My project, titled Longing and Belonging, is primarily interested in understanding the relationship between people and railway heritage in contemporary Southeast Asia and Japan. Between December 2019 and February 2020, I was based in Java, Indonesia. This is a brief report written for the Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur Newsletter ‘Teman Baru’ Issue 112, July – August 2020.
The Dutch East Indies was the second country in Asia to establish rail transport, after India. The first line built by the Dutch began operations in 1867, connecting Semarang and Tanggung in Central Java. After independence, Indonesia nationalised the railways and continued to develop it, creating a system that continues to mobilise people, resources and cultures between the furthest points of the island.
To paint a portrait of Java and its railways, I had to traverse the land and meet her people. I traveled on crowded local trains, where people smiled at each other, sang songs, shared food and stories to pass the time. Some of them were going home, some to work, and others wanted nothing more than to enjoy the passing view of villages, towns, rivers and mountains of his own country.
At the Ambarawa Railway Museum I met a group of teachers. The refurbished old station building and steam locomotives reminded them of their childhood, and they hope to share it with their young students. The railway station was built by the Dutch in 1873, and then converted into a museum in 1976. In Semarang I visited Kampung Spoorlaan, where I found remains of the first railway station in Indonesia, now hidden between houses. The station was built in 1864, and then demolished in 1914 to make way for a new Semarang station. In Surabaya I met Doraemon, Spongebob, Mickey Mouse, and a pontianak, who were all dancing on the streets in the old quarter between empty Dutch-era buildings.
In Jember I met a young barber. He was happy to meet someone whom he considered ‘serumpun’, meaning we shared the same roots. I, as a Malaysian, and he, as an Indonesian. In Banyuwangi I visited a local coffeeshop for a cup of kopi tubruk, the local way of brewing coffee. During the Dutch colonial period, farmers were forced to plant coffee and sugarcane, which is why both coffee and sugar are still consumed widely by the Javanese. Kopi tubruk, a cup of bitter history. In Jakarta, I met Pak Joko, Pak Girin, and Pak Subakhir. They were building a small playground next to the railway line, a safe space for the children who enjoy looking at passing trains. They call it Taman 007.
At an interactive workshop at the Indonesian Visual Arts Archive (IVAA) in Jogjakarta, all the participants came from different parts of Java. Together we drew a new map of Java, one that was based on personal memory, cultural icons, stereotypes and ambitions. Interestingly, the resulting map had no borders, but it did have a railway line, stitching together identity and histories from every corner of the island.
Two months of seeing, listening, and feeling has allowed me to understand how railway heritage empowers the Javanese to have a direct connection with their own past. Railway stations, museums, trains from different decades, all continue to play an important part in the shaping the way the Javanese think about themselves and their nation.
Soon it was time to leave.
I looked out at Java through the window of the airplane for the last time. First I saw the city, then the mountains, and then the sea. I was on my way to Japan, floating high above a blanket of soft clouds. Who will I meet next, I wondered.