Students, activists in Medan demand preservation of Chinatown

Students and activists in Medan, North Sumatra, have called on the local administration to take stern action against alleged attempts to convert the centuries-old Chinatown heritage site in Medan's Marelan district into a residential compound.

Head of Medan State University's (Unimed) Center for History Studies, Ichwan Azhari, said that destruction of the heritage site had been ongoing for the last few weeks but so far no reaction had been seen from the municipal administration and local councilors.

"I have reported the destruction to the local administration and local council. Yet, no response has been made while the destruction continues," Ichwan, who is also the founder of the Medan Chinatown museum, said recently.

On Friday, dozens of students of history from Unimed and the state University of North Sumatra (USU) staged a rally at the Majestik circle in Medan, demanding the municipal administration salvage the Chinatown heritage site.

"The local administration does not respect historical sites. It remains silent despite knowing that the Chinatown area has been demolished by bulldozers," Ronggur Simorangkir, one of the students, said.

Immediate action from local authorities, Ronggur continued, was necessary to ensure that the 25-hectare heritage site did not fall into the hands of profit-seeking developers.

"The local administration must take action to end the destruction of Chinatown. Otherwise, it will be ruined and it will vanish from the nation's history," he said.

According to Ichwan, the Chinatown site was first discovered in the 19th century during a visit by Scottish traveler John Anderson. Ever since, he said, many local and foreign archeologists had conducted research at the site, which had in turn led to the discovery of many historical artifacts.

Last year, for example, fragments of ships were found at the site and were predicted to have come from the 12th century. A group of archeologists led by French national Daniel Perret once found a temple and fragments of ancient Chinese ceramics, glass beads, and pieces of gold.

Ichwan said that last year the city's Development Planning Board (Bappeda) declared the area a heritage site. The official document explaining the site's status, however, had yet to be issued as of today by the local administration.

Medan, home to more than 2 million people, is the country's third largest city after Jakarta and Surabaya. The Chinatown site has been deemed as a strategic place

Contacted separately, the city's Culture and Tourism Agency head Busral Manan said that he did not yet know whether the Chinatown site had been declared a cultural heritage site. If it had been declared as such, he said, no disturbance of the site would be allowed as it had to be protected.

He also said that any ground-leveling activity at the Chinatown site was illegal because no building permits (IMB) had been issued for the construction of any buildings at the site.

"As far as I'm concerned, the license for the construction project at the Chinatown site has not yet been given out," he said.