East Java Jive

Dear Jan:

I’m just back from a quick trip to Malang, a city in East Java that is famous for its cool climate and beautiful surroundings. Sometimes called the “Paris of East Java,” Malang has long attracted Western visitors and still has many remnants of the Dutch colonial era. The actual regency of Malang was established in the 8th century under the rule of King Gajayana. It maintained its independence until 1614, when the city was incorporated into Mataram, then transferred to Dutch rule. Malang was transformed under the Dutch; wide boulevards were built, along with many residential, commercial and administrative buildings.

A stroll down the city’s streets can feel like a return to the Tempo Doeloe, the era when Indonesia was part of the Netherlands East Indies. During our walks around the city, we saw many European-style buildings like this one, named Bella Vista:

And this row of old shops:

And, of course, the inevitable windmill:

Malang’s modern twist on the old architecture is to paint it as brightly as possible, as with the city’s public library:

This library lies along the city’s grandest avenue, Jalan Ijen, which is lined with stately palms (that incongruously brought Los Angeles to mind):

As we wandered along this avenue, a group of university students approached us and asked us if we would pose for them with a Happy Birthday sign — they were planning to give the photo to a friend who was celebrating his birthday. We guessed that it was some kind of a popular novelty to capture foreigners on film — almost like reverse tourism. We agreed to pose on the condition that we could then take a photo of them:

A little further along on our walk, we discovered one of our favorite spots, Toko Oen, an Art Deco restaurant frozen in time:

Here is the interior, apparently unchanged since the 1930’s:

And one of the waiters, wearing the same white uniform and black peci hat as his long-ago predecessors:

Another relic from the past that endures in Malang is the becak. These pedicabs were once a primary form of transport in Indonesia’s major cities. When I was a child in Jakarta, I traveled everywhere by becak, bargaining fiercely for every ride. These days, there are no becak left in Jakarta, and it is hard to find them except in smaller cities like Malang. Here, they are still a popular way to get around:

Some becak double as heavy haulers of every imaginable type of load — this one is piled so high, you can hardly see the becak underneath:

All our explorations of the city made it clear that Malang is a place that proudly protects its heritage. It boasts Javanese traditional arts such as wayang kulit, the shadow puppet shows that entrance local audiences:

Another popular classical art is the Topeng dance drama in which one or more dancers wear masks and perform stories of ancient origin. Here is a display of old topeng from around Malang:

Our hotel, the Tugu, a beautiful complex full of antiques, really captured the feeling of Old Malang. Here is a grand hallway leading between two wings:

A beautiful old door in the spa area:

And the traditional spread of Javanese treats the hotel lays out every afternoon for high tea:

While we reveled in Malang’s past, we also came to learn that the city claims Sukarno — the founder of modern Indonesia, the leader of its independence movement and its first president — as a native son. Sukarno was born about an hour outside Malang, in Blitar, and is buried there as well. He always maintained a connection to his roots in East Java and the people of Malang feel a strong alliegance to him. Sukarno was a complex figure: extremely charismatic and a self-proclaimed “man of the people,” he could also be autocratic, willful and capricious. Despite his flaws, he is still revered in Malang, where homage is paid to him in a myriad of ways. Here is a photo montage we found in a local restaurant, of Sukarno giving a speech in Malang in 1953:

With the overthrow of the Dutch — engineered by a son of Malang — the seeds of a new nation were sown. Malang began to modernize and to grow as an urban center. Shanty towns sprang up along rivers and railroad tracks, and are still in evidence today:

Parts of contemporary Malang look like any other modern city, with all the trappings of global culture. McDonalds, KFC, and Dunkin Donuts are all well-entrenched. Alongside the fast food are sprawling malls:

And gritty street art:

But at its core, Malang remains a serene place with a slower pace and a gentler rhythm than most of Indonesia’s urban centers. It was a pleasure to spend a few carefree days there and to learn more about the eastern part of Java, a place I have passed through but never lingered in. A little off the beaten track, it is well worth a visit. I’ll write again soon and tell you about my next trip, a jaunt to Yogyakarta, in Central Java.

In the meantime, all the best to you and the family, Love, Katherine


About theartoftwo

2 friends in 2 countries, exploring their lives as artists.
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