Friday, 25 April 2008

Melting Pot of East Java

The old quarters of Surabaya, Java, Indonesia
Originally published in Bali and Beyond Magazine, November 2007

Indonesia’s second biggest city, the capital of East Java, and the closest major urban centre to Bali (just a 30 minute flight away), Surabaya stands on the north coast of Java between the towering green volcanoes of the interior, and the long, low island of Madura offshore. Originally an outpost of the great Majapahit Empire, and later the principal trading port of the Dutch East Indies, Surabaya was only eclipsed by Jakarta as Indonesia’s premier city in the 20th Century. A place with such an illustrious past should have something to show for it, and Surabaya certainly does. But the city is endlessly bad-mouthed by tourist guidebooks, and few visitors bother to stop there. This is a real shame, for those who take the time to go beyond the bustling downtown area with its plethora of shopping malls, banks and international hotels will find another city altogether where the pulse of the old world still beats.

The backbone of Surabaya is the Kalimas River, (“River if Gold” in Indonesian). It snakes through the city from south to north finally emerging into the Madura channel in the great port at the head of Surabaya. The modern heart of the city is the network of wide avenues around Jalan Pemuda. It’s here that you will find the malls and the hotels, but the original settlement lay some two kilometres further north, an area which still oozes with history.

As a port city Surabaya was always a melting pot, and even today its diversity is obvious in the faces of the people. Immigrants flocked to Surabaya over the centuries, as traders, manual labourers and fortune-seekers. The biggest minority has always been the Chinese and today Surabaya’s old Chinatown sprawls into quiet alleyways around the thoroughfare of Jalan Kembang Jepun. The main street is marked by great red and green Chinese gates, guarded by lion statues. Turn right or left here and you will find rows of quietly decaying shop-houses. They are not restored or prettified for tourists like in Singapore, but peer through the dark doorways and you will catch glimpses of candles burning before family alters, and sacks piled against walls in the warehouses of old-style traders. Here and there a bowed roof of heavy ceramic tiles marks a Chinese clan house.
Most of Surabaya’s huge Chinese population is Christian now, but Chinatown is the heart of the old Chinese religion, a blend of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. The aromatic smell of incense hits you long before you reach the centuries-old Kong Co Kong Tik Cun Ong temple on a narrow alleyway north of Jalan Kembang Jepun. Here huge, three-metre high candles burn in the darkness, and worshippers kneel and bow before bronze statues. Offerings of fruit stand on the alters, and joss sticks leach thin coils of sweet smoke. Not far away another temple, the Hok An Kiong is full of bright red and gold colour. This area has some of the finest examples of old Chinese architecture, and the street names hint at the old import-export trade of the area: Rubber Street, Chocolate Street, Sugar Street and Tea Street.
Further north from Chinatown is the vast Pasar Pabean market, one of the biggest traditional markets in Indonesia. At its heart is a huge covered area full of vegetables. The ground underfoot is thick with onions skins and the air is rich with the smells of garlic and spices. Tiny, cheerful women in bright clothes dash about the market carrying huge loads on their heads. At the western end of Pasar Pabean is a bustling fish market where every afternoon the freshest catches from the Java Sea are sold. Wander through this area and you will see everything from tiny prawns to huge tuna fish and even sharks. North and south the market sprawls on through tiny alleyways where everything imaginable is sold.

The streets of Old Surabaya are far removed from the traffic chaos of downtown. Walking is a pleasure here, but an even better option is to travel by becak. This is the heartland of the old-style pedicab, a human-powered passenger tricycle. becak drivers loiter on every street corner, their vehicles often spectacularly decorated. For a few thousand rupiah you can travel at a leisurely pace through the alleyways.

Beyond Pasar Pabean is another area full of echoes of Surabaya’s trading past. The Arab Quarter is a warren of narrow streets knotted around the great Ampel Mosque, the oldest and most sacred in Surabaya.
Like the Chinese, the Arabs – most originally from Yemen – arrived in the city over many centuries, drawn by the trade routes that carried spice and other goods across the Indian Ocean. The area, known as Ampel, became their ghetto, and even today it has all the atmosphere of a Middle Eastern bazaar. Hole-in-the-wall shops are presided over by tall, hawk-nosed men selling Tunisian dates, pistachios and sultanas. Brightly coloured prayer beads and embroidered rugs hang from the awnings, and the scent of rosewater and perfume cuts the air. The heart of the Arab Quarter is the narrow pedestrian alleyway that leads to the mosque. Covered in like the souks of Damascus and Marrakech, and hung about with bright cloths, batiks and beads, it eventually opens to the courtyard of the Ampel Mosque, built by Sunan Ampel, one of the venerated holy-men of Java. Sunan Ampel’s grave is next to the mosque, and the garden with its low frangipani trees is always busy with pilgrims.

If Surabaya is famous for one thing, it’s food. And though the modern city offers plenty of opportunities for fine dining, the old quarter gives a chance to sample more traditional cuisine. There is mouth-watering Arab-style roast lamb on sizzling hotplates from simple cafes in Ampel; on any street in early evening the delicious scent of sate (skewered chicken, beef or lamb) sizzling over charcoal whets the appetite, and all manner of sweet concoctions are available. But the ultimate in al-fresco dining can be had every night back in Chinatown. Jalan Kembang Jepun is closed to traffic and as the sun sets the street takes on a new name: Kya-Kya. After dark Kya-Kya bursts into action as a huge spread of food stalls and outdoor cafes. Take a seat at any of the tables laid out on the tarmac to try traditional Chinese, Indonesian, and even Western food. Seafood is a speciality. Street entertainers wind their way between the tables and you can reflect on your day of wandering amid the history of the old city.
There is no doubt that Surabaya is a rewarding stop for culture vultures, photographers and inquisitive wanderers, and when you’re done with old city, there are some great shopping opportunities in all those malls!

© Tim Hannigan 2008


rach said...

Thanks Tim - really interesting article. I loved your story about driving around the old town at nighttime too.

Rachel said...

Hi Tim;

Thanks again for your great writing. We're sitting in Surabaya, reading the Jakarta Post over breakfast, and enjoying a walk down memory lane while we read all about Cornwall. Slightly surreal, but very enjoyable!


Tim Hannigan said...

Glad you enjoyed it!
And I hope you are enjoying life in Surabaya.
I'm still based in the UK at the moment (cold - very cold, but I'm planning to be back based in Surabaya by the middle of next year - plenty more still to write about in that part of the world!