published article: the soul of surabaya

Friday, May 01, 2020

Moesson Magazine  |  March 2020

One day in my college library, I found an old municipal yearbook of Surabaya, released in 1920s. It revealed what that trading port city was like in the past when the fusion of ethnic groups coming from as far as Europe, China, Middle East, and all around the archipelago created a cosmopolitan city in the eastern part of Java. Today, as the capital of East Java Province and home to 2,7 million people, Surabaya is rich with history and cultural diversities. 

It was not until fifteen years after I found the book that I had the chance to visit Surabaya. The city was as captivating as I had seen in the yearbook. Many old buildings, and ethnic quarters could still be traced along the river of Kali Mas, flowing from the south to the north where the port of Tanjung Perak is located. In the past, the Dutch established enclaves for European in the west side of the river, the Arab in the north east, and the Chinese in the south east. Although there is no clear physical boundary between the enclaves, the division is still clear. 

In the first morning, I let myself blend in with crowds wearing Muslim attires, rushed toward a grand mosque through a narrow street bisecting shops in the Arab Quarter. Both the mosque and the quarter are named after Sunan Ampel, one of Wali Songo – the nine Muslim saints spreading the teaching of Islam in Java in the fifteenth century. For centuries, the mosque and the ancient cemetery at its backyard have been sacred and become a huge magnet attracting visitors, not only from East Java, but also all over Indonesia. 

“This place is sacred because the people buried here had charms when they were still alive”, said Ibu Sri, a woman coming from Malang, 90 kilometer away from Surabaya who was sitting cross legged in front of a tomb when I came to the cemetery. 

“I believe their charms remain here.” She added. 

At the grand mosque, visitors had filled the place to its capacity since that morning. In the fifteenth century, when Surabaya was still part of Majapahit Empire, Sunan Ampel built this mosque. Together with his two loyal students, Mbah Soleh and Mbah Son Haji, he transformed the area into a Muslim settlement, which in the next centuries, lured traders from Middle East to settle in that part of the city. Today, their tombs become those of the most sacred ones in the cemetery. 

I was intrigued to trace the settlement. So I left the mosque, and let myself lost in perhaps, the biggest Arab quarter in Java. Walking along a roofed long corridor between shops selling Islamic books, prayer beads, perfumes, apparels, brass utensils, and smelling the strong aroma of spice coming from Arabic food restaurants, I found myself transported to a typical Middle East bazaar. But as I slowed down my walk, I could hear clearly that the people there didn’t speak Arabic. Instead, they spoke in Javanese with a thick accent of Surabaya. 

“All Arabs sailing from Hadhramaut, Yemen, to South East Asia were men. They were interracially married to local women,” told Pak Saleh, an Arab man running a book store, about his ancestors. “For generations, we have lived in this city. So yes, we are Surabayan,” he proudly declared his identity. 

I noticed that the Arabs in the past built many mosques in this quarter as part of their benefaction for the community, each was named after a clan to signify the family who built it. Of all the mosques, the one of Bafadhol clan was the most remarkable one. It appeared in old postcards of Surabaya, and in the historical photograph showing Arab community celebrating Queen Wilhemina’s coronation in 1898. I stopped by at the mosque, stepped slowly to the prayer room which looked like a dark chamber. The creaky sounds came out as I walked on the wood floor as it had been leaked due to its age. Apparently, there was no significant effort to conserve this heritage. 

Later that afternoon, I walked about 400 meter southward to the temple of Hong Tiek Hian in Chinese quarter. The temple, built in the late 13th century by the troops of Kublai Khan who attempted to conquer Java, was the oldest one in Surabaya. Every traveller visiting this city should put this place on their list, not just for the sake of its history, but also for the traditional puppet show of Poo Tay Hie. 

I came right in the middle of the show held at the main hall, which was dark and mostly covered with dusk. During the break, I stepped up to the backstage and found that the team comprising a puppet player, a narrator, and two traditional Chinese instrument players, was all Javanese. 

“Poo Tay Hie is part of our culture, Indonesian culture. We need to preserve this for the next generations,” said Eddy the narrator. 

Before dark, I walked to another historical Chinese temple of Boen Bio on Jalan Kapasan. Unlike Chinese temples in common, I didn’t find any statue of Buddha or other deity figures. 

“Have you heard about the Three Teachings?” asked Pak Budhi, a regular visitor whom I met that afternoon. 

“It’s an ancient Chinese philosophy referring to Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism as one single aggregate,” he added. 

“Most Chinese temples you have seen are of that philosophy. Here, we only practice Confucianism.” 

The temple, built in the early twentieth century, is considered by many as the last strongholds of Confucians struggling to preserve their ancient faith amongst the rapid changes of religion in Chinese community. 

In the following morning, I returned to explore more the Chinese quarter. Like the Arabs, the Chinese have dwelled in this place for centuries. They built shop houses, temples, and clan houses. Before I came to Surabaya, I had heard about the clan house of Han and wondered if it was related with Han Siong Kong, the man sailing from China to Java, becoming the first Han in the island, and ending up cursing all his descendants from living in Lasem, the town where his remain was buried. 

From outside, the clan house, built in the 18th century, looked like a warehouse heavily covered with dust, but inside, I found a treasure. The floor of its spacious semi open prayer hall was covered with Italian marbles, and the wrought iron columns were made in Glasgow, Scotland. 

“During Chinese festivals, the family gather here to pray the ancestors,” said Noni, the caretaker. She brought me to a huge painting of a man wearing a grand traditional Chinese costume. 

“This is Han Bwee Koo, the founder of this house. He was the Chinese Captain, appointed by the Dutch to lead the Chinese community in Surabaya. In the 18th century, the family of Han played significant roles that helped the Dutch establish its colonial rule in East Java.” 

Unfortunately, Noni couldn’t explain the relation between Han Siong Kong and Han Bwee Koo, so I kept searching for a clue until I found an old family tree hanged on the wall, outlining the family of Han in Java, written in the 18th century on dried camel leather. The answer to my question laid in the centre of the tree. It was Han Siong Kong, encircled by his nine children, with Han Bwee Koo as one of the sons. That explained why all this family of Han moved eastward from Lasem to many parts of East Java, all because of the curse that still last until today. 

Leaving the clan house, I walked westward crossing the famous Red Bridge over the river of Kali Mas, connecting the Chinese and Arab quarters with the European town. While marvelling the magnificent colonial buildings in the town, some names of Dutch prominent architects like Hendrik P. Berlage, Charles P.W. Schoemaker, W. Lemei, Cosman Citroen, Eduard Cuypers, Marius Hulswit, and F.J.L. Ghijsels took turn to come in my head. They had significantly contributed to building this place. 

It was hard for me to picture that this town was severely damaged shortly before and after World War Two, and became a battle ground where many people lost their lives. That was a dark period in the history of Surabaya that put an end to the centuries old Dutch colonial rule. 

My journey ended at the old Roman Catholic Church of the Birth of Our Lady, or Gereja Kepanjen as the locals call it, where I met Albert, a tourist coming from the Netherlands to trace his parents’ past in Surabaya. 

“The Dutch and the Eurasians were killed in this city,” said Albert referring to the infamous Bersiap period, when the Indonesian youths tried to exterminate everything related to the former colonial rule. 

“No matter how hard they tried, our legacy remains alive here. The buildings, streets, parks, and also, the faith,” he added while pointing to a young Indonesian Catholic man deeply immersed in his prayers. 

“But those were not the things that actually made this city. It’s the people. All Surabayans should realize that the city they live was built through a long history of plurality by people from different races, and beliefs. All they have to do is open their minds.” 

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