Monday, 9 February 2009

Surabaya's Chinatown

The history and architecture of Surabaya's Chinese quarter

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe, 09/02/09

The chaos of urban Indonesia withdraws respectfully at the threshold of the Boen Bio temple. Jalan Kapasan, an arrow-straight thoroughfare that cuts across the north of Surabaya, is a maelstrom of bikes, becaks and bemos, but as I step from the cracked pavement through a lion-flanked gateway beneath a heavy, double-tiered roof, all that seems to fall away. Inside there is an air of cool, quiet calm.

Surabaya, the capital of East Java Province and Indonesia’s second biggest city, is well known as a place of gargantuan shopping malls and chronic gridlock. But a couple of kilometers north of all that stressful modernity is a crumbling old quarter, thick with the history of what was once the most important port of the Dutch East Indies. The biggest, and most architecturally rich, part of the old city is its Chinatown.

This hot morning, I have chosen to start my tour through Chinese Surabaya here at Boen Bio, because it is not your average Chinese temple. The difference is obvious as soon as I enter. The familiar dark, smoky fog and imposing statues are absent. This place, with its shuttered Dutch windows and shining expanse of tiled floor, is simple, almost austere.

An elderly man with a wispy white beard and gray eyes shuffles from the shadows. His name is Bio Kong; he looks after this place. Bio Kong explains just what is so unusual about Boen Bio. Most Chinese temples offer a deep red brew of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and ancestor worship. But this place is a purely Confucian temple, the largest in Southeast Asia, Bio Kong proudly tells me. Here the usual painted scenery and deity statues are replaced by simple carved tablets. Rows of delicate china cups filled with offerings of green tea are lined along the altar.

The temple was built in 1906 to serve Hokkien immigrants from Fujian, replacing an earlier building nearby. The floor tiles, Bio Kong tells me, were imported from Holland. He says that his own father came to Surabaya in the early years of the 20th century, and that Hokkien is his first language.
“But not many people here speak Hokkien these days,” he says sadly. And not many people come to Boen Bio. Confucianism, more a system of philosophy than a religion, came under suspicion in Indonesia in the past and many followers drifted away to join other faiths. But around 40 worshipers still come to the temple each Sunday. Bio Kong motions to a stack of folding chairs in a corner that will be arranged in rows for the sermon. A ceremony here, it seems, has a good deal in common with a Christian church service.

I leave Bio Kong carefully brushing the dust from between candles and teacups, and step back out into the rising heat of the morning. A hundred meters west of Boen Bio, a great red Chinese gateway spans the street, with a white guard lion at each corner and a pair of dragons writhing along the top. This marks the start of Jalan Kembang Jepun. The name means “Street of the Japanese Flowers,” a coy reference to the days when this road was lined with brothels staffed by pale beauties from Japan. It is still the center of Chinatown, but today it is lined with hardware shops and bakeries, and the Japanese flowers have all gone. So I make a right turn, dodging between rattling becaks, and walk north along an alleyway of dusty sunlight and dark workshops.

The smell of incense hits me before I see the Kong Co Kong Tik Cun Ong. This 18th century temple, hemmed in by decaying shophouses, is the largest in the old city, with a plethora of altars heavy with gilded Buddhas. Huge red candles, taller than a grown man, stand in flickering columns and fearsome guardian deities watch the doorways. Offerings of fruit stand in the patches of soft light and joss sticks leach steady coils of fragrant smoke. Strips of Chinese script hang from the walls and the ceilings are black with centuries of candle grease.
The temple is quiet this morning, with just one old woman praying in the smoky darkness. Many of Surabaya’s ethnic Chinese population have long since abandoned this quarter and its temples for the suburbs and Christianity. But as I head along a shady alley beyond the temple I glance through an open doorway and catch a glimpse of a family shrine marked with red and gold, indicating old traditions are still kept here.

Picking my way through ever narrower lanes I hear the sound of hammering and come across a workshop where stonemasons are etching gravestones with Chinese lettering.
Until 1994, the public display of Chinese writing was banned in Indonesia, part of a raft of anti-Chinese regulations from the early years of Suharto’s New Order — the same rules that saw the congregation of Boen Bio dwindle, and that by 1968 alone had seen some 160,000 Surabaya Chinese bow to official pressure to change their original Chinese name to something more “Indonesian.” These laws have been dropped now though, and signs in Mandarin mark these workshops.
I stop to speak to one of the stonemasons, working on an elaborate headstone. He is Javanese, he tells me, and cannot read Chinese. He shows me the scrap of paper from which he is copying the characters. I ask if he ever makes a mistake and he grins: “Never!”

I return to the western end of Jalan Kembang Jepun, marked by another dragon-capped gateway. Just beyond the gateway is the Kalimas River, the crooked spine of the city, sluggish and brown, here in its final reaches.
The river is spanned by Jembatan Merah, the Red Bridge. This bridge — clogged with traffic today — is a key location in Surabaya folklore as the claimed site of the mythical battle between a shark and a crocodile, a sura and a buaya, that gave the city its name. It was here too, in October 1945, that the British Brig. Mallaby was assassinated, opening the ferocious Battle of Surabaya and ensuring that the area became a key place in the story of Indonesia’s independence.
The bridge also marks one of the key divisions of the old city — the boundary between Chinatown and the Dutch colonial district.

The oldest records of a settlement at the mouth of the Kalimas River actually come from the chronicles of wandering Chinese seafarers in the 13th century, and there were Chinese trading communities in the vicinity from the city’s earliest years. Until Surabaya came under Dutch control in the 17th century the main Chinese settlement was along the coast at Gresik. But as Surabaya grew, more Chinese traders arrived, settling on the east bank of the Kalimas, across the water from the Dutch. Official hostility during the New Order years had long-established precedents.
During the colonial era Chinese were considered “foreign Orientals,” a step up the legal and social ladder from mere “natives.” But allegations of clannishness and financial acumen made the colonial authorities nervous. In Surabaya and other cities the Chinese were confined to specific quarters, banned from owning property elsewhere. Until 1918 Surabaya’s Chinese were not allowed to live or work outside the network of teeming alleyways east of the Red Bridge. This restrictive policy actually helped create Surabaya’s distinctive Chinatown.

I pick my way south from the Red Bridge, sweating in the heat. This area was the real heart of the old Chinese trading quarter, and there are many fine buildings with heavy columns and sagging rooflines. There are Chinese clan-houses as old as Surabaya itself here, and peering through dark doorways I see piles of rough sacks and red candles flickering in the gloom. Twenty years ago there were tentative plans to restore this part of the city — perhaps with the sanitized tourist markets of Singapore’s Chinatown in mind. But the idea was forgotten in the economic collapse of the late 1990s, and today arched windows and delicate balconies are crumbling under a century of grime. The names of the alleyways here hint at a past when goods were unloaded straight from the river — Rubber Street, Tea Street, Sugar Street and Chocolate Street.

On the corner of Chocolate Street stands another temple — the Hok An Kiong. Smoke wafts from incense braziers outside, and a pair of ferocious looking warrior statues flank the imposing red doorway. In the inner chamber elderly women in loose cotton blouses bustle around the altar, lighting great bunches of joss sticks, bowing and kneeling.
An old man named Budi offers me a place to sit and a much-needed glass of water. This temple, he tells me, is the oldest in Surabaya, dating from the early 18th century. Like the names of the surrounding streets, the Hok An Kiong has its roots in ocean-going trade: the temple is dedicated to the guardian goddess of seafarers.
After chatting with Budi and catching my breath in the shady interior of the temple I hop into a waiting becak and rattle through the last of the narrow streets to Pasar Atom. This decidedly unglamorous warren of hole-in-the-wall shops is at the bottom of Surabaya’s shopping mall hierarchy. It is a favorite haunt of lower-middle-class Chinese Indonesians, and its top floor food court has some of the best Chinese food in the city. It also marks the southern boundary of the historic Chinatown. But there is one more place I want to see before my tour of Surabaya’s Chinese history is over.

From Pasar Atom I head south by motorbike, pausing on Jalan Jagalan, a little secondary Chinatown with its temple and traditional apothecaries. Rising above the rooftops in a quiet suburb nearby I see my final destination.
The architecture is unmistakably Chinese — three tiers of green tiles and red buttresses rising into a hot sky. It is a new building — not unusual; there are other modern Chinese temples in Surabaya. But it is only when you get close enough to see the object at the very top of the pagoda roof that you realize what this place actually is. The triple-arched outline of shining brass at the crown of the building reminds me for a moment of the dragons on the gates of Chinatown. But it is not a dragon; it is the Name of God — in Arabic. This is a mosque.
The Mesjid Cheng Hoo was built in 2002 by the Chinese Muslim Association of Indonesia as a radical expression of a fact once almost taboo: that there have long been Chinese Muslims in the archipelago.
Chinese connections with Indonesia predate the coming of Islam — at least as far back as the 7th century Sriwijaya Empire — and the earliest references to many Indonesian cities come from Chinese archives. Later, some Chinese settlers married into local Muslim aristocracies. And Chinese travelers may actually have played a significant role in bringing Islam to Indonesia. The Cheng Ho Mosque is named after the famous Chinese Muslim admiral who sailed through the archipelago in the 15th century. There is even a theory — a controversial one — that Sunan Ampel, one of the legendary early emissaries of Islam in Java, and unofficial patron saint of Surabaya’s Muslims, was actually from China.

The courtyard is completely deserted in the midday heat. Clouds are beginning to gather to the west of the city.I pause in the shade of the mosque, relishing the ghost of a cooling breeze that passes through its open archways. Everything about the design of the place reminds me of the temples I have visited earlier in the morning — the colors, the columns and the bowed rooflines. But the circular windows are filled with intricate Arabic tracery. I decide that this is the perfect place to end my journey through the architecture of Surabaya’s Chinese past — with a reminder that the Chinese connection in the history of this city, and this country, extends far beyond the confines of Chinatown.

© Tim Hannigan 2008

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