published article: one day in medan

Friday, May 01, 2020

Moesson Magazine | November 2019





For many years, I had been intrigued to explore the city of Medan, the capital of North Sumatera Province, to discover the remains of the long gone glory days of Deli, a Malay Sultanate founded in the seventeenth century in the east coast of Sumatera. That was the days when tobacco, coffee, tea, cocoa, and rubber estates generated lots of guilders and brought in workers from Java, China, and India to Deli. Today, many of the plantations have gone, left behind the legacy of plurality to the city’s architecture, cultures, religions, and people. 

On the day I came to Medan, the city was prepared to celebrate the Chinese New Year. From the motorised rickshaw that took me around the city, I found bright red lanterns hanged in many corners. I was impressed by how this city conserved many of its old colonial buildings and monuments despite the rapid development. Along the streets we passed through, I felt like the past and the present took turns coming in my head. 

Many years ago, in 1869, Jacobus Nienhuys, a Dutch entrepreneur, founded Deli Maatscappij, a trading and distribution company and built its headquarter in this city. Back then, Medan was the capital of Deli Sultanate. He pioneered the tobacco industry in Deli in 1863 after obtaining a twenty-year land concession from the reigning sultan, Mahmud Al Rasyid to establish an estate. It was said that the soil and climate there was ideal for growing tobacco, which soon became popular in Europe as the outer wrapper of cigars. 

Finally, the motorised rickshaw stopped in the front yard of Istana Maimun, the palace of the sultan. The building remained magnificent despite of its age, and had become the icon of the city. I couldn't help but being marvelled by the grandeur of the interior. The shiny marble of the floor was brought from Europe, and the high solid wood ceiling was beautifully painted with geometric symbols and colours. The glory of the past still obviously echoed inside this palace. Perhaps, that echo is the one attracting hundreds of tourists to queue in a long line inside the main hall every day, wearing traditional Malay costumes, waiting for their turns to pose in front of the camera at the sultan's throne. Everyone was excited to revive the golden era of the sultanate. 

The sultan was not the only prominent figure in the history of Medan. They had Tjong A Fie, a Chinese tycoon who ran a large plantation business, banks, railroads, employing thousands of workers, and also a philanthropist who gave huge contributions to the city's development. He was so wealthy that in 1900, he built a mansion in the city. Today, the mansion is conserved as the city's cultural heritage and open for visitors. I took a taxi and rushed to that place, considering that the night would be the Chinese New Year's eve, and it would be probably closed earlier due to the celebration. 

“Welcome to Tjong A Fie Mansion,” said Andri, a tour guide welcoming us in front of the main entrance. That day, he would take me around inside the old mansion, a two storey house built with intriguing architecture combining Chinese, Malay, and European styles. 

“Some family members still live here. Every Chinese New Year, they have dinner with the sultan’s family at this house. It has been a tradition long since Tjong A Fie was still alive.” Andri told me the reason why the mansion would close earlier that day. 

During the tour, I found almost everything inside the mansion was well preserved, the furniture, fabrics, lamps, and of course the old photographs, all gave me clear pictures about the man’s life in the past. What impressed me so much about him was his generosity toward humanity regardless race and religion. He built mosques, temples, schools, hospitals, and many public infrastructures. I guessed he was a great role model whom we should look up in maintaining racial harmony. 

At the end of the tour, Andri took me to a big old photo of Tjong A Fie wearing official Chinese attire. “This was taken during his office term as the Majoor de Chineezen, the leader of Chinese community in Medan.” Andri explained the photograph. “He was appointed by the Dutch authority in 1911 to replace his dead brother, Tjong Yong Hian.” 

“On the day he passed away in 1921, thousands of people from many walks of life, races, religious beliefs, mourned his death and crowded the streets of Medan on his funeral procession.” 

I left the mansion, took a taxi, and headed to Kampung Madras, a place where most ethnic Indian community live in Medan. I was pleasantly surprised that the taxi driver was an Indian man, named Kumar, something I would never find in my hometown, Jakarta. As a matter of fact, of all big cities in Indonesia, Medan is the only one with large scaled Indian community. We had a light conversation in English about the Indians in Medan. 

“Most Indians here can speak three languages, Tamil, English, and of course, Bahasa Indonesia. Our parents have encouraged us to learn English since we were kids.” Kumar explained why he could speak English very well. 

“It’s like a compulsory language for us.” 

He dropped me off in front of the gate of Sri Mariamman, the oldest Hindu temple in Medan, built in 1884 to worship the Goddess Mariamman, the main Tamil mother goddess. Behind the gate, there was amazing tranquillity, something everyone would expect to find admist the hustle and bustle of the city. Inside the main hall adorned with many colourful statues of the mythical figures, people came to sit cross legged on the floor. They put their palms together in front of their chests, closed their eyes, and then whispered the prayers. 

After spending forty five minutes in that peaceful place, I rushed to another place where I could trace back the glory days of Deli Sultanate, and that was Masjid Raya Al Mashun, the royal grand mosque located not far from the palace, built with eclectic architecture combining Arabic, Malay, and European styles. Later that afternoon, I was standing inside the mosque, right under the big huge dome and antique chandelier with Ali Imran, the caretaker who had worked there for many years. I couldn’t help but noticing that there were many geometric symbols beautifully painted on the high ceiling of the mosque. 

“There you can find David Star.” Ali pointed his finger to the ceiling. “This mosque was designed by the Dutch, but I don’t think they put it as the symbol of Judaism. They just loved the beauty of its geometry.” 

Ali took me out to the huge corridor that encircled the mosque. It was a two meter width hall with colourful floor tiles, high ceiling painted with fascinating geometric forms, and also stained glass windows. 

“All these glasses were directly brought from the Netherlands. Some of the parts have been broken, and we couldn’t afford to replace them.” Ali was concerned about the conservation of this heritage. 

It was ironic however that this grand monument was built in 1906 with overall budget of one million guilders, funded by the sultan, Deli Maatschappij, and surprisingly, Tjong A Fie too, and today it had to cope with this maintenance issue. 

I walked to the cemetery at the backyard to find the graves of the royal family members and also, of Catharina Johanna Cornelia Haberham Sunkar, an Amsterdam born Dutch woman married to Datuk Sjarifoel Azaz Haberham, a sultan’s relative. She was the only non-Malay person buried on that ground. The inscription on her tomb was fully written in Dutch. This showed me how the sultanate was open with diversity. At dusk, people rushed to the mosque to answer the adzan, call to worship. Soon, the old mosque became full with people doing their dusk prayers. 

I left the mosque for a Chinese Taoism temple of Gunung Timur to see people pray on the New Year’s Eve. The temple was built facing the Babura River in accordance with the Feng Shui so as to bring luck and prosperity to the people coming to that place. That evening, it was solemnly illuminated with big red lanterns, and candles. As I stepped inside, there were only small numbers of people coming. I guessed most people preferred having family dinner to praying at the temple. These people didn’t only pray for themselves but also for their ancestors who had departed from this world. 

At night, I left the temple for food hawkers that packed the street of Chinatown where I found variety of local tastes. While I was enjoying Chinese roasted duck served with gravy sauce, I could smell the curry coming from Indian food stall next to my table, and the aroma of meat broth from Malay’s Soto Medan behind my back. I felt like tasting many flavors at one place. “Welcome to Medan,” my inner voice said. 

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