A NEW Zealand friend recently returned from Semarang, Indonesia, after searching for the
bridges her father had built in the Dutch East Indies after World War II.
She had visited the Tawang Semarang railway station, where her father's drawing office had been. This European architectural concept of the Orient, expressed in 20th century materials, is still in use today.
When I had passed through the Tawang station, to catch the train to Surabaya, in 2012, a small orchestra filled the heritage station with middle-of-the-road Javanese music. The old station might have been sinking but it was doing it in style.
We had dropped into the coastal heat of Semarang (metropolitan population 6 million) from the cooler Vieng Plateau.
On the bus an elderly ukulele player in a batik shirt and capo made from a pencil and a rubber band had laid down some Arabic sounding riffs, collecting a small contribution from every passenger before hopping of at an intersection.
We passed dusty slums built on steep slopes, where, during the rainy season, landslides sometimes took homes, possessions and lives.
The old Dutch port area of Semarang is now slowly sinking into the Java Sea. Built on
quaternary volcanic deposits which are still consolidating, subsidence is accelerating
because of groundwater extraction.
It is estimated that half a million cubic litres of groundwater were pumped up in 1900. By
1975 it was 1 million per year, in 1990, 9 million, and in 2000, 38 million. The ground is now sinking at the rate of 10cm per year.
Within walking distance of the station stand many heritage buildings, pretty much unaltered since the day their Dutch owners left. Periodically these buildings are inundated by sea water and services break, further polluting the canals.
There are changes of canal drainage flows and buildings crack and deteriorate. The only good news is that North Semarang is not subsiding as fast of North Jakarta - also because of groundwater extraction.
I too had come to Semarang following family history. During World War II, when the Japanese
occupied Java, my grandmother had been interned in the women's camp there.
As children, we were protected from stories of what happened in Java during the war, but
you could tell by the tone, when visitors brought back memories of "the Indies," and adult
conversation strayed into those times.
First the men were taken away by Japanese soldiers and the women and children were left
on the plantations. Some of the Javanese were friends and loyal staff, others allied with the Japanese.
My grandmother rounded up the women and children, cutting the teenage girls' hair and
dressing them to look like boys. They started walking, trying and find their men, but soon
they too were rounded up, and taken to Semarang.
This small group was luckier than some. There was an incident, early in the occupation, on the road to Semarang, where a household of women, and their daughters, spent two weeks as sex workers in their own home, before a passing officer came and put a stop to it.
In the camps the conditions were hard, shelter was primitive and they were expected to buy their own food. The women in the Semarang camp were interviewed one at a time and
offered work as "comfort women".
Naturally they would get paid, they were told. A few, with no money, took up the offer, others came under the protection of an officer by becoming a concubine.
Mostly though it was the Javanese and Chinese women who had been prostitutes before the war who worked as the comfort women. After the war some of the Japanese who had
carried out sexual violations in Java were summarily executed.
Both my grandparents were shaped by their experience in the camps. My grandfather barely survived. My grandmother took on a leadership role in her camp; organising the school and clinic, helping others to survive.
In a tower block in Gouda in the Netherlands I once met a an elderly man who had been a
boy in the Semarang women's camp. "We were lucky," he told me. "The Japanese didn't
distinguish between Jews and the other prisoners. In Holland, the rest of my family didn't
survive the war."