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Banyan Tree

Surabaya’s Ghost House

By: Duncan Graham

This article was originally published in Latitudes magazine, a renowned bi-monthly magazine focusing on Indonesian culture. The magazine hailing from the island of Bali previously existed in paper form and was especially known for its in-depth critical articles and beautiful photography. As a tribute to all contributors of this magazine presents a selection of articles published in the years 2001-2004.

Dusk—and the children are suddenly off the street. The maids and mums have gone indoors, clicking padlocks, turning keys. All is quiet. Twenty minutes earlier the kids were kicking a ball and the women gossiping. In twenty minutes time they’ll be back again.

But not in the bewitching hour between day and night when restless spirits are abroad seeking the vulnerable and careless. When the sun is up they roost in banyan trees and hide in ancient buildings. But at dusk they flit like bats in pursuit of the unwary soul.

For this is Surabaya, the seven-hundred-year-old capital of East Java, center of commerce—and superstition.

Banyan Tree

Banyan Trees house spirits in between their branches

Surabaya has inherited a wealth of old houses from the Dutch but preserved few. Many are to be found only by the diligent and determined. They lurk behind modern high rises, elbowed aside by new ruko (from rumah-toko, big blocks of ground floor shops with living quarters above) and glass-walled malls; they tremble behind coarse fences of corrugated iron waiting for the wreckers.

Few stand out in a flat city where major landmarks are rare. And the one which does, has a history which is surprisingly little known, yet much feared.

There’s no way passengers and drivers locked in the heavy traffic on Jalan Diponegoro, a major feeder into the city, can avoid noticing the big two-story building standing aloof at the junction with Jalan Banyu Urip. It looks more like a Low Countries barn with a two-tier red roof, presumably to shed snow. In tropical East Java it’s an architectural aberration, a monster.

Gedung Setan, Surabaya’s Ghost House

It looms over the surrounding kampung and markets like a feudal castle. Vertical windows, many boarded. The walls slump and fret. Tiles have tumbled from the roof creating scars like smallpox. It’s been hit at least twice by lightning, leaving fractured stonework. Pray for no earthquakes in Indonesia’s second biggest city.

Ghostly gothic; it can’t be found in the Surabaya City Council’s list of sites worth preserving despite its antiquity. Maybe because of its name.

The locals call this crumbling edifice Gedung Setan—the Devil’s Building. The better educated (or more politically correct) agree with the pronunciation but not the spelling. They claim it’s really Gedung She Tan, named after a Chinese family which once held the title, although the few written records which remain say the family name was Teng Sioe Hie.

But for this story we’ll settle for the street definition because even back in the colonial era it was known as Spookhuis. You don’t need to speak Dutch to understand the meaning.

Gedung Setan Surabaya

Gedung Setan Surabaya

There are only two entrances to this imposing structure, and they are well hidden. One has to be negotiated through the narrow alleyways of a food market; the other on the opposite side can be reached only through the warren of a kampung. Here a small gate in the boundary wall gives access into Gedung Setan’s surrounding yard. The doors are at either end of a worn stone-slabbed breezeway which leads to a splintered timber staircase.

Inside all is dark, lofty and weird. The old wooden doors are just wide enough to admit two people walking side by side yet tall enough for them to carry a couple more on their shoulders like a circus troupe.

One explanation is that the doorways were high to admit funeral processions, for bodies of Chinese were said to have been stored here before burial in a nearby cemetery. The corpses have now been exhumed and re-interred in Makam Kuning. The surrounding streets are now the center for Surabaya’s extensive prostitution industry.

But this is not the only reason for the spook stories. In Dutch historian G. H. von Faber’s Oud Soerabaia, there are two other versions of the haunting.

Australian academic Howard Dick, who researched the East Java capital for his lively book Surabaya, City of Work offered this translation of the myths:

According to one the ghost is of a former inhabitant who murdered her illegitimate child, and according to the other it was one of the owners who had been a galley slave. From this experience he carried a brand on his back.

For some reason or other he did not want to be washed after his death, which may have been done. In consequence he could find no rest in the afterlife.

Von Faber’s text says Gedung Setan became a home for walet-walet, the swifts whose edible nests provided a good source of income. This was in the early days when the building was apparently empty following its demise as a mortuary—if indeed that story is fact. Von Faber says it was originally built as a residence by Sir J A Middelkoop, later prefect of Java’s Eastern Corner (Oosthoek). But the little birds have long flown. Now pigeons nest in the dark crevices and chickens scratch the floors.

The lofty ceilings vanish in the gloom, sometimes propped by timber poles. Under the grime the walls reveal heavy roman columns supposedly carrying the upper stories. Are these real or just mock supports? There seem to be few big beams across the tops and the impression is more facade than substance. But the two-hundred-year old building still stands, and the half-meter thick walls are proof of professional design and robust engineering.

Above one second-floor doorway is a fist-sized hole said to be result of shooting during the Japanese occupation. Accidental or deliberate? No one knows.

A Ghost House Occupied by Humans

Inside are shacks and shanties. Some are made of plastic, others from sheets of asbestos and plywood. There are said to be thirty-five families living here, more than two hundred people. All are Christian, though many are nominal. Most are Chinese and alleged to be the descendants of the family which once owned the building, or descendants of squatters who arrived seeking refuge during the 1965 purge of alleged communists.

There are more rooms inside rooms on the second floor. The main space is a ninety-square-meter Pentecostal chapel with the talisman of red crucifix painted either side of the doorway. If Satan is the owner he’ll need all his primitive wiles to get inside.

The upstairs floor is of rough-hewn planks. It quivers and throbs with pain when the rush hour traffic outside is most intense. If Gedung Setan doesn’t eventually shake to pieces it will surely explode in flame; walls and ceilings are blackened with soot from kerosene stoves. No chimneys, but enough gaps in the roof to do the job.

The authority on the building is not the Pentecostal pendeta Luther Tangko who has been preaching there since 1967, but lives elsewhere. He deferred to Pak Gondo, who arrived in Surabaya from Madiun as a twelve-year-old.

Pak Gondo lives comfortably with his family on the ground floor with air conditioning and other electronic comforts. He said the people who now occupy Gedung Setan are the children and grandchildren of people fleeing the tide of hate following the fall of Sukarno. “It was safe here,” he said. “I don’t know if that was because people feared the place and only Chinese and Christians would enter, or because Surabaya was a calm city.

“There is no landlord, so no rent. It’s an ideal situation. The certificate (land title) has been lost and the original owners have long gone. We live here and do our own renovations. When it is full of people, the ghosts flee.”

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