“What would people think and say about you at your funeral? What would be your legacy?”
Two years ago, in an impromptu travel to Bali, Mrs. Marco asked me this. I felt life loved and hated me at the same time for sending this lady healer. She helped me finding answers to some of my biggest questions, but her difficult questions sent me to the land of the unknowns.
Mrs. Marco theorised that when someone is ‘done with their selfish life’, it is actually when ‘real life as human being begins. “In life, you can think and do anything but if the ‘I’ remains as your focus, you are still lagging behind your real life; one that is driven by impacts,” she completed her theory.
Last weekend, I travelled to two places that I thought would help me answer Mrs. Marco’s questions. The Old City of Jakarta and the Old Town of Semarang were both equally impressive on showing how people and society in the past have ‘created their heritage and left their legacy’ to us today.
Dubbed as two of the best-preserved old towns in Indonesia, they have failed and in the process to become UNESCO World Heritage. As a universal legacy for the next generation of human race, any site needs to meet long and detailed criteria. While the Old Town of Semarang was busy preparing, the Old City of Jakarta has successfully failed to list itself as 2018 World Heritage Sites.
Facts and opinions were scattered, explaining or giving excuses on why Old City of Jakarta failed. Hopes and pessimisms on Old Town of Semarang were no less abound. Refusing to make another comment, I went to both areas and experience how the two cities exist as ‘heritage’ for local people and communities living in and around the area.
Instagrammable Jakarta Old City
The new Jakarta Government has always been busy with their program to revitalise Jakarta Old City. I have, particularly, interested to and seen the revitalisation progress especially in 2007-2010 when I contributed to a project called ‘Reimagining the City.’
Interestingly, the project looked at the city as a space, instead of merely a place. The project believed that it was the people, community and society that make – or break – a city. It was the experience offered to as well as enjoyed and created by people that shapes a city. In the case of Jakarta Old City, the revitalisation should cover but not focus on physical attributions.
In fact, it was those human-centered issues that kept the area – any area – from truly revitalised.
These issues were, sadly, insufficiently – or inappropriately – perceived. When I talked about safety, others tend to respond with better night lightings, security officers and call centres. Of course they were all important but how do they contribute to the feeling of safety?
How do I feel safe if I keep seeing new but unfamiliar faces in the area? How do I feel safe if most people leave the area eerily-haunted when it gets dark? How do I feel safe if few – if any – people stay and live there in the evenings?
And last week, when I went to check out some newly-launched facilities – some, like the wooden deck on Kali Besar and floating buoys in floral shape, were very instagrammable – it didn’t change much of how safe I felt when in the area. Most of the are was still dark (add the power outage in that weekend!), only lights from hundreds or thousands vehicles that went through the streets albeit few of those people riding the vehicles actually stopped or stayed. I also talked to some people who work in – if not from – the area during the day but were reluctant to spend their evening life there.
The Increasingly Touristic Old Town of Semarang
After being unimpressed with blackouts in Old City of Jakarta, I flew to Semarang. The gangs from Bersukaria assured me to join two of their pay-as-you-wish walking tours around and related to the Old Town of Semarang. I chose to experience the area through these tours as I also wanted to learn how communities like Bersukaria not only make use of but also live the area.
As of most walking tours in Indonesian cities, tropical heat, dysfunctional sidewalks and lack of public toilets were anticipated. The tours itself were substantially interesting. Although my guides were not trained as – and refused to be called – guides, they managed to live to their preferred title: storytellers.
Aha! As someone who are always fascinated by stories, the title sounds promising.
“What the tourism here needs is mostly stories that inspire, aspire and move people to act,” Dian, my guide in the first tour of Semarang Chinatown, explained to me. “If we focus too much on infrastructure, although we positively welcome, we tend to forget that a space is made up by and for human and human are moved by stories.”
That conversation during the tour break have stretched my expectation for the next tour, especially as I was told that it would introduce a different perspective of the Old Town without being in the town.
Again, the tour helped me to look at the other side of how a city was developed. Guiding me and the other fifteen day trippers, Nadin, our storyteller, took us to Candi Baru. I learned that Thomas Karsten designed and developed the area as a refuge to the bustling and crowded Semarang in the early twentieth century.
“The quality of life in Semarang was poor and Candi Baru was developed to address just that, a better quality of life for more civilised people,” Nadin screamed through her speaker when we stood there in front of the imposing Puri Gedeh, the Central Java gubernatorial residence.
Although the physical design – landscape, buildings and roads – were amazing for the era, what Karsten – a trained engineer – didn’t expect has materialised. The area was soon to be a ghetto, where in this case a selected few – claimed more civilised – excluded themselves from the dirty Old Town of Semarang, Nadin continued, while pointing at rows of houses in a ‘slum’ area sandwiched between luxury houses.
What to learn from other UNESCO World Heritage sites?
I have only visited very few of the thousands of sites selected – and protected – by UNSECO around the world. The past one year was especially important, as wherever I go I tried to include visiting a UNESCO Heritage Site in my itinerary.
While Ayutthaya, Bagan, Angkor, Jiayuguan and Dunhuang were increasingly becoming touristic, and Yazd, Persepolis and Pasargaade resisted to move from their past glories, Tabriz, Kochi, Xi’an, Luang Prabang and Kashgar were more interesting.
A bustling development centre of West Iran, Tabriz was know for the grandest bazaar in Silk Route era. Today, the bazaar was still thriving and saw merchants and buyers from all over the region as far as Iraq, Syria, Armenia and Afghanistan.
Kochiites did not bother at all with the label UNESCO stamped at their city, it was and always have been a thriving place to live. The downside was people tend to forget about and live a life unrelated to their past.
Luang Prabang was interesting not only to visit and learn about the past glories of multiple kingdoms such as Lanna, Khmer and so on. Today, local people seem to not bothered with tourists and live their ‘legacies’ as their previous generations would.
The modern Xi’an was built around a touristic walled old town of Xi’an and it was here, on the four sides of the walled city, that I found daily life more real and interesting. Struggling to relive the Qin Shi Huang legacies, it was one of the heritage that I couldn’t relate to when I was there. But at least, the locals that I met claimed to relate this heritage to their daily life.
And finally, it was Kashgar that really captured my heart. In the bone-chilling winter, I got to experience how Kashgaris continued their life conceptually indifferent to their previous generations hundreds or thousands of years ago. Sure, they had their smartphones and digital bankings, but staying several days in the old town and grand bazaar took me in a warp travel to the time when it was a site where Turkic and Chinese troops battled and shed their blood for. But then again, it was not the Id Kah Mosque, the tiled minarets or the cobbled stone streets, it was the conversations, interactions and relationships demonstrated by Kashgaris that really met me.
As one of the main stopovers in the 35,000 km Silk Route, Kashgar has always been exposed to different cultures. The tensions, intricacies and intra-group issues that I learned from literatures seemed like remained here to stay. The ladies comfortably bargained for daily groceries, the old men leisurely spent their afternoon hours in local tea houses and kids were playing around the narrow alleys of labyrinth-like old city. For me, this was a true heritage of Chinese-Turkic influence, planned or not. For me, it was a legacy live by today Kashgaris, decided or not.
Looking back at Jakarta Old City, if the revitalisation focus remains on physical attributions, I would argue that it will never be revitalised. That, with an assumption that it was human, not buildings, that actually live their life (vita = life). And looking at what communities like Bersukaria did in and for Old Town Semarang, I would say it is one way to help the area to become a true – designed and planned – heritage, not for us today, but for the generations in the future.
What is My Heritage and Legacy?
In the flight from Semarang, I kept thinking what Mrs. Marco asked me. If I would live to this definition of heritage and legacy, I would need to make sure that they are designed, planned and developed for the future, not today, generations, and lastly, they have to bring impacts instead of new problems.
And as I stepped out of the plane, arriving in Jakarta, I still asked myself, “what is your heritage and legacy, Endro?”