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Capital of East Java

For me, Surabaya, the capital of East Java, is a little like Los Angeles, a big bright sprawl with no particular center, on a broad plain that abuts the sea and curls up at the feet of high ridged hills. I’ve only been a couple of times and I suspect if I stayed I would grow into it. Like Angeleños, Surabayans are supremely happy with their city and confident they can face any challenge.

Surabaya’s gold and silver come not from Oscars and screens, but from trade across the seas. Not for nothing is the river called Mas (‘gold’) and the port set on Tanjung Perak (‘Cape Silver’). The city is enormously proud of their heritage too, their Boston in the War of Independence. Here it was that the flag of freedom was raised and the first blood seriously spilt – ironically enough against the British across Jembatan Merah (‘Bridge of Red’).

cpoMost people come to Surabaya either for business or as a stop-over before heading into the more spectacular parts of East Java. The city feels almost as big as Jakarta, with its broad six lane boulevards, sweeping traffic plazas and the beginnings of a high-rise business district. In reality it is quite flat, most buildings being no more than two or three floors high.

There are not a tremendous number of touristic places to see. Ignoring its zoo and statues to prominent people, what remains are two very distinctive mosques, a lively street market, a museum to a cigarette czar who truly lived the Indonesian dream, and Dutch Dolly’s dens of dissipation – fast becoming no more than an urban legend.

So what holds interest in Surabaya? In a word, its people. They are alive, energetic, brim-full of ‘can do’. Even their way of speaking is famous in Java for its directness and lack of ceremony. I’m going to have to go back again, to enjoy their high spirited company!

A little bit of history

The more famous of the legends that give origin to Surabaya’s name is that, once up on a time, a white shark and a white crocodile fought to see who was ‘top dog’, as it were, in the region. Shark is ‘sura’ and crocodile is ‘baya’ in the local dialect – and so Surabaya was born. Others say the animals represent the ‘Arab’ forces who battled the ‘Hindu’ ones as the island changed from one faith to another and sultan fought rajah. And there are more legends still, of heroes and horses and much more besides.

Written record goes back to Chinese traders, who in 1225 logged the place as Jung YaLu. The great Ming admiral Zheng He sailed here many times in the early 1400s (it is to him one of the city’s mosques is dedicated); for the admiral the town was called Sulumayi, and Surabaya to the locals. By then the town was ruled by a sultan, not a rajah – so the name change may indeed reflect the change of master.

In the mid 1700s the Dutch engineered the split in the Javanese sultanate of Mataram and took control of Surabaya soon afterwards. It was they who transformed a trading port into their eastern naval base; Surabaya remains so to this day.

Surabayans protested harsh colonial rule during World War One, but nothing came of it but more punishment. Japan occupied the city in World War Two, the Americans bombed it and the British occupied it at war’s end. It was they, standing in for the Dutch, who first contended with the struggle for Indonesian independence. Fearing the ripple of revolution through their own colonies of Malaysia and India, the British struck back hard, killing many. This battle for Surabaya became one of the key events in the war, celebrated now as Day of Heroes (‘Hari Pahlawan’). In Surabaya too, Sutomo’s famous act of tearing the blue from the Dutch flag to ‘create’ the Indonesian flag took place, the flag itself flying from the pole atop Yamato Hotel.

Since independence Surabaya has become Java and Indonesia’s second largest city, a great hub of industry that brings more gold to the River Mas, and more silver to Tanjung Perak.