May 2, 2009

Lawang Sewu

Address : Jl. Pemuda (in front of Tugu Muda), Semarang

Lawang Sewu is a 2-storey building in Semarang built by the Dutch as their railway company’s headquarters. (When I googled for info on when exactly it was built, there was conflicting information, some websites say 1863, some say 1903) This building has many doors thus its name “Lawang Sewu” which is a Javanese word meaning “A thousand doors” (although there are probably less than 1000 in reality).

Lawang Sewu : Then (photo on the left) and Now (photo on the right)

Source of black & white photos : Semarang official website
Source of "Lawang Sewu Now" photo :

During the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in the 1940s, the building was used by the Japanese as a prison, a place where Indonesian “rebels” were interrogated and killed. It is because of this, many ghost stories arisen and now the younger generation knows Lawang Sewu more because it has been used in the reality show “Dunia Lain (Uji Nyali)” (a show where people are dared to stay overnight in spooky places) and also in the Indonesian horror movie appropriately titled “Lawang Sewu”.

Having heard about the ghost stories and knowing Indonesia doesn’t prioritize the maintenance of old buildings, when eventually arriving at Lawang Sewu in mid January ’09, I wasn’t surprised to see the overall neglected condition of the building. What I was surprised about upon entering the main door was the hallway, which had a staircase with a beautiful stained glass window, which left me imagining how stunning the building must have been when first built.

Left : stairs to the stained-glass windows, Right : in Detail

The main windows from outside

I found this AMAZING photo of the main hallway on Flickr. My "amateur-skilled digital camera" photo is of course no comparison.

It is best to take a guide when looking around the building because there are many rooms, you may get lost without one. My guide was particularly keen to encourage me to take the night tours (around midnight) when the “ghosts appear”. However, I am not that brave, I even skipped the underground tunnel tour and underground prison. It is said that many prisoners died because of shortage of oxygen. No wonder all the horror stories!

Another historical importance of the building is because it was the location of a heavy battle between Indonesia’s AMKA (Angkatan Muda Kereta Api) group and Japan’s Kempeitai and Kidobutai troops during the famous 5-day battle in Semarang (14 October – 19 October 1945).
That is why in front of Lawang Sewu, you can also see another famous icon of Semarang, which is the Tugu Muda monument. This monument was built to commemorate the battle.

Recently, I read in a newspaper that Indonesia’s railway company, which is the owner of Lawang Sewu, has started renovations of the building and will eventually use it as a mini museum and office.

The guide asked me to photograph this hallway, and then pointed out to me the white circles on the photo. He said they are the spirits of the ghosts haunting the place.

A beautiful staircase

View of Tugu Muda from Lawang Sewu

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