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What's Happening to Surabaya's Historic Chinatown?

It's slowly becoming a ghost town.
January 13, 2017, 9:30am

Pass under the massive red and green gate with two dragons coiled along the top, and you'll be in Surabaya's Chinatown. Chinese lanterns, some illuminated, some dark, hang above the streets. But the streets themselves are pretty empty. The shops are closed.

One of the first things people tell you about Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest city, is that it has a thriving Chinese Indonesian community. The city was once at the center of everything—serving as a thriving port town on a global trade route that brought goods, and peoples, from across the world to the northern shores of Java. Downtown Surabaya is still split into three ethnic neighborhoods that recall its not so distant past. Chinatown sits next to a district of Dutch colonial buildings and another built to house Arab traders who called the city home.

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But Chinatown, at least at night, is a ghost town. I wandered into Mie Kembang Jepun, a neighborhood institution and one of the busiest places in Chinatown. The noodle shop has served up savory pork fried noodles for three generations—opening its doors back when the neighborhood was still the vibrant hub of the city's ethnic Chinese community.

Michael, whose grandparents opened the noodle joint, said the city's Chinese Indonesian community had moved on, integrating beyond the ethnic enclave to Surabaya's tonier neighborhoods.

"This used to be a large collection of Chinese neighborhoods," said Michael, a manager of Mie Kembang Jepun. "But once families became successful and made a lot of money, they sold their businesses and moved away."

Today, Michael is the last of his family to still work at Mie Kembang Jepun. The 23-year-old keeps the shop running while his older brother attends university in Australia. It's a story that shows the flip-side of the community's success. As Surabaya's Chinese Indonesians found success, many moved on to better neighborhoods and white collar jobs.

It means that today Michael is a minority at his shop. Most of the employees were members of Indonesia's ethnic pribumi majority. Looking around, it's easy to see why someone would want to leave Chinatown behind. The ethnic neighborhoods are rarely the nicest places, no matter the city.

But the emptying out of Chinatown also means the death of humble shops like Mie Kembang Jepun. It makes you wonder if Surabaya's Chinatown will even exist in another generation.  After trying the noodles in Michael's shop, I really hope so.