A close-knit community of activists and forward-thinking business owners has stepped up to save the architectural heritage of Central Java’s storied provincial capital.
For Jakarta-born entrepreneur and trained architect Shita Devi Kusumawati, a family trip to her parents’ hometown of Semarang led to an unforeseen opportunity to acquire a rundown Dutch-colonial building. “It was love at first sight,” she recalls. “Even in that abandoned state, with trees growing inside, none of the negative aspects really bothered me.” The year was 2012, and Kota Lama, Semarang’s compact and charming Old Town, had been languishing for decades. Its unsavory reputation as a den of crime, prostitution, and illegal gambling ensured that most residents steered clear of the flood-prone district after dark.
How things have changed. Authorities in Indonesia’s fifth-largest city are finally taking steps to rejuvenate its historic neighborhoods, with much of the focus on Kota Lama. The Old Town grew out of a 17th-century European settlement founded by the Dutch East India Company as a port at the mouth of the Semarang River; it’s now one of the most well-preserved pockets of colonial architecture in the country. On weekends, families pose for selfies both day and night in front of landmarks like the copper-domed Blenduk Church, which has occupied this site since 1753. Then there is the clutch of sophisticated cafés and restaurants that have cropped up in the past few years — a trend arguably spawned by the success of Shita’s own personal project.
Opened in 2015 after a careful restoration, Spiegel Bar & Bistro is named for the building’s erstwhile Viennese owner Herman Spiegel, who ran a general store here as far back as 1895. Today, patrons dine on excellent Mediterranean-leaning comfort food: think mussels marinara, house-cured salmon carpaccio, garlicky escargot, and pesto and hummus served with pillowy pita bread. Both the eclectic menu and drinks list encapsulate the worldly nature of Shita herself, who was educated in Perth by way of Singapore.
A major part of Spiegel’s appeal lies in its understated interior that layers the old with the new. Shita peeled back the plaster on one wall to reveal tan-colored brickwork and hidden red arches; the bar was rotated by 45 degrees in deference to four existing cast-iron pillars, which demarcate a soaring central void. Aside from replacing termite-eaten floorboards and hiring artisans to replicate the surviving railings of the original teakwood staircase, Shita had to reinforce the upper floor to make it usable. “What I did was to build concrete portals along the edges of the load-bearing walls. They kind of blend in with their industrial look, but I also want people to see that this is a new addition,” she explains. The concrete frame is so subtle and well-proportioned I hadn’t even realized it was there.
As it happens, Shita is also the secretary of the Old Town Management Board, which brings together local residents, owners and tenants of heritage buildings, and conservation experts under the leadership of the city’s vice mayor. The ambition is to have Kota Lama listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, though Shita is more concerned about balancing the desires of tourists with the day-to-day needs of those living and working in the area. “What Kota Lama needs right now is a supermarket, a bookstore, even a flower shop. It needs a lot more variety to become a viable neighborhood.”
My next appointment is with conservation architect Albertus Kriswandhono, who has played a key role in the restoration of structures across the Old Town, including the Spiegel building. Over drinks at Tekodeko Koffiehuis, a two-story café he helped bring into being, he tells me a surprising fact that arose from the need to connect Central Java’s fertile countryside — and nearly 200 sugar mills — with markets abroad. Semarang, it turns out, was home to Southeast Asia’s first train station and railway line, both of which debuted in 1867. They were the work of the Nederlandsch-Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij (Dutch East Indies Railway Company), whose growth over the following decades led to the creation of its imposing headquarters between 1904 and 1907. “For one company to be able to construct a building of this size proved that it was capable of putting together major projects on the national scale,” Kriswandhono says.
That particular landmark — now a 10-minute drive from the Old Town via the grand, Dutch-era avenue Jalan Pemuda — is known by its Javanese moniker Lawang Sewu, or “Thousand Doors.” The name alludes to the hundreds of wooden shutters opening out onto the building’s wraparound verandas, a necessity at a time when modern air-conditioning was not yet commonplace. Kriswandhono was personally involved in its most recent renovation; the arcades and grand staircase, backed by a triptych of stained-glass windows shipped in from Delft, are popular photo backdrops for good reason.
Yogi Fajri, a friend of Shita’s and the young co-founder of travel agency Bersukaria Tour, meets me early the next morning at Lawang Sewu for a look around. While strolling the hallways of the railway-themed museum, I learn that Semarang was historically a progressive, left-leaning city. “We had the first steam-powered trams, the first elevator, one of the first telephone networks in Indonesia,” Yogi explains. “And there was a congress held here in 1922 by liberal-minded figures, mostly architects, who argued that the colonial government had a responsibility to provide housing for the poor. That laid the foundation for the social housing program we see today.”
From Lawang Sewu, we drive to the Old Town to visit Monod Diephuis, a 1920s office turned community space that hosts occasional seminars, small-scale concerts, and gamelan classes for children. A short stroll then takes us to the ice cream parlor Oud En Nieuw, which opened last April as an offshoot of Toko Oen, a beloved institution on Jalan Pemuda whose decor and classic Dutch fare have remained more or less unchanged since its debut in 1936.
I’ve come to meet Toko Oen’s third-generation owner Megaputri “Jenny” Megaradjasa, herself a heritage activist who proves disarmingly modest despite her architecture training at the prestigious Delft University of Technology. “I’ve never practiced so I know more about making bread than buildings,” she laughs. After returning from a long stint in the Netherlands, Jenny established the Oen Semarang Foundation in 2012 to advocate for the preservation and revival of Kota Lama. One of its main initiatives is Festival Kota Lama, an annual celebration partly inspired by The Hague’s Tong Tong Fair. Pre-Covid, it included musical performances, walking tours, and history exhibitions for visitors to gain a better understanding of the area’s heritage. “Educating the community starts with the next generation,” Jenny tells me. “That’s why I always involve young people in the festival, so they feel a sense of ownership.”
These days, Jenny and other like-minded individuals have growing concerns over the future of Kota Lama as it becomes an increasingly popular tourist destination. While Semarang’s vice mayor has secured US$16.5 million from Jakarta to finance a much-needed upgrade of the Old Town’s roads and drainage systems, the beautification efforts done in parallel are a worrying development. I’m appalled by the new street furniture: charging stations masquerading as bright-red London phone boxes, Victorian-style clocks and covered fountains, and legions of fussy, ornate lampposts transplanted straight from Paris. “These things have no connection with the local history,” Jenny says. “What we want for Kota Lama is authenticity, not Euro Disney.” One wonders whether the vice mayor is serious about Semarang’s bid for UNESCO World Heritage status.
Back at Spiegel, Shita remains cautiously optimistic about it all. “I think of it as a gradual process. Nothing is achieved instantly, and we can always make changes after these projects are finished.” Despite the ongoing pandemic, the wheels are already in motion for her next big undertaking. Shita reveals that she has bought an even larger building elsewhere in Kota Lama, this time in an advanced state of disrepair: “I’m still sorting out a few legal issues, but after that the work can begin.”
History buffs looking to stay in the Old Town will want to book Spiegel Home Studio (US$71 per night; via airbnb.com or booking.com), a tastefully furnished one-bedroom apartment just two doors down from Spiegel Bar and Bistro. Other recommended dining spots include Javara Culture Semarang (javara.co.id) for its organic Indonesian fare and the brand-new Marabunta Resto and Bar. Beyond Kota Lama, don’t miss a visit to Lawang Sewu.
This article originally appeared in the March/May 2021 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Old Town Ambitions”).