Tuesday, January 20, 2009

2. Surabaya


The river they call Brantas. Winding its way through Surabaya, the merry town of the Thirties, in the Netherlands East Indies. Entering the town in the suburb of Darmo, it flows for a while by a rolling green vista of well-kept gardens and lawns sweeping down from the terraces of residences where the prominent live. Dignity and firm security displayed in robust granite ballustrade and stained-glass doors and windows at the front.

The boulevards and avenues respectably quiet and undisturbed. A stillness accentuated by the rustle of the wind in tall casuarina trees along the riverbank, and the distant jangle of the tram. A mile further down, the Brantas enters the Gubeng district, passing by fenced-in backyards of dwellings of lesser status, the boarding houses and private hotels. A street vendor calls monotonously. The clip-clop of the horse of a hire-surrey is momentarily drowned in the low-humming swoosh of a motor car. With measured intervals a gong is struck before a cottage near the corner, announcing the forthcoming public auction of the departing householder's furniture and other possessions. At the upper-town railway station, a hissing of spurting steam, a mournful hoot and clanging engine. On the sharply curving street leading to the Gubeng bridge, tyres screech beside tram wheels grinding in their rail grooves. Under the bridge oddly shaped clusters of garbage and flotsam riding the quietly moving water halt, revolving slowly. Then, still turning lazily, they resume their trip, passing close to the reed banks of the park with its lotus pond and canna beds, and the silvery, glinting gossamer of water sprinklers. Magpies scamper on the sun-dappled grass under the sycamores.

Further down, the river flows by lofty palm fringed driveways to stately offices of authority and government - frowning, rigid and aloof in marble and colonnade. The Dutch tricolour flies proudly from the mast. Further down again, the river, sluggish and muddy now, passes by the agitated hustle and bustle of William's Quay in downtown Surabaya. Domain of merchants, brokers and bankers, money-making amidst clattering typewriters, ringing telephones and buzzing ceiling fans. At the door the name of the company is richly embossed on copper plate, leaving an impression of infallibility and trustworthiness.

On the opposite bank of the river lies Chinatown and the Red Bridge, where that forever industrious race live in a confusion of narrow lanes and alleys. Two-storeyed shophouses vividly splashed with crisscross symbols, the wail of Chinese music from an open fronted cafe where, in passing by, a glimpse is seen of deftly manipulated chopsticks picking food from hand-cupped rice bowls. In the air a mixture of typical smells of the Orient: gums and spice, with an occasional whiff of gutter stink and incense. The klaxon hooting and ringing of bicycle bells, the noise of the always congested traffic on the street, until dusk falls and the office front door is slammed shut.

Finally the river reaches its estuary with the bobbing masts of gaily adorned native sailing craft from Madura and Makassar, the river water casting dancing reflections of light on the slender prows, moored in clusters along the ancient quay and its mossy dents, notches and century-old, corrosion-bated mooring rings.

Nimble-footed coolies walk rhythmically on narrow, swaying gangplanks, heavy baskets with dried fish and copra on neck and shoulders, the corded ridges of their deep brown backs dripping with sweat. A flock of sparrows peck madly at rice grains spilled on the quay. On a small, barnacle-rimmed jetty a native woman squats, beating her wash on a flat stone. Her shoulders, back and bottom, in the faded sarong hitched under the armpits, flow out in the contours of a guitar. Flitting black streaks of swallows skim the river that now finally, languidly delivers its water into the sea in gradually deepening colours of blue and green. Out in the Roads of Surabaya, on the slowly rising and falling swell, white-dotted with seagulls, a towering ocean liner growls, drowning out the clang of busily spinning winches and long-necked cranes on the wharves. Below the storm warning mast on the harbour master's office roof, a tugboat hoots an answer, her screws eagerly churning the brackish water. The dockyards and quay of Surabaya where shirt-drenching heat shimmers as a glistening pool on the tacky-hot bitumen. Where ships come from all over the world, each containing an atmosphere typical of her home port.

Visible and invisible little things in master and crew that make up the Briton, Norwegian, Dutchman and Greek. The world of big shipping. After work, one may be invited to come on board again for a quiet beer while listening to tales of Liverpool, Piraeus, Oslo and Vancouver.

Day is done, darkness has fallen, the worst of the heat gone. Pastel-coloured lampshades shine gently through a filigree of potted plants and shrubs. In the warm, scented evening we read and talk out in front on the open porch. A thin spiral of grey smoke eddies up from a coil of mosquito repellent burning on a saucer on the floor. A wide-eyed brown kitten stalks, with great display of fuss, an imaginary prey between the magnolias. Back in the house the clock ding-dongs through soft radio music. The light circle of the porch lamp does not quite reach the dark hibiscus hedge at the front gate, where a lone cricket chirps incessantly. It is Saturday evening, after dinner time. All the news is read, all events of the day discussed, bemoaned or laughed about.

A drive is then suggested and agreed upon. Soon we have joined the long line of motor cars out on the road for a little cruise to the entertainment district of Surabaya and on to the harbour for an hour of cool, refreshing sea breeze. The hood of the car is let down to make the most of the cool evening air. The motor sings, the wheels fly with a soft burr. Tall arc lights are caught in a dull shine moving along the gleaming body of our car. Everyone is in a lighthearted mood of Saturday evening, the whole night in front and all the free Sunday after that. When we enter Palm Lane we spot a burst of red neon on the left side. That's the "Tabarin" bar and dancing establishment, closed now, its opening time of ten o'clock catering to the after-theatre and supper folk. Opposite is the "Shanghai" restaurant, adorned with strings of pastel-coloured Chinese lamps on the open terrace. Munching and drinking people served by wooden-faced Indonesian waiters deftly balancing trays laden with delicacies. At the front of the restaurant a few native boys carrying boxes with cigarettes loiter about. They will be there the whole night. On the corner of Palm Lane and Simpang Road, the Maxim Cinema blazes in floodlights, flanked by a file of Fiat Balilla taxis waiting for the end of the first session. The traffic signal switches to red, halting our car with a silent throb of its motor. We are facing the whitewashed facade and marble floors of the Simpang Club, select and suave, its members restricted to a better salaried class of people. Cozy little lampshades glow on small wicker tables on patios in front, where gentlemen with their lady companions are seated, sipping an aperitif or after-dinner coffee and liqueur. Blue cigar smoke and, now and then, a quiet sparkle of jewelry. Tyres crunch on the gravelled drive to the carpeted club entrance. The solid snap of an expensive automobile's door. New guests have arrived.

The signal flashes to green. Our route goes by the park. In the distance strings of orange lights adorn the bandstand from which come muffled snatches of drums and clashing cymbals. We drive through the Tunjungan now with its numerous bars, hotels and theatres. The brilliant shop windows of the newly opened Japanese department store Tjijoda, and the more soberly illuminated facade of Whiteway Laidlaw. High above in the night air, the jumble of multi-coloured neon advertising, motionless or in running flashes. Further down the road, Town Hall Gardens with trees full of red, white and blue lights. Something must be on again there in Town Hall Gardens, where the small-income man finds diversion in word, music and dance. Perhaps a jubilee or congress of sorts, doubtlessly celebrated with endless speeches and a boring play. Then, to top it off, a ball with the inevitable Hawaiian band with its guitars twanging sweet melodies of moonlight and dreams come true in Waikiki and Honolulu. Girls, some in rather garish coloured dress, will try to follow the astonishingly complicated dance maneuvers of their escorts in suits of every taste and shade.

Entering downtown, the night seems here deeper and still, with myriads of tiny moths circling the globes of tall lamp posts on William's Quay and Red Bridge, strangely quiet and deserted at this hour. An oil wick flutters in the small cabin of a native barge on the dark river. Glowing pinpoints light up and darken again in the porticoes and doorways of the locked up business houses along the quay, where Madurese wharf labourers are smoking their favourite cheroots of clove-saturated tobacco rolled in maize leaf. Proud and independent, spending the night outdoors on a bed of jute bags, anywhere they may fancy, rather than having to return dutifully to the one and same address.

Finally we reach the Heads and the car is brought to a halt. At the mouth of the Brantas the last ferry boat from Madura eases along her berth with a deep throb of her engines, her green and red lights shining through billows of swirling steam. High above, invisible in the darkness, a night bird cries for its mate. Far out in the Roads a yellow beacon winks slowly with measured intervals across a sea which lies there serene and peaceful. The Western Fairway, between two citadels armed to the teeth, Fort Menari and Fort Piring, their big guns rendering suicidal any attempt to enter the harbour by an aggressor, whoever it may be.

Another car pulls up near where we are. For a while we hear the intonation of its passengers filter through the mild sea breeze. They laugh a little, then fall silent. So pleasingly quiet it is here.

This town, this beloved Surabaya, twinkling its lights, breathing under the stars. [1] [2]

On the porch, back home, the mosquito repellent has collapsed into a brittle whitish coil of ash. The air is chilly. Inside now, perhaps to a game of cards or to bed. Tomorrow is another day.

Frank Samethini
Photo Source: Frank Samethini Collection

Another day breaks through in Surabaya, where generations of carefully planned colonisation have left a stamp of prosperity, peace and unshakable security. This town with its unforgettable memories of leaving school, first job, first pay envelope. That terrific feeling of young manhood, when life seems at its best, exciting, promising. The homecoming on Saturdays from work, with all that long, free weekend waiting; the girls, the big soccer match. The ups taken for granted, the downs shrugged off, in the Golden Indies of pre-war time.

Visible through the open porthole in the cabin, the Madura Straits in late afternoon. Wind blowing hard on a taut sail, flash of sunlight exploding soundlessly off a speedboat's windscreen, the spray from her bow flaring out in a glittering transparent fan. The workday over, it is good to rest a while before going home. Even the buzz from the only surviving fly in the captain's cabin, deftly darting away from his angry, slapping hand, seems to belong, to fit in the drowsy atmosphere of satisfaction. Conversation, in the beginning rather agitated, has settled to a bored monotone. The Old Man has been upset about a character called Hitler, who has been much in the news lately. The chap appears to be up to some mischief in Germany.

So what? That's thousands of miles away, too far to bother about. It's nice and cool here, and that's a good drop of beer. The captain says that the people in Germany are drawing a blueprint for another big war. But lots of people say that is not so. Was not the Great War fought to end all wars? It'll blow over in time, you'll see. All one should be concerned about is having a good time. Why not? You're young only once, so make the most of it. In another half-hour or so, home for a shower, dinner and later that redhead. Should be an interesting evening with that figure and temperament. And in two more weeks, holidays coming up. That little bungalow in the hills, walks through the coffee plantation, Mum pottering in the vegetable garden, a dip in the mountain stream at the back, great fun. How am I to know about what is to come? The terrible blow, the kick sending me reeling down the hill, rolling and tumbling over and over, until I finally hit the bottom and cannot sink lower any more.



[1] The Dutch names of the Surabaya landmarks and geography Frank mentions are:
William's Quay = Willemskade
Red Bridge = Rode Brug (today called Jembatan Merah)
Palm Lane = Palmenlaan (today called Jalan Panglima Sudirman)
The Western Fairway = Het Westerwater


[2] Whiteway Laidlaw (Whiteway, Laidlaw & Co., Ltd.) was a Scottish firm that operated a chain of department stores throughout the Far East. This photo shows the Surabaya store as it appeared in the 1930s.

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