Saturday, January 17, 2004

Reflections on a Forgotten City

Reflections on a Forgotten City

Last night I had dinner at Toko Oen, an old crumbling colonial building along Jalan Pemuda in Semarang. Inside, on its wood-paneled walls, hung old photos recalling grander times. It is a miracle that the place was still surviving: only the older Chinese middleclass families now gathered here for the occassional family celebration. That night some of them were obviously in a celebratory mood, seizing the mike from the singer and crooning passionate hits of bygone years.

I enjoyed the atmosphere there, nostalgic with its fading traces of colonial past--the ornate lamps, the slow-rotating celing fans and the rusting piano in the corner. I nursed my Bintang beer slowly and took the opportunity to rest my tired limbs that were aching from a whole day of wandering in the streets of Semarang.

Despite being an important port city on the north coast of Central Java, Semarang felt like a forgotten city. Its colonial heritage--the areas around the old city near the Tawang railway station--looked destitute and neglected, its canals stagnant and choked with foul-smelling refuse. The street population seemed to consist only of sweaty and swarthy labourers, carting goods, pedalling becaks and hawking petty goods in the streets. The rich middleclass huddled in the comforts of the hills in the south.

Simpang Lima, which is the new center of Semarang is but a monotony of malls: Ciputra, Ramayana and Matahari. But the people seem to prefer the kitsch consumerism of malls than the decaying monuments of the past. Despite its apparent bustle, Simpang Lima is just a tiresome distraction--the real soul of Semarang lies elsewhere, perhaps lost forever.

If Semarang still has a soul, it is borne by the labouring classes. This morning as I was having my brunch at the Warung Makan Barokah behind Pasar Johar, I observed the becak riders outside who were taking a respite from their morning exertions. A small piece of greasy cake and a glass of tea at the roadside warung is what most of them seemed to have for their afternoon meal. I had seen these roadside warungs in Solo, Jogja and now Semarang, with is selection of cakes and tiny packets of rice (laced with tiny bits of salty tempe or sambal). Now I knew who their consumers were. I felt slightly guilty at the gluttony of my nasi gudeg brunch.

But my appetite was voracious all the way back to Jakarta over the six-hour train journey. I had two meals on the train itself in between listening to my keroncong cassette and reading Colin Thubron. I arrived in Jakarta still longing for another bite.

As the bajaj swooped me past familiar Jalan Sabang back to my hotel, the bright lights of Jakarta seemed like such stark contrast to the bleakness of Semarang: for the first time, Jakarta felt like it was full of promise and hope. It is perhaps this promise and hope that lured many people from forgotten towns all over Indonesia to Jakarta--swelling its population to over 10 million--in search of a better life. I was happy to be back in Jakarta.

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