May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Review: A tale of survival and resilience in modern Surabaya

Review: A tale of survival and resilience in modern Surabaya
Published: Nov 30, 2013

Robbie Peters' new book brings the poor urban kampungs of Surabaya to life

This is a brilliant book, a must read for anybody wanting to understand the Asian city. In Indonesia, kampung dwellers make up over half of the urban population. Peters sees Surabaya from the alleyways of Dinoyo, a poor inner-city kampung.

Waves of settlement and displacement have followed one another in rapid succession as the rural poor have surged in to secure incomes and a place to live. The remarkable quality of the kampung is its ability to absorb newcomers at ever-higher density. For its part, the municipal government has tried to control, limit and then push such newcomers out.

Reading Peters takes you into the chaos and unpredictability of the kampung dwellers' lives and the rapidly transforming city.  The book conveys an atmosphere of fear, violence and criminality. His description of this complex story, with its many competing and contradictory forces  – the military, Islam, Communist Party (PKI) and kampung dwellers – is done without criticism or judgement.

Peters seamlessly weaves the lives of the kampung dwellers into the history of Surabaya and Indonesia.  We begin to follow the lives of the people of Dinoyo near the end of the colonial era when Surabaya was a major port city. We witness the Japanese occupation and Indonesia's struggle for independence when the older men of Dinoyo served as 'freedom fighters'.

In the 1950s, most kampung dwellers in Dinoyo supported the PKI because its members came into their communities to provide food, training and the promise of land and housing rights. Left-leaning trade unions defended the factory workers against oppression by management.

This all changed in 1965-66 when the army ruthlessly purged the kampung after the so-called communist coup. We experience the terror and intimidation of kampung dwellers as the military and Islamic forces hunt them down. Peters' vignettes are presented within the framework of what the local papers reported at the time.

In the 1970s, one of Surabaya's leading architects, Johan Silas, who lived beside Dinoyo, encouraged the municipal government to provide land tenure and rehabilitate the city's kampungs instead of razing them. He argued that legalised kampungs would provide tax revenue, housing and jobs for the poor. The Kampung Improvement Program provided residents with a semblance of housing security, though some resented state intrusion.

By the 1990s the industrial estate across the bridge from Dinoyo was replaced by multi-story malls, office blocks, plazas and luxury hotels. Regular jobs in factories were lost and opportunities in petty trade, becak driving, public transport and traditional markets were also shrinking.  Some new service sector jobs emerged for attractive young salesgirls, sex workers, guards and chauffeurs.  Kampung dwellers saw themselves as being transformed into silent, uniformed, low-paid wage slaves.

A decade later, the new mayor of Surabaya (called the 'saboteur' by the kampung dwellers) accelerated the transformation of the city into a place of beautiful parks and gardens, international hotels, shopping malls and squatter-free riverbanks. The largest traditional market in eastern Indonesia was destroyed by fire. Pigeon racing and associated income-generating activities were eliminated. Motorcycles overwhelmed the once-quiet kampung pathways, which had been places of socialising, trade and festivities.

Amidst all these pressures, the selematan feast for the dead holds the community of Dinoyo together. This inclusive celebration reaffirms people's links to one another and to their community. It integrates newcomers into the community - the very people the city government is determined to keep out.

Each chapter shows how governments have sought to monitor, regulate and control the population. No matter how much the city government tries to map and document people in the kampungs of Surabaya, its statistics are notorious inaccurate. No matter how much the city administration tries to define, limit and spy upon people in the kampungs, they resist by trying to keep the state at a distance.

I wonder what happens to the kampung dwellers as they are pushed aside by modern Surabaya. Peters tells us that many lose their jobs, incomes, become malnourished, contract lung disease or go insane and die. Many are constantly on the move, trying to avoid detection by the city authorities. Others move out of the city. Do some, like those who run boarding houses for the many newcomers in Dinoyo, move up into the lower-middle class? For most, however, poverty and dystopia seem to remain a part of everyday life.

From one perspective it is a universal story showing the rise of capitalism, growing ties between the military, police, big business and middle class and increasing inequality and oppression of the poor. It shows how the poor are disempowered by a ruling elite and forced to eke out a living from ever shrinking space and opportunities, resulting in class warfare and growing inequality.

However, unlike Katherine Boo's study of one poor community in Mumbai, where the poor pull one another down and the government and police reinforce this downward spiral (Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity), the kampung dwellers of Dinoyo get a foothold and manage to hold on. In Surabaya, unlike in Mumbai, there is more social integration and cooperation among the poor. This is consistent with my findings from Jakarta over twenty years ago (The Wheel of Fortune).

But Peters goes much further and has written what I believe is the best study of any Indonesian kampung. Few scholars have managed to do such close and complex ethnographic and oral history research - gaining the trust of people from the lowest to the highest levels of a seemingly chaotic urban society. He provides more breadth and depth than previous studies, especially of the political and criminal underworld. By looking deeply into the pathological underbelly of Surabaya, Peters fills out and brings to life Howard Dick's broader work (Surabaya City of Work: A Socioeconomic History, 1900-2000).

Peters was fortunate to arrive in Dinoyo in 1997, when the Suharto regime was falling apart and people at all levels of society were becoming more open and critical of what had occurred during the 32 years of the New Order regime. His book reflects this openness and honesty.

Robbie Peters, Surabaya, 1945-2010: Neighbourhood, State and Economy in Indonesia's City of Struggle, ASAA Southeast Asia Publication Series. Singapore: NUS Press, 2013.

 Lea Jellinek ( is a researcher at the Monash Asia Institute, Monash University and a regular contributor to Inside Indonesia on Indonesia's poor.

Inside Indonesia 114: Oct-Dec 2013{jcomments on}

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