Published Article: What Makes Bandung Parijs van Java?

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Moesson Magazine  |  June 2020

In the entire Dutch colony of East Indies, Bandung was the only city that got many praises for its beauty. The Dutch called it Paradise in Exile, The Garden of Allah, Europa in de Tropen, and De Bloem der Indische Bergsteden. Then in 1920, the phrase Parijs van Java showed up, and amazingly became an epithet for the city until today.

Early in February, I drove to Bandung for a small reunion with friends from college. Having not seen the city for more than a year, I found that it had renovated many of its colonial buildings, reused them as restaurants, cafes, cultural centres, and revitalized the old city parks, attracting people to come for recreational activities.

“They are trying to revive the long gone Parijs van Java,” said Doni, one of my friends, about the conservation the city had done lately.

Back in May 2017, while visiting Paris, I took a city tour with tourist bus for sightseeing. During the two hour tour, I could hardly find any resemblance between the city and what I had seen in many old photographs of Bandung. I questioned myself, where did the phrase Parijs van Java actually come from?

Of all explanations that I found in many books, articles, and internet, the one written by Haryoto Kunto in his book, Wajah Bandoeng Tempo Doeloe, was the most reliable one. He said it was Roth, a Dutch Jewish merchant running a big furniture shop on Bragaweg, who created the phrase in 1920 as a gimmick to attract customers in the city trade fair, known as Jaarbeurs.

Not only did he succeed in attracting customers with the phrase, but also in nicknaming the city of Bandung. The phrase was later quoted repeatedly to promote the city, and most importantly, to label it with an attractive image.

But then, another question came in my head. What made Roth think that his city was like Paris? Back then, Bandung was just a small colonial town, mostly populated by Dutch planters, and located deep inland on the mountainous region of West Java, 768 meter above the sea level.

“It all began here on this street,” answered Farhan Basyir from Cerita Bandung, a travel agency that organizes a walking tour for history enthusiasts in Bandung. Early this March, on a bright Saturday morning, he led 23 people in a walking tour along the street of Jalan Braga, or Bragaweg as the Dutch named it in the past, to turn back the clock far to the time when the street was the centre of Parijs van Java.

The street was initially built in the 19th century as a connecting road between the Grote Postweg in the south and the coffee warehouse belonged to Andries de Wilde, a Dutch planter, in the north. At first, it was just a quiet unpaved muddy road passed by ox carts. The Dutch named it Karrenweg.

In 1882, when Bandung was still a small town, a theatre group named Toneelvereniging Braga was established to entertain the lonely Dutch planters. It occupied a building at the corner of the street and Grote Postweg, and played regularly every night, attracting spectators from all over the city. The quiet street slowly became vibrant and was later named after that theatre group.

As the number of plantations around Bandung was growing in the late 19th century, the Dutch established Societeit Concordia in 1895, an exclusive club for the planters and the elites of the city. They took over the theatre building and renovated it for several times. The founding of the club led to the arising of commercial activities on the street.

“The wealthy planters here were obsessed with French glamorous lifestyle. So they built cinemas, fancy shops, boutiques, tailors, hotels, cafes, and restaurants with French menus. And you can find all those things right here on Jalan Braga,” said Imran Hashim, the director of Cerita Bandung when we started the walking tour from the former building of the societeit.

I guessed Imran made a good point. In the early 20th century, the whole world looked up to Paris for it was the capital of fashion, and modern culture. On Jalan Braga, just few meters north of the societeit, a boutique “Au Bon Marche” was founded in 1913 to fulfil the people’s need of high end fashion. They showcased all the latest fashion, and accessories launched in Paris, attracted wealthy customers not only from Bandung, but also from as far as Batavia. The luxury boutique had long gone, and for many decades, its building was abandoned until the city decided to renovate it and adaptively reused it as a café.

Across the boutique, the remaining of once the famous fashion store “Onderling Belang” left only its front façade. Thanks to the conservation activity initiated by the city government, the almost-to be-demolished façade survived, and a restaurant was built behind it. In the past, as a subsidiary of Amsterdam’s head store, this shop showcased the latest fashion from the Netherlands, and became a competitor for the boutique.

“There was a battle of fashion on this street, between French versus the Netherlands,” said Imran.

Standing next to the boutique was the former building of Concordia Bioscoop, the only cinema on that street, built with a fascinating architecture combining art deco and local Hindu mythology. The architect, Charles Prosper Wolff Schoemaker, was inspired by what he had seen in many ancient Hindu temples in Java. For those who were not so amused with that curvy art deco facade, the cinema looked like a tin to store biscuits. They named it Blikken Trommel.

The walking tour moved northward, passed by other beautiful art deco styled buildings which Bandung is famous for, old restaurant “Het Snoephuis” that preserved the old Dutch recipes of cookies, cakes, and bakery, and the row of former fancy shops that in 1920s made Braga de meest Europese winkelstraat van Indie for the imported branded items they showcased. Many of the shops today have been converted into coffee shops, convenience stores, and restaurants.

By the time we reached an open terrace in front of a century old restaurant “Braga Permai,” people were having their breakfast at rounded tables under red umbrellas. Farhan stopped the walk, asked us to stand around him and said:

“In Paris, it is common to see people sitting at a restaurant side by side facing the street like this. The Dutch brought that culture here to this place, and it remains until now.”

Turning back the time far to 1918 when the rich in Bandung were crazy about anything French, a Dutch man named L. van Bogerijen opened a restaurant at the porch of his house and named it Maison Bogerijen with all its menus written in French. In 1920s, after its moving to Bragaweg, the restaurant became the icon of the street, catching everyone’s eyes with the French words written big on its wall: Cuisinier, Confiseur, Patissier, and Glacier. Slowly after they changed the name into Braga Permai in the early 50s, all those French things began to fade away.

“No matter how French this restaurant might have sounded, it was the only place in the colony authorized to make Koningin Emma Taart and Wilhelmina Taart, the two Royal Dutch cakes that people had to order one month before,” explained Farhan.

Before noon, the walking tour reached its final destination at the place where Andries de Wilde’s coffee warehouse was once standing. It is now the city hall of Bandung with a beautiful large city park as its front yard. The Dutch named it Pieters Park, after Pieter Sijthoff, the assistant resident of Priangan Regency. Under huge trees that shaded the park, I asked Imran whether it was possible for the city to regain its reputation as Parijs van Java.

“You see, the city has recently done quite a lot to conserve its Dutch heritages. They renovate the abandoned old buildings, and reuse them as commercial and cultural places. They restore many facades, put them back to the way they looked in the past with the long concealed Dutch words reappearing on the walls, and they also revitalize all city parks the Dutch left. Look! People are pouring into this park now,” explained Imran.

He took a deep breath, and said: “But Parijs van Java didn’t come out of buildings and parks, it came out of the lifestyle the wealthy, glamorous, brand minded Dutch planters had at that time. They looked up to Paris, and had everything they needed here in Bandung. And Roth, the brilliant businessman, invented that phrase just for the sake of luring customers.”

“But now, you won’t find such a lavish lifestyle like that anymore in this city. Wealthy people will go to Jakarta instead of Bandung for high end branded items from French,” he continued.

“Are you saying it’s impossible?” I asked again.

“I won’t say that, but, you know” Imran shrugged and we both laughed.

I guessed my answer had been implicitly answered. The city’s reputation as Parijs van Java might have long gone and won’t come back. But I think, for people of Bandung, the phrase has become a pride that will live forever in their heart.

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