Surabaya's historic quarters
Originally published in Venture magazine, January 2011
I pick my way through the puddles, step lightly over broken packing cases, and dodge a passing becak. The street is wet after the recent rain. Century-old shop-houses rise on either side with arched windows and narrow balconies. Shutters stand open to dark interiors full of bulging sacks. The red splash of a Chinese calendar shows in the gloom on a back wall.
I have made my way along this same street many times, camera and notebook in hand, hunting out historical relics and colorful photo opportunities, but there is always some side alley still to be explored. I duck down a likely one, and there right in front of me is a magnificent building that I have never seen before – two storeys raised on columns with intricate ironwork balustrades. A century ago it would have been the home of a wealthy Chinese trader. Today it is slowly crumbling; decades of traffic fumes have left a grey patina on the walls, and a ramshackle food-stall has sprouted from the façade. A limp “for sale” banner hangs over the entranceway. This is Old Surabaya, the historic quarter of what was once the most important city in the Dutch East Indies, and on every alleyway there are forgotten treasures like this, slowly giving way to dereliction with each passing wet season. This is why it’s a place where I love to wander, hunting out these melancholy reminders of a bygone age…
Surabaya, capital of East Java, Indonesia’s second largest city, and a swirling metropolitan mass of congestion and construction, is better known for traffic jams and shopping malls than for tangible history. But three kilometers north of the modern downtown is an area forgotten by more recent developments. This was the heart of the original city, a trading port that grew up on the banks of the Kalimas River. On the west bank a European quarter sprouted from the 17th Century, with Dutch-style, hipped roofs and sturdy walls. Across the water was Chinatown, a warren of steamy alleyways and red temples; to the north lay the Arab Quarter, built around the city’s oldest mosque, and along the river was the port, with its white schooners from Sulawesi and beyond. Though the whole place is slowly falling to pieces today, this is still one of the most extensive historical areas of any Indonesian city, with endless opportunities for wandering street photographers and history buffs.
Old Surabaya starts in Chinatown. The names of the roads here – Rubber Street, Tea Street, Chocolate Street – hint at past imports, and tucked between old shops and homes there are Chinese clan-houses with bowed rooflines, and temples built by the first settlers from the Chinese mainland, many centuries ago. The oldest – the Hok An Kiong – stands on the corner of Chocolate Street. It is dedicated to the Goddess of Seafarers. There is always a gaggle of old men hanging around here whenever I wander by, and they always call me in for a chat and a drink.
The biggest temple lies further north, on an alleyway of mechanics’ shops. The Kong Co Kong Tik Cun Ong is a complex of dark, smoky chambers where three-meter-high candles flicker in the incense-scented gloom and old women go quietly through their prayers. Dragons writhe on the roofs, and bug-eyed lions guard the gateways.
North of Chinatown there is a great maze of alleyways around Pasar Pabean, the biggest traditional market in Surabaya. Here ramshackle residential quarters sit cheek by jowl with ranks of fruit and vegetable stalls, and a massive, bustling fish market. But above the dust and noise and the Madurese women in bright bandanas hawking garlic and onions, there are the upper storeys of fine commercial buildings from the days when wealthy people did their shopping here.
I often pause here to take a photo or scribble a note, before hopping into a becak to carry me out to some other quarter. Becaks, the three-wheeled Indonesian version of the cycle-rickshaw, are the workhorses of Old Surabaya. Peddled by men with iron calf muscles, they carry both people and great bundles of produce. Many are spectacularly decorated, with metalwork painted in colorful patterns. A becak ride along narrow, potholed streets is the best ways to wend your way through the old city.
A becak often carries me to Ampel, the Arab Quarter. From the 16th Century onwards traders from the hard brown hills of Yemen settled here, opening shops to sell the produce of their homeland – dates, cloth, perfume and religious books. Their descendants are still here, and the atmosphere of a Middle Eastern Souk still lingers in the street that leads to the grand Ampel Mosque.
Much of the palpable history in Old Surabaya is fading slowly from the scene. Elsewhere – especially in Singapore and Malaysia – old quarters have been saved from collapse; Chinese-style buildings have been repainted in bright pastel colors, and one-time time colonial shop-houses have been turned into boutique hotels. As I wander through these alleyways, however, that kind of thing seems like a distant dream – though I hope that one day the authorities will realize the value of all this heritage before it is gone forever. For now, however, there is a gritty authenticity in these old streets, and the ever-present chance to stumble on some fresh surprise, some grand mansion abandoned to the ghosts, or some quiet family scene played out in halls that once must have echoed to the sound of accumulating coin, when Surabaya was a wealthy port mentioned in the same breath as Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore…
And there is one part of the Old City where a direct link to that past still remains strong. Once I have toured the Chinese temples, ridden a becak, and bought a bag of dates from the great-grandson of an immigrant Yemeni, I cut west through quiet lanes until I reach the sluggish channel of the Kalimas. It is still a place for ships from other places to drop anchor, and on its final reaches, before the city gives way to the sea, I wander along a dockside lined with magnificent white schooners, still built to the lines of the original Bugis phinisi from Sulawesi. Here, a world away from the air-conditioned chain stores of the downtown shopping malls, barefoot sailors are padding up bouncing gangplanks, and tossing wrapped bundles down into dark holds, cargoes set for far off places beyond the Java Sea. Here, with the sun slanting away to the west and the becaks trundling homewards, the trade and the connections that first made this place a city continues – the original heart of Old Surabaya is still beating…
© Tim Hannigan 2011