Stumble Into Indonesia's Unseen Places
Many old cities have identities to separate them from the modern world. I started to recognize them when walking some of the old cities of Europe. Aside to beautiful old (and deteriorating) buildings, apparently some cities decorate their past with cobblestone alleys. It’s obvious when you enter the old city wherever you look, even down at your feet. However, it’s different in Lasem, Central Java. It was difficult to know whether you’re in the old city or not. Its identity is a labyrinth of long white walls, hiding its true face of the city once known as ‘little China’. Hence, I found myself popping my head in and out of old Chinese-influenced double gate-doors embedded along these walls. To see the old city is like playing a TV game show, repeating to myself ‘What’s behind door number one?’
I do have to mention that without the help of Pop (yes, that’s his nickname), of @HeritageLasem, my friends and I wouldn’t have better access to these houses. His network throughout the city might be the best around, even though he might not have a definite program to showcase the best of Lasem. If you’re reading this, Mas Pop, I thank you for your help.
A few photos on this post are by Windy Ariestanty.
Lasem is known as ‘Tiongkok kecil’ or little China. During the 14th to 15th century, Lasem, or at the time called Lao Sam, had one of the highest population of Chinese immigrants. It is said that the powerful admiral Cheng Ho also ported here to expand business opportunities. With so many businessmen, there’s no wonder why there are so many beautiful old Chinese houses behind door number one.
I’m no architect nor architecture enthusiast to have any authority to say what kind of designs these buildings were, but I’m a fan of beauty and the guessing game. An easy guess would be that some houses were influenced by colonialism and some seemed to stay true to the Chinese roots with pointed roofs, also double doors and windows. We even entered a house with an empty Chinese type of coffin inside.
Unfortunately, like many old cities in Indonesia, many of these heritage houses are run-down. I stepped into some of them and only a few were really maintained well. Those that weren’t in tiptop shape were home for the next generation, who did not have the same wealth as the previous generations. They are now left with more space than needed, leaving vacant rooms turning into forgotten storage. However, because they were originally beautiful, these old houses age relatively gracefully. Walls changed colors with the peeling of paint, the sun shined in through cracked roof and naturally aging wood. Walking into some of them let me wander to a different kind of past, one that I’m not accustomed to; one dominated by Chinese merchants.
Being one of the main batik producing cities in Java, behind door number two are some houses that stayed true to their legacy being home to batik producers and shops. The two well maintained houses I saw belonged to batik businessmen. One produces in-house batik, the other produces and showcases batik creations with a very wide price range. Both seem to still run pretty solid. I had wanted to visit Lasem to see their batik, with their own distinct red, similar to blood, and currently hard to find.
Sigit Witcaksono is one of the renowned local batik producers. His house was spacious, with one section dedicated to batik making. His batik had Chinese emblems and ornaments, staying true to his Chinese roots and the local culture of batik making process. His workshop usually runs everyday except on Sundays, so it’s possible to see batik making on any given day. The other was the home of Hendry Ying, who had a ton of batik to choose from. His story was kind of a Romeo and Juliet story. Both he and his wife come from a long line of batik makers. When they wed each other, the struggle was then about combining both batik legacies. They have yet to solve this and I pledged to come back for their story.
Looking for this particular market might be a little tricky. Usually markets are on main roads, clear to locals and visitors. However, we had to walk through an alley of rugged white walls to then reach this traditional market. Produce wise, there were a few unusual things, such as a square looking fish and seaweed. Apparently, seaweed is also a popular produce that can be processed into a salad-kinda dish and can also be found in the local batik pattern.
I don’t know which market we were taken to but it, too, was located in the middle of a neighborhood of old heritage houses. Behind people selling their produce, were double doors to houses or storage space. Popping into door number three, we found ourselves in the back of a house where they produced tempe, wrapped thinly in teak wood. I suspect, these tempes, or soy bean cakes, tasted drier when fried than tempe wrapped in plastic. They’re crunchier than those I buy in Jakarta, wrapped in plastic or shaped in big blocks. It’s delicious. And, they have different size, up to a jumbo hexagon. Why hexagon? *shrug
Lasem also has a dark past. While most of the business that happened were about trading goods such as produce, batik and apparently decorated tiles, Lasem was also known to be part of the opium trade. It’s one of the few cities that received opium to then be distributed around the country. Semarang was the biggest, if I’m not mistaken. The opium was transported using boats and then passed through underground tunnels that came out in the houses on the riverbank.
Door number four was one of the most famous houses transporting opium, Lawang Ombo, house of Kapiten Liem. Kapitens were leaders of an ethnicity, so probably he pretty much was the Godfather. His house was no joke, being a spacious two storey two-part house. In the main building was the original transporting hole that was said to be 3 meters in diameter; now it’s only 1 meter. What’s even darker about this house is that’s it’s known to be haunted. It’s regularly used as a place for ghost-sighting TV shows and there were times the results weren’t disappointing. Don’t be disappointed by my liking of metaphysical matters because I know, it’s my dark side kinda thing.
To cleanse this talk about opium and spirit, let’s see what’s behind door number five, which isn’t particularly a door but more of a gate because it’s open to worshipers. Cu An Kiong is one of the oldest temples in Lasem. I didn’t pick up much if this temple. Entering the temple, it seemed like most of the Chinese temples I’ve been into. With little knowledge about Chinese temple, I wandered around and was gravitated to a visually interesting comic-book wall. Well, it wasn’t a comic per say but it was a story that was beautifully drawn in sequence. I was told it was the story of Fengshen Bang, or the creation of Gods. I’ve read that it consisted of 100 chapters but considering the amount of walls there were, I don’t think the whole story is up there. It’s still a pretty cool work of art.
As you can tell, my story about Lasem isn’t particularly in order (like my life). That’s because I went to Lasem not knowing what to find, aside to finding Lasem batik, had no itinerary and had very little time in the city (about 36 hours). So these were my findings after popping in and out of houses. It will be my notes to follow up because I know I’ll be back to see more of Lasem.
There are a few options to get Lasem from Jakarta. First would be the train. Take any train that take the north route, stop at Rembang, then take the public transport to Lasem, which is about 12 km from Rembang. Another option that is excellent for road trippers, is to drive yourself there. It’s a nice drive on the north coast that could last about 18 hours with a lot of stops. Hope to see you there!
More pictures from the trip: