Having fun learning history in Semarang, Indonesia
Each time we travel to Indonesia, we try to visit a new place that is noted for its batik. We also look around for medium priced hotels that are a bit unusual, interesting, quirky or have some heritage background. So – a couple of years ago we decided to explore further east along the north coast of Java. The ultimate destination was Lasem city which has a very rich Javanese-Chinese history, culture and unique batik. (More on that to come) However, we decided to first explore Semarang, which is located roughly half way.
Loaded up with purchases, we decided to get Irul, a driver and friend to transport us rather than try to navigate trains or buses. First stop in Semarang was the Hotel Candi Baru (previously the Bellevue Hotel) – advertised as a heritage hotel - an old Dutch colonial building sitting on a hillside overlooking the Semarang coast. Just looking at it, one could easily start to imagine historical scenes. But this is a good news, sad-news story.
Our VIP room was around 1000 square feet (90+ square meters), the floors were finished with gorgeous Italian style tile, beautiful stained-glass windows looked onto a balcony, there was stunning wooden moulding throughout, ceilings that were nearly 20 ft (7meters) tall ...... and .... and there was barely any furniture in the room. A bed, a cupboard, a small desk, a lonely fluorescent bulb on the ceiling, the walls bare, white and kind of dirty looking. The whole hotel cried out for what seemed to us to be a not too expensive and fairly easy reno ....... paint, new fixtures, new lamps, a furniture upgrade..... some way to make the hotel worthy of its stately history.
Back to the batik hunt. Searching for batik tablecloths in Indonesia can be a bit frustrating and hard to find. Batik cloth and clothes are everywhere – but there’s only so much cloth that we can acquire! Semarang’s batik has a long history with a reputation for interesting motifs and high quality. The industry has also been in decline for some time – although there are recent efforts to revive it. We spent a couple of hours driving around the city trying to find workshops of a couple of batik makers involved in that renewal effort – with only limited success. Then we arrived at a small kampung (village) within the city where we were told we would find batiks. Got out of the car and started walking, not overly optimistic. Then a shout of delight from Charlee – this way!
And we discovered this little bit of batik land with colourful walls, and doors and plant pots and trash containers ...... asking to be explored. Small shops, residents and kids beckoned us. “Can we take a picture with you?” What is your name? Where do you come from” Then, we rounded another corner and came to a long alley way maybe 30-40 yards long with walls on both sides. On one side was a completed mural the height and length of the wall - on the other side a work in progress. Two older men, one a retired seaman the other a retired school teacher, had been working on creating a pictorial history of the city of Semarang. (Below, left to right – Luwiyanto–the artist, me (Bruce), Irul our driver-friend, and painter 2, whose name I did not get)
The mural starts in the 8th century when Semarang was still under the power of Sultanate of Mataram which was the last major independent Javanese kingdom on Java before the island was colonized by the Dutch. As the painting moves along it features ships and the arrival in the early 1400s, of Zheng He, a Chinese Muslim, the admiral of the giant fleet of ships sent out by the emperor of China. Further along were depictions of the Dutch arrival and colonial period. Then there were pictures of the Japanese colonial period. It was still a work in progress then. There will be more to see now.
Lasem awaits us.