That sinking feeling: will Indonesia neglect her colonial gem?

A colonoal era office in Semarang's Kota Lama in disrepair.

Earlier this month, almost exactly a year after I started this Indonesian Odyssey, I finally set foot in Java. Except that I didn’t quite. As I clambered off the boat at Semarang before dawn, my feet plunged in to water, calf-deep. Semarang is Java’s third largest port; the Pelni boats were ranged four deep along the wharf. And every one of the thousands of passengers getting off here had to wade to dry land. Because Semarang is sinking.

The city is sinking at about 12 centimetres a year. It’s a story that is by no means unique; 40 percent of the nation’s capital is below sea level, too, and flooding is legendary. But it’s especially sad in the case of Semarang because the Old City, (Kota Lama), which nestles along canals very close to the port, has some of the most gracious colonial-era buildings in the country. Many of them, like the one pictured here with its folorn “Di Jual” (For Sale) sign, are crumbling into wrecks. Soon, they will be unsalvageable. And no-one wants to take them on, though the area could be a tourist attraction to rival Penang’s Georgetown (and Penang is getting well over 3 million visitors a year). To an extent, that might be because Indonesians find little to celebrate in their colonial history. But it’s also because even the most ardent fans of colonial history and architecture don’t want to have to wade to their hotels.

It would be possible to save Kota Lama by enclosing it in a polder, protecting the old buildings inside a giant dike. It is a big project, one in which the local government has shown little interest (not least, perhaps, because the Mayor is currently high and dry serving a 1.5 year term for corruption). Encouragingly, a group of local citizens, led by the Oen Semarang Foundation, are now taking matters into their own hands and trying to preserve the city while there’s still something to preserve. One aim is to get the city on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.

Next year, for the first time, Indonesia will have its own pavillion at the Venice Bienniale. The theme will be “sakti” (magic). Perhaps some of the magic of that other Sinking City will rub off on Indonesia, and this forgetful country will be encouraged to care for its heritage better.

3 Comments on "That sinking feeling: will Indonesia neglect her colonial gem?"

  1. I think you’re been too generous when you attribute the lack of interest in colonial history to the the nature of the Dutch colonial order. I would put it more strongly, and say that generally Indonesians are not particularly interested or knowledgeable about their history, and that which motivates concerted action more than civico-historic values is religion. You can be sure that a mosque of similar historical importance would have been preserved. The lack of interest in preserving relics such as these flows naturally from these two factors. why would one care about historical relics if one does not care about history in the first place?

  2. Going by my own impressions I gather maintenance is not the most favourite pastime in the Indonesian public domain. It really is a shame if this negligence hits historical and architectural relevant buildings. Just like Semarang’s Kota Lama parts of Jakarta’s old town also are ruinous.

    Perhaps the Oen Semarang Foundation you mentioned, is a token of hope.

  3. The old town in Jakarta is coming on strong from what I have seen. It’s popular amongst the locals and the tourists.

    Hopefully the penny will drop in Semarang sooner rather than later – I love that area.

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