WELCOME TO THE PEOPLE’S PALACE © Duncan Graham 2006
For readers unfamiliar with Surabaya the standard news image of the East Java capital has demonstrators shaking the black steel gates protecting a splendid white mansion.
The building is usually out of focus in the background and fortunately has yet to suffer the wrath of protestors.
Why should they bother? No one lives in Grahadi and the workers are there only to maintain the place. The real power lies elsewhere in the local parliament and the Governor’s office.
Grahadi is the next best thing to a governor’s palace. It may be a symbol of the establishment and a handy central city target for the disgruntled but it wears its authority lightly.
The 200-year old building threatens no one. Though it was built to intimidate when the colonialists ruled it certainly doesn’t today. You may not detect a grin, but there’s certainly no grimace.
There’s no need to rattle the railings or connive to get a gilt-edged pass. Grahadi is now open to the public at weekends.
But don’t despair if you’re only in Surabaya during the working week. On the 17th of most months and some Fridays the vast grassy forecourt is used as a parade ground for school bands.
These boisterous and cheerful displays soften the hard-edged Dutch architecture and dilute the traffic noise. Little kids banging oversize drums, high-stepping majorettes blushing under their rouge, tuneless trumpets and some of the cutest costumes ever sewn by a proud Mum make Grahadi the People’s Palace.
Built in 1795 by Dutch commissioner Dirk van Hogendorp, Grahadi originally dominated the city. That’s because it fronted Kali Mas, the river which bisects Surabaya and was once a major transport route. Now the river carries little traffic so access to Grahadi is from Jalan Gubernur Suryo.
The change in orientation meant switching the main entrance from the north riverbank to the south-side highway. Visitors who only view the front are unaware the river is just outside the rear of the building.
Now tourists have the chance to peep down the once-handsome promenade where in colonial days families would have participated in the passing parade and soaked up the evening cool.
The Dutch may have been solid builders and competent constructors, but as designers they didn’t leave soaring architectural monuments. Grahadi isn’t lofty but it’s certainly substantial. It was built to last of big red bricks laid without mortar and has well outlived two centuries. The timber flooring upstairs is teak, robust and enduring.
The roman pillars supporting the top deck and making a grand entrance statement (and a shady veranda) are all recent editions, which mask the original rather plain structure.
These have been embellished with a frieze showing scenes from the Battle of Surabaya. In November 1945 the British tried to retake the city after the defeat of the Japanese and were met with fierce resistance.
Inside there’s all the paraphernalia of protocol and a wide variety of donated gifts. Visitors can see the handicrafts of East Java and portraits of governors since Independence. The first, R.T. Soerjo is also remembered in the little Kroesen Park facing Grahadi where his large statue shows the governor in the uniform of the post-colonial era.
The walls of Grahadi carry an eclectic collection of pictures featuring events from the Majapahit kingdom through to the Revolution. Some fine old photographs show Grahadi in the early 19th century. There’s also a well preserved and rare Seni Reog Javanese dance headdress made of a tiger’s head and peacock feathers, and occasionally wheeled out for a performance.
The building is carpeted in the European fashion although the tropical heat of East Java is better suited to tiled floors. The upstairs rooms can be reached by a small staircase indicating the building was designed more for work than pleasure. Otherwise there would have been a grand staircase where the fashionable could make sweeping entrances in a grand swish of skirts.
There are four well-furnished bedrooms. These are used only for high-ranking guests. The present Governor lives elsewhere, and his offices are some distance away in Jalan Pahlawan.
More than 30 staff work at Grahadi, a name derived from the Sanskrit Graha (meaning house) and adi, implying distinguished. Formerly it was known as Simpang (deviation or crossroads), the name now allocated to the nearby road junction.
Staff are happy to show visitors around, but to appreciate the place properly it’s worth sitting quietly in the cool courtyards of the building’s wide wings. These are the unembellished tiled and timbered rooms more appropriate to the climate and genuinely East Java.
Take time to reflect on the past. Here the big kitchens and workers’ shuttered quarters appear little changed from colonial times. That was when Grahadi was the place to be seen – the administrative and legal centre of Surabaya, busy with business and alive with the adventure of a growing port.
(Grahadi is open to the public at weekends and public holidays unless a major event is underway. Times 9 am to 4 pm.)
First published in The Jakarta Post 2 June 2006)