Semarang: `Little Holland'
tries to came alive

M. Taufiqurrahman, The Jakarta Post, Semarang

Always renowned as a bustling port city, Semarang is rarely considered an inviting place to stop and take in the sights. Nevertheless, the legacy from the Central Java capital's history of commercial activities, in all its long-lost glory, today holds potential as a tourist attraction.

Founded in 1547, Semarang's strategic geographical position at the marine crossroads between the bustling Strait of Malacca and Maluku's spice islands drew foreign traders, Chinese and Dutch among others, to make the city their hub for commercial ventures.

It is the long-standing foreign connection that has left an indelible mark on the city, with many examples of the interesting blend of European and tropical architecture that developed from the mid-19th century to the 1930s.

The legacy is to be found in Kota Lama -- the old city --, a sprawling 40-hectare area in the eastern part of Semarang (a few old structures can also be found in downtown).

Most famous of all is Gereja Blenduk, so named for its prominent bowl-like dome, which is the oldest Christian church in Central Java. Built by the Dutch community in the 1753, it is also home to an 18th century organ which, unfortunately, is in a state of disrepair.

The church, also known as Immanuel, on Jl. Suprapto is still active, with a congregation consisting of over 200 families and regular Sunday services.

Across the street stands a three-story building currently occupied by an insurance company, just as it was during colonial times. The building, formerly the Nilmij office, was designed by renowned Dutch architect Thomas Karsteen -- who also designed Kota railway station in Jakarta -- in 1916.

The building was the first modern construction in Semarang and also the first to use a manually operated lift.

Next door to it is a building formerly used as a courthouse by the Dutch. The high-roofed building was once rich with European and Chinese ornaments, but is now in a dilapidated condition, the haunt of homeless people during the day and sex workers at night.

In the vicinity of Gereja Blenduk stands a two-story European-style building known simply as Marba, which many consider the most beautifully designed in the area. The red-brick building, currently used as an office for a political party, was formerly a European-only supermarket.

The old city also has features the legacy of Oei Tiong Ham (1866-1924), a tycoon during the colonial period. An example is his headquarters on Jl. Kepodang, from where the tycoon ran his sugar, property and opium business empire.

The building, obviously aimed at displaying its owner's great wealth, was built with top-notch materials and was a breakthrough in construction design at the time. Some of the features of the building, such as marble-coated chairs, are still in use.

In the downtown area, the very beautiful building known as Lawang Sewu (1,000 doors), once the Dutch railway office, stands in faded grandeur among the cluster of modern structures.

The appreciation of what Kota Lama has to offer is a relatively new development. After the occupation of the Dutch East Indies by the Japanese in 1942 and Indonesia's independence, Kota Lama became a ghost town.

It was only in 1993 that the old city started to come to life when private businesses used some of the buildings as their offices and warehouses.

""When we decided to start a revitalization program of the old city back in 1993, most of the buildings were in a dire condition. This huge Oei Tiong Ham's warehouse, for instance, was badly damaged from sea water intrusion and rampant looting by locals,"" said Bambang Esty Prasetyo, an activist from the non-governmental organization Old City Foundation (Yakoma).

Prior to 1996, 80 percent of the old buildings were dilapidated, according to the foundation's data. Conditions have improved; 50 percent of the buildings are now considered to be in an improved state.

He said that reconstruction and the revitalization of the old city had to be conducted in stages, but was dependent on the will of relevant government agencies.

""A brick road instead of asphalted one was constructed by local public works agency with a loan from the World Bank, while the construction of a water reservoir to curb sea water intrusion was possible only after the state-owned railway company (KAI) handed over its plot of land in the vicinity of Tawang train station,"" said Bambang, himself the owner of the Marabunta building, which during the colonial times was one of two opera houses in Semarang.

Another problem hampering preservation efforts is that the buildings are private property, either owned by individuals or businesses, said architect Wirjani Rahardjo.

""The foundation (Yakoma) had no authority to tell owners whether or not they should maintain the building in their original form,"" she said.

As a consequence, some old buildings were simply demolished to make room for new establishments.

The Semarang municipal government has thrown its weight behind efforts to bring the old city to life by issuing a bylaw, which includes the stipulation that any vehicles weighing over 3,000 kilograms are prohibited from passing through the old city complex.

It also banned the erection of large billboards in any part of the old city.

""However, the bylaw alone is not enough, the government needs to do more. It must also strive to attract more businesspeople to invest in the old city,"" said Wirjani, herself born in the old city but whose family moved out after a devastating flood.

She said the investment could spur commercial activities in the area and would attract more people.

""If the business is lucrative enough in the old city, then the building owners could generate a healthy profit, some of which they could allocate for preserving the buildings,"" she said.

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