Surabaya Stunner: The Majapahit
As we gathered at the gate in Singapore, Jonathan and I were probably the only Caucasians at the gate. We are both tall white farts, and I hate having to wear the label TOURIST on my forehead. (Now that a week has gone by, I am getting used to being stared at, especially in the more inland parts of Java: it’s not a hostile stare we get. On the contrary, people are just naturally curious and when I smile in public (something I have learned to do consciously in the US), many faces break into a smile). I have never met this many Indonesians but the words that come to mind consistently are grace, elegance and gentleness. This may be just veneer, as there is a violent strain in Indonesian society, too, but all our encounters have been warm and friendly.
We were flying Garuda, an airline that used to have a bad reputation but that has been climbing the ranks and is now one of the better airlines in the world. Even though the flight was short, we got an entire meal and the booze was free. Jon was raving about the meal, until the woman next to him start throwing up for which she apologized…
Aside from the food and modest puke in our row, we were also impressed with the movies that were offered onboard. I decided to watch Sukarno, an Indonesian-made movie about the founding father of the Republic and first president of Indonesia. The Dutch that is spoken in the movie sounds like a foreign language to me, acted out by characters in the wrong kinds of colonial gear and Sukarno is a smoldering, enigmatic character (couldn’t finish the movie as the flight was short). The sound was bad, too, so I didn’t quite catch it all, but the vibe I got was that Sukarno may be falling off his pedestal. His collaboration with the Japanese, and especially his involvement regarding the fate of the Indonesian romusha (forced laborers who were shipped all over Asia by Japan and whose death rates were staggering) was being touched upon, and while watching it, I was wondering whether the movie was considered controversial in Indonesia.
Once we touched down in Surabaya, we expected a third-world airport but it was clean and efficient. Our driver, Johnny (a wonderful Indonesian who speaks better Dutch than English) was waiting for us with his Dutch friend/boss Jo who has been living in Indonesia since the 1970s.
Hitting the road, we were mobbed by mopeds. Many people in Indonesia may not own a car but a moped is a good compromise, and just as Americans use their cars for everything (mail letters, eat meals, apply make-up, make love), Indonesians use their mopeds to transport entire families, bags of rice, little bags with goldfish,
and yes, I even saw a woman nursing her baby on the back of a moped. This moped mafia owns the road: they pass you left, right and center, speed like crazy and come towards you in traffic like kamikaze pilots.
“So this is why,” I said to Jon, “You really need a driver in Indonesia…”
There are other reasons for getting a driver: if you end up in an accident, the foreigner is always at fault and if you don’t bribe the police you might end up in jail. Every time Johnny was stopped, whether by the police or ferry police to Bali, he gave his papers, with a hidden banknote, a sure way to avoid trouble.
Even though it was 10 at night, the streets were vibrant with people– not so much walking about, but sitting on sidewalks in that typical hunched pose of the Javanese, a pose I remember from all the colonial novels I have read.
We expected the roads to be bad but guess what, everywhere we went, the roads were fine and in better shape than California roads, but for those of you who live in California, that ain’t saying much: we have some of the worst roads in all of America, if not the entire world.
As Johnny was weaving through traffic in a way that was both scary but made us feel safe for the most part, Jo did most of the talking, pointing out landmarks and talking about life in Indonesia. Surabaya, an industrial city and the second largest city in Java after Jakarta, is a large and industrial town where most tourists probably don’t come to see the sites. Already in colonial times, Dutch novelist Louis Couperus complained that it was a place to do business, but not a place to dwell in for long. It was sprawling, chaotic and dirty for sure, but I had expected worse and the traffic actually moved along, which is a difference with a place like Jakarta which is, from what I hear, a total cluster fuck when it comes to traffic congestion.
I had an extremely strange sensation when we entered the Darmo Boulevard, which used to be the Dutch part of town where you can still find decaying colonial art nouveau villas, whose once-whitewashed walls are now mostly covered with a green and black mold. Others may have caved-in roofs and overgrown gardens. The colonial era in Indonesia has left plenty of buildings but after 70 years of complete neglect, these buildings are rotting away to underscore the feeling perhaps of how the Indonesians really feel about the Dutch…
The strange sensation I felt in this neighborhood was that I recognized the streets (although they now all have Indonesian names) and certain buildings. Mind you, my sense of direction is extremely poor (I sometimes even walk into the wrong direction when exiting a bathroom I have never been in before), but when I was doing research for my book, I had pored over old photographs and maps and some of that residual memory now came back as if I had lived in the city before. “We must be close to the Darmo hospital,” I whispered to Jon, whereupon Jo turned around (not having heard my comment) and said: “And here’s the old Darmo Hospital…”
Not too far from the hotel, I spotted the Simpang Club, the club for the colonial elite, which was taken over by the Indonesian revolutionaries in 1945 and used for tribunals and on-the-spot executions: all over town Dutch men and boys (most of whom had just come out of the internment camps) were rounded up, accused of being spies for the Dutch and then maimed and slaughtered: there was so much bloodshed in this club that the floors and bathrooms were slippery like the floor of a slaughterhouse.
Jo knew about the bloodbath that took place there and came with a story of his own: “In the city of Malang,” he said, “There was a beautiful home were the pelopors (revolutionaries) threw women and children out of the windows. For years the Indonesians wouldn’t touch the building because they said it was haunted with the screaming of women and children.”
The period of lawlessness and retribution that broke out right after the war is known as the Bersiap. When Dutch men, women and children were released from the Japanese internment camps and wandered out, to reappear in streets all over Java, the Indonesians feared the Dutch were coming back to recolonize and young Indonesians, who had been trained and radicalized by the anti-imperialist agenda of the Japanese (irony or ironies, as the Japanese were acting as the new imperialist the moment they put Europeans behind barbed wire) armed themselves and went on killing sprees which were at times extremely cruel and violent. This period has not entered Indonesian history books at all and most Indonesians don’t know about it, even though I think that the extreme violence of subsequent purges in Indonesia, like the communist one in the 1960s, was partially rooted in the violence of the Bersiap.
For a while, this period was also not written about much in Dutch history books as it was written off as an unfortunate period of collateral damage: there has been an attitude in the Netherlands that we had it coming to us: we had committed our own forms of genocide and atrocities over the years as colonizers, so asking some level of justice for the victims of the Bersiap was not done and shrouded in controversy. To illustrate how sensitive this still is, an Australian colleague of mine who was talking about the excessive violence of what she then called Indonesian “rebels” was corrected by a Dutch colleague: she was not allowed to call them rebels: they were “freedom fighters”, even though these fighters killed and cut off limbs from Dutch colonials, Eurasians, Chinese and anyone who was perceived as being loyal to the colonial regime.
It’s only in the last few years that I have seen a shift in the Netherlands, where there is more attention, collectively and not just historically, for the cruelties of the Bersiap. To Indonesians, the Bersiap never took place, and I have a feeling that, after 70 years, this period won’t ever stand a chance of entering the history books at all, as it soils the notion of independence, Merdeka and the reputation of the pemudas (freedom fighters) who have a statue in nearly every major city in Java.
The Majapahit, formerly the Oranjehotel, was the hotel we were staying and the hotel played an essential part in the revolution. On September 19th, 1945, the hotel, which had the Dutch flag (red, white and blue, flying from the mast/tower you see in the picture below) became the target of a group of Indonesians, who lowered the flag and tore off the blue part, to then raise the red and white of the Indonesian flag. This triggered a scuffle between some Dutch people and Indonesians, and people died on the spot. It was the beginning of more ominous things to come, a standoff really, which would erupt in the bloodshed of the Revolution on October 28th, 1945.
With the pivotal role the hotel played in the revolution, I didn’t know what to expect of this hotel: was the hotel a communication tool to tell the story of the revolution (the flag incident is in fact commemorated every year) and reject anything that smacked of colonialism and the evil Dutch, or had they done something completely different?
I was in for a surprise.
Because of a travel journal that my grandmother kept when traveling through Java with her husband in 1929 I knew that the hotel had been a favorite of hers. While they had booked only one night at the hotel (built in 1910, by an American), they danced so much and had so much fun, that they returned to the hotel for more late-night dancing and partying. After checking in at the hotel, where we were received with five-star hospitality and where we were even walked to our room, I walked by the ballroom where my grandparents had danced the nights away…
After the busy and noisy streets of Surabaya we entered one of the inner courtyards of the hotel with green lawns, white fountains and tropical flowers. It was an oasis of peace and quiet, and eerily, the hotel seemed to be a time capsule of colonial times, a period which seemed to have been extolled throughout, with in the lobby, cardboard figures of a nineteenth-century Dutch couple, holding a bike. It had holes for the faces, so guests could stick their heads through it to pose for pictures. It was so quiet in the hotel (where were all the other guests?) that when I trekked through the white corridors once more, this time with my camera, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see ghosts in 1920s dinner jackets and Charleston dresses and long pearl necklaces– the ones my grandmother wore when dancing with my grandfather. They were part of the colonial elite, living large right before the whole empire came tumbling down. 1929 was also the year that my great-grandfather, who had developed several plantations in Java and had done quite well financially, died in his house in Bloemendaal, The Netherlands, an omen perhaps of changing times, as was the fact that in the same year, Sukarno and six others, were put behind bars for inciting protests in favor of Indonesian autonomy and independence.
I was simply stunned by the period touches of the hotel (the toilets still had the old wooden seats and the flush that hangs from a chain attached to a tank in the air) which were combined with black-and-white pictures of colonial Surabaya… and memorabilia of flag-waving pemudas, standing on street barricades, fighting for independence during the revolution. Somehow tempo dulu and the rejection of the tempo dulu regime formed a bizarre juxtaposition, coming together in the Majapahit, formerly the Oranjehotel.
Absurdities like these, anachronisms, things not making sense, anything goes… it’s part of Indonesia today, or as our driver summed it up a few days later: “Fires? Fire truck always too late. Accidents? Ambulance always too late. People dying– better luck next time. Aaaaah, that’s Indonesia!”
As I walked back to the room, I wondered about my grandfather, a man who had been born in the sugar town of Jombang and who had learned to play soccer barefoot, with his famous soccer-playing brother Mannes Francken on the various plantation grounds they had lived as children. Indonesia was his motherland, and maybe he felt much more connected with exotic Indonesia than with the boring old Netherlands. Could he have foreseen, when dancing with my grandmother and inhaling the scent of tropical flowers, that all of that would be lost in less than 16 years from then, which essentially meant that this was his last trip ever to the country he was born in? I think my grandfather was completely clueless at the time and that colonial cluelessness is perfectly captured by the absorbing ambience of the Majapahit…
I took another picture while the mosquitoes were buzzing in my ears. It was time to go to bed and maybe, just maybe, it was the same colonial bed my grandparents had slept in when they were in their early thirties, dreaming, like me, of their upcoming visit to the family plantation…