THE GHOSTS OF SURABAYA’S SPOOKHUIS
© Duncan Graham 2006
It’s easy to get lost in Surabaya. Billboards eclipse the few signposts; selling smokes is more important than giving direction.
The press of traffic also prevents visitors to the East Java capital from getting an easy fix on their bearings in a city with few prominent landmarks.
The exception is Gedung Setan, though not because it’s tall or architecturally striking. It’s memorable for its bulk, its brooding colonial presence looming over the kampong like a medieval castle, the solid sense of history and mystery. So out of place it’s not easily forgotten.
Then there’s the reputation. For Gedung Setan - at the junction of Jalan Diponegoro and Jalan Banyu Urip - is Surabaya’s Spookhuis, and you don’t need to be Dutch to understand the meaning.
So powerful is this reputation that the 35 families living in the two-storey building are all Christian, though the area is overwhelmingly Muslim. They even have their own Pentecostal chapel in the main room upstairs with blood red crosses on the walls – talismans against any devils still lurking in the nooks and crannies.
It doesn’t need an excess of imagination to people the 200-year old monster with phantoms. Although electricity has been connected lighting is dim and generally restricted to the rooms partitioned off by the squatters.
They’ve used plastic sheets, plywood and other scavenged materials to erect shacks inside Gedung Setan. Despite its size the two entrance doors are narrow and hidden, but surprisingly high.
Local versions say the building was used as a mortuary holding bodies prior to their burial in a nearby cemetery. The graveyard has now gone and in its place are the brothels of Jalan Dolly, Surabaya’s notorious prostitution centre.
If the building had been designed as a common warehouse for rice or other bulk goods it seems reasonable to assume the doors would have been wide enough for carts to enter. The narrow doors give some credibility to the mortuary story.
Another yarn has Gedung Setan being used as home for thousands of swiftlets whose edible nests fetch top prices in Chinese cuisine. If so they were late invaders for custom-built swiftlet barns have no windows and only tiny access holes. Now only feral pigeons are in residence.
Some resident families cook in the narrow corridors. The smoke from their stoves has blackened the walls and ceilings adding to the gloom. Under the soot can be seen the outlines of massive pillars supporting the sagging tiled roof. Timber props have been added to stop the ceiling falling.
The floor upstairs is made of heavy rough-hewn planks of teak. Despite its size and robust construction the building throbs with the traffic pounding the streets below.
Many windows have been boarded. The 50 cm thick walls are crumbling – though look good enough to last for a few more decades. There was nothing temporary or slipshod about Dutch construction techniques that included brick laying without cement.
Although it’s widely known as Gedung Setan (the Devil’s building) those indifferent to superstition say the name is really Gedung She Tan recalling the Chinese family which once held the title. This explanation came from Pentecostal authorities.
However the few written records say the family name was Teng Sioe Hie.
The building is not registered in the Surabaya City Council’s list of sites worth preserving despite its antiquity. Maybe because of its name.
According to Dutch historian G H von Faber the building was originally the residence of Sir J A Middelkoop who later became Prefect of East Java in the early 1800s. But its design is more industrial than recreational, and the location is suspect. The privileged Dutch lived in the city centre close to the river.
Australian academic Howard Dick who wrote the book Surabaya, City of Work records two stories associated with Gedung Setan.
In one the building is haunted by the ghost of a woman who murdered her illegitimate infant. Of course she’s doomed to forever search for her lost child, asking whoever she encounters for information.
In the other yarn the wraith is of a former galley slave whose back had been branded. Wanting to keep his past a secret he ordered that his corpse should not be washed before burial – but this led to his finding no rest.
None of these stories bother the building’s caretaker Gondo who lives on the ground floor with all the creature comforts, including air conditioning.
He says the residents are the descendants of Chinese who fled the persecution of real or imagined communists unleashed in 1965 with the fall of Sukarno.
“It was safe here,” he said. “I don’t know if that was because people feared the place so only Chinese and Christians would enter, or because Surabaya was a calm city.
“There’s no landlord so no rent. It’s an ideal situation. The land title has been lost and the original owners long gone.
“We live here and do our own renovations. When the building is full of people the ghosts flee.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post Friday 7 July 06)