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Colonial Ruins in Padang

Colonial godown next to railways
Colonial godown next to railways

By Freek Colombijn      The American anthropologist Ann Stoler argues that the ‘ruins of empire’, or ‘imperial debris’, must be studied less as ‘dead matter or remnants of a defunct regime than [in order] to attend to their reappropriations and strategic and active positioning within the politics of the present’ (Stoler 2008: 196). Colonial buildings, and also the selective restoration of them, are often contested by different actors with different interests. Aware of such contestations, Ann Stoler (2008: 201) makes the point that ‘[r]uins are not just found, they are made. They become repositories of public knowledge and new concentrations of public declaration.’ This selective reappropriation and active ruination is demonstrated by the Indonesian city of Padang.

Padang is the biggest port town on the west coast of Sumatra. It existed before the Dutch arrived in Indonesia, but Padang only became a VOC station because it was so insignificant that it was about the only place on Sumatra’s west coast where the VOC was tolerated by the local chiefs. The town was strongly developed by the Dutch as port town to export primary products from their hinterlands and it had its finest moment in the mid-nineteenth century, when it was the most important port in all of Sumatra. The quayside of the Batang Arau River used to be a centre of colonial activity in Padang, where Dutch trading firms had built their offices and warehouses in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. Also a beautiful Chinese temple and a mosque built by Indian migrants are found in the quay area and the important Ganting Mosque (1910) is not far away. When Padang expanded, the city grew away from the Batang Arau River. Today the river quay has become eccentric in the urban space and is economically in decline.

Earthquake damage to a Chinese temple
Earthquake damage to a Chinese temple

Since my first visit to Padang in 1990 the traces of the colonial past in the urban landscape have steadily fainted. Sometimes the urban administration actively erased a Dutch structure, for instance when a fortress in the centre was demolished to make room for the annex to the adjacent town hall. In the long run, however, neglect and vandalism (when for instance tainted glass windows of office buildings were smashed by throwing stones) had a much bigger impact on the colonial heritage in the area of the river quay than active demolition. In the absence of municipal surveillance, new buildings and improper additions to existing buildings were constructed without a building permit; some old buildings became damaged by the deliberate attraction of swallows in the hope of a harvest of edible birds’ nests.

The degradation was somewhat reversed in the 2000s when the quayside was recognized as an area with tourist potential. Something akin to a boulevard was created, with benches and small parks, but it did not attract many flâneurs yet. The office building of a former colonial savings bank on the quayside was converted to a hotel by a German resident of Padang. Although the government recognized the old colonial office buildings as a scenic backdrop for the boulevard, there was certainly no attempt to recreate a colonial atmosphere, and the buzzing river quays of contemporary Singapore formed a more important source of inspiration than local colonial times. As a team of the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science concluded about Padang: ‘there is a scarce public awareness regarding the historical value of the area’s cultural heritage’ (Van Dun, Ter Steege and Timmer 2011:20).

The state of the colonial heritage deteriorated suddenly and severely with an earthquake of 7.6 on the Richter scale that hit Padang on 30 September 2009. 109 people died, 6500 buildings were destroyed and 16.000 buildings were badly damaged in Padang (and over a thousand people died in the whole province). Out of a list of 73 registered historical objects in town, 59 were damaged, of which 28 severely damaged (BPPI 2010:3, 15; Timmer 2011: 29-32).

The devastation of Padang made the question what to do with the colonial heritage acute (and the next severe earthquake may finish it for good). The question what to do with the colonial heritage was discussed at a workshop convened by the municipality with funding from the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency. A simultaneous seminar was convened by the local office of the Indonesian Ministry of Culture and Tourism in Padang with funding from UNESCO and the Japan Center for International Cooperation. When the simultaneity of the two events was discovered, some activities were combined.

Formally the Indonesian authorities invited the foreign participants and had the lead, but at least in the case of the first workshop the idea to have a workshop was born in informal talks between the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency and the representative of the Indonesian Heritage Trust, BPPI, in the Netherlands. Communication at the workshop was hampered by language problems (some Dutchmen not understanding Indonesian and some Indonesians not speaking English).

Earthquake damage to a colonial church
Earthquake damage to a colonial church

The report of the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency focused on the damage to the Dutch colonial heritage in the quayside area and concluded that a public awareness campaign and a powerful state development agency were necessary to save the area (Van Dun, Ter Steege and Timmer 2011). It seems that the outcome of the workshop was irrelevant for the local government and the Dutch advice remained gratuitous. In any case, these proposals have not been implemented, partly because, as a representative of the Indonesian Heritage Trust told me, the Mayor of Padang is not interested in colonial heritage. The two groups that, according to a member of the Dutch team, seemed most enthusiastic at the workshop were, first, a group of students who were fascinated by old pictures brought by the Dutch delegation, and, second, staff from the railways, who presented old maps to indicate how the Pulau Air railway station in the area might be developed into a centre sending tourists by train from Padang to the mountains behind Padang. The BPPI report, with a large input from its local representative, the architect and prominent scholar Eko Alvares, developed a more coherent view for the whole quayside. BPPI pleaded for new private investments in the public space. Pairs of pictures of Padang as it is and places outside Indonesia as Padang might become gave a vista of how an attractive public space can become profitable in an economic sense (BPPI 2010). Despite the grand view of the future and nice visualization, nothing has come of this plan either.

Meanwhile, the damaged old Ganting Mosque was quickly restored, probably with funds from the believers. Old Chinese shophouses, top-heavy by later additions and therefore badly damaged by the earthquake, were often demolished and replaced by a modern building by the owners. Contrary to its lack of action in the quayside area, the municipality intends to restore the town hall and turn it into a museum (and build a new town hall more inland at a tsunami-proof location). Unfortunately, there is a limit to the number of museums a city can sustain if they need to attract any visitors. If municipal administrators or private conservationists wish to preserve colonial buildings, they will have to come up with more creative ideas of how to exploit the buildings in an economically sustainable way.

Freek Colombijn is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, VU Amsterdam.

BPPI (Badan Pelestarian Pusaka Indonesia), 2010,  (Hasil workshop 11-17 Desember 2010, di Padang). Jakarta: BPPI.

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