Sharing a common past
Decades ago parents entertained their children with a telling ditty about the days before Independence:
|Menteng: Immigration Building (1914) now a restaurant|
In matters of empire, the fault of the Dutch,
was yielding too little and taking too much.
After 1945 hostility continued towards Europeans determined to retain influence in the former East Indies. This climaxed in 1957 when first president Soekarno expelled 40,000 Dutch citizens and nationalised their companies along with other foreign businesses.
New times, new attitudes. The once colonized and the colonialists aren’t just burying their enmity, they’re unearthing their shared past, with people like Dutch author Emile Leushuis helping drive the excavators.
The social geographer and urban historian has no family background in Indonesia’s past; he started backpacking Asia in the late 1980s while still a student at the University of Utrecht, finding the archipelago’s complex history rewarding.
His visits multiplied and became a job. He learned the language. At first he worked for a Dutch tour company, then an American. Later he turned freelance setting up tours for Netherlanders keen to know more about the tropical islands their country once ruled.
Leushuis (right) also wrote articles and lectured, and in 2011 published Gids Historische Stadswandelingen Indonesie (a tour guide to Indonesia’s historic cities). Now in its second printing the book has just been released in a larger format in Indonesian as Panduan Jelajah Kota-kota Pusaka di Indonesia by publisher Ombak.
The company is based in Yogyakarta where Leushuis spends about half his time – the rest back in Holland. He credits his decision to concentrate on Indonesia with a visit to Ubud, the hilltown cultural center of Bali – “my point of no return.”
The book includes specially prepared maps of walks (or cycle rides) in eight Javanese cities - Jakarta, Cirebon, Bandung, Cirebon, Semarang, Yogyakarta, Surabaya and Malang – and Medan in Sumatra.
The translation has Jelajah (exploring) in the title, a useful addition as ‘guide’ implies lists of guest houses and bus routes. Instead the buyer gets well-referenced histories and streetscapes encouraging further exploration.
“When you go to a place, what do you see?” asked Leushuis. “Why does it look like this? I want to explain what’s here and why, what sort of people lived here and took part in trade and administration.”
Unfortunately the Indonesian version has been printed on cheap paper to contain costs. So the photos lack the eyeball-striking gloss found in the original which sells for 25 Euros (Rp 375,000) compared to Rp 150,000 for the local edition.
The book includes some splendid old pictures, many found in Dutch museums. These show the beautiful open areas and wide roads that existed before the population growth got out of control and the Honda hordes invaded the highways.
“I certainly plan to publish in English as I think there’s a strong interest from people who can’t read Dutch or Indonesian,” Leushuis said during a promotion tour. His book was launched at a seminar in the ancient Majapahit era city of Trowulan in East Java, and again before 120 students at Malang State University.
|Public open space - well used; the square in front of Jakarta's Town Hall|
“I also want to work with Indonesians to promote cultural tourism and heritage trails. Several organizations do this but their efforts haven’t been well coordinated.”
After several years of running tour groups Leushuis and another Indonesia addict, former public broadcaster Nettert Smit opened IndoTracks Adventure Tours. It’s based in Holland but accessible from anywhere through the Internet.
“There are still concerns about safety and the perceived rise of radical Islam, but the Dutch remain curious about Indonesia and want to know more of their country’s roots in Southeast Asia,” Leushuis said.
“There are no cities in Holland that look like those built in Indonesia. The only one based on Dutch town planning and architecture was Batavia in the 16th century.
“The Europeans quickly discovered that chasing away the locals and digging canals didn’t work in tropical conditions.
“They decided to let the locals have their own city and be ruled by their own people, and just add relatively small Dutch quarters with some military presence.
“Semarang remains the best example of an 18th century Dutch quarter in what is now called Little Holland. Northern Bandung and North-eastern Malang show good later development.
“The alun-alun (open town square, often a garden where families relax and flanked by important buildings) is a local idea. Indonesians should be very proud of the way they’ve adapted to the environment.”
Then there are the statues. Indonesia does its old mosques, palaces and traditional joglo (four-sided, high ceiling carved timber houses) superbly, but the Soviet realism monuments of muscled men snapping chains are not just metaphorically coarse they are also artistically crude. They stand as reminders of another era’s politics.
When asked if he was optimistic of Indonesian cities being returned to the feet and lungs of their citizens, and where the past is treasured, not trashed, Leushuis uttered some equivocal noises before listing conservation projects now making a difference.
Most have been driven by forward-thinking companies rather than governments. For example, in Menteng the Kunstkring gallery and old immigration office has been preserved as a restaurant. In Surabaya the De Javasche Bank building (used for several years by Bank Indonesia) has become a museum and function center.
Kota, the old city in Jakarta is certainly cluttered with stalls that encroach on the open area, but the place remains pedestrian friendly and a joy to stroll without fear of being run down.
“I’m hopeful if some of the traffic issues can be resolved,” Leushuis said. “It’s the main problem facing tourists and draws many complaints. It’s now getting so difficult to move around. Journeys that used to last two hours now take double that time. That’s a worry.”
Panduan Jelajah Kota-kota Pusaka di Indonesia
By Emile Leushuis
Published by Ombak, 2014.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 8 December 2014)