May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Scunge City. And yet....

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Duncan Graham

The East Java Provincial Government, like most administrations world wide, is not above a little dissembling. You get it on the road into Surabaya where the official welcome signs note that Indonesia's second biggest city is 'Bersih dan Hijau' - Clean and Green.

The signs are best seen at first light. By 9 am smog blurs the image and attention is distracted by beggars and newspaper sellers who swarm around any slow-moving car. Which is just about any vehicle, for the traffic density is close to gridlock. Try not to breathe.

That's in the dry season: In the wet roads are flooded from door to door, so pavement, verge, drain and bitumen merge into a seamless black scum where floating objects best remain unscrutinised. Then Surabaya stalls as saturated engines short circuit.

And the green? Most obvious on bright coloured giant billboards offering sexual, sporting and social success for the tiny price of a pack of smokes. Real trees are as rare as a shark (sura) fighting a crocodile (buaya), the city's mythological origin.

The authorities claim Surabaya has a Centre. If there is a focal point it has to be Tunjungan Plaza, a garish multi-storey department store full of over-priced goods and costly American fast-food shops. Here the poor peer, the middle class preen, and salesgirls professionally ignore customers with cash.

For Surabaya has not been planned, or if that claim is denied, the planners were corrupt, inept, or asleep. Probably all three.

Like some sci-fi squid from outer space which feeds on city sewers, Surabaya is devouring Gresik up the coast, climbing into the hill town of Tretes, swallowing nearby Sidoarjo, to be stopped only by the Straits of Madura. But even then its plastic excreta can be found far offshore.

Who can tell where it all begins and ends, because it doesn't. Surabaya defies definitions and census-takers, but four to five million for the area around the port could be a reasonable guess, with 30 million more in the hinterland. Or maybe that's the other way around.

At least 20,000 are prostitutes, for among its many credentials this sweaty, grimy industrial megapolis seven degrees south of the equator is reputedly Southeast Asia's biggest brothel, with the accessories of disease and despair to match.

And yet...

Without doubt Surabaya is Scunge City.

And yet and yet.

Unlike Bali, Surabaya doesn't care whether you come, and unlike Jakarta it's indifferent to whether you go. The few tourists who find themselves in Surabaya wander bemused, clutching handbags and hands, restless eyes playing spot-the-mugger.

Relax: Even the thieves are indifferent.

Expat businessmen and government officials are not to be spotted in public, except at product launches. They're more at ease gliding between hotel and office behind the black windows of their chauffeur-driven Super Kijangs.

Ignore them: They only mix with their own kind, then sell themselves as experts on the culture and economy.

In a narrow trench alongside Tunjungan Plaza, crushed by a motorbike park, are the warungs where shopgirls on $60 a month and their boyfriends retreat from their air-conditioned glitzy workplace to eat well for less than one Australian dollar.

And so can you. Rip-offs are rare and gawking at Western intruders is subtle.

For although Surabaya is chaotic, grotesque, dirty, impossible to negotiate, crass in its Soviet-realism monuments, noteworthy for its lack of notable buildings, events and attractions, try finding any place more Javanese.

The language of the kampungs and the street is Javanese, not Bahasa Indonesia. Advertisements for cigarettes, mobile phones and dandruff-cures may be English in a pretence of refinement, but the world language is rare outside the campuses.

What you see is what you get. The indifference towards Westerners extends to the locals. This is not special treatment, it is the treatment. Surabaya is raw and honest. No 'morning price', no concessions and, best of all, no contempt.

The obsequiousness, sneers and arrogance, so much the part of the local response in other Asian cities towards white skinned creatures outside their environment, is seldom encountered in Surabaya. You are obviously a walking cash box, but the temptation to make a quick withdrawal is usually found only among a few taxi drivers late on a wet night.

Yet what you see is not what you get. The splendid Majapahit Hotel, reputedly the most expensive in Indonesia and a marvel of indulgence and beauty with a fine historic past, is hidden behind a drab fawhich blends anonymously into a coarse streetscape of commercial sameness.

Likewise with Kampung Sasak. Even the locals have difficulty finding the entrance of this Arab quarter, which leads through a cramped street of traders to the ancient Ampel Mosque, founded by Sunan Ampel, one of the nine holy men who brought Islam to Java.

The mosque, in this densely packed centre of Middle Eastern commerce, always seems to be busy with the business of worship, unlike the landmark Agung Mosque near the toll road to Malang. This grand blue-domed and government-built celebration of Islam, with a Catholic church in its shadow as forced propaganda for tolerance, is as sterile and obvious as Ampel is potent and hidden.

There are hundreds of other nooks in Surabaya which reveal some of the complex and subtle nuances of this fourteenth century remnant of the Majapahit Kingdom. That they're absent from the guide books is no indicator of a desire for privacy; it's just that the government has a stereotyped view of foreigners and thinks visitors only want poolside drinks and American breakfasts.

When Surabaya was created, the deity which governs tourism blinked, and praise be for a marvellous escape from Mammon.

The best food is often found in the gloomiest, oil-lit warungs, original handicrafts in the drabbest shops, the finest dancers and singers in schools where the concrete is cancerous and the architecture indistinguishable from a public toilet.

East Java proclaims it is a Muslim State, but even the most pious will visit a paranormal in times of strife. Ghosts lurk in banyan trees, wayward spirits send lax students into trances, mystics are consulted by brokers who trade on the Net. At midnight, street people drift to a Chinese temple seeking a peep into the future. Islam is just the outer skin of an onion covering animism, Hinduism and other ancient mysteries.

Slim girls in gladwrap-tight jeans revealing navels, shoulders and their readership of Cosmopolitan, hold hands with friends covered from head to toe in the tradition of their grandmothers. Men smoke, drink and gamble, then pray.

To find the secret places and learn of the magics you need a special guide. Not a professional from a hotel - they'll only take you to KFC. The person you require will find you and will be insulted if you offer money, though a feed and help with English conversation will be appreciated.

How to meet such a marvel?

It's not that difficult. Wander the streets and markets alone, with an open mind, friendly face and polite gestures. Take your time. You'll be seen and watched. If you're sending the right signals someone is bound to find the courage to practise their English. Don't rush. Build an acquaintance - or walk away if the mood or person isn't right.

In a few days you'll have met a few of his or her friends, had a meal or two, maybe visited the family home, exchanged views and discovered differences. With luck you'll find more in common despite the Timor Sea of misunderstanding, language, religion, income, experience and lifestyle which separates us as neighbours. Then the smog starts to lift.

Since the British bombed the city in November 1945, Surabaya has been deceived and betrayed by successive governments in Jakarta, but its residents remain resilient, independent, stoic, Javanese.

For although Surabaya is rough and ugly, its people are genuine, keen to share, humble but proud. They apologise for the manifold faults of government, but retain hope for change. They hunger for knowledge. They thirst for understanding. Yet they are not ignorant or unsophisticated.

You may find wrinkled men sucking clove cigarettes who can debate philosophy having read the greats in Greek; young women studying John Donne and other metaphysical poets in the original yet destined to become secretaries; students who know more of Australian politics than the average Okker undergraduate. They hate KKN (corruption, collusion and nepotism) but know that without it they will surely miss the best jobs.

It's a humbling experience to continuously meet fluent self-taught English speakers when you're struggling with a language which is supposed to be easy, to discover the astonishing achievements of young people handicapped by lack of money, few books and a 1950-style education system.

Despite the universe-sized problems which beset this cumbersome and fumbling democracy, the next generation is largely incandescent with energy and determination to right the wrongs, all tempered with reality and an undercurrent of fear. Expect to be dazzled and confused. But never dismayed.

All this and more, as the tourist brochures like to say. Seek and ye will find. In Surabaya.

Duncan Graham ( is a Perth based journalist who can't get enough of East Java.

Inside Indonesia 69: Jan - Mar 2002

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