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Reviving Old Semarang

Barely a decade ago, the Old Town quarter of Semarang was a place best avoided after sundown. The former hub of trade and commerce in one of Indonesia’s greatest port cities had been slowly deteriorating since the seventies, as the ground sank and businesses decamped for areas less prone to tidal flooding. When darkness fell, its abandoned Dutch colonial buildings were taken over by squatters or used as places for prostitution. Unsuspecting visitors who walked the narrow, dimly-lit streets of the area would have rubbed shoulders with small-time criminals who made a living through extortion and common thievery.

This explains why Bama’s occasional visits since 2007 to his hometown’s most charming district had always happened during daylight hours. But something changed last October. We’d arranged to meet several contacts at 6 o’clock in the evening for dinner in the heart of the Old Town, known locally as Kota Lama. What we found then was a thriving nighttime tourist destination. A slew of recently installed candelabra-style lampposts – the work of an overzealous municipal administration – pierced through the darkness with orbs of dazzling white light. The thugs were long-gone, and in their place were vendors selling LED balloons, street performers dressed as superheroes and robots, and families strolling up and down Jalan Letjen Suprapto, the main strip.

A small bell tinkled as we swung upon the doors to the dimly lit dining room at Spiegel Bar & Bistro. Perhaps more than any other heritage conversion project in town, Spiegel illustrates what is possible when neglected old structures are restored and adapted for new uses in a sensitive way. The forward-thinking figure behind its transformation is Shita Devi Kusumawati, a Jakarta-born entrepreneur who had trained as an architect in Australia and, almost on a whim, acquired the derelict building in 2012. Records show that the whitewashed, Spanish colonial–inspired building already existed on this site in 1895, when it served as a general store selling fabrics, furniture, and home accessories to Semarang’s upper-class residents. Shita chose to name her bistro after its erstwhile owner, Viennese businessman Herman Spiegel, and since its debut nearly six years ago, the place has become a landmark of Kota Lama.

Spiegel is the kind of place you could linger for hours, marveling at the high ceilings, exposed brickwork, and finer architectural details from the plush burgundy banquettes. At the center of it all rise four cast-iron columns adorned with acanthus leaf motifs, guiding the eye towards an empty space above the bar. “You can tell who is new to Spiegel by the way they react when they come in,” Shita explained when I met her that morning. “First-timers stop and look up at the central void.”

The dinner was Shita’s idea – she was keen to introduce us to a friend and heritage activist called Yogi Fajri, whose encyclopedic knowledge of Semarang’s history had led to appearances in several TV documentaries. Yogi also co-founded Bersukaria Tour, a travel operator that offers guided walks around Semarang and excursions to places farther afield. “He’s like an old person in a young body,” Shita half-jokingly told me. “And he knows everything about every building in Kota Lama.”

When Yogi arrived, he brought along an Indonesian-language lecturer by the name of Khothibul Umam. Umam, we learned, moonlights as the leader of a shadow puppet troupe intent on creating a modern version of the Javanese art. He told us it was a form of activism. Together with his friends, Umam periodically uses a small tent to stage pop-up shows in the unlikeliest places – like a fish market – to protest against the lack of affordable, good-quality performance venues in town.

Two landmarks of Kota Lama: the Jiwasraya Building (1916; left) and Marba Building (1894; right)

A bike with plastic flowers in Srigunting Park; the green space was originally named Paradeplein.

Faded belles by the Semarang River; the Ikan Bakar Cianjur restaurant occupies an old courthouse

Just a few years ago, this hip coffee shop on the main street was a derelict structure

A roofless, overgrown ruin; one of the stained glass windows at Blenduk Church

The former office of the Netherlands Trading Company; a top Instagram spot in Kota Lama

Vintage-style floor tiles outside a recently restored commercial building

A becak (pedicab) passes Blenduk Church on a fine October morning

The conversation flowed effortlessly over glasses of beer and plates loaded with deep-fried enoki mushroom and flame-seared wagyu in truffle oil. Then came a heap of pineapple fried rice, a pan-fried dory fillet with olives and tomatoes over turmeric butter rice, and what struck me as a Japanese twist on Indonesian bakmi noodles. We feasted and talked as a three-piece jazz band filled the night air with music. “You see the singer there?” Shita gestured, “She’s an organizer of the latest Old Town Festival. Here in Kota Lama, we’re a very close-knit community.”

Bama and I had only just met these new friends, but it felt as though we’d known each other far longer. Yogi, it turned out, had accumulated an incredible wealth of knowledge over his 29 years. He told us all about nearby landmarks like the Jiwasraya Insurance Building, home to the very first elevator in Indonesia. Built in 1919 as the local office of the Dutch state-owned life insurance company NILLMIJ (its long-winded full name being Nederlandsch Indische Levensverzekering en Lijfrente Maatschappij), it was the work of Thomas Karsten, a gifted Dutch architect and urban planner who left his mark on cities all across the country.

The Jiwasraya office is one of a dozen buildings Karsten designed in Semarang that still stand today; another is Pasar Johar, the largest market hall in Southeast Asia at the time of its completion in 1938. “The original market was supposed to be built from wood,” Yogi explained. “The Dutch colonial officials thought, ‘oh, it’s just for the locals so we don’t need to use more expensive materials.’ But Karsten and other progressive architects argued that it had to be modern and made out of concrete. In fact, it wasn’t poured in situ like many buildings are today – all the concrete was precast.”

Bama and I knew then and there that we had to pencil in a tour with Yogi. But where would we start?

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In her travelogue Indonesia Etc., based on an epic, 13-month odyssey across Indonesia between 2011 and 2012, journalist-turned-epidemiologist Elizabeth Pisani wrote, “Semarang was more beautiful than I had imagined it would be, and more neglected.” At the time, she had just landed in Central Java after spending a year hopping between less-developed islands both large and small, where people hold the broad perception that Java – by far the most populous part of the country – gets all the infrastructure. Pisani was in for a shock: she had to contend with tidal flooding upon disembarking at Semarang’s port and potholed roads while heading into town. In her eyes, Kota Lama was “both glorious and sad” because of its beauty and state of decay.

But Semarang as a whole, like its revived Old Town district, is finally on the up. The diminutive single-story airport terminal I remember from my first visit in 2015 – little more than a glorified house – was replaced three years later by a much larger glass-and-steel structure, complete with landscaped courtyards and an English-language bookstore. The driving time between Jakarta and Semarang has been slashed from 10 hours to six thanks to the recently completed Trans-Java Toll Road; there’s even talk of a potential high-speed rail line in the coming decades. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean multinational firms are setting up factories in two new industrial estates to the west of town, and several higher-end sushi restaurants – unheard of in Semarang just five years ago – have opened. With all this newfound prosperity, interest in the city’s architectural heritage has also grown, riding on the back of a nationwide thirst for all things vintage. As Bama wryly pointed out, it’s a trend that has been partially fueled by the widespread adoption of Instagram. “That was when people suddenly realized old buildings were good backdrops for selfies.”

Shita Devi Kusumawati, owner of Spiegel Bar & Bistro; the building’s facade

Mediterranean-leaning comfort food at Spiegel; architectural details upstairs

The dining area and kitchen inside Spiegel Home Studio, a gorgeous one-bedroom flat

Spiegel Home Studio is just two doors down from the bistro; a bedroom detail at the apartment

The bar at Spiegel is placed below a central void framed by cast-iron columns

The rise of Kota Lama as a destination for mindless “selfie tourism” was preceded by surging interest in Semarang’s most recognizable colonial-era landmark, Lawang Sewu. Literally “Thousand Doors” in Javanese, the moniker alludes to the hundreds of wooden shutters opening out onto the wraparound verandas of Lawang Sewu’s two connected main buildings. The complex took shape from 1904 to 1919 as the headquarters of the Dutch East Indies Railway Company, or NIS (the acronym stands for Nederlandsch-Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij), which was then the leading rail operator in the colony. Although Lawang Sewu is now dwarfed by some of its newer (and uglier) neighbors, it still feels prominent thanks to its position beside a major roundabout at the end of Jalan Pemuda, a wide avenue running southwest from the Old Town.

Wanting to beat both the crowds and the midday heat, we met Yogi early one morning outside the gates of Lawang Sewu to kick off a half-day heritage tour. The few other visitors on the grounds were so focused on taking photos of each other that they paid no attention to the small but fascinating railway museum on the ground floor. It’s a little-known fact that the NIS laid Southeast Asia’s very first railroad, a 25-kilometer (15.5-mile) doubletrack stretching east from Semarang to the small town of Tanggung; steam trains began plying the route in 1867.

Once inside Lawang Sewu’s large central courtyard, Yogi explained how the NIS spared no expense in building its headquarters. Engineers dug out the soft, swampy ground and poured a thick layer of sand to act as a stabilizing bed for the stone foundations, which are naturally ventilated so wind passing through will expel the humid air rising from the earth – preventing it from reaching the floor of the building.

We then made a beeline for the grand staircase, where the morning sun streamed in through glorious stained-glass windows as fine as any in a European cathedral. These were specially made by a Delft-based artist called Johannes Louresa Schouten and shipped in straight from the Netherlands. It wasn’t the first time Bama and I had looked upon the exquisite glass panels, but we were still amazed by the profusion of details in vivid technicolor: the colonial coat of arms of Batavia (Jakarta) and Semarang; leaves and fruits representing Java’s natural bounty; Venus and Fortuna flanking a winged wheel symbolizing transport, speed, and progress. Elsewhere in the complex, Yogi pointed out that the perfectly aligned connecting doorways between each room were designed to make workers feel as though they were inside a train carriage.

Semarang in the early 20th century – the time of Lawang Sewu’s construction – was in the midst of a golden age. Its prosperity, rapid growth, and adequate transport links made the city an obvious choice for the Koloniale Tentoonstelling (Colonial Exhibition), a major international trade fair held from August to November 1914. Colonial authorities had been planning the event for years to celebrate the centenary of Dutch independence from Napoleonic France while serving as a showcase of the Dutch East Indies. “It was the reason for the modernization of Semarang,” Yogi said. The railway stations of Poncol and Tawang, both still in use today, were inaugurated just before the fair, as was a dedicated tram route running past Lawang Sewu to the exhibition grounds. “At the time it was supposed to be the largest international expo in the Southern Hemisphere, but because of the outbreak of World War I, the Dutch decided not to come.” In the end, the exposition drew a little over 677,000 visitors over its three-month run. Some were flabbergasted by the sheer expense of organizing and holding such an event. The price tag? A whopping 114.5 million guilders – equivalent to US$1.8 billion in today’s money.

Lawang Sewu, the former headquarters of the Dutch East Indies Railway Company (NIS)

The twin towers of Lawang Sewu; tour guide Yogi Fajri on the building’s wraparound veranda

Another view of the same veranda; a massive mango tree dominates the courtyard at Lawang Sewu

Magnificent stained-glass windows greet those who ascend Lawang Sewu’s main staircase

The other side of the grand staircase; a beautifully made door handle

Another look at the stained-glass windows, which were made in Delft

Posing for photographs below the same windows in Lawang Sewu’s courtyard

While the Koloniale Tentoonstelling has been largely forgotten, the informal local name for the fair, “Pasar Sentiling” (Sentiling Market), lives on in Semarang’s annual Old Town Festival. In pre-pandemic times, Pasar Sentiling encompassed a plethora of pop-up food stalls and an outdoor stage for live performances on Kota Lama’s main street, which was closed to traffic for the occasion. As luck would have it, a scaled-down version of the fiesta was being held the week we were there, and Yogi happened to be one of its chief organizers.

Of course, the two main venues for this year’s Pasar Sentiling were still closed when we turned up in Kota Lama at half past nine. Our next stop was Monod Diephuis, a once-derelict 1920s office building that has been reinvented as a community space for cultural activities: think kids’ classes in wayang kulit (Javanese shadow puppetry), small concerts, or art exhibitions and book launches. Inside Monod’s high-ceilinged halls, we bumped into one of Yogi’s activist friends – the local historian Tjahjono Rahardjo. It was only much later that I realized the scope of his work outside of being a full-time lecturer in architecture and urban studies. For Tjahjono is not only a co-manager at Monod; he’s also a trained shadow puppeteer who teaches the art form to children on a weekly basis.

Midway through a surprisingly candid discussion about politicians (yes, they are the same absolutely everywhere), Tjahjono drew our attention to the textured glass panes of the ground-floor windows. The original ones have a subtle yellow tint, while those with a deeper hue are modern replicas of missing pieces taken and sold by squatters that once took refuge in the building. “That’s why the glass you see today has slightly different colors,” he explained. “When Monod was repaired, it wasn’t possible to reproduce the look of the panes exactly as they were.”

Tjahjono encouraged us to climb the rust-red staircase to the upper floor, where a full gamelan ensemble sat waiting to be played. In an adjoining office, past a brass “no entry” sign, we came across a beautiful phonograph with a viridian-green horn, an original 1930s typewriter by German maker Seidel & Naumann, and even a daguerreotype camera. With its collection of antiques and pop-up events, Monod makes a good counterpoint to the nearby Semarang Contemporary Art Gallery, whose architect-owner has been mounting exhibitions on Indonesian artists since 2008. Perhaps it won’t be long before another cultural venue opens up in Kota Lama.

Late afternoon traffic at Berok Bridge, which marks the western entrance to Kota Lama

The Semarang Contemporary Art Gallery first opened in the Old Town in 2008

The gallery’s upstairs exhibition space with works by local artists

A familiar-looking painting, reinvented

Slowly dying plants grace a curious installation on the ground floor of the gallery

The building that takes up most of this shot was once Semarang’s British Consulate

Places to rest on the quiet street of Jalan Kepodang

Bidding goodbye to Tjahjono, we headed south to Chinatown, another historic neighborhood Yogi was well-acquainted with. The Chinese presence in Semarang long predates the Dutch takeover in 1678, when the Mataram Sultanate ceded the important port town – along with the fertile Priangan Highlands far to the west – to the Dutch East India Company as a reward for its decisive role in crushing a major rebellion and restoring the Javanese monarchy.

It’s believed that the great Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He (known in Indonesia as Cheng Ho) stopped by what is now Semarang on one of his expeditions in the early 15th century, seeking shelter for his treasure fleet when his second-in-command Wang Jinghong fell seriously ill. The site of a cave where the Muslim admiral purportedly prayed is now occupied by a magnificent temple dedicated to his memory. Local lore has it that some of Zheng He’s crew members grew so enamored with this part of Java that they stayed on for good. In time, subsequent waves of migration – of both merchants and impoverished villagers seeking out a better life – saw the emergence of distinct Chinese communities in all the major settlements along Java’s northern coast.

The Dutch East India Company (known as the VOC) encouraged the importation of cheap labor to work its lucrative plantations and sugar mills. Like the British in Malaya, the Dutch propagated a racist “lazy native” stereotype, characterizing a reluctance among indigenous peoples to toil away for their colonial overlords – in the punishing equatorial heat, no less – as indolence. As the Chinese population of Batavia and its fertile hinterland swelled in the mid-18th century, Dutch mistrust of the immigrants grew; a newly adopted deportation policy decreed that any suspicious Chinese person would be shipped off to Ceylon. At the same time, long-simmering resentment among local people of the Chinese and their perceived wealth reached a boiling point.

The situation exploded in 1740, when economic hardship and continued repression fueled growing unrest among the Chinese population. An armed insurrection against the Dutch in Batavia led to an anti-Chinese pogrom: VOC soldiers and their native collaborators massacred at least 10,000 of the city’s ethnic Chinese residents. The violence spread across Java the following year, when the Chinese of Semarang and other places were put to the sword. But survivors who fled the bloodbath found a sympathetic ally in the Sultan of Mataram. He saw the chaos as an opportunity to oust the Dutch interlopers once and for all, and though nominally allied with the VOC, the Javanese monarch responded to requests for help with inaction. A secret alliance was formed; soldiers loyal to the sultan staged mock battles against the Chinese as a ruse. By the time the Dutch realized they had been double-crossed, a string of towns had fallen to a joint Javanese-Chinese army, which then laid siege to VOC forces holed up in Semarang.

Following the rebels’ defeat, the Dutch East India Company had all the ethnic Chinese in and around Semarang relocated to a small enclave on the left bank of the Semarang River, within cannon-shot of the newly fortified European settlement (present-day Kota Lama). Colonial authorities could now keep a watchful eye on the now-subjugated community. The resettled residents did what immigrants tend to do whenever they are in a new land: keep their heads down and work extra hard. As Chinatown’s population boomed and the neighborhood grew increasingly prosperous, a series of temples sprang up on both sides of the river. Of the nine that still remain in use, practically all sport exuberant colors and the swallowtail roofs typical of Hokkien architecture from southern China’s Fujian province – a stark contrast to the austere look favored by the Europeans in Kota Lama.

An antique coffee grinder at Monod Diephuis; the community space hosts gamelan classes for kids

An abandoned building awaits restoration; the gable of Chinatown’s “Coffee House”

A sitting area with more antique furnishings at Monod Diephuis

Our arrival outside the empty forecourt at See Hoo Kiong temple drew more than a few curious looks – an elderly caretaker in a bright yellow polo shirt soon emerged from the shade of a nearby tree to see what we were up to. In a typically Javanese fashion, Yogi smiled and politely asked if it was possible for us to have a look around; he said we had come from Jakarta. The taciturn man, thankfully, gave his consent. I had found out about See Hoo Kiong the week before from a detailed blog post written by one of Yogi’s childhood friends, and knew we simply had to go. It seemed odd that such a beautiful building had escaped the attention of so many visitors.

Though it is the youngest of Chinatown’s temples, See Hoo Kiong is no less impressive than its older counterparts. We craned our necks to admire the building’s ornately carved wooden brackets painted in red, gold, teal, and jade green; three dragons on the plaque above the central doorway framed the Chinese characters for See Hoo Kiong – “West River Palace”. The structure was built in 1881 in honor of the Chinese goddess Mazu – a guardian deity of seafarers and fishermen – and as an ancestral hall for the Liem clan, whose forebears are memorialized with spirit tablets in the inner sanctum. On the upturned roof, ceramic-clad dragons appear to dance against the bright blue sky.

More auspicious mythical creatures, alongside depictions of birds and flowers, adorn the walls at nearby Hwie Wie Kiong (a.k.a. Tan Seng Ong), the 200-year-old ancestral temple of the Tan clan. Yogi’s childhood friend wrote that the sanctuary is a testament to the wealth and influence of its sponsor Tan Thiang Tjhing, who was appointed the first titular Chinese Mayor of Semarang by the colonial authorities. Tan held this top position for 18 years until his death in 1833.

Speaking of the Tans, a short drive across the river brought us to a narrow, nondescript gate – really a single sheet of steel – that marked the entrance to Dharma Boutique Roastery. Once inside, we were quickly introduced to a slim, jolly fellow with kind eyes and a grey moustache. This was the company’s third-generation owner Widayat Basuki Dharmowiyono, born as Tan Tjoan Pie. “We’ve just visited your family temple,” Yogi grinned.

The whitewashed walls, vintage furniture, and terracotta tiled floor of Dharma’s tasting room reminded me a little of Monod Diephuis. As many as 20 plastic jars containing roasted coffee beans sourced from islands all across Indonesia had been arranged in a row atop a sturdy wooden cabinet that ran almost the entire length of the room. Under its previous name, Margo Redjo (the Javanese for “Road of Prosperity”), Dharma ended the European monopoly on coffee roasting in the Dutch East Indies. Our cheerful host pointed to a portable gas-powered machine with a perforated metal drum blackened by more than a century of use. “When my grandfather established his business in 1916, this was the first roaster he bought,” Basuki said. “It was patented in 1895, and we still use it to roast small batches of beans.”

Built in 1881, See Hoo Kiong is one of nine temples in Semarang’s Chinatown

Stone lions and ornate details at See Hoo Kiong; the name literally means “West River Palace”

Carvings at nearby Hwie Wie Kiong temple; ancestral tablets in the inner sanctum at See Hoo Kiong

A quiet street in Chinatown; architect and urban planner Widya Wijayanti

Of course, what was a visit to the roastery without trying a brew? Basuki allowed us to pick from any one of the varieties they had on hand, so Bama and I picked arabica beans grown in the Bajawa highlands of Flores. The nutty, caramel-esque flavor of the unsweetened drink instantly brought back memories of our road trip across the rugged eastern Indonesian island in 2014. It was the one and only time I dared to have a double espresso after dinner.

An open doorway from the tasting room led out into a shaded, well-tended garden – the front yard of a tall gabled house with exquisite timber fretwork. Residents of Chinatown refer to the residence as Rumah Kopi Wotgandul (“Wotgandul Coffee House”) for its location on Wotgandul Road and also because it has stayed in the hands of the same coffee-roasting family for generations. According to Basuki, the gorgeous Indies-style house already existed before the 1860s, when his great-great grandfather acquired the property. The Tans modified it in 1930, adding an Art Deco front porch and French doors with geometric motifs in colored glass. Basuki then explained that his family’s ancestral home was off-limits to the public even before Covid-19 turned our world upside down. After all, it was still being lived in.

*            *            *

Just up the street from Dharma Boutique Roastery stands a two-story food court named Cap Kaw King. At first glance, you might think the recently built structure has been around for decades. For it mimics an old Southeast Asian shophouse with its narrow frontage, pitched roof, and shuttered doors and windows. Bama and I dropped in the following morning to meet local architect and urban planner Widya Wijayanti over soursop smoothies and tall glasses of iced tea.

One cannot talk about any Chinatown in Indonesia without addressing a particular era following the country’s independence from Dutch rule. The U.S.-backed military dictator Suharto, who took power after a failed coup in 1965, saw the ethnic Chinese as a potential fifth column acting in the interests of the People’s Republic. His government waged a campaign of forced assimilation against the community: Chinese Indonesians were required to change their birth names to more indigenous-sounding ones (the surname “Lim” was hence modified to “Halim” or “Salim”), and Chinese-language schools up and down the country were forcibly closed. Public expressions of the millennial culture, be it traditional festivals or even the display of Chinese characters, were banned outright. And unlike other Indonesians who were issued with proper identity cards, the ethnic Chinese could only be given a proof of citizenship. This rule and other kinds of discriminatory legislation discouraged members of the community from entering politics and the civil service.

Widya spoke of a certain pressure at that time to make Semarang’s Chinatown appear less Chinese. Historic buildings sporting shuttered windows, balconies, and carved timber brackets were modified and given modern, utilitarian facades; these additions often hid the original terracotta roofs and rounded gable ends from view. Road-widening projects altered the neighborhood’s streetscapes, and the construction of concrete embankments along the Semarang River destroyed a swath of riverside stores and restaurants. But arguably the most pivotal moment was the anti-Chinese riots of 1980, when Chinese-owned shops, factories, and homes across Semarang were looted and set ablaze. Fearful of future attacks, the residents of Chinatown installed metal bars over the windows and porches of their homes. “It was like they were living in a cage,” Widya said.

Suharto’s fall from power in 1998 came amid a crippling economic crisis and social unrest that culminated in mob violence against the ethnic Chinese in several cities. A Dutch photojournalist I met back in Hong Kong told me he was living in Jakarta at the time, and he matter-of-factly reported seeing Chinatown burn. Semarang, thankfully, was spared from the violence. After calm was restored, Indonesia’s inexorable move to democracy brought a slew of newfound freedoms. Political prisoners were released; the Suharto-era censorship apparatus was dismantled, allowing the arts and the media to flourish. Within three years, the country’s fourth president, progressive Muslim cleric Abdurrahman Wahid (a.k.a. Gus Dur), rescinded the anti-Chinese discriminatory legislation and reinstated Lunar New Year as a public holiday.

In 2003, Widya founded the organization Kopi Semawis, with the goal of using community-based tourism as a vehicle to create positive interactions between visitors and those living inside the enclave. “It’s not about evicting the local residents and turning Chinatown into just a museum. My [architect] friends and I carried out a study, and the thought was, if we want to redefine and revitalize the area, then we have to talk to the residents, we have to get them involved in everything.” And that began by going door to door and explaining their overall vision, gaining the trust of community leaders, and repairing relations with municipal and provincial authorities. “During the period of discrimination, the people of Chinatown rarely sat down with government officials,” Widya said. The result of all those efforts was Pasar Semawis, a popular night market regularly held on Fridays and weekends (before the pandemic), along with an annual Lunar New Year fair.

Soon after Kopi Semawis was born, the architect and her like-minded friends organized acoustic concerts every three months to showcase historical buildings not normally used as cultural venues. Widya laughed when she recalled the preparations for a jazz event at See Hoo Kiong in 2005, as leaders of the Liem clan asked for blessings from the temple deity in a ceremony before the show. “They didn’t know how they were going to explain jazz to their goddess. In the end they just said, ‘O, Mazu, we will be playing music that is not yours.’” That night, residents of all ages packed out the building’s paved forecourt to watch the performances. Widya herself witnessed a small but important change as a jazz pianist played on the temple porch and powerful spotlights lit up See Hoo Kiong, its facade radiant and resplendent below the inky night sky: “You could see people becoming proud of what they have.”

Tekodeko Koffiehuis, a cozy coffee shop in a restored 19th-century building

Conservationist Albertus Kriswandhono; burnt caramel–topped coffee at Tekodeko

Fairy lights adorn the entrance to Tekodeko; rattan seating on the upstairs veranda

For those who call Semarang home, there’s no doubt that the rejuvenation of the Old Town has instilled a greater sense of pride in their city. The district is now a popular weekend hangout spot thanks to its growing number of cozy restaurants and coffee shops. In 2019, the organic eatery-and-store Javara Culture branched out from its original location in Kemang, one of Jakarta’s hippest neighborhoods, to open an outlet at the very heart of Kota Lama. Javara Culture dishes up excellent Indonesian food with an emphasis on local specialties such as bandeng keropok, or grilled milkfish dressed in a sweet spice paste and chopped bird’s-eye chilies. What’s more, the shelves here are stocked with all manner of edible souvenirs: coconut jam, artisanal sea salt from Bali, clove blossom honey, forgotten heirloom varieties of rice, and rare spices like andaliman pepper.

Several blocks away, the whimsical nineties-era Marabunta Building, distinguished by a pair of giant army ants on the roof, has been converted into a glamorous restaurant and bar that serves fusion food like mac ‘n’ cheese bitterballen and salmon in a creamy Balinese-inspired gravy. Strictly speaking, the Marabunta Building’s most recent incarnation isn’t exactly old, although the antique wooden ceiling and cast-iron columns were salvaged from its crumbling predecessor next door, which opened in 1877 as Semarang’s purpose-built schouwburg (theater).

A more established, low-key option is Tekodeko Koffiehuis. Set back from the main street by a raised patio, the café takes up a handsome two-story house that looks rather more austere than Marabunta but feels no less inviting. It’s possible to while away an hour or two on the covered upstairs terrace, where you can sink into rattan armchairs with a cold glass of iced coffee in hand, while admiring the stout whitewashed columns and woven bamboo ceilings. Bama and I had once brought his mother here for a post-breakfast treat; this time we had arrived for an appointment with Albertus Kriswandhono, a building conservationist who played a key role in restoring heritage structures all across town. As the local expert tasked with overseeing the most recent renovation of Lawang Sewu, he taught the workmen to pay careful attention to the finer details. This also meant following the formula for its original plasterwork, which did not use cement but bligon: a mixture of lime, sand, and ground-up red bricks.

Kris’s first project in Kota Lama involved one of Semarang’s oldest buildings, a courthouse dating to 1760 that served European residents, the highest caste in a race-based social hierarchy imposed during Dutch colonial rule (indigenous Indonesians, then referred to as Inlanders, were relegated to the very bottom). The idea was to retain as much of its character as possible while converting the old courthouse into the local branch of Ikan Bakar Cianjur, a midscale restaurant chain specializing in grilled fish. That transformation took place from 2006–2008, when Kota Lama was still a crime-ridden neighborhood prone to flooding. “For me personally, it was a gamble,” Kris said. “Because the situation was not normal and the Old Town had all its problems, but there was someone who was willing to take risks – someone brave enough to open a business.”

While the food is decent, the real attraction is its old-world appeal: think enormous sash windows, lofty wooden ceilings at least six meters (20 feet) high, patterned tilework made by hand, and elaborate teak-carved air vents above the interior doorways. Kris believes the success of Ikan Bakar Cianjur was a catalyst for rejuvenating the Old Town as a whole. Semarang Contemporary Art Gallery opened around the same time, and it was followed less than a decade later by Spiegel and Tekodeko.

The latter posed a unique challenge for the conservationist – not because restoring the 19th-century house was difficult, but because the owner hadn’t figured out what it would be used for after the work was done. She sought advice from Kris, who saw an unmissable opportunity to pass the torch to the next generation. Kris immediately recruited three young heritage activists, then fresh out of college, to develop a detailed business plan over the next six months. “When Tekodeko was almost ready, I approached the owner and said, ‘these young people have done everything. They were the ones who came up with the name, concept, and business plan,’” he recalled. “I asked her to give them some of her shares as a measure of goodwill, so they would have a sense of ownership. And she did it.”

It wasn’t just entrepreneurs who saw great potential in the moldering district. Enter the Old Town Management Board, formed in 2007 to bring together conservation experts, owners of historical buildings, and business operators under the leadership of the vice-mayor. On paper, its mission is to protect Kota Lama’s architectural heritage and revitalize the colonial quarter, with the eventual goal of getting it listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But there are competing visions for how that might be achieved. Municipal bigwigs see mass tourism as the answer, while figures like Shita, who is the organization’s secretary, advocate a more balanced kind of development that also caters to the needs of local residents and workers. Kris was one of the earliest members of the Old Town Management Board; he left, as did other conservation-minded figures, after growing frustrated with the path chosen by officials. “How to preserve and how to conserve is my concern, not beautification. So that’s why I am always going head-to-head with the government, until now.”

Dried spices and Indonesian specialties (like boneless grilled milkfish) at Javara Culture Semarang

The Sundanese dish sate maranggi, served with fresh vegetables and sweet-spicy sambal kecap

Old-school ice cream (and bitterballen) at Toko Oen; the restaurant’s Art Deco facade

The truth is that the well-intentioned but ill-informed bureaucrats at City Hall are responsible for a never-ending saga of blunders and missed opportunities. To her credit, the vice-mayor did manage to secure US$16.5 million from the central government to fund crucial infrastructure projects: widening pavements in the Old Town and improving the drainage system to make sure that floods would largely become a thing of the past. But the accompanying redesign of Kota Lama’s streetscapes is nothing less than Disneyfication.

Take the Victorian-inspired street furniture that has no relationship with the local history. Kota Lama is now cluttered with overly fussy lampposts spaced closely together; covered fountains and standing clocks have been installed in random places, while charging booths are disguised as bright-red telephone boxes. It feels as though the entire ensemble was dreamed up by a desperate Anglophile.

The most egregious addition of all would have been a permanent canopy blocking a major sight line toward the 18th-century Blenduk Church. Municipal officials excitedly billed it as a photogenic new attraction with an “exotic glass roof”. This awkward structure was half-completed at the time we went last October, but a subsequent public outcry on the eve of local elections forced City Hall to change tack; the canopy was dismantled and moved to a back street elsewhere in the Old Town. In its place, yet more lampposts have materialized, along with a train of cast iron benches straddling the middle of the street. The powers that be have apparently learned nothing.

For further proof of government mediocrity, one only needs to look at the Kota Lama Museum taking shape in a traffic circle. The same architect responsible for the district’s Disneyfied streetscapes had the ingenious idea of creating a literal red-brick fortress, as the museum was being built over the foundations of a bastion on a corner of the fortified European settlement. “We don’t know what the exhibits will be,” Kris said calmly. “The place is supposed to show the remnants of the old city walls, so it will be interesting to see how they do it.” If Semarang’s Old Town quarter still has a shot at World Heritage status, the chances are very slim.

There was one final person I wanted to meet. Yogi had sent me the contact details of Megaputri “Jenny” Megaradjasa, a restaurateur and heritage activist who had returned to Semarang after a long stint in the Netherlands. Jenny is the third-generation owner of Toko Oen, a beloved institution that has been serving Dutch and Indonesian comfort food since 1936. Local residents and out-of-towners alike flock to Toko Oen to feast on dishes such as huzarensla salad and classic cakes, among them the Semarang specialty ganjel rel, which got its name because the rectangular loaves resemble a railway sleeper (a.k.a. railroad tie). Bama and I were eager to speak with Jenny at her artisanal ice cream parlor Oud En Nieuw, an offshoot of Toko Oen that opened last April inside a 1930s office building in Kota Lama.

In 2012, the same year Shita acquired Spiegel, Jenny established the Oen Semarang Foundation (OSF) to raise awareness about the Old Town’s rich history and advocate for its preservation. She had studied architecture at the prestigious Delft University of Technology, so invited specialists from Delft to carry out a heritage assessment of the crumbling colonial district. What they found was astonishing, but even so, Semarang’s previous administration cared little for safeguarding the treasure right under their noses. “I asked my friends, ‘What can I do? We have struggled to talk to the municipal government. Once it disappears from the map, it’s gone forever.’” By her own estimate, the derelict buildings of Kota Lama had just another five to 10 years before collapsing from sheer neglect.

For the next five years, OSF organized seminars and workshops that brought together local university students and overseas experts in urban design, water management, and conservation, to propose solutions to the problems plaguing Kota Lama. 2012 also marked the launch of the Old Town Festival, pairing street food with a program of live performances, exhibitions, and guided walking tours. Through it all, Jenny made sure that those handling the event were not just architects and historians in a certain age group. “To fight against the current, we are trying to educate the community, starting with the next generation,” she explained. “That’s why I always involve young people in the festival, so they feel like it belongs to them.”

When the Covid-19 pandemic ends, Jenny has plans to scale up the Old Town Festival to become an international showcase. She spoke of bringing in photographers from other Asian countries and even professional cyclists from farther afield. Semarang, in her view, could be the endpoint for a multi-day tour of Java’s scenic backroads. It was clear that Jenny had the same divine fire present in all the conservation-minded figures we had met on this journey: “As long as I still can, and as long as I still have a goal and the passion for it, I will keep going.”

Nightfall at Berok Bridge

The newly reopened Marabunta Building, now a swanky dinner-only restaurant

A reproduction of a Dutch painting hangs above the bar at Marabunta

Marabunta’s completely remodeled interior plays up its 19th-century elements

The wooden ceiling and cast-iron pillars were salvaged from the Schouwburg (theater) next door

Lawang Sewu’s main facade at dusk

26 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reading your take on Semarang is like getting binocular vision. Between your post and the four by Bama, I seem to have got nice vibes about this town. Sounds like a place I should keep in mind for a leisurely trip through Indonesia after the world settles down.

    May 9, 2021
    • Thanks for reading all the way through, I. J.; at around 6,300 words, this was the longest post I’ve ever written! Semarang remains somewhat under the radar even for local travelers – that’s despite the fact that its Old Town is arguably the loveliest in all of Indonesia.

      May 9, 2021
  2. There’s a new word coming now if we’re talking about Semarang: romantic.

    Semarang is used to be seen as a hot and dirty city (well, the first one is inescapable, lol). When I visit the city in 2014, Kota Lama was just an old area of the city. Unless Gereja Blenduk and a few buildings, many buildings were devastated. The streets and sidewalks are not pedestrian friendly.

    With its mushroomed and growing coffee shops, housed in some of the prettiest old buildings in the city, Semarang seems like a hotter version of Bandung.

    There’s also an increased number of boutique hotels, pretty homestay/guesthouses in Javanese style, and AirBnBs in and around the city. Visiting Semarang again would be a sweet treat for this tiring mind.

    May 9, 2021
    • Well Nugie, you’re not the first person I’ve met who has said that Semarang is a romantic place! I’m inclined to agree especially after my most recent visits… the general feeling is that the city is finally coming into its own.

      I think it’s great to see new-wave coffee shops making use of historic buildings, but there comes a point when there are just too many of them concentrated in one area. What would make Kota Lama even better is if there could be more cultural and artistic spaces, like an independent bookstore that hosts interesting discussions, maybe another gallery, or a workshop where people put a modern spin on local crafts.

      May 9, 2021
      • You’re right. As an old part of the city where the core of history relies, Kota Lama needs a wise strategy. At least, similar to Jakarta’s Kota Tua, or even better since Semarang is the capital of Central Java, a province rich with culture and art.

        May 9, 2021
  3. Great article !

    May 9, 2021
  4. While your magazine article is great, the word count limitation meant you could only write so much. That’s why I’m really glad you decided to tell the longer version of the story on your blog. This might be one of the longest posts you’ve ever written to date, but it certainly does a place as complex and rich in history as Kota Lama justice. What’s also interesting is the fact that this part of Semarang is still evolving — new businesses are coming, and more old buildings are undergoing restoration work. I just can’t have enough of Kota Lama.

    May 9, 2021
    • Thank you so much, Bama. I did feel very constrained when I wrote that story for the magazine, but you just have to make do with the amount of space that is given. I’m looking forward to more new discoveries the next time we return to Kota Lama!

      May 9, 2021
  5. What a torrid and yet fascinating history. I had never heard of Semarang until reading Bama’s stories. Sounds like a place to put on the must-see list.

    May 9, 2021
    • Absolutely, Maggie. Semarang has a lot going for it, and I especially love the enticing mix of history and fabulous local food. It was one of Bama’s early posts back in 2011 that first put the city on my radar; these days I try to go back at least once a year!

      May 10, 2021
  6. Reblogged this on iLook China and commented:
    If you are interested in one chapter of the long history of “overseas” Chinese, I recommend reading this piece. When you’re about halfway through you will reach – “Bidding goodbye to Tjahjono, we headed south to Chinatown, another historic neighborhood Yogi was well-acquainted with. The Chinese presence in Semarang long predates the Dutch takeover in 1678, when the Mataram Sultanate ceded the important port town – along with the fertile Priangan Highlands far to the west – to the Dutch East India Company as a reward for its decisive role in crushing a major rebellion and restoring the Javanese monarchy.”

    There’s a lot of worthy history here.

    May 10, 2021
    • I really appreciate this, Lloyd – thank you for sharing my piece on your own blog.

      May 10, 2021
  7. Semarang sounds, and looks really fascinating. It’s revival seems quite special -so many gorgeous buildings! Between you and Bama I’d love to visit. If I can’t have you guys as guides I’d better get in touch with Yogi 🙂

    May 11, 2021
    • I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have developed an interest in Semarang if it hadn’t been for Bama. There are direct flights from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, but even before the pandemic hardly any international visitors went. There are still so many lovely buildings in need of some TLC in the Old Town – if I had the money I’d have bought one by now!

      May 11, 2021
  8. Between your and Bama’s posts about Semarang, I will now definitely put this interesting city on my list for next time I visit Indonesia. I’m glad you featured Spiegel as I was immediately drawn to its ambiance and the dishes that both you and Bama showcased. I had wondered about the distinctly German name…now I know. Great post, James!

    May 13, 2021
    • Thanks so much, Caroline! There’s one fabulous little anecdote I haven’t included in the post. Bama and I were told a descendant of Herman Spiegel living in California had made contact with the current owner – she’d even sent in scanned copies of old photographs taken when the Spiegel family were living in Semarang all those years ago. Needless to say, she was incredibly appreciative of the building’s restoration and the fact that her ancestor was still being remembered.

      May 13, 2021
      • That’s a great story. A win-win for all. It has the makings for a book, or at least another article 😉

        May 14, 2021
  9. James if there is a tourism department for Semarang, they must be grateful to you and Bama for this in-depth coverage. I had never heard of it prior and I love when cities or towns can transform. Whether it be a small area or the entire place. yogi sounds like a brilliant guide, one I would want if visiting.

    May 14, 2021
    • I believe there is a local tourism board on paper, Sue, but there seems to be very little proof that they have actually been doing anything! To be honest, I doubt they would be entirely happy with what I’ve written here considering the criticism leveled at City Hall.

      As for Yogi, I was really thankful that we were introduced last October – I found his passion for Semarang’s history and his work as a young heritage activist truly inspiring. We still keep in touch and are planning to meet up again the next time Bama and I return to Semarang.

      May 15, 2021
  10. After reading Bama’s proud posts about his hometown’s renaissance, it’s fun to do this even deeper dive with you! It’s really incredible what has been accomplished there, and I hope it bears (even more) fruit once we all emerge from the pandemic.

    May 18, 2021
    • It is all very exciting, and the restoration of Semarang’s historic areas is setting a (mostly) good example for the rest of Indonesia. There’s a sense that more and more people in other cities around the country are beginning to take notice. What I saw there actually had me questioning my career choices – if I had the money I’d love to buy a decrepit old building in Semarang and transform it into a lovely little bakery or cultural space!

      May 21, 2021
  11. Like Lex said in the comments, I’ve read about Bama’s stories about Old Semarang and it was such a pleasure to hear it from your point of view too. Thank you for writing such a detailed article, covering your short visit with such detail.

    It sounds like Old Semarang has undergone much change over the years. Shita seems very passionate about Spiegel Bar & Bistro, with thoughtful naming and the interiors project a warm homey ambience. Always nice to start visiting a place by connecting with the locals and getting along. Yogi sounded like the perfect guide to you and Bama. Loved how you used’Vivid technicolor’ to describe the exquisite colourful glass panels in Lawang Sewu. Stunning artwork. It must also be a pleasure to visit See Hoo Kiong which was built so long ago and still stands today with much history about it – and I am sure the people who stared at you and Bama were simply curious as to who you two were and nothing else 😛

    As usual, looks like you and Bama ate well on your travels. That boneless grilled milkfish and old-school ice-cream looked like treats 🙂

    June 6, 2021
    • Thank you so much, Mabel! I’m glad you enjoyed this post as much as you did. I would have liked to keep it a bit shorter but there were just too many interesting anecdotes I couldn’t leave out. Shita had such foresight to buy the Spiegel building and restore it to its former glory… at the time people told her she was mad for doing it, but just imagine what they must be thinking now! Property prices in the Old Town have gone through the roof and others are trying to emulate Spiegel’s example.

      The boneless grilled milkfish was delicious but oh so very spicy. Not a problem for Bama, though it did make me break out in a sweat! I think you’d be fine with it given your Malaysian upbringing. 😉 Most of my extended family in Hong Kong wouldn’t be able to tolerate all those chopped bird’s-eye chilies.

      June 7, 2021
      • If you got passion and you pursue it, it can certainly work out – like Shita and I am sure she will get many more lovely customers like you.

        While I had a Chinese/Malaysian upbringing, I can’t tolerate much spiciness. Definitely can’t tolerate bird’s eye chilies 😂

        June 8, 2021

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