If you hadn’t read of Herman Thomas Karsten before opening this paper you’re not alone. His name is seldom seen even though he supported the country’s independence and died in a Japanese prison camp.
Yet the urban planner had a major impact on more than 20 Indonesian cities, including the capital and Merdeka Square in particular. He was also largely responsible for the high-ceiling, peak roof architecture that sheds tropical rain and keeps rooms cool.
Malang could rightly be called Karstenstad because he worked in the East Java town between 1930 and 1935, creating a well laid-out metropolis that only recently has started to be despoiled by unforeseen traffic loads and reckless development.
“The Dutch made a modern city which was once said to rival Berlin, yet we seem to be ruining it,” said a frustrated Hery Kurniawan. “I ask people who I’m showing around: ‘Do you think we are going backward or forward?’”
The answer has to be the latter if only because Hery and his colleagues in Pandu Pusaka ( heritage guide ) are doing their best to remind locals that they have a grand past worthy of understanding and preserving.
“When we don’t know our history, we lose our dignity and values,” said archaeologist Ismail Lutfi who calls himself a “Nusantara heritage awareness specialist”.
“We need to treasure our traditions, to remember that we have something important and precious that we have a responsibility to preserve.”
“In the Soeharto era we were taught that history started in 1965 [the year when first president Sukarno was ousted],” Hery said. “Now we live in an open society where we should accept that our history began long ago.”
How far? Precision is difficult because records have perished and myth has married fact to produce a slippery offspring. However, 760 AD during the Mataram Kingdom seems to be widely accepted as the start of the regency.
Although Ismail, who teaches history at the Malang State University specializes in this period, he’s equally concerned with understanding the colonial past. For Malang this grew once the railway from Surabaya was completed in 1879.
This gave residents of the steamy provincial capital the chance to escape to the cool hilltown and its well established tea and tobacco plantations.
The Dutch turned Malang into a garrison town and it remains home to the Brawijaya Regiment. More recently, thousands of students from eastern Indonesia studying at scores of universities have made the city cosmopolitan.
Planner Karsten didn’t follow the European grid model when he laid out the present city, instead wrapping streets around the meandering Brantas River. At the time the Dutch were beginning to realize that plunder had to be tempered with a responsibility to provide.
About 4,000 Europeans and 23,000 Javanese lived in Malang. Now the population is close to 1 million with next to none from overseas.
Pandu Pusaka is a group of 10 amateur historians including teachers, retired public servants and a psychologist that came together 18 months ago with general practitioner Dr Hery.
They’ve developed 12 walking trails based on the Karsten blueprint that are anything but pedestrian. “There are similar trails in Jakarta and Yogya, but they’re getting to be commercial,” said Hery. “Our tours are free because we want to attract young people.”
The guides put the story into history. Forget plump burgemeesters and the dates of their drab tenure; out with the tedious, in with the titillating. Let the past live.
There’s the department store that used to be a prison. How many shoppers know criminals once cowed where boutiques blossom? Here’s the area favored by prostitutes — you won’t see them today in this buttoned-down age.
Note that Catholic high school? It was bombed by the Dutch. The town hall’s architect was inspired by the shape of a lobster, presumably to remind officials to get their pincers into residents’ wallets. And talking of aquatics, the navy has its base on this street, 444 meters above sea level.
That air-raid siren on its rusting tower stands ready to warn of Japanese Zero fighters. Here major courtyards designed to show off the majesty of a grand hotel have been filled in with shabby dwellings. Karsten’s successors must have looked the other way.
One man’s splendid vision corrupted by short-term commercial gain. The old hasn’t always been bulldozed, just upstaged, eviscerated, shrouded and forgotten by most. Though not by Hery and his history sleuths.
“We want heritage protection for the major buildings, as in Singapore,” he said. “We’ve pleaded our case with the authorities and they say: ‘That’s good. Keep on going’. But they never offer support.”
Malang seems relaxed about its colonial past. Many streets retain their old names just slightly tweaked. The city shield had European heraldic lions and the motto Malang nominor sursum moveor ( my name is Malang, my goal forward ). Or, as the fanatical supporters of soccer team Malang Arema shout: “Go Malang!”
The Dutch crest has given way to a commonplace phallic monument and the more uplifting Malang Kucecwara ( God has destroyed the evil. )
Although the adjective malang translates as “unfortunate” the city is the opposite, blessed with a rich cultural past and numerous pre-Islamic temple sites. It has two well-kept alun-alun ( town squares, though one is circular ) and many lovely streets. There’s still plenty of art deco architecture and greenery with a riverbank flower market.
Its charm overtakes the traffic curse that clogs so many Indonesian towns. Malang remains a “must-see” city.
In May thousands attend the “Malang Tempo Doeloe” ( Olden Days ) festival down the city’s magnificent boulevard,
Jl. Ijen. Many don period Dutch garb, strut like the born-to-rule and sell European snacks to universal delight for the tone is merriment, not mockery.
Despite Hery’s despair, his voice is being heard. A few restaurants and some hotels are developing heritage themes and a private museum has opened.
“We are eager and concerned about remembering the past and being proud of our city,” Ismail says.
Want to try a trail? Check the Pandu Pusaka Facebook.
— Photos by Duncan Graham