Visitors to Semarang’s Lawang Sewu find competing narratives of history, memory and popular culture
Michael G. Vann
Sitting on one of Semarang’s busiest traffic circles facing the Tugu Muda monument to fallen heroes and the Diponegoro military museum is Lawang Sewu, one of Indonesia’s most famous buildings. Indonesians easily recognise photographs of the building, and mentioning Lawang Sewu will energise a lagging conversation. The story of its fame is a tale of competing narratives. Its impressive architecture evokes the nation’s ambiguous colonial past. The site of a revolutionary skirmish, it had its own part in Indonesia’s complicated and internecine revolution. And its infamous reputation for being the home to unhappy ghosts who died bad deaths feeds a popular fascination with the gruesome and macabre.
Currently, official efforts to write the narrative of Lawang Sewu are losing ground to local myths and folk tales. Unfortunately for government agencies and local boosters, the official story has little to do with the building’s dramatic rise in popularity with domestic tourists. The government monuments of earlier eras gave unambiguous signals. But the meaning of Lawang Sewu for contemporary Indonesia is slippery and confused. Dutch monuments sought to cement the power of imperial enterprise, Sukarno’s monuments stressed the young nation’s alleged unity and burgeoning strength, and Suharto’s New Order monuments praised the general as the saviour of the nation and vilified the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) as an almost satanic existential threat. In contrast, Lawang Sewu illustrates that today’s Reformasi era struggles to define itself.
An imperial temple
The Kota Lama area of Semarang is home to one of the best collections of nineteenth and early twentieth century colonial buildings in Southeast Asia. Sadly, like Jakarta’s Kota Tua, this neighbourhood is in a desperate state of neglect and decay. But Lawang Sewu, just a kilometre down the road from this musty neighbourhood, stands in freshly-painted contrast.
The building’s architecture is an example of the imperial propaganda common to the cities of colonial Southeast Asia. As with other colonial public works, Lawang Sewu sought to convey imperial order, power and permanence in Dutch Semarang. Originally built as the headquarters for the Dutch East Indies Railway Company, construction began in 1904, with the main building completed in 1907 and other parts of the complex finished in 1919. It is actually four structures on a large plot of land protected by a high fence, and was once linked to other buildings in the city by underground tunnels. One of the structures, Building B, has a massive basement that could be filled with water as an early air conditioning system. However, the most impressive component of the complex is the L-shaped Building A.
Dominating the corner of Jalan Pemuda and Jalan Pandanaran, Building A could easily be mistaken for a church. Two four-story towers (which initially held massive water tanks) flank the broad corner façade, and a third rear tower anchors the powerful edifice. Gleaming Dutch-style red tiles draw the eye across the roofline, as the large structure soars above this relatively flat section of the city. Between the two towers, a massive arch guards the second floor veranda, which in turn reaches out to shade the beautiful dark wood and stained glass front doors. Reaching away from the facade, down the length of both streets, stretch the shady door-lined arcades that give this building its name: Lawang Sewu is Javanese for ‘thousand doors’. While short of a thousand, the labyrinthine series of doors in the other buildings of the complex definitely add to the sense of mystery.
Colonial modernisation and its discontents
Entering Lawang Sewu’s Building A is to enter a chapel dedicated to Dutch technology. The stained glass panels fill the room with light and lift the eyes to the arch of the ceiling. It would be easy to assume the glasswork depicted biblical stories, but this room is dedicated to the contemplation of progress in the form of the railroad and Dutch ingenuity.
Given its grandeur, we might expect Lawang Sewu to have housed a more glamorous enterprise than a railway administration. So why did the railway get such an ostentatious home? The ideology of empire gives us an answer. As with Kipling’s ‘White Man’s Burden’ and the French ‘Mission Civilisatrice’, the Dutch colonial government’s Ethical Policy justified conquest and occupation by arguing that they brought modernity in the form of commerce, the rule of law and industrial infrastructure to the backwards East Indies.
Even while denying freedom, the colonial enterprise delivered key aspects of European modernity. And what was more modern than industrialised mass transportation? If in Europe rail travel symbolised the transformative powers of modernity, in the Dutch East Indies and in European colonies worldwide, railways became the great symbol of European supremacy, and they required buildings that announced this. With Lawang Sewu, the Dutch architect Cosman Citroen accomplished the goal of creating a monument that sang the power of empire.
Yet a competing narrative also haunts the building. Someone had to lay and maintain the thousands of kilometres of rail, labour in the machine shops and shovel coal into the engines of Dutch colonial trains, and they were not always content. Railway workers were notorious for left-wing political activism. So as they created an infrastructure of industrialised transportation, the Dutch also created an Indonesian industrial proletariat. It was no coincidence that colonial Semarang was both home to the headquarters of the Dutch railways and the birthplace of the PKI in 1920, with railway workers playing an important role in the early party history. Thus, while Lawang Sewu was a symbol of the Dutch imposed capitalist socio-economic transformation, it also unwittingly hosted covert agitation and conspiracies against the colonial order of things.
Occupation and revolution
Lawang Sewu’s golden age as a symbol of empire was not to last. Its troubles started with the Second World War. As Japan’s Asian blitzkrieg quickly swept aside centuries of colonial rule in Southeast Asia, the new conquerors quickly appropriated some of the best real estate for themselves. In Semarang, the Japanese took over Lawang Sewu, with the Kempeitai using the massive basement of Building B as a detention centre. As rumours circulated of brutal torture and summary executions, locals came to view the building with dread.
One story held that the severed heads of former prisoners were thrown into a corner in the basement. When the Japanese war machine collapsed in 1945, Indonesian nationalists claimed the city and the Dutch launched an attack on Semarang. Making use of the tunnels that once linked Lawang Sewu to other strategic sites in the city, troops penetrated the city’s defences and came to the surface to attack key sites in October. For five days, skirmishes raged in the city, with six railway workers dying at Lawang Sewu.
Today a sombre monument stands to honour the fallen and to educate visitors about the role of Indonesia’s nationalist youth who resisted both the Dutch and Japanese occupations. Yet few of the domestic tourists (overwhelmingly youths themselves) stop to read the plaque on the small squat structure near the exit of the tour.
What many do remember – or at least think they remember – about the war is that people, mostly Dutch colonials, were tortured and died violent deaths in Lawang Sewu. The consequence, as clear as any political one, is of course that their unhappy ghosts threaten to harass the living until they finally find a proper resting place. This popularly held view tends to upstage any nationalist attempts to evoke Lawang Sewu’s role in the revolution. The macabre and paranormal offer more of a spine-tingle than the edifying lessons of sacrifice for one’s country.
From neglect to stardom
In the early years of the republic, the newly nationalised Indonesian railway, Pt. Kereta Api, took over Lawang Sewu. However, as it began to age and Pt. Kereta Api Indonesia failed to reinvest sufficient funds for maintenance and as newer office complexes were built in the 1970s, the building fell into disrepair. In recent decades it was clearly falling apart and headed towards ruin, much like other colonial era neighbourhoods of Semarang, Jakarta and Surabaya.
Decades of neglect were evident in the deep stains and missing roof tiles. The floors of two rooms bore the markings of long abandoned badminton courts and sky can be seen through several spots in the attic roof. Ghost stories multiplied as Lawang Sewu truly began to look the part of a haunted house. Men who wanted to prove their courage would venture into the building in the darkness or even try to spend an entire night inside. This is not surprising as in kejawen, or Javanese spiritualism, there is great significance in the linkage of violent death to specific spaces.
These local ghost stories were cemented into the national consciousness with the 2007 film Lawang Sewu: Dendam Kuntilanak (Lawang Sewu: Kuntilanak's Vengeance). It tells the story of a group of young people out for a night of partying in Semarang. When they wind up inside the old building, the resident spirits become angry and seek revenge after one youth disrespectfully urinates on their home. Amongst the ghosts defending the dignity of the building are a Dutchwoman who committed suicide and a kuntilanak, the vampiric manifestation of a woman who died in childbirth. The director makes use of Lawang Sewu’s striking architecture, including its more gothic looking features, its surreal and seemingly endless hall of doors and the seriously spooky basement of Building B.
Of dubious artistic merit and paned by some critics (one accused the director of ‘raping’ a culturally significant site), the film did relatively well at the box office – not at all surprising considering the Indonesian fascination with ghosts. Lawang Sewu was then the subject of further intrusions from reality television as a series of lowbrow infotainment shows began to investigate the haunted building, with a headless Dutchwoman, possibly executed by the Japanese, mentioned most often. Indonesia’s recent proliferation of smart phones and obsession with social media has ensured that the Internet is now full of blurry images of Lawang Sewu’s alleged ghosts.
An exercise in exorcism
In 2009, Pt. Kereta Api announced a plan to revitalise Lawang Sewu. Stressing the new concept of Corporate Social Responsibility, plans cited the site’s national and international cultural heritage and noted that without conservation this cultural resource could crumble from neglect. Perhaps motivated by examples of colonial nostalgia tourism as seen in projects in Siem Reap, Malacca and Singapore, investors set about both preserving the existing buildings in the complex and proposing new functions for Lawang Sewu.
In July 2011, First Lady Ani Yudhoyono presided over the opening of the fully renovated Building A. Various media reports that covered the ceremony wanted to dispel the myth that the building was the domain of terrifying ghosts, speaking of Ibu Ani as if she had performed an exorcism. The local tourist board hoped that her presence and the opening of a craft fair at the site would reinvent the haunted house as a community centre, and argue that with future rehabilitation the site can serve as an anchor for tourism in Semarang and Central Java. Subsequent press releases that speak of Lawang Sewu losing its ‘mystical air’ show that the official narrative has no place for the supernatural.
Much of the completed work is quite admirable. Facades and interiors were repaired and repainted. Beautiful stained glass was restored. The grounds were cleared. As the project also sought to educate visitors, several rooms on the ground floor of Building B now house presentations on the history of the building and of railways in Indonesia. This public history exhibit skates around the issue of who built the railways and for what purposes. Indeed, it is striking that in this monument to empire, the historical context of colonialism is not discussed. Yet, like the unhappy souls of those who died bad deaths, the ghosts of empire and revolution haunt Lawang Sewu. They can be seen in the imperial designs of the architects and the use of the weak euphemism ‘international style’ in lieu of ‘colonial style’.
Another spectre that haunts Lawang Sewu is the Indonesian Revolution, especially its more radical factions. While there is a monument and plaque to fallen nationalist soldiers, there is no mention of working class radicalism or of the role of the PKI in resisting Dutch colonial rule. While this would have been unthinkable under Suharto, the possibility of such complexity and nuance entering the historical narrative is now possible but remains unlikely. For now, the memorial on the grounds, like the massive obelisk and bas relief in the centre of the traffic circle, and the Diponegoro Division museum, still promote allegedly deceased New Order militarism, not the unsettling and unsettled spirits of social revolution.
Ironically, it is the ghosts of empire, both metaphoric and literal, that have saved Lawang Sewu by seducing investors to revive its long neglected structures with a large infusion of cash. Interest in refurbishing the building is clearly tied to both the structure as an excellent example of high colonial architecture and the popular fascination of the morbid and the supernatural. Yet official statements are loathe to invoke either imperial, ghostly, or complicated revolutionary narratives. Thus press releases fail to clearly state why Lawang Sewu is receiving such generous attention.
Monumental past, uncertain future
The various governments of twentieth century Indonesia hoped to crystallise their identity in their monuments, but this new century is remarkably lacking in such construction and this absence is perhaps best explained by the current lack of ideological consensus. Apparently, democracy is a much messier state of affairs than authoritarianism – be it colonial, nationalist or militarist. So try as it might to define the significance of Lawang Sewu, the current administration consistently finds the building’s meaning to be haunted, both metaphorically and literally, by unresolved issues of times gone by.
A contemporary visitor to Lawang Sewu might be confused as to why he or she is there. What is the significance of the building? Why is it being preserved? What aspect of Indonesia’s history does it represent? These questions are not clearly answered in the official information. Future visitors might be drawn in by the huge commercial renovation in store for the site: Building A would be home to a first floor exhibit, a second floor library and a third floor gallery, while the infamous Building B will be rented out as retail shops on the first floor and office space on the second floor, with the third floor housing a food court and fitness centre (where one could torture themselves on a treadmill or in an aerobics class).
But, today, many visitors do know why they are there. Jalan Pemuda’s vivid graffiti murals of snarling, clawed spirits grasp at them as they approach Lawang Sewu to see the home of some of Indonesia’s most famous ghosts.
Michael G. Vann is an Associate Professor of World History at California State University, Sacramento, author of ‘The Colonial Good Life’ A Commentary on Andre Joyeux’s Vision of French Indochina (White Lotus Press, 2008), and a Fulbright Senior Scholar at Universitas Gadjah Mada where he is busting colonial ghosts and chasing the phantoms of empire.
Inside Indonesia 112: Apr-Jun 2013