Not Price Conscious?

30 Semarang (1)


Semarang, the capital of central Java, is a city on the north coast, approximately 600 kilometres from Jakarta. At the time, my mother’s oldest brother was living there on the Jalan Lampersarie with his family. My father had been born in Semarang and still had a younger brother and two sisters in this city, each with their families. After the Japanese occupation, it must have early 1948, which was when we lived in Jakarta, my mother went to Semarang to visit her brother, with whom she stayed for a couple of days. She also paid a visit to my father's youngest sister. She came home with some great stories. It was this aunt who had managed to get me released from the prison in Meester Cornelis/Jatinegara during the Japanese occupation, with help from contacts at the Registry for Births, Deaths and Marriages in Batavia/Jakarta (see chapter 12 The Japanese Occupation [2]). I was in the Special Prison — the Penjara Luar Biasa Jatinegara — in Meester Cornelis, together with about 750 other men aged 16 and older, who had all been taken prisoner by the police under Japanese command during raids on men out in the streets. There were roughly 650 Dutch men and about 100 nationalistic Chinese under Generalissimo Chang Kai Shek. (i.e. not the Chinese communists!)

Adventurous Travel to Semarang

Here I was store keeper at the KLM Kemayoran in Jakarta
Here I was store keeper at the KLM Kemayoran in Jakarta
Because of my mother’s great stories, I quite liked the idea of spending my fortnight of leave in Semarang from now on. While I worked for KLM at Kemayoran in Jakarta, I could fly there free of charge; we would land at Kalibanteng airport in Semarang. Many a time I got on a test flight with the Dakotas and Catalinas after they had undergone an extensive maintenance service, somewhat like a roadworthiness inspection, so to say. The aircraft was first loaded with sand bags to simulate the weight of luggage and passengers.High up in the air, above the sea, while the motor was working at full speed, the propellers would slowly be put into the ‘banner position’ (the angle of the propellers was slowly decreased) until the aircraft could no longer carry its weight and would tend to flutter down. It was sensational to be part of these types of tests. However, when I came along I did have to sign some statement saying that it was entirely at my own risk and that KLM could not be held liable.
 Why not seat myself in the cockpit
Why not seat myself in the cockpit….
When I was working for the Royal Book and Offset Printer G. Kolff & Co, I would travel by train to Semarang, disembarking at Tawang station. The train would leave Batavia Benedenstad station on time at 6am. Or I could get on at the next station, Gambir (also in Batavia), where the train would also leave on the scheduled time - but here most seats in the train would already have been taken – and I would know what time we would arrive in Semarang, as well as the train’s time of arrival at Surabaya, its final destination. At least, so you’d think. But usually it didn’t quite work out that way. The train taking me to Semarang sometimes had to stop at Weleri if a warning had been issued (in time, fortunately) when yet again a gang of armed robbers was active in the area and could possibly shoot at the trains. In this case we could be found standing on the shoulder of the railway tracks, smoking a cigarette or stretching our legs until the journey could be resumed. For travellers going to Surabaya this unfortunately often meant they’d arrive late at night. And if there was a risk of being shot at by snipers, a couple of armed KNIL soldiers would travel along on the train, standing on the footboards. The latter activity continued up until 27 December 1949, when the Republik Indonesia Serikat came into being for the following nine months.

Or I would travel to Semarang on the so-called ‘kapal putih’, the passenger/freight ships, painted in white, of the Royal Packet Boat Service KPM (Koninklijke Pakketvaart Maatschappij). One would board such a KPM vessel in Tanjung Priok in Jakarta at 7pm and anchor in the roadstead at Semarang 12 hours later, at 7am the next morning. The port itself was too shallow for these vessels which had a significant draught, so all people and freight for Semarang were ferried to shore by motor boats.

First encounters with my future father-in-law

I really enjoyed my holidays there. Initially I stayed with my uncle and his family in the Jalan Lampersari. From there, I would visit my aunt and her children in the Jalan Gundih, a little further away. She was divorced by then, and had remarried a divorced man (with four children). Little did I know at the time that he would become my father-in-law. They both had, for that matter, a good mutual understanding with their ex-partners, right until they passed away. They would regularly keep in touch with each other and with their new partners, which was an ideal situation for the children.

Chinese Influences

Billboard in Semarang
Billboard in Semarang
Semarang is an old city, which in ancient times had actually been part of the Kingdom of Mataram. More than five hundred years ago, many Chinese people had arrived from China on large Chinese fleet and had settled there to build up a new life. You might not think so when you consider the large numbers of Chinese amongst the population of Jakarta or Surabaya, but from all Indonesian cities, Semarang has the highest percentage of ethnic Chinese. The spring roll ('lumpia') was already known during the time of the great Kingdom of Mataram, although it was called 'lunpia' then, a name which can still be found nowadays on the many signs of these 'lolly shops'.

Bandeng asep (smoked bandeng), an especially tasteful type of fish yet notorious for its many bones, steamed under high pressure, was a new delicacy after the war. The fish bones become so soft by the process of steaming under high pressure, that every little bit of the fish can be eaten. And it’s the same for chicken. Visiting the Klênteng, in the centre of Chinatown, and also the pasar Johar, is definitely worthwhile. Differences galore, also in taste: in Western Java, many dishes have a more sweet-and-sour kind of taste, while in Central and Eastern Java sweeter flavours tend to prevail. Once I had an unexpected piece of good fortune on the pasar Johar, I’ll never forget it. Strolling along the pasar, inhaling the scents and perfumes of all the great food on offer, a seemingly penniless young man kept bugging me persistently to buy some tickets in the national lottery from him. At some stage I couldn’t bear this any longer and, showing mercy, I bought two tickets from him for the full price, without haggling, as he really did look very hungry. And on one of those tickets I actually won a nice sum of money! I noticed that in all of Central Java and in Semarang especially, things were a lot cheaper than in Western Java and people had certain ways of doing things which were unknown elsewhere in Java. The older people of Semarang lovingly call their city Semawis and it is not unusual for the ‘welasan’ (derived from the Javanese word sewolas, which means the number 11) to be used for instance when purchasing fruit. If, for example, you were buying 10 mangga's or 10 jeruks (oranges) after much tawar (haggling about the price), you would get the 11th free of charge in Central and also in Eastern Java. When I was staying with my divorced aunt with her many children and her second husband (my future father-in-law, which I didn't know at the time) with his four children, than you can imagine how busy it was in the house! We would often play dominos with my future father-in-law, my aunt and relatives who often visited, which would include a lot of mock abuse when someone’s leg got pulled and was forced to close a card! It is worth mentioning that my future father-in-law’s four children politely called me “Sir” the first time we met, due to the age difference! The next part of this story is especially worth mentioning, because my life could have taken a completely different turn and gone in a completely different direction.

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