elder brother Tjong Yong Hian. Through sheer hard work, determination, and a keen business sense, he became a successful grocer who went on to run a large-scale plantation business, employing more than 10,000 workers harvesting tobacco, palm oil, sugar cane, tea, and coconut. In later life his reach extended to real estate, banks, and railroads, though he never did forget his humble roots. As a philanthropist, Tjong donated a significant percentage of his wealth to worthy causes that catered to the needs of the growing city; he financed the construction of schools and hospitals, alongside mosques, churches, and temples. Tjong A Fie was well ahead of his time in that he did not give preferential treatment to any particular racial or religious group.

Indonesian history books remember him as an influential and well-respected figure who earned the trust of both Sultan Ma’mud and the Dutch colonial authorities. The latter appointed him Majoor der Chineenzen (a.k.a. Kapitan Cina), a high-ranking government official that acted as leader of Medan’s Chinese community, to replace the elder Tjong upon his death in 1911. A decade later, Tjong A Fie’s sudden passing at the age of 61 came as a blow to the residents of the city he had helped build and develop. Thousands turned out on the streets to mourn and pay their respects at his funeral procession, a sight that Medan has rarely seen since. 

I couldn’t get enough of the teal-and-white palette in Tjong A Fie Mansion

Bama capturing the perfect architectural shot

Another look at the lounge and ballroom

Tjong A Fie Mansion as seen from its front yard

A Beaux-Arts office building on one corner of Kesawan (now Merdeka) Square

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. Beautiful place. Thanks for writing about this.

    June 3, 2018
    • My pleasure – thanks in turn for reading and commenting as always!

      June 3, 2018
  2. You know how gloomy my photos of the mosque and the palace were from that first trip to Medan back in 2012. So, despite the intense heat, it was a nice day when we were there as the skies were mostly blue. Almost all of the people from Medan who I know here in Jakarta actually admit that they do have a reputation for being rude, although some of them would argue that in spite of looking rough on the surface, they’re actually kind-hearted… or at least that’s what they claim. 🙂 Too bad you didn’t get to try bihun bebek!

    June 3, 2018
    • It’s great that you got a second chance with the photos – I’m surprised that you didn’t get to go inside Tjong A Fie Mansion the first time. And I do remember how you raved about the bihun bebek when you returned there for work. 🙂 On our next visit to Medan I guess the focus will be on sampling as much of the local food as we can handle!

      June 3, 2018
  3. Sadly I did exactly what you said most of us do: saw Medan as a dirty city to fly out of to KL and missed all the beautiful buildings, especially the amazing mosque.

    June 4, 2018
    • I don’t blame anyone for doing that, Mallee… Medan is really not the most visitor-friendly place, and even more so if you decide to walk and dodge the seriously aggressive drivers (they are worse than the ones we have here in Jakarta)!

      June 4, 2018
  4. I appreciate how you have focussed on the redeeming qualities of Medan. The architecture/colours of the buildings you have highlighted are exquisite. I’m with you on being awed by the teal and white palette of Tjong A Fie Mansion. It’s great that you were allowed to visit the Grand Mosque. (Very cool to see your photo of the banded arches design that I found so fascinating when I visited the Grand Mosque of Cordoba.) I remember how excited I was to be granted entry (as a non-Muslim) to the national mosque in KL. Thanks for introducing me to Medan.

    June 4, 2018
    • You’re welcome, Caroline. I knew from a previous post of Bama’s that the Grand Mosque in Medan had an eclectic blend of styles from different countries and historical periods, but nothing could have prepared me to see the real thing! And my initial apprehension about going inside was completely unfounded. I’ve not yet been to the national mosque in KL so I’ll have to bookmark that for my next trip there.

      June 5, 2018
  5. You have such a wealth of places to visit in Indonesia (and it is such a boon to have a handy translator as a friend and travel mate)! Both the mosque and the palace are impressive, and I commend you guys for giving a city that is unappealing (to many) a chance. I was most interested in reading about the different personality traits. Sometimes I foolishly assume that an entire nation will have similar types of people and behavior patterns even as I know from my own country that a New Yorker and a Georgian are both going to be very different from a Coloradan, for example!

    June 5, 2018
    • You’re completely right, Lex. My understanding and experience of Indonesia is much, much richer because Bama has always volunteered himself as a trusty local insider. I have learned an awful lot from him about culture, languages, regional differences (and stereotypes), and also general etiquette. That has made it easier for me to blend in and Indonesians are often surprised when they learn that I’m actually from abroad!

      June 5, 2018
  6. You take great photos of the places you visit. You really inspire me to see more! Thank you for sharing.

    June 6, 2018
    • You’re more than welcome – thanks in turn for the kind words!

      June 7, 2018
  7. James I have to say as I was reading your blog post I began thinking that I would see only grey concrete in the photos to come. Then wow to all of the colour and incredible architecture. I do think guidebooks can really give destinations a bad rap to the point they are completely ignored. I enjoyed seeing your discoveries and that rare glimpse of Bama in a photo too.

    June 7, 2018
    • It takes some effort to look beyond Medan’s grime and tough exterior – but once you do there are some wonderful surprises in store. I only hope that the municipal authorities and private sector alike will continue to preserve all the lovely colonial-era buildings that still remain!

      June 7, 2018
  8. James, those buildings are amazing! And beautifully captured. Love the eclectic styles and the wonderful colour palettes. Also the historic details. Like Sue above, I was expecting a collection of drab colonial buildings at most. Bama and you should seriously consider compiling a comprehensive online guide to Indonesia.

    June 23, 2018
    • Well, that would be a dream for us! Bama and I still have a long wish list when it comes to historical sites in Indonesia… even on Java alone there are plenty of Hindu-Buddhist ruins that neither of us have been to.

      June 24, 2018

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