This trip is like a story of one thousand and one nights. Just imagine, you fell asleep after driving through the bending road of the slope of Mount Talang, passing through Solok town and then woke up suddenly at unknown place. Am I already in Europe?
Of course not, because the town in Europe must be free from posters of messy parliament candidates. This kind of things only found in Indonesia. I just woke up from sleep in a place called Sawahlunto, a small town which commonly spoken in forum and media at a glance. Like other towns in Indonesia, this town is also filled with euphoria of power syndrome where you can see a lot of candidate posters around the town. Apart from politic, we wanted to present a report about the best heritage town in Sumatera with a pride.
The old Kijang car which brought us had passed the old railroads many times. After driving about 2,5 hours from Minangkabau International Airport, finally we reached the crossroads leading to Sumatera highway. We were driving out from the main road, and turned right like a pointer moving to three o’clock, and then going up to the small hill through little jungle and settlement with rare population. After reaching the top road, then descending road with curves, this time it presented a panorama like a basin where the buildings are close to each other like crackers on its bottom. The town was surrounded by the steep and green hills. The old buildings were spread over the area. Oh, this is our destination point.
The story of Sawahlunto, begins:
There is a natural basin in Solok. A young engineer from Netherland named WH. De Greeve found the potency of natural energy with huge deposit under the basin. The coal has made the giant basin smoked and helped create “meals” that invited many people came. Some came from Java, China, Batak, Celebes, Europe and several local peoples.
The discovery of coal mining in Sawahlunto in coincidence with the use of steam engine in factories in Europe. The steam engine that designed by James Watt had triggered the need of coal in a great number as the cheap energy to replace the rare fire wood. As a result, the little basin in West Sumatera became so important and known by the world. How could that be? Because the potency of the black stone found near the Ombilin River was known as one of the coals with the world’s best quality.
The discovery of coal also triggered the growth of other towns in West Sumatera. Railroads from Sawahlunto to Padang were built to transport the coal. To transport coal by river was impossible. Greeve had tried the first expedition by using the stream, but he should pay the difficulty with his own life, he died in the strong stream only 4 months after his discovery of Ombilin which became sensational news to Dutch Parliament in Den Haag. When talking about coal, he was the right person to remember as a hero.
The last station in “Basin Town” is the complete station for the steam train in West Sumatera with its own workshop. The station in Padang, Pariaman, and Bukittinggi did not have such workshop facilities. Even the Port of Emma Haven (Teluk Bayur) was built to facilitate the coal transport to Batavia. And Bukittingi was developed as the weekend holiday for the Dutch high officials after a hard day’s work in Sawahlunto.
Because of coal, the Chinese people from mainland Asia came to Sawahlunto to try their luck. Some were involved in business on second and third layer in connection with coal. But some Chinese merchants collected the bones of buffalo and cows to sell in Burma. The bones was sent via Riau, and sold the items at auction in Pekanbaru. The pottery makers in Burma had the knowledge to melt the animal bones and made it into powder as the ceramic material. In fact the pottery from Burma is more beautiful and long lasting.
Despite its growth, the coal mining industry was not a simple job. It needed the mega project for infrastructure, mining process, cleaning, filtering, and transportation. Besides all workers were ready to do the rough work without any complaint and resistance. It was not easy to recruit such coolie.
The Dutch was trying to find the way out. Then the General Governor in Batavia gave an idea to Director of Justice which had connection with prison. One day in the second half of the 19th century, the doors of the cell in Java and Sumatera were open unexpectedly. The persons with criminal stigma were released from cell, but the leg, arm and neck were still chained.
They were guided to the ship deck like British criminals that had been sent to Australia. The destination point: Port of Emma Haven (Teluk Bayur). The final point: Sawahlunto. Names like Usup, Entong and Mamang were among them. Three of them were just common people who became legend and most frightening ones because they often robbed the Dutch houses in the Meester Cornelis area (Jatinegara), Kemayoran and Town Area. They were released from Prison of Cipinang, and Glodok.
On arrival in Ombilin, they were sold by Director of Justice to the Chief of Ombilin Mining. What a pleasant thing! Department of Justice got commission per head and no longer provided food for prisoner. The Chief of Mining was also happy to get the loyal coolie with free of charge. It was told that they had to work or to be beaten. No way to complaint, because the criminals had no rights at all. The life was guided by bell and siren only for short while rest for sleep and lunch in public kitchen.
They were always chained, so the criminals were popularly called as “The Chain Man” (or Kettinganger in Dutch Language). They were treated so badly and inhuman but got no attention from outside world because it happened behind the closed basin. Here no people like Van den Brand who wrote about coolie contract. No Sneevliet from Communist Party who had sympathy with proletarians. They were trapped at the bottom of the basin, in the cell which directly connected with long tunnels of mining, namely the world without sun and the hot rails.
Their names were never mentioned because the Chain Man was counted based on registration number, something like cows in Tapos dairy farm in Java. Thousands of their tombstones were also numbered in accordance with the number which was tattooed on their arm. In fact, not all of them were criminals but some were political prisoners. But they were also treated like criminals, who cared?
For more details, a book which written in popular style by Erwiza Erman and associates, “The Chain Man: From Prison to Prison“ could explain in detail about the life of the Chain Man. Fierce, wild, hate, vulgar, and intimidated. The result of interview with the descendents of the Chain Man who live in Sawahlunto also written in this book.
In short, the economic process, social, and infrastructure development in Ombilin coal mining have created new model of society in Sawahlunto, namely a mixture of mining coolie, merchant, technician, foreman, colonial official, priest, etc. They mixed up and did intermarriage. No wonder if the present population in Sawahlunto consist of Javanese, Chinese, Bataknese, and some European descendent with blue eyes and blond hair and semi Caucasian posture. But they are all called themselves as “Urang Awak” (Minangkabau People).
Now, it is already 117 years since Ombilin Coal Mining operated by Dutch Colonial Government. The first thing I wanted inform you that all silos for coals are empty, railway coach, and locomotive have been converted as museum items, even the chimney which was used for burning coal to produce electricity, and now being used for minaret of Mesjid Agung Nurul Islam Sawahlunto.
Since 2003, this town was like a ghost town. A dead town. No more economic enthusiasm since the mining was close due to high cost economy in its operation. Although PT Bukit Asam is still operating a number of mining, but its capacity not as big as before.
A portion of the citizens live from pension funds, and partly they are civil servants, merchants, and work in farming sector. The citizens in Silungkang keep on surviving from home industry to produce hand-woven clothes and snacks. They all have lost the main turbine to stimulate the economy. For the young man with great ambition, there is no choice but go outside the country.
But now the situation is changing drastically when a local citizen who live in Java returning home in 2002. He is Amran Nur, who is now occupying the main position in the Town Hall of Sawahlunto. This figure had experience as a business man, and since he was elected as Mayor of Sawahlunto, he began appealing everyone to see this town from different point of view.
The first policy he made was to run the standard mandate of UUD (constitution) by using at least 20% of APBD (town budget) for free basic and high education, and also to make town vision with great ambition.
The latest, in 2020 Sawahlunto is becoming “Tourist Mining Town plus Culture”. In the beginning, this vision is something like mission impossible. No welcome from the citizens. Who will come here from a far way to see the old chimney and rust iron?
Just in five years, Amran Nur has become the winner. Firstly, through intensive dialog in legislative forum he succeeded to win. The most important thing he also got sympathy from the people which in the beginning was against its peculiar step.
Now, the old buildings, town sites, German made locomotive, and ramshackle underground tunnel which are left behind by mining company have been turned into valuable items. At this time, Sawahlunto is the best heritage town in Sumatera, and even a little bit better than the popular old city Malacca in Malaysia.
The Mayor with the help from professional staffs like historian, architect, and sociologist were able to process and produce a special provincial regulation to protect the old building, as we know that such regulation is not yet available in the old towns of Sumatera. He also made a special budget annually to support renovation, house design without charge, and free consultant to the owner to build house in the town site, as long as they are willing to renovate his house based upon concept of heritage town. And even more, he is ready to face the court of justice in case of old building and historical items in his town are demolished by someone.
Please come right now to visit this small basin if you want to feel nostalgic atmosphere of small Europe in Sumatera. Dutch colonial houses have been changed to office and mess in exotic style. Pavement is clean and well maintained. No concrete wall to fence the building, but the chain is being used for the artistic value. No street sweepers with yellow uniform in day time because they have done their job before the sunrise. No pile of garbage. No sidewalk to disturb the road. No billboard took the portion of pedestrian on sidewalk.
Four times a day, the siren was still ringing to remind you of the past. The sound of the horn from the old train which was operated in the first station bounced back by beautiful hills. Locomotive chimney whistled as if to remind me of serial of Friday The 13th.
It seems that everyone has sense of belonging to this town like their own home. Exclusivism has gone down with the past era. On the roadside in downtown the authority provided chairs in classic style. The old trees which is unique still growing around the old building. There is olive tree, and laura tree near Catholic Church which is managed by Catholic priest from Italy. There is also sawo belanda tree in front of the house of Dutch doctor. Now the house became a suite room of Hotel Ombilin.
The former complex of Chain Man has been organized to be historical site, and also its small commercial district. Public kitchen which was once the cooking place for lunch of the workers now became Museum Goedang Ransoem. The former tunnels of coal mining were deeply inside the ground as far as a few kilometers now became a special destination to give the real experience about mining industry. If you have children who are interested to see the trace of historical mine, so Sawahluntto is the best choice for them.
In the bright night, I went down from my mess where we stayed, and then walked around the town wearing cheap sandal. Really I had an alternative choice to rent an old bicycle in Hotel Ombilin, but walking was more enjoyable. Just leave your car here, because it’s not very useful.
Adinegoro Library is still open until . Despite the library of this town is a relatively small, and occupying the old building but the service ant its collections fantastic. They are not people who wear civil servant uniform and speak impolite. But they are young girl and boy who are energetic and always ready to welcome the visitors with enthusiasm, and give a help if needed. The collection of library is also unique due to its books with local, and popular collection of Harry Potter to make the teenagers interest in reading.
Having satisfied to see the museums and well maintained historical sites of the town, then I returned to town esplanade at Jalan Ahmad Yani in where the variety of food stalls have been opened. Here you can find a variety of typical Minang food like rendang kikil and jengkol rebus are available. Agh, Jariang nan mambuek lupo waktu (You spent much time to enjoy the food with stink bean).
I will not tell you about the activity of city tour which can be done in this town, for I will be explaining in detail in the next edition. Just wait, I will explain about my unforgettable experience on the steam locomotive train, and the retracing of mining tunnels which has filled with the frightening mystical story. I will also report about my visit to big scale projects which are still developing like the second best horse racing ground after Pulo Mas, water boom in the jungle, strawberry garden below the wall of the hill like Grand Canyon, and the story of Mbah Soero on “Friday Night”. Hmmm, I am sure that this town has a bright future. Pak Amran Nur is leading his town more than just a Mayor, but also as a “city manager”. He has done something extraordinary to build. He breaks the bureaucracy line that something unusual in other towns. “Let’s make it business way!” .