City of heroes

City of heroes

When an Indonesian friend invited me to visit him in Surabaya, I hesitated because I didn't know much about this hot, polluted third-world city. Since accommodation would be taken care of, I decided to ditch my prejudices and take up his offer to be my personal tour guide.

My first impression was that Indonesia's second biggest city - with a metropolitan population of nearly six million - is congested, confusing and noisy, much like its capital Jakarta.

"Yes, but there is one big difference - Surabaya is very clean," said my friend Kelvin. And indeed it is. Its convoluted streets were neat and free from rubbish.

Based on local folklore, Surabaya derived its name from the Javanese words suro (shark) and boyo (crocodile), an attribution to it being a city of power. It is the capital of rugged East Java - a province blessed with the archipelago's most arresting natural landscapes, including a dramatic mountain range that's home to the fabled and constantly fuming Mount Bromo.

Symbol of Surabaya

But Kelvin explained that the energetic port city, the birthplace of the country's beloved first president Sukarno, is close to Indonesians' hearts for a more significant reason.

It was here that thousands of local heroes died during the savage Battle of Surabaya on Nov 10, 1945, which paved the way for Indonesia's independence from the British following World War II. For this, Surabaya wears a badge of honour as Indonesia's City of Heroes, and the day is celebrated annually as Heroes' Day.

As I negotiated Surabaya's labyrinth of roads choked with traffic, Indonesia's gratitude to Surabaya for its birth became apparent.

Amidst the old buildings with semblances of Dutch architecture, statues of heroes and monuments commemorating the country's independence are scattered throughout the sprawling city.

One of the most important of these is Tugu Pahlawan or Heroes Monument. Rising like a rocket in the city centre, it is the symbol of Surabaya. In an open space slightly smaller than our Padang, a 41m structure juts into the sky, a constant reminder to citizens of the sacrifices made and blood spilled for their land. Around the grounds of the monument are statues of various heroes. There's also a heroes' grave and a simple museum under the monument detailing the Battle of Surabaya.

Walking down Jalan Pahlawan, you reach Jembatan Merah or Red Bridge, the exact location where the bloody battle was fought. Today, sleepy becak (trishaw) drivers rest on the sides of this simple bridge, waking from their slumber once in a while to call out to potential passengers.

The bridge, which links the Old City across the Kalimas river to Kya Kya or Chinatown, is also a popular rendezvous point for locals.

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