Dedi Irwanto Muhammad Santun, Venesia dari Timur: Memaknai produksi dan reproduksi simbolik kota Palembang dari kolonial sampai pascakolonial.
The term Venesia dari Timur is an apt title for a book on the history of Palembang, which lies on the banks of the Musi River. Historically, small streams and rivers deriving from the Musi also divided the city into deltas of land so that it was not only known as Venice of the East but also as the City of Twenty Islands. Nowadays, Palembang, in South Sumatra, is indeed a city divided into two major areas, Seberang Ilir and Seberang Ulu, connected to each other by the Ampera Bridge which spans the Musi. However, the term 'Venice of the East' is probably only known by the elder generation of people from Palembang who refer to it with a touch of regret because it is no longer applicable to describe the city.
Dedi Irwanto Muhammad Santun takes an interesting approach in analysing change in the city of Palembang, starting from the 1930s when the city was still officially a gemeente under Dutch rule to the 1960s after Indonesia's independence. The ecological and developmental make-up of the city itself--land, river, roads, buildings and finally, Ampera Bridge--is not only seen as physical constructs, but also as ideological constructs which have the end goal of building it in the first place. The physical constructs are seen as symbols which are produced and reproduced by the political elite to create and reflect the identity of the city and its inhabitants.
Palembang is a city with multiple identities which flow into and overlap with each other. It was once a court city of the Sultanate of Palembang, and still is a maritime port city dominated (and in former times, surrounded) by the Musi River. It is also an important mercantile city on the island of Sumatra. Water and land have always been the main elements in defining the fluid identities of the city and its inhabitants, even now.
Because the availability of (dry) land was limited, this was deemed as the property and special right of the Sultan and the elite. Spatial segregation, leading to definition of social status and hierarchy, was implemented by compelling Chinese, Malay, and other foreigners to live on or near the river in houses on rafts or stilts. People of Arab descent were the exception. (Dry) land was for the elite and indigenous Palembang people while water was for the lesser other.
During the colonial era, the Dutch filled up the small rivers and streams within the city limits to increase the amount of dry land for work and living space. Benteng Kuto Besak and the mosque which had been the center of power for the Sultanate of Palembang was taken over, literally and figuratively, by the Dutch, the new elite, who surrounded the area with their government offices and recreational facilities. Palembang expanded towards the west where accommodations and facilities for the Dutch and elite were situated (in the newly dried areas), while the majority of the locals lived and worked in the eastern part of the city, which was also the area designated for business, markets, and port.
The Dutch also changed the social units of Palembang's inhabitants by eliminating guguk (groups of people living and connected to each other, sometimes by kinship, in a particular area presented by the Sultan for their loyalty) and replacing it with the kampung unit as on Java. The formation of more dry land by filling up the streams and creeks of the city further transformed Palembang from a traditional mercantile city based on water transport of goods to a modern one based on transport on land.
By these changes, the Dutch were able to gradually eradicate local collective memory about the symbols of indigenous power in Palembang. These changes did not only alter the physical structure of the city, but also transformed the social structure of its inhabitants because they were also ideological symbols that compelled people to re-interpret their physical and social surroundings and give new meaning to and awareness of their identity in the city.
After independence, as reparation of war, the Japanese provided funds to build Ampera Bridge. The writer sees the construction of this bridge as a production of a new symbol and identity for Palembang. It was a 'masterpiece of the post-colonial era' and became the medium which represented the desire for change. It was a part of Soekarno's masterplan to build an Indonesian national identity through character and nation building. For the people of Palembang, it was and still is a source of pride and even symbolizes local identity (besides also connecting the two sides of the city).
The book is filled with accurate local historical detail. The description and analysis of change, transformation, symbols, and meaning are enlivened not only by historical data but also by excerpts from literature-poems, syair and fiction about Palembang and its inhabitants. Dedi Irwanto Muhammad Santun has attempted to and succeeded in examining and clarifying the manner in which the elite and general population interpret and give meaning to those constructs by exploring individual and collective memories of Palembang's inhabitants about the construction of various monuments in the city and about the transformation of a city, first dominated by water, then by land. This emic approach gives an interesting and unique flavor to the book as it gives voice to the people of Palembang themselves.
Even though the writer himself is a native Palembang man, he has certainly succeeded in distancing himself to achieve objectivity in his work, while captivating the reader with his description and analysis. This book will certainly be an excellent addition to the still meager available literature on Palembang, its people, and its culture.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia and Oceania|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2013|
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