Tjong A Fie, legendary 19th century Chinese-Medan businessman and philanthropist. He built many of Medan’s churches, mosques, schools and hospitals.


MEDAN


Medan, the capitol of North Sumatra, is something of an enigma — equally famous for its fierce Batak bar girls as it is for its religious zealots (of all faiths), and its “slash and burn” Chinese businessmen.
For decades I have avoided its murky depths as I speed straight up the hill to Lake Toba, my own private Shangri-la.
Things changed last December when I was forced, by the adorable Susi Air, to spend a night in Medan - and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I discovered the best Hokkien street food this side of Penang, and a cute little budget boutique hotel, the Swiss Bell-Inn.
Last month I went back for more.
I flew Lion Air from Batam with a cabin-load of feisty Bataks, and survived.
Medan’s Polonia Airport is a bit of a bun fight but I emmerged unscathed.


Young Hokkien-Medan ladies in one of the fancy fabric shops in Little India, near Jalan Kesawan.

“Come near my noodles and I bite your arm off”. Photo taken in the popular MIE TIONG SIM café on Jalan Selat Panjang, Medan.

Handsome Java-Medan porter working in the Little India rag trade district of Medan.

My big, beefy Batak taxi driver took me to my destination without harvesting my kidneys, which was appreciated.
And this time the nice folk at the Swiss Bell-Inn gave me a room with a window!
In the ancient lane behind the hotel all my food-vendor buddies remembered  me and asked for copies of the NOW JAKARTA magazine in which I had portrayed their daughters as vicious giant warrior women in sexy shorts.
I was determined to get deeper into the myth behind the “China-Medan” — the most feared commercial predator in the land — because all my Hokkien-Medan food-stall friends were such friendly folk even if  they honked  a lot, like Buicks.
I decided to risk life and limb and visit the Kesawan district —  Chinatown’s ‘ground zero’.


Tjong A Fie's family

25th February 2012: To the Tjong A Fie Mansion in Medan’s Chinatown
In the early 19th century the Dutch ‘imported‘  thousands of Chinese and Indian workers to man their plantations ­­(the local Malayu Deli being a tad lazy).
Today, the Kesawan district — comprising  ‘Little India’ textile district and Chinatown — is populated by the descendants from that migration.
In the 18th and 19th century also some Chinese traders started businesses in the “Malay Straits” — and none were more successful than Tjong  A Fie, whose mansion survives today as a window into the lifestyle of the Chinese elite during the late colonial era.


Madam Mimi Tjong, granddaughter of Tjong A Fie who now oversees the mansion living museum.

Central courtyard of Tjong A Fie’s ‘peranakan’ style mansion in the Kesawan district (Chinatown) of Medan.

Exquisite architectural interior detailing is a feature of all the rooms in the Tjong A Fie mansion, Medan.

Tjong A Fie was a cultured man and a philanthropist: he built many mosques, churches, bridges, schools and hospitals for the community.
On his death a trust was set up to continue his philanthropic ideals.
The ‘peranakan’ style mansion  is magnificent — rivalling the Javanese-Art  Deco home of the late Hardjonagoro Go Tik Swan in Solo for refinement — with a series of leaf-perfect potscape gardens maintained by Tjong’s granddaughter, Madame Mimi Tjong.

The house is open seven days a week from 10a.m. to 5p.m. and has a small cafe serving peranakan treats.
On display in the glitzy ballroom is a permanent exhibition of photographs of colonial era Medan.

• • •


The roadside verandah section of the famous Tip Top Café which was established in the 1930s. There was a sister café in Penang, Malaysia — another great Hokkien stronghold.

The Tip Top Café in its heyday.

From the Tjong A Fie mansion I wander  around old Chinatown looking for any remnants from the great fire of 1877, but find only ugly ‘ruko’ shop houses (most offering laminating or printing services), colonial era terrace-houses and ‘wallet’ (swallow nest) towers.
I did find a few quirkish gems of Medan-Art Deco amongst the urban sprawl. In the early 20th century Art Deco was a style much favoured by the wealthy Chinese, from Shanghai to Denpasar. A fine example in Kesawan district is the famous “Tip-Top” tea rooms and cake shop where a band still plays on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

26th February 2012: To the Istana Maimoon Palace, seat of the Sultans of Deli from 1891
The Deli Sultans are descended from a Gujarati general (Panglima Hisyamuddin) in the employ  of the Sultan of Aceh in the 17th century — thus the Indian-Islamic (Moghul) touches in the city’s architecture and the pious brand of Islam practiced.
The palace and grounds were designed by Dutchman Captain T.H. van Erp in 1889.

The throne in the Maimoon Palace, seat of the sultans of Deli since 1891.

Today the Istana feels a bit unkempt — the present sultan is still a teenager and studying in Makassar, his mother’s hometown — and the main palace hall is full of star-struck Acehnese ‘turis domestik’ having their photos taken front of the throne.  

A cheesy Melayu band is playing when I arrive at 10.30 a.m. Fierce equatorial sunbeams are streaming through the arches of the broad ‘serambi’ verandahs.
The palace is loosely based on a Malay house with verandahs and a protruding front covered entrance.
The collection of late 19th and early 20th century court photographs on display, of visiting royals and of palace ceremonies, are incredible.

28th February 2012: To Surabaya for the opening of a cafe in Graha Famili, New Chinatown
I stay at the delightful Hotel Bumi and discover in the fitness centre one afternoon a secret Surabaya Sino-Javanese society of pork porridge-enthusiasts.


Saucy Surabaya-Chinese miss in the Majapahit Garden of the Hotel Bumi Surabaya.

For the last 25 years an exclusive club of well-heeled businessmen and women have gathered at 4 p.m. in the spacious lobby of the Skidmore Owings Merill designed fitness centre to scream and holler at each other  over a vat of triple by-pass pork porridge.
After a few hours socializing the now bloated businessmen strip off and waddle towards the sauna room to the strains of the theme song from “Titanic”.
Anyone visiting Surabaya should check out my Majapahit gardens at the heavenly Hotel Bumi, and the cream cakes at the new Café Gourmand, next to Bon Café, just past the Graha Super Mall.