Where do we come from? (a post-it note from Semarang)


“Where are you originally from? are you a local/pribumi (natives) or pendatang (migrants)?”

This question came to my mind as I was sitting by the road at the roundabout of Tugu Muda Semarang taking a night shot of the historic Lawang Sewu building. People who passed by looked at me wondering why this person just sat there on the pavement. Quickly they turned away and continued walking.

The question above would be one of the first set of questions asked by people in Indonesia when you start getting to know each other. Pribumi and pendatang are two politically sensitive concepts these days as the political leaders shamelessly playing identity campaign to win votes dividing Indonesians even more segregated than ever. The bitterness among the supporters continued long after the election ended, even after the rivals were already holding hands, smiling and cutting the pie of our country resources for their own benefits.

Semarang is located in central Java in Indonesia. As a melting pot, the city shows how unnecessary this question of one’s origin is. The city has a long history, going back to the eighth century when there was an ancient Mataram Hindhu kingdom that ruled the central Java area before then moved to East Java (known as the Medang Kingdom).

Chinese descendants might have arrived earlier than the history recorded the Admiral Cheng Ho landed in 1453 and later built Sam Po Kong temple. Islamic ruling began in mid-1500 until the Dutch through VOC taking over the city in 1678 as part of a debt payment by the local king. Christianity was brought by the Dutch while Catholic teachings started when two missionaries were granted a piece of land by the king to provide sermons for the Portuguese traders in 1640.


The city of Semarang as painted by Johannes Rach

(source  – Wikipedia)


Blenduk Church built in 1753

A Muslim woman in Jilbab was sitting on her own in deep thought on the stairs of Sam Po Kong Temple. She works there, making sure the temple is clean and comfortable for the visitors. Some teenage girls in Jilbab were giggling taking selfies inside the temple. That’s Indonesia, I know where we embrace and celebrate diversity and respect each other’s faith and religions.



I was surprised to learn that Semarang is the fifth metropolitan city in Indonesia after Jakarta, Surabaya, Medan and Bandung. I thought Makassar and Denpasar in Bali were bigger cities. When we visited recently, it was just chosen as the cleanest tourist destination in Southeast Asia, and we could understand why. The main streets were indeed clean, and they have wide pavement making it comfortable for people taking a stroll. The temperature was warm and humid as Semarang is a port town by the sea. We tried taking a stroll just nearby our hotel but ended up going back quickly as we started to sweat.

Lawang Sewu collage
Nederlandsch Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij (The Dutch East Indies Railway) built-in 1940 and now used as one of the tourist attractions in Semarang

“This place is huge!” I said to my wife as we climbed up the stairs of The Great Mosque of Central Java. The area from the stairs to the Mosque would easily fit at least two football fields. Its oval pillars were said to be influenced by Roman architecture. In front of the Mosque standing six big umbrellas said to be inspired by Al-Masjid an-Nabawī in Medina- Saudi Arabia. The air was so much cleaner here than Jakarta that we could even see Mt. Merbabu and Sumbing from the Mosque.


The Great Mosque of Central Java



Mt. Sumbing could be seen from the Mosque


It was just a short trip from the polluted city of Jakarta, but Semarang offered more than just a weekend getaway. It’s a travel back in time to learn again about Indonesia history and the people, a respite from the useless question of “Where are you from?”

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