Sunday, 17 January 2010

Braving Ghosts in Lawang's Haunted Hotel

A night in an East Java hotel with a spooky reputation

Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 12/01/10

Thunder crackled ominously and rain lashed down from a leaden sky.  The headlights of the trucks plying the Surabaya-Malang Highway were orange smears in the dusk; I needed to stop for the night.
The hotel loomed up to the right, a five-storey hulk of salmon-pink masonry towering over the low-rise town of Lawang.  “Hotel Niagara” read the sign above the door.
“Yes, we have a room available,” said the man at the desk, adding, with what could have been a sinister smile, “It’s on the third floor.”
The third floor?  Wasn’t that where they said the locked room never rented to guests was located?  I put the thought from my mind and followed the receptionist past an empty dining hall and up gloomy flights of tiled stairs.  There was a faint smell of furniture polish and old wood.
The room was at the back of the building.  It was enormous, with a high ceiling and its own balcony.  The receptionist handed me the key.  “Breakfast is included,” he said, and turned away, his footsteps fading along the dark corridor.  Breakfast?  I had to get through the night first…
My arrival at Hotel Niagara, seemingly plucked from the opening scenes of a scary movie, was entirely appropriate.   The suggestion of spending a night there had prompted near hysteria amongst my otherwise rational Indonesian friends.  The century-old colonial relic, about 70 kilometers south of Surabaya, was haunted, they said.  Many years ago a Dutch woman had thrown herself from one of the balconies – or perhaps she had been brutally murdered there by Japanese soldiers during the Second World War.  But whatever the details of the story, all agreed that the building was the abode of terrifying spirits.  The fifth floor, rumor had it, was so riddled with malevolent ghosts that it was closed to the public; there was a room somewhere in the hotel that had a tendency to fill with blood at night, and of course, there was that locked room on the third floor…
All that only made me more determined to go and investigate.
“Just make sure you sprinkle salt under your bed,” suggested one friend – an apparently failsafe anti-ghost measure.  “And don’t be surprised if you don’t wake up in the same place where you went to sleep,” added another…
It had all seemed rather silly at the time, but now I wasn’t so sure. 
At the back of my room was a locked door.  I tentatively slid the bolt.  Behind it was a flimsy sheet of wood.  It gave way slightly to my touch and a gust of icy air rushed over my fingers.  Could the notorious locked room lie behind it?  Apparently not: there was another occupied room beside mine; the sheet of wood merely blocked an old dividing doorway.  But there were plenty of other spooky corners.  At the head of the stairs was the entrance to the old elevator shaft.  Again the teak-and-glass doors creaked open to my touch; again there was a gust of icy air followed by a nervous retreat.
The way to the floors above was blocked by a “do not enter” sign, and beyond it a sturdy metal gate.  Through the bars I could see a corridor, and doors, half-ajar in the gloom.  The fourth and fifth floors were decidedly off limits.  What was up there?  The bleeding room?  The ghost of the Dutchwoman?    
Night had fallen.  I went back to my room and turned on the television.  No lank-haired demoness crawled out of the screen.  I took a shower.  No blood poured from the taps.  I settled down under my blanket.  Was that the distant sound of mournful singing in Dutch, or just Indonesian pop music from the television in the next room?  I wasn’t sure, but before long I was fast asleep…
Ghost stories aside the Hotel Niagara certainly has an interesting past.  Today the little town of Lawang is just a string of concrete shops.  Modern travelers from Surabaya merely shoot a nervous glance at the haunted hotel and head on to Malang, but in the colonial era Lawang itself was an upland retreat of considerable renown. 
The hotel was originally built at the turn of the twentieth century as a private villa for a wealthy local Chinese businessman, Liem Sian Joe.  The architect, Fritz Joseph Pinedo, was also responsible for various notable buildings in Surabaya, but for the villa he eschewed the usual Indo-Nederlands style for what could best be described as proto-art deco with Latinate touches.  Five storeys high and with an elevator, it was a cutting edge design of its time.
The building remained a private residence until the 1960s when Liem Sian Joe’s family, fallen on hard times, departed for the Netherlands.  The villa was sold and turned it into a hotel.  But most of the original features remain – the tile-work, wood paneling, and the window panes, still bearing the “LSJ” motif of the original owner.
Unlike other colonial era hotels in Indonesia, the Niagara has not been restored; it has been preserved.  And though the balconies may be a little mildewed and the elevator out of order, with the simplest of the 14 rooms costing only Rp75,000 per night [2010 prices] it’s both authentic and cheap – and there’s always the chance of  a haunting thrown in.
Clear-headed questions are best left for the morning, and after waking up in exactly the same place where I went to sleep I set out to quiz the hotel staff.
Two uniformed young men, Adi and Gunawan, were cleaning the room next to mine.  Were the ghost stories true, I asked them.
“I’ve been working here for two years,” said Gunawan, smiling at the familiar question; “I’ve never seen or heard or felt anything.”
“I’m still new here, but neither have I,” added Adi.
But what about the rumors – why were the upper floors closed?
“They’re under renovation,” said Gunawan.
And was it true about the locked room on this, the third floor?
They laughed: “Nonsense – we use them all; you can see if you want…”
According to Gunawan the lurid ghost stories had their origins in nothing more than the fact that the Niagara is an unusual old building.  “And the people who say those things are always people who have never stayed here,” he added.            
Their smiles were certainly reassuring, but I glanced in the direction of the locked gate and the forbidden floors.  Could it be a pact of silence?  Could they be hiding something?  Don’t be so silly, I told myself, and headed downstairs to check out.
A young woman named Ratih was on duty at reception.
“I’ve been here for seven years; I stay in the hotel 24 hours a day and I’ve never seen anything strange, and neither have any guests that I know of,” she said, then asked, with a cheeky smile, “Did you see anything?”
“Well, no…”
“Floor five was never renovated when they converted the building to a hotel, and it’s not safe.  Floor four we used to use, but now it’s just for storage.  That’s why they’re closed, not because of haunted rooms, or anything weird like that.”
I paid my bill and Ratih bade me a cheery farewell.  I went outside and started the engine of my motorbike.  The sky was already dark with rainclouds.  Apparent lack of ghosts notwithstanding, the Hotel Niagara had certainly been an interesting place to spend the night, and at least I would be able to disabuse my friends in Surabaya of their wild ideas.
There was another reassuring smile from the security man at the gate, and I glanced back over my shoulder for one last look at the towering pink-and-white fa├žade.  The lights were on on the fifth floor…

© Tim Hannigan 2010


Unknown said...

Cool !!! Interesting. Growing up, I have always heard that ghost stories and very curious about it. It turned out to be just an old building. Is the hotel well maintained ? The building used to be white, when I was a kid :)

Tim Hannigan said...

Hey there.
The three floors that they use are quite well maintained. The rooms are certainly kept clean, though there is a bit of peeling paint here and there.
If it had a proper renovation they could probably make a lot out of it as a "heritage" hotel. As it is, it's a cheap and authentic old-style place with lots of atmosphere. No ghosts though...

Jessie said...

Even in the best hotels, things go wrong occasionally.

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Kus, M said...

My family lived in the villa during the fifties. My oldest brother and sister grew up there and they played in the corridors. My parents and sibblings always told our house was haunted and ghosts showed up. P.E. while my brother was playing with a ball in the house, it seemed as if an invisible person threw the ball back to him.