On the Cusp of Change: Semarang’s Old Town
In a previous post, penned a number of months after my first visit to Semarang three years ago, I described the old town district of Kota Lama as “one of the best-preserved historic centers of any major city in Indonesia”. Up until the mid-2000s it had suffered decades of neglect, compounded by poor drainage and a flood-prone location. Since then there’s been a recent push to restore the old town’s vitality with the ambition of becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2020, though much still needs to be done before it can earn that coveted title.
Those of you who have been reading this blog for some time likely know that a weeklong break in Semarang with Bama’s family at the end of Ramadan has become quite the annual tradition. As usual, we gained a few kilos gorging ourselves on the extraordinary home cooking of his mother Auntie Dhani, but this time, Bama and I were curious to see what had changed since we’d last set foot in Kota Lama. What we found was a fascinating work in progress: the former office of a telecommunications company had been repurposed as a creative gallery showcasing local products and handicrafts, and the roads were being ripped up and replaced with wider sidewalks.
I had read about the recent opening of a 3D trick art “museum” in Kota Lama, but was wholly unprepared for the fact that there were two such attractions just across the street from each other: one inside a pair of adjoining heritage structures in muted gray and white, the other a much larger Korean import, taking up an old warehouse whose walls had been gaudily repainted as though it were a Rubik’s Cube, with the addition of two murals depicting Ancient Egyptian sculptures and hieroglyphics. Just as jarring was the absence of several buildings next door, bulldozed to make way for a parking lot. The condemned structures weren’t by any means a remarkable sight to behold, but when it comes to preserving a historic quarter, it surely makes sense not to introduce more cars and create holes in the existing streetscape.
A few blocks away, and just off the main street, we saw a parcel of vacant land that had been given over to a lantern park with a small Ferris wheel. It had opened just days before, and local news sites happily published photos of grass beds planted with fake electric tulips, no doubt fueled by that all-important Instagram factor. As Kota Lama finally emerges into the limelight, some commercialization will be unavoidable, but if the municipal authorities are taking their UNESCO bid seriously, this part of Semarang does not need another 3D trick art space or tasteless attraction. Bama expressed his own disappointment as we walked past the flashy Korean venue. “Why not make it a museum explaining the history of the old town?”
Of course, the penchant for tackiness isn’t limited to Indonesians and Koreans, but it represents a wider affliction of the global tourism industry as a whole. We live in a time when taking selfies in front of random doorways is practically de rigueur while on holiday; the rise of social media has perhaps dulled our collective appetite for authenticity and the educational aspect of travel.
This is not to say that it was all doom and gloom in Kota Lama. Much of the area’s Dutch colonial buildings were clearly in better shape compared to three years ago, especially the riverside ensemble of commercial offices marking the western edge of the old town. What we saw was an assurance that the ongoing restoration would be careful and not overzealous. Bama and I also noticed a proliferation of small-scale cafés, complementing the trio of sensitive heritage conversions that had brought new life to Kota Lama well before the arrival of the trick art museums. The restored former courthouse for native Indonesians now hosts a local branch of Ikan Bakar Cianjur, a restaurant chain specializing in Sundanese-style (West Javan) grilled fish. Then there’s Spiegel, an atmospheric bar and bistro that has retained its exposed brickwork, high ceilings, and original wrought iron pillars from 1895, when it was first built as a German-owned general store. Just down the street, Tekodeko is an intimate but airy coffee shop with a colonnaded veranda on the upper floor.
We ambled through a pedestrianized street, ducking between antiques stalls before turning down a quiet road where the sole person we encountered was an elderly resident perched on a plastic stool outside her home. It was a portion of Kota Lama that had yet to be revived; the moldering tile-roofed houses along this stretch possessed a raw charm but most appeared to be derelict. From there, Bama and I went in search of the Marabunta Building*, a fanciful 1990s structure crowned by a pair of giant army ants. It incorporated architectural elements salvaged from the crumbling 19th-century Schouwburg (theater), which was partially demolished to make way for the Marabunta. One wonders how the overgrown ruins of the Schouwburg looked and felt at the time, long before the downtown area shifted southwards and Kota Lama was all but forgotten. ◊
*[May 2021]: The text has been updated with more accurate information. A great number of people erroneously believe, as I did back in 2018, that the Marabunta Building and the Schouwburg are one and the same, and that Dutch-born exotic dancer and World War I spy Mata Hari once performed here (though there is no proof that was indeed the case). I thank Semarang-based heritage expert Tjahjono Rahardjo for bringing this to my attention.