“Plantations, that was what originally shaped Medan into a plural and diverse city,” says Sri Hartini, an archaeologist who has become executive director of the Indonesian Plantation Museum.
She takes me to examine rooms filled with relics from a city that had previously been the centre of the Oostkust van Sumatra residency on the island’s east coast. The plantation museum is the first of its kind in Indonesia where remains of this era are preserved.
Sri explains as she guides me around that the museum has been made as interesting as possible to engage younger visitors – including incorporating spots for taking selfies. In front, an old Dutch locomotive made by Du Croo & Brauns stands silently, while nearby is a US Piper PA-25 Pawnee, an agricultural aeroplane used to spray the plantations. In the past, tobacco, tea, coffee, cocoa and rubber estates attracted thousands of workers, from Java to Penang, to what is now the capital of north Sumatra.
While Medan has been an important trading hub for centuries – its various museums also include the Money Museum, which showcases past trading currencies, and one of its historic nicknames is ‘land of money’ – there is much more to lure the visitor to this intriguing metropolis that turns 429 this month.
Medan today is a city where the past can be discovered around many a fascinating corner. During religious or celebration days, the mornings at Kesawan Old City feel much quieter, with only one or two vehicles passing, motorized rickshaws looking for passengers. On foot exploring the alleys of the city, I stop at the grand London Sumatra Building, home to the Harrison & Crossfield rubber plantation business since its founding in 1906, when Indonesia had not yet officially become a nation. Inside is a lift believed to have been the first installed in Sumatra.
The day is cool as I continue my walk, stopping by at Tjong A Fie Mansion. An intriguing combination of Chinese, Malay and European art nouveau architecture, the 1895-built property was owned by a Chinese businessman. Going from room to room filled with old photos and furniture gives me an intimate glimpse into the world of Tjong A Fie, who lived when plantations were still the main feature here, as well as into the history of the railway construction that connected this city with the harbour on Sumatra’s east coast
From Tjong A Fie Mansion, which had been busy with visitors, I head to the Madras neighbourhood, an area referred to as ‘Little India’ or ‘Kampung Keling’. Sitting alone, musing at the modest Shri Mariamman Temple is a unique spiritual experience for me. This sacred Hindu temple to the Goddess Mariamman was built in the 19th century and adds a peaceful dimension to the hustle and bustle of the city. There are many spiritual buildings to explore in Medan. From the temple, I can see the evocative Graha Maria Annai Velangkanni (Our Lady of Good Health Church). Given its ornate Indian architecture, I first thought this building was a Hindu temple, but it is actually a Catholic church built by the Tamil people. Even as a city born from plantations and the governance of the Deli Malay Sultanate, Medan is a multicultural community that accommodates followers of various religions with its temples, cathedrals, churches and other places of worship.
Later that afternoon, I enter the cool Great Mosque of Medan. This building, which dates back to the early 20th century, features various architectural styles from Europe and Asia. The materials and furniture were imported from Italy, France and China. Not far from the Great Mosque, the opulent Maimun Palace, a royal palace of the Deli Sultanate, still stands as a sturdy and captivating monument to past glories.
I continue my exploration, taking in the city park, the tobacco plantation walk, and Merdeka Walk (the place to go for al fresco eateries, especially in the evening), all bustling with young people.
During my journey, my friends Andi and Eka Dalanta decide to give me a taste of the city by night. Eka tells me that, while Medan does not produce coffee, premium full-flavour beans from various areas in Sumatra such as Lintong arabica, Gayo and Sidikalang are found at the cafés spread across the city centre. After sampling the coffee, I am taken to a food stand to enjoy soto Medan, a spicy meat broth, and grilled fish. Medan is home to not only a variety of races and religions, but also a plurality of tastes and flavours.
In the evening, when the city streets are packed with vehicles, I sit on a karaoke bench at a Chinese food stall with some old men singing songs in Mandarin, accompanied by women’s laughter and the aroma of Hindustani cuisine blending with coffee vapours. I think of the aroma of tobacco from the plantations of old which remain in neighbourhoods on the edge of the city as far as Deli. I feelthe past and the present swirl all around me. It’s a combination that makes modern Medan such a captivating destination, with its mix of architecture, cultures and, above all, people.