Paradise on Earth
If it weren’t for the Hotel Majapahit, I would have had trouble remembering that Surabaya even existed, so entirely overshadowed has the city been by the Indonesian capital Jakarta, and by other tourist hotspots like Bali, Lombok and Jogjakarta. Hotel Majapahit is a bit of an anomaly in Grand Hotel terms, not just because it’s one of the only hotels built by the Sarkies Brothers that was not on British colonial soil, but because it actually played a very significant role in a post- colonial independence movement. It was here, in 1945, that a young Javanese resistance fighter, incensed by the raising of the Dutch flag over the Hotel at the end of the war, tore off the lower blue segment of the offending flag to create what would become the red and white pennant of the Republic of Indonesia – a stirring account of a turbulent history, which one would find hard to imagine today in the tranquil and genteel ambience of the hotel grounds.
The Hotel Oranje, as it was originally known, is the youngest of the grand hotels of Southeast Asia undersigned by the Sarkies Brothers, ironically by the oldest of the expatriate Sarkies brothers – Lucas Martin. It was built in 1910 in the Persian style that also characterises the other remaining Sarkies hotels in the region. A plaque, in Dutch, that commemorates the erection of the hotel, still exists, just past the art deco lobby that was erected in 1936 after the hotel was significantly expanded. The plaque commemorates the laying of the first stone for the hotel by Eugene Lucas Sarkies, Lucas Martin’s seven-year old son. Unlike its sister hotels in Malaya and Burma, the Majapahit has gone by multiple names since its inception, variously being the Yamato Hotel during the Japanese Occupation, the Merdeka Hotel in the first year of Indonesian independence, and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in the 1990s and early 2000s. Interestingly, it is also the only one of the four hotels that continued to be managed by the Sarkies Brothers till the late 1960s. Appropriately for the time, the hotel was known as the Lucas Martin Sarkies, or L.M.S Hotel.
My room was an executive suite on the second floor of the North Wing, at the furthest-most end of the property. To get to the suite, one has to take a pleasant and circuitous walk along bright, airy colonnaded walkways framing tropical gardens with bubbling fountains. A proliferation of stained glass frames and windows en route provided bursts of colour along the otherwise pristine white walls. Delicately placed here and there beneath the sprawling trees with their bird’s nest ferns were small wooden benches inviting one to sit down to read or to admire the view. Beyond the hotel walls was one of the biggest and noisiest cities in Southeast Asia, but inside these walls, one couldn’t hear or sense a thing. The ancient Persians had a word for these enclosed sanctuaries – pairidaeza – from which the English word “Paradise” originates. Inside the hotel, I felt like I was indeed floating along in a kind of Paradise-on-earth straight out of the Arabian Nights: a secret, enclosed space inspiring secret, intimate, enclosed feelings.
Each of the executive suites in the North Wing is fronted by their very own little verandah, equipped with an ornate light fixture, two chairs and a coffee table. I could just imagine long-staying guests in the 19th century decorating this area with potted plants and sitting outside for hours at night smoking cigars and having bottles of cool red wine. Inside the room, the sleeping area is sectioned off from the living area by a carved wooden frame inlaid with glass panels. At the far end of the room is the bathing area, decorated – like the Eastern and Oriental Hotel in Penang – with art deco fittings and black and white floor tiles reminiscent of a 1920s New York or Shanghai hotel room. The interior of the room was rather dark, even with the saloon- style half-window flaps opened fully – a leftover feature from colonial days, perhaps, when the only means of keeping out the heat, was to keep out the sunlight. It occurred to me that a major refurbishment undertaken by the Mandarin Oriental group in the early ‘90s had probably left intact much of the original layout of the guest rooms, which also meant that this hotel was probably very much unchanged since the 1930s.
Being Southeast Asian, I am mildly superstitious and not above believing in the existence of the supernatural; and so I took no chances when it came to ensuring that my stay in the hotel remained spirit-free, as it were. Java, as any self-respecting Southeast Asian would know, is steeped in mysticism and awash with spirits. There is an unspoken respect for forces beyond one’s understanding, and I wasn’t about to question popular beliefs on the matter. That weekend of Eid, the hotel was almost entirely deserted. No one else appeared to be staying on the second floor of the North Wing, where I was; and I later found out that there was likely only two other suites occupied in the entire wing. Whatwith with the empty corridors, dimly lit hallways, and the dark interior of my room, it was all I could do at night not to dash out of the room to the relatively more populated and better-lit hotel lobby bar. My anxiety was worsened by the fact that I had chosen, for holiday reading that weekend, the excellent (but inappropriate) novel The Hidden Force, by Dutch-Indonesian novelist Louis Couperus, which describes a Dutch colonial family disintegrating under the influence of the supernatural.
The hotel bar – a stunning art deco affair – had been closed for the duration of Ramadan and was not due to reopen till after I left. And so in the evenings, I had to console myself with a beer and so-called canapes in the newly introduced Executive Lounge of the hotel, which, given my full-price accommodation in Executive Suite, I was entitled to use for complimentary coffee and tea at any time of the day, and for my own private breakfast in the mornings. Clambering up the stairs to the second floor on the first evening, I was greeted, with a good deal of relief, by the concierge – a garrulous young lady, who proved to be a tad over-eager to engage in conversation. The Executive Lounge was sumptuously decorated but completely deserted – a situation that was to be the norm that weekend. The overhead lights were turned up to their most brightest, and two televisions blared Korean pop music videos (on the one), and Hollywood movies (on the other). It was the antithesis of gezellig – the Dutch word for cosiness and intimacy. I thought to immediately bid a hasty retreat, but having already shown up, I felt obliged to stay on for a little bit.
Five minutes into a can of Bintang Beer, a plateful of so-called canapés, and a page of notes in my notebook, I was interrupted by the concierge, who, starved of any human conversation all day, joined me at the table and proceeded to ask me questions. Where was I from? Why was I in Surabaya? Why did I choose this hotel? She seemed genuinely perplexed at my being on my own in a city that wasn’t quite so well known as a tourist destination, and by my choosing to stay at such a very old and very odd hotel. While I responded to her questions, a sudden loud scampering sound occurred immediately above our heads, as though a dozen monkeys had just dashed across the roof of the hotel. My eyes met the Concierge’s and she looked worried. But we continued talking, for the moment.
How do you find the executive lounge? She continued. I replied candidly but politely that it was simply too bright in here to be cosy, and that the televisions were turned on too loud. She apologised but explained that she had the lights turned on fully because she was largely here on her own in the evenings, and it was simply too creepy with the lights so dim. Just then, the scampering noises started up again above our heads. I looked at her nervously and replied that she had every right to keep the lights and the television on. As I was heading down for dinner, I also promised that I would return that evening to keep her company, just so she didn’t feel too frightened on her own.
Dinner that evening was at the Sarkies Restaurant on the second floor of the hotel’s West Wing. The Restaurant served elegant Cantonese cuisine, though from the décor – which was antique, turn-of-the-century European, it seemed likely that it had only been a Chinese restaurant very recently. I was seated at one in a row of very quaint and very beautiful booths, along a wall of period clocks that had stopped telling the time. It being a holiday weekend, the restaurant was also largely deserted, which afforded it a stark, period ambience that was atmospheric, but did little to assuage my anxiety. I ordered a range of decadent Chinese dishes – roast pigeon, grilled sea whelk, stir-fried ginseng shoots and the like – all the while taking in the atmosphere in the restaurant. It was far too silent in there, I thought, and I couldn’t help thinking that a live string quartet or jazz band would have done lots to liven the place somewhat. Each time I looked up from my food, I seemed to see, at the corner of my eye, a restaurant full with the ghostly presences of European revellers in their starched shirts and evening gowns, raising toasts, clinking glasses and chatting on about the latest fashions in Batavia. It was eerie, but illuminating.
The Morning After
The morning I left, I caused a slight ruckus in the establishment when I opted for the standard buffet breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant, instead of a private breakfast in the Executive Lounge. The maitre’ d at the restaurant insisted, initially, that a “special” breakfast had been prepared for me – “special” meaning “European-style,” with eggs, toast, bacon, grilled tomatoes and such. I explained, however, that what I really wanted to try were local dishes, and that, being Singaporean, I could hardly be expected to forego a large buffet for a smaller one! At the buffet table, I threw together a pecel – a Javanese boiled vegetable salad consisting of bean sprouts, green beans, cabbage, local spinach and an edible flower called the Turi (Sesbania Grandiflora), which, I found out later on, was used liberally in many dishes in Java. The entire ensemble was drenched with a spicy peanut sauce, garnished with deep fried coconut shavings, and accompanied with a crispy rice-based keripik, or savory biscuit. It was the first time I had ever eaten such a thing, and the staff explained that the core ingredients of the salad varied across Java, and that this version of the pecel was native to Surabaja.
After breakfast, I took the opportunity to rest my weary legs at the hotel’s massive 25-meter swimming pool, where I pondered the term tempo dulu, against a rustic backdrop of crowing roosters and orange-tipped hornets dipping gently into the edge of the water. The past, I thought, was still very much alive in this hotel: of all the grand hotels I had visited thus far on my journey, it was the most conducive to nostalgia and navel-gazing. I understood from Reception that the hotel wasn’t usually so deserted, and that I had been very lucky it wasn’t more populated by noisy Indonesian families and their children. I took that – and a relative lack of supernatural disturbances during my stay – to mean that the hidden forces had looked kindly upon my intrusion into their demesne; or that perhaps at the very least, they too had taken time off to celebrate this national holiday of Idul-fitri.
With the time that remained, I brewed myself a pot of tea, and sat myself down in my little verandah to read the rest of my book about hidden forces. How unnerving it must be, I thought, to live with such constant, immediate sensitivity to the past and its presence. But also, how wonderfully magical!
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- Louis Couperus, The Hidden Force. London: Quartet Books. Tim Hannigan, Articles on Old Surabaya. Available at:
- Multatuli, Max Havelaar, or The Coffee Auctions of a Dutch Trading Company. London: Penguin Classics.
- Robert Niewenhuys (E. Breton de Nijs), Faded Portraits. HK: Periplus Editions.
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