29 August 2009

Lasem: A unique station in a unique town

The first Chinese settlement in Java was most likely established in Lasem. Lasem is located on the north coast of Java, about three hours drive east of Semarang, the provincial capital of Central Java. Its current population is about 30,000. The Chinese settlers arrived in phases, the first one in the 15th century, then in 1740, 1743, 1842, and finally in 1881. These succeeding years marked important events in the history of Chinese-Indonesians.

In 1740 there was an uprising of the Chinese in Batavia against the Dutch East Indies Company. Many Chinese were killed, while those who survived escaped to Lasem. These refugees established themselves north and south of the existing Chinese settlement.

In 1743 the Chinese of Lasem revolted against the Company, in retaliation to the Batavia massacre. The Company reacted by forcing all the Chinese who where living in villages around Lasem to settle within the town, on the western bank of the Lasem River, across the earlier Chinese settlement. This was to make it easier for the Company to control the Chinese.

In the beginning of the 19th century, the Groote Postweg (the Great Post Road) was built by Governor General Herman Willem Daendels. Part of the road passed through Lasem. The road gradually replaced Lasem River as Lasem’s main transportation artery. Consequently, the Chinese settlement which formerly faced the river now became more oriented towards the road. The town grew and new settlements were established in the southeast (1842) and northwest (1881) of the existing settlements.

The Chinese in Lasem basically built their settlements following principles put down in the Kao Gong Ji, written in the time of the West Zhou Dynasty (1066 -770 BCE) and the fengshui. However, unlike towns in mainland China, Lasems’s main orientation is towards the west (not the south), and it is not a walled city. But, like in China, their courtyard houses are walled compounds, designed to accommodate two or three generations. The earlier houses have strong Chinese characteristics, but later houses also show Dutch and Indies architectural influences.

In 1881 the Samarang-Joana Stoomtram Maatschappij (SJS, Samarang-Joana Steam Tram Company) was granted a concession to build a railway line from Samarang (now spelt Semarang) to Joana (now spelt Juwana or Juana). In 1900 the line was extended from Juwana to Lasem, and a station was built on the southwestern edge of the town.

(Map: Rob Dickinson)

The original station was a very simple affair, but in 1914 a new station was built to replace it. Architecturally, this new station is rather unique amongst stations in Indonesia. Though its basic layout is typical of SJS medium sizes stations, its architectural detail shows some Chinese influences.

Unfortunately, this unique and beautiful station is in a very bad condition. Since the closure of the former SJS lines in the 1980s, no trains pass through this station. It is now abandoned and neglected. This is perhaps a reflection of the town of Lasem itself, which is now also a dying town. The road widening projects and the anti Chinese sentiment in the days of the New Order government have caused serious physical damages to the Chinese style houses. But the most critical problem it is facing today is the decline of its batik-based economy. Like the station, many of the beautiful houses are now abandoned or only occupied by the elderly as many of the younger generation have left Lasem to seek a better living elsewhere.

A steam hauled train on the roadside track on the Juwana – Rembang - Lasem line, May 1976 (photo: Rob Dickinson)

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