On sailing trips to Southeast Asia, luxurious mega ships like those belonging to US-based Peter Deilmann Cruises or Orient Lines often berth for a day at Semarang, the capital of Central Java in Indonesia. Cruise passengers are usually given a chance to roam the city for several hours before coming back aboard in the late afternoon to continue their voyage.
Semarang is actually a commercial city, not a tourism destination. But the old city's name has been stamped internationally since the early 15th century when Admiral Cheng Ho (Zhenghe), a Muslim eunuch envoy from the Ming Dynasty, visited Semarang. He was sent on a mission to re-establish diplomatic and trade links with countries in Southeast Asia, India and eastern Africa. His huge fleet was comprised of 62 ships and almost 28,000 men.
Soon after he stepped ashore in Semarang, he is said to have meditated in a cave nearby the beach. The Chinese in Java deified him as the god Sam Po Kong and later erected a memorial temple at the site of the cave. In present day Indonesia, the temple, known locally as Gedung Batu, has become unique since it is a sacred place where the local Confucian Chinese and Javanese Muslims come together to worship their beliefs in peace. Buddhist ceremonies often take place here too.
The temple has become a kind of unifying symbol, mending the often strained relationships among different races and religions that were deliberately politicized by the old Suharto regime. Although the political situation has begun to change recently, the stigma left by the old regime cannot be removed in just a few years.
On entering the Sam Po Kong Temple, we can see the stone carving depicting Admiral Cheng Ho aboard his ship along with some of the Ming Dynasty's soldiers. Two of the soldiers are represented in life-sized sculptures, standing with very determined facial expressions. There are several shrines clustered in the main temple containing an altar for Sam Po Kong. In each shrine is an altar dedicated to a certain deity; one altar is to worship the temple's guardian spirit (toapekong) and another is for Confucius.
There is also the grave of Kyai Juru Mudi Dampoawang, Cheng Ho's Muslim helmsman. Both Chinese and Javanese believers often sleep by this grave to obtain his blessings. A guardian, whose job is assisting those who look for blessings, makes the grave his second home since he spends most of his days here. Believers who come usually give him some offerings for his service.
Neither this unique temple nor the city of Semarang can be separated from Oei Tiong Ham, who was not only chief of Semarang's Chinese community, but also the famous "Asian Sugar King". He made his fortune from agricultural exports and controlling the opium trade in Java; at the turn of the 19th century, he became the richest man in Southeast Asia. His vast business empire with offices in Bangkok, Calcutta, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, London and New York, formed Asia's first multi-national conglomerate. On his sudden death of a heart attack in Singapore in 1924, he left behind an inheritance of 200 million Dutch guilders. He was buried in Semarang.
His father, Oei Tjie-sien was the one who laid the foundation for this business empire. Tjie-sien was an intellectual public servant from Fukien province who escaped China after rebelling against the Qing government, leaving behind his wife and first child. Arriving in Semarang in 1858, he later remarried the daughter of a local Chinese trader and began his trading career in the city by selling incense and gambir (an ingredient for betel nut chewing).
His business flourished, and he quickly amassed a fortune of 3 million guilders. In 1863, he established a trading company named Kian-gwan Kongsi meaning 'source of prosperity for everyone'. He also invested in property by buying 'Penggilingan' Mansion, an estate for his family in the south west of Semarang, as well as the Sam Po Kong Temple. Originally, the public had to pay to enter the temple, but Oei Tjie-sien soon provided free admission to the general public. Years later, Oei Tiong Ham diversified Kian-gwan Kongsi and created other supporting companies including sugar refineries, a bank and a steamship company.
As a result of their wealth, this family was also well known by European aristocrats, thanks largely to Princess Alice (the grandmother of Monaco's King Rainer) who wrote introduction letters about the Oeis to her nobility friends. Princess Alice was a good friend of Oei Tiong Ham's wife and often visited her in Tiong Ham's 2.8 hectare family estate in Wimbledon, London.
We know about this period since Oei Hui Lan, the most beloved daughter of Oei Tiong Ham, wrote an account of the family's history in her autobiography No Feast Lasts Forever. Hui Lan, who later become Madame Wellington Koo when she married China's U.S. Ambassador, tells that the reason her father loved her so much was because his great prosperity began soon after her birth in Semarang in December of 1889.
She often accompanied her father on business trips around the world. Her mother gave her an 80-carat diamond necklace as a gift when she was only three years old. Once when she was a little older and joining a business trip to Penang (currently part of Malaysia), an old man approached and gave her 200,000 pounds sterling to bribe her father for a business advantage. When Oei Tiong Ham heard of this, he immediately returned the money, since he favored bribery only as long as he was the one who did it.
However, like the title of Hui Lan's book, there is indeed no feast that lasts forever. Professor Kunio Yoshihara who chronicled the saga of the "Oei Tiong Ham Concern of the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia)" wrote that the lack of a worthy successor, and the failure to recognize and accommodate the rising nationalistic fervor of newly independent Indonesia, led to the confiscation of the Oei family's Indonesian business and the subsequent breakup of the conglomerate.
"The Indonesian government, who tended to be anti-capitalist and anti-Chinese under the Sukarno government, could not touch Oei Tiong Ham Concern's subsidiaries and assets abroad. The offices in Singapore, Amsterdam, New York and Bangkok became separate companies under different sons. They were, however, seriously affected by the confiscation, because their activities centered on trade with Indonesia. Without ties with Indonesia, it was difficult to survive. The New York office soon closed and the one in Amsterdam cut down its operations drastically, whereas the Singapore office declined gradually over time. Only the Bangkok office did well in the post-confiscation period," wrote Professor Yoshihara.
Although there is no longer an Oei Tiong Ham Concern in Semarang nor an Admiral Cheng Ho with his thousands of soldiers, there are now mega ships bringing in huge fleets of tourists visiting the city. Semarang is also thriving as a commercial city with many of the small and medium sized businesses operated by Indonesian Chinese. Some of them are probably descendants of Oei Tiong Ham since Hui Lan wrote that her father had 42 official children from 18 concubines. "I believe the numbers are more than that as father only admitted to sons having a bent little finger as his official children. It is because both his father and he himself had such a finger."
Besides the Chinese cultural traces, Semarang is also a haven for sophisticated Dutch colonial buildings. "Gereja Blenduk", for instance, is the oldest Christian church in Central Java, built by the Dutch community in 1753. The church has a huge dome and a baroque organ inside and is surrounded by some 200 year-old buildings from the Dutch colonial era. In the downtown area, a very beautiful "building of 1,000 doors", called Lawang Sewu by the locals, will soon attract the attention due to a building of such grandeur.
Although some of these old buildings are not preserved very well and are even being replaced by modern ones, the atmosphere of Semarang as the old city with a unique history is still pervasive. It is well worth visiting for those hoping to understand more of the past.
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Published on 12/15/03