Unbeknown to most Indonesians today, countless historic buildings across the country have irretrievably been lost to the ravages of time, wanton destruction or worse are in the process of being demolished to make way for new development. I became acutely aware of this when searching on someone’s behalf for the precise location of a Dutch-owned paint factory, P.A. Regnault’s Verf- Inkt- en Blikfabrieken N.V, in Surabaya.
Initially unable to pinpoint its whereabouts, I decided to enlist the help of Joty ter Kulve and Anja van Rijs in the Netherlands to see if records about the company are still kept there. Anja promptly came up with a photograph of an envelope used by the company, bearing the address of Jalan Koblen Kidoel No. 5.
By sheer coincidence, I was familiar with the address because my mother’s childhood home had been located in exactly the same street. My mother’s family moved to Koblen Kidoel after independence, in the late 1950s. She recalled a large paint factory called Patna in the vicinity, which was later sold to become part of the Wijaya Bowling Center, an amusement park popular in the 1980s.
On its site now lies the parking space of BG Junction, a shopping mall on Jalan Bubutan. Later on, I found out from a local source that P.A. Regnault had been nationalized by the Sukarno government in the 1950s and renamed as Pabrik Tjat Nasional (Patna).
P.A. Regnault Surabaya factory is no more; not even a trace of it remains. No doubt, it’s a veritable loss for the study of our socio-economic history, given the fact it was an exporting giant of paints and inks in its time and that its owner was an avid collector of modern art.
The lack of care and interest in local historic buildings seems to be a common phenomenon in the country. Rukardi, one of the founders of a Semarang grouping of history enthusiasts, Komunitas Pegiat Sejarah, said his organization had been founded in 2012 in response to the then proposed demolition of the former Semarang headquarters of Sarekat Islam, Indonesia’s first nationalist association. Together with historian Bonnie Triyana and other volunteers, Rukardi successfully campaigned to halt the building’s imminent destruction and for its restoration two years later.
Through the dedication of its members, KPS also managed to locate and report to the provincial government’s heritage conservation agency (BPCB) the original building used as headquarters of the Union of Railway and Tram Workers (VSTP) in Semarang.
But not all of its efforts were fruitful. The collapse of the building that once housed the first newspaper published in Semarang in 1845, De Locomotief, was a tragedy. Finding that some of the teak wood trusses in the roof had been purloined, the owner decided to dismantle the upper section partially to save the best timber, leaving the structure unsound.
Apart from recalcitrant ownership, Rukardi said that local government ranks are often as cavalier, if not more. He and his associates at KPS are currently battling a plan by Semarang’s municipal government to “revitalize” Pasar Peterongan by razing it to the ground to make way for new buildings. The market’s historicity lies in its claim to be first prototype of the modern market in Indonesia, constructed by De Hollandsche Beton Maatschappij in 1916.
According to Rukardi, the government, both at the national and at the regional level, hasn’t done enough to support conservation. One practical way would be tax reliefs or other incentives to motivate owners of historic sites to make better preservation efforts. Many owners, he said, purposefully let old buildings go to ruin in the hope they will be freed from the responsibilities that heritage site ownership entails.
Freddy H. Istanto, founder and chairman of the Surabaya Heritage Society, agrees that local administrations need to step up their commitment to preserving history for posterity. In Surabaya, he said, a number of key sites have been lost in recent memory, such as the sale and subsequent demolition of the Jewish synagogue on Jalan Kayoon.
Another regrettable loss occurred with the historic tennis courts in Embong Sawo which Freddy claims to have predated the legendary Wimbledon Center Court. The old Dutch prison on Jalan Koblen was also bought by investors and then leveled. Another historic landmark also in danger of being ravaged through neglect is the Kalisosok Prison, built in 1808 under governor-general Herman Willem Daendels during the Napoleonic Wars.
There can be no doubt that the preservation of our local history has an important role in any city or town’s future development. All the great cities of the world go to great lengths to ensure that every bit of their history survives the generational wear and tear.
London, for example, is famous for its eye-catching blue plaques which inform people of historical details connected with a particular site. Such historical trivia may just be the treasure trove that attracts tourism to any place with interesting stories to tell. Possessed of a land rich in history, we would be foolhardy to let our own heritage fall into ruin.
Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at email@example.com.