At first glance, Lasem, perched on the northern coast of Java, midway between Semarang and Surabaya, has little to offer. A busy potholed highway cuts through its heart, passing a green-domed mosque, a tumbledown market and a series of shabby shophouses.
However, Lasem has another side, easily missed by the passing traveller – a rich and vibrant history that stretches back to the prehistoric period and contains tales of Chinese armadas, Champa princesses, Muslim scholars and opium smuggling. The old town centre is a warren of narrow, high-walled lanes, home to grand Indo-Chinese mansions, thriving Islamic schools and generations-old batik factories.
Yet, up to a few years ago, these legends were languishing, consigned to the backwater of antiquity. Like the buildings that make up Lasem’s historic heart, the stories were slowly crumbling away. Now, though, a group of passionate young creatives, drawn from all over Indonesia, has been working alongside the local community to breathe new life into these stories and the town. “I immediately fell in love with the people, the heritage and, of course, the food,” recalls university lecturer and occasional writer Agni Malagina, of her first chance trip to Lasem back in August 2015.
Inspired by what she found, she decided to return to write a story for National Geographic Indonesia. Other friends, including travel blogger Astri Apriyani, copywriter Ellen Kusuma and photographer Feri Latief, joined her to help with research and also fell under Lasem’s spell. As the group walked in Karangturi District and talked to the local community, they realised this unique heritage was under threat.
“[There are] a lot of conservation, cultural and economic problems within the walls of the old town,” explains the 37-year-old Malagina, who lectures in the Chinese Study programme at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta. “Many locals told me that they loved to see visitors, but they felt left behind.” Some of these issues are clearly visible. The walls of the narrow lanes are peeling and many of the once grand mansions are on the verge of collapse, their beautiful wooden doors and thick teak beams sold off to developers in Bali for a quick profit.
In February 2016, the friends chose to do something more concrete to save Lasem from fading away. Under the banner of Kesengsem Lasem (“deeply in love with Lasem” in Bahasa Indonesia), this disparate group has been on a mission to raise the town’s profile through the power of social media. The group created Facebook and Instagram accounts, and launched a website dedicated to exploring Lasem’s history and telling the stories of the places they visited and the people they met. There is also an actively used hashtag (#kesengsemlasem), which enables travel-hungry adventurers to quickly browse through beautiful images of the town – hitting 9,340 posts on Instagram at last count.
“People have to see this place first,” says group member Mumun Muntadliroh. “We also need to work with individuals to help [people] appreciate the importance of this culture.” These individuals include people like local businessman Rudy Hartono, the man behind the town’s most successful conservation project to date. Tiongkok Kecil Heritage Centre is a striking compound whose bright red walls make it the undoubted centrepiece of the district. Now a homestay, café, batik store and heritage centre, it’s clearly the focus of Lasem’s effort to develop sustainable tourism.“It all starts from here; the spirit starts from here,” says Malagina, who sees Hartono as a pioneer for the future tourism model in Lasem.
Hartono, a trained engineer and a local, is something of an accidental hero of the cause. Back in 2013, he bought an old, dilapidated Chinese mansion close to his family’s former home, with the general aim of fixing it up. However, visits to other cities like Singapore and Jakarta, where he came across renovated heritage buildings, led him to embark on a more delicate conservation project. “The most important thing was to bring the building back to life,” remembers the soft-spoken 47-year-old. The restoration project ended up following the original Chinese-Dutch Indies architectural style of a grand mansion set inside a sizeable walled courtyard.
Initially, Hartono used the space as a warehouse and for occasional exhibitions but people started hearing about the building and began to visit, and they wanted to stay. Hartono decided to turn the main mansion into a homestay. In fact, he first opened its towering wooden doors to members of the Kesengsem Lasem team visiting on research trips.
“He just fell in love with conservation,” says Malagina, with a smile.
At Tiongkok Kecil Heritage Centre, the walls of the main veranda are adorned with details of the restoration, images of Lasem and its noted historical figures and photos of some of the famous people – including former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – who have come to see what Hartono has built. The interiors are equally impressive – reproduction Peranakan-style wooden chests made by local artisans, alongside ornate lion dance costumes, the latter standing guard at the main entrance.
“As a businessman, I love making money,” admits the pragmatic Hartono. “However, the more I get involved in conservation work, the more I want to preserve the heritage of this town.”
In addition to exploring the heritage centre, visitors can go on a heritage trail of some of the Karangturi District’s most notable buildings. This is thanks in large part to local guide and Kesengsem Lasem member Pop Baskoro, who founded the Rembang Heritage Society in August 2011 and developed the tour a year later.
Pop, who sports shoulder-length hair and an eternal clove cigarette smouldering between his fingers, grew up in neighbouring Rembang and has visited Lasem for years. A spell away at university was cut short after an encounter with the works of Argentine short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges inspired him to return home and become a writer.
“It’s like a Borges story. There are so many layers from the past – the archaeology and the history, but also the people,” Baskoro says of the trail, which takes in sites such as the Cu An Kiong Temple, a shrine built in dedication to Mazu, the Chinese Goddess of the Sea. The temple was founded in 1477 by the first Chinese immigrants to Lasem, who stayed on after visiting the port as part of Chinese explorer Zheng He’s famous armadas in the early 15th century. With its striking pink entrance and gold gilded interiors, it’s most notable for its expansive murals depicting the creation myths of the gods. Cu An Kiong Temple is also thought to be one of the oldest Chinese shrines in Java.
“It’s very special to us because it was made by our ancestors,” explains local trader Mr Bambang, who acts as one of the guardians of Cu An Kiong Temple and whose family has lived here for seven generations. He adds, “I hope that by promoting this temple, the younger generation will begin to realise the importance of preserving the building and our unique culture.”
Just up the road from the temple is another window into Lasem’s storied past, and a clue to why the town grew so prosperous in the 18th and 19th centuries. Behind a simple yellow gate is Lawang Ombo, better known locally as “the opium mansion”. The reason for this moniker lies in a bare room with dust-covered walls. There, under some tatty boards, is a small, circular, well-like hole in the floor. This originally connected to a series of subterranean tunnels, which led to the river 100 metres away, and was one of the main routes for smuggling opium into Java.
“Everyone in Lasem has a story, a link to the heritage,” Baskoro exclaims as we wander through the high white walls of the Karangturi District.
As if on cue, we meet individuals like the smartly uniformed headman of the district, Mr Jumari, who’s happy to share local folklore over a cup of strong sweet coffee at the local warung. There’s the welcoming Gus Zaim who discusses the city’s long history of tolerance and assimilation from the front porch of his pondok pesantren (Islamic boarding schools), one of 28 in Lasem. We also meet 90-year- old Lo Geng Gwan, better known as Opa, who still recalls hearing his first gramophone record as a child at the opium den that used to operate outside his family residence.
Kesengsem Lasem’s efforts are beginning to bear fruit. In the last two years, it has been featured in Indonesian magazines and on television and radio. In more concrete terms, the Rembang Regency has begun a detailed conservation study for the old town, with an aim to renovate buildings in 2019. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Tourism has gotten on board to assist in running tourism-focused workshops by inviting journalists and tour operators to the city.
Hartono is already busy with the next phase of his development plans and will open an open-air restaurant and community centre in July this year. Just down the road, a member of his extended family, Oei Lee “Grace” Giok runs Roemah Oei restaurant, which opened in 2016. In the leafy courtyard of a charming old building, Roemah Oei serves up tasty local dishes such as frog satay and soto Lasem, a sweeter version of the classic chicken soup, with rice. In April this year, a guesthouse will open on the same site, with longer-term plans for a culinary centre, a restaurant and a performance space.
Despite these developments, Lasem still has a long way to go. Unlike other famous ports such as Malacca or George Town, which have undergone massive restoration, the hipster cafés and boutique hotels housed in shophouses are still a distant dream.
While that may put off less adventurous travellers, in many ways, it’s also Lasem’s great appeal. This is a town that still has a more direct and real connection with its buildings, its people and its past than other more Disney-fied heritage sites. With luck and the continued work of the Kesengsem Lasem group, the hope is that Lasem’s unique character (and characters) will not be lost.
How to get there
Lasem is about three and a half hours from Semarang. You can organise a driver when booking a tour through Kesengsem Lasem. Alternatively, buses run 24 hours from Terboyo Bus Station, which is a 10-15 minute taxi ride from Semarang airport. You can also organise tour packages, which include a driver, guide and home stay for two or three days through kesengsemlasem.com
This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine.