SURABAYA – A city being transformed

Unique attractions in an historic city undergoing a remarkable makeover

Surabaya is the capital of East Java and until little more than 100 years ago ranked as the largest and richest city in the Dutch East Indies.

At one time it rivalled Shanghai and Hong Kong in importance and over centuries played a key role in shaping power and influence across Java.

But it was also known for its dirty streets, poorly maintained facilities, traffic jams, corruption and lack of administrative transparency.

The city has undergone a quiet revolution since 2010 when Tri Rismaharini, known as Ibu Risma became the Surabaya’s first directly elected and first woman Mayor.

Ibu Risma, formerly a little-known official within the city’s administration, set about cleaning up Surabaya and its government

She increased city spending on education and libraries; created parks, sports facilities and playing fields and pushed green space to 20% of city lands.

Ibu Risma - Transformational Mayor of Surabaya for 10 years
Surabaya’s popular award-winning Mayor, Ibu Risma

She also tackled persistent local flooding problems, cut wasteful spending, enhanced transparency and shut down an infamous red-light district ranked as one of South-east Asia’s biggest brothel complexes.

Surabaya voters returned her to office for a second term in 2015 with more than 86% of the vote, and the city’s steady makeover has continued.

The city has received major Indonesian and international awards for its achievements while Ibu Risma has been named as one of the 10 Most Inspiring Women by Forbes Magazine Indonesia, one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune Magazine and the world’s third-best Mayor by the World Mayor Project.

The new-look Surabaya is becoming clean, green and beautiful under the guiding hand of a popular Mayor - pic by Detta Priyandika

A vibrant, fast-growing commercial and trading centre

Today’s vibrant Surabaya is Indonesia’s second city with a population of 3.5 million (rising to more than 13 million within the surrounding Greater City area).

It has 33 mega shopping malls, heritage colonial architecture and skyscrapers rising to as many as 52 floors and is one of Indonesia’s most important financial, industrial, commercial and transportation hubs.

Throughout much of its 800 years it has been a major trading hub for coffee, sugar, tobacco, rubber, timber and sought-after spices from islands to the north.

The principle products have changed but today Surabaya continues to be a fast-growing commercial and trading centre.

Leading multi-national companies have presences here and its Tanjung Perak seaport is the nation’s second busiest. The Eastern Fleet of the Indonesian Navy is headquartered here.

Major industries include shipbuilding, heavy equipment, food processing and agriculture, electronics, home furnishings, and handcrafts.

Surabaya also is notable for its cosmopolitan population and cultural diversity with Chinese, Indian, Arab and Cham minority communities living alongside the majority Javanese, Madurese and other Indonesian ethnicities.

Dioramas, statues and relics in the Heroes museum tell the story and portray the anguish of the Battle of Surabaya

But Surabaya continues to be known most widely in Indonesia for its pivotal role in shaping the direction and national ethos of modern Indonesia and the emerging nation’s increasingly influential place in the world.

An early stop on our Surabaya city tour is Tugu Pahawan, the Heroes Monument and museum.

It commemorates those who died in the brutal Battle of Surabaya of 1945 – little known in the West but a crucial event in the path to independence and of great symbolic importance to all Indonesians. See the story in our accompanying article Surabaya – City of Heroes.

During our tour we learn much about today’s Surabaya and its history from both recent and much earlier times, with visits to interesting and very different Surabaya features.

The former auditorium where young women hand-roll tens of thousands of clove-flavored Sampoerna cigarettes every day

Hand rolling up to 4,000 cigarettes a day – seeing is believing!

No matter how you feel about smoking and cigarettes you will find Surabaya’s Old Town area and the House of Sampoerna fascinating.

Once an orphanage, briefly a theatre (reputedly Charlie Chaplin once dropped by) and then a family home and a production plant for premium cigarettes, this stately colonial style complex, complete with colonnade, first opened in 1862.

Now it houses a museum, an art gallery and a café as well as a large central former theatre auditorium where hundreds of young women use traditional methods to hand roll Indonesian Kretek (cloves flavored) cigarettes

Clove cigarettes are still a popular product in Indonesia and other areas of Asia but are banned in many countries because of the high tar content.

Trappings of a research lab from an earlier age
Beautifully conserved antiques and artworks

The Sampoerna complex is designated a preserved historical site and has become one of Surabaya’s most viewed attractions with up to 19,000 Indonesia and overseas visitors a month.

House of Sampoerna guides relate the story of the complex and its interesting and beautiful historic exhibits. Visitors say it is like entering a time capsule.

Looking down from the old theatre galleries we see the mind-boggling speed with which hundreds of young women roll, trim and pack the prestigious Dji Sam Soe kretek cigarettes for the Sampoerna brand. Some roll up to 4,000 cigarettes a day!

From street vendor to tobacco and cigarette empire and a $5 billion buy-out

Founder Liem Seeng Tee, began as a Chinese cigarette street vendor, making and packing product in his home.

He changed his name to to his brand name of  Sampoerna (it means perfect) and purchased the Sampoerna complex in 1932 as a family home and a cigarette production facility.

He went on to build an empire and amass a fortune. Today his family routinely places in the top 10 in Indonesian Rich Lists.

In commemoration of Sampoerna’s 90th anniversary in 2003, the central complex was painstakingly restored and opened to the public.

While it is something of a shrine to the Sampoerna empire with quirky historical company curios, it has many beautifully maintained exhibits of general interest.

In 2005 the Sampoerna family sold its interest in the cigarette business - in a deal worth more than US$5 billion - to Phillip Morris International, part of the US-based Altria Group Inc, the world's biggest tobacco company.

The family has diversified into agriculture, property, banking, telecoms and timber.

It also has established a highly regarded philanthropic foundation with a focus on entrepreneurship development programs, empowerment of women, distribution of aid and relief programs and education for high achieving but under-privileged students.

Its activities include an English language university in Jakarta where Indonesian students can attain US degrees.

The market stalls of the covered bazaar or ‘souk’ is a popular destination in Surabaya’s Arab Quarter

A genuine Arab bazaar and a 600-year-old mosque in the middle of town

Surabaya’s cosmopolitan population includes more than 5,000 people of Arab ethnic descent with more again on the nearby island of Madura.

We visit the robust Arab Quarter in Surabaya Old Town where many people of Arab descent live and work.

It’s complete with a covered market in the style of a traditional North African or Middle Eastern souk or covered bazaar.

The area is known as the Ampel district for the famous 600-year-old Sunan Ampel Mosque which attracts pilgrims from all over Indonesia and beyond.

Visitors also flock to the Arab Quarter to explore the market alleyways, stalls and hole-in-the-wall shops and to sample delicious Middle Eastern foods, especially kambing (lamb or goat) dishes along with dates, pistachios, raisins, chickpeas, samosas and sweet halawa confectionaries.

Widely travelled visitors say it feels like a back ally in Cairo.

Arab traders, mainly from what is now Southern Yemen, came to Surabaya centuries ago. Many settled and created the Ampel community.

The ancient Mosque built by a revered Muslim saint

The centrepiece of the Arab Quarter is an ancient mosque, built in 1421 by Raden Achmad Rachmatullah, better known as Sunan Ampel.

Sunan Ampel is said to have been the son of a wandering descendant of Mohammed and to have come from the Champa Kingdom in what is now South Vietnam.

The Sunan Ampel Mosque (TOP), the entrance to the tombs enclosure (ABOVE) and the massive Great Mosque of Surabaya (BELOW).

Indonesian Muslims recognize him as one of nine holy men (the Wali Songo, meaning saints) who spread Islam in Java. His descendants are said to have helped topple the Majapahit Empire.

The graves of Sunan Ampel and five members of his family are in a walled complex at the Mosque and pilgrims come to view the tomb and pray.

The mosque was once the largest in Surabaya but is now dwarfed by the massive Masjid Al Akbar, known as the Great Mosque of Surabaya, which opened in 2000 with minaret towering 99 metres to denote the 99 names of Allah.

The Sunan Ampel mosque is not noted for architectural significance or beauty – rather for its place in history as the third oldest mosque in Indonesia and, for the nation’s majority Muslims, one of its most sacred.

The elegant Suramadu Bridge linking Surabaya to the island of Madura, symbolizing Indonesia’s focus on developing infrastructure

The grand and elegant bridge symbolizing a thriving future

Indonesia is the midst of a massive infrastructure program to support economic growth and lift living standards – roads, railways, airports, power stations and electricity grids, seaports and shipping, public housing, telecoms, hospitals and health services, schools and universities and more.

On our tour we see an example with a trip over the elegant Suramadu Bridge, linking Surabaya to the island of Madura. At 5.4km, it’s Indonesia’s longest bridge.

Proponents talked about this project from as long ago as 1960 and serious planning and engineering studies began in early 1990s. But the Asian financial crisis of 1997 saw it shelved until work finally began in 2003.

Work halted again in 2004 due to financial issues, resuming late in 2005. The bridge finally opened in June 2009.

It has two traffic lanes in each direction plus an emergency lane and dedicated lanes for motorcycles. The central span has 36 metre clearance to the high tide level to provide a channel for shipping passing through the Madura Strait.

Within a week of the opening it was found that locals apparently had stolen nuts, bolts and maintenance lamps and damaged cables. But don’t worry – these were soon put right.

Crossing the bridge offers great views over the Madura Strait and the bridge is very beautiful when lit at night.

But its real significance is as a marker of the strides being made in the development and the transformation of infrastructure across the nation. The Indonesian people are rightly proud of it.

Battle of the acquatic giants – the emblematic Surabaya Monument draws from the legend of the city’s beginnings

Shark versus crocodile – Nope, not a sporting challenge

No tour of Surabaya would be complete without taking a quick look at the Suraboyo Monument, the city’s sculpture icon of a shark and crocodile locked in a dramatic battle.

The sculpture, near the entrance to the city zoo, depicts a legend from Indonesian folklore in which a giant white shark named Sura and a giant crocodile named Boyo, originally friends, are said to have fallen out over food and territory and had a terrible fight right where Surabaya is located.

Ultimately the crocodile won, the sea became the territory of the shark and the land the domain of the crocodile. In due course, the people named the location Suraboyo which became Surabaya.

Another story suggests two heroes named Sura and Baya fought each other to be the king of the city (an echo of the story of Romulus and Remus and the origins of Rome).

Yet another derivation, preferred by city fathers and probably more likely, is that the name comes from the Javanese sura ing baya, meaning bravely facing danger.

Some interpretations suggest the story of the great white shark and the crocodile foretold of an invasion by the Mongol forces of Kublai Khan in the late 13th century during the early Majapahit Empire. Others that it foretold of the Japanese invasion of 1942.

Regardless, the citizens of Surabaya favor the story of the struggle between the shark and the crocodile and it has been adopted as the city emblem.

After all, it’s a neat piece of folklore and way more exciting than the alternatives!

And the dynamic sculpture is striking. Australians will find it beats the heck out of Big Bananas, Big Pineapples, Big Bulls and all the other Big whatevers!

Drinks, food and fond farewells ...

Sadly, it’s said all good things come to an end and our Surabaya tour marks the conclusion of our exploration of some of this REAL North Sumatra and Java with their beautiful places, rich history and culture, and so many fascinating activities.

There is so much more to see and enjoy out there beyond Bali. but it must wait until another time.

We celebrate our final night together with complimentary drinks and a Farewell to Indonesia Dinner to say our goodbyes.

More useful and interesting information

Surabaya is just one of the remarkable places worth visiting in Java. Our commitment is to choose destinations and arrange packages to suit discerning travelers. For descriptions and images of more places and experiences included in our Real North Sumatra and Java tour programs click the links below

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Douglas Cole

Doug is a former journalist and broadcaster who lived and travelled in Indonesia and Southeast Asia from 2002 to 2018. He returned to Indonesia in mid-2022 after being stranded in Australia by COVID border closures. He is completing a book under the working title ‘INDONESIA – Safely, Easily, and in Comfort.’

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