Welcome to 'Devil's House,' Home to One of Indonesia's Most Persecuted Communities

Gedung Setan in Surabaya, East Java, has been a safe haven for generations Chinese Indonesian minorities who had to run away from violence. Eviction is a looming threat, but residents swear they aren't going anywhere.

by Reno Surya; photos by Ivan Darski
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04 March 2019, 11:09am

All photos by Ivan Darski. 

The spacious, two-story building stands out among the little houses surrounding it, not always for a good reason. Its paint is faded and chipped, and moss covers almost its entire surface. Locals in Surabaya, a port city in East Java, call the building Gedung Setan, or the Devil's House, partly for the alleged ghost sightings here. From the outside, the building looks abandoned. But ask any of the 200 people who call the space their communal home and they will tell you how lively and colorful life is in the Devil's House—no matter how dark its history is.

When I, with a photographer, arrived outside the building one afternoon, children peered down at us through the windows upstairs. They don’t get many visitors, and are accustomed to a life sheltered from the outside environment. We were greeted by a short, stocky, middle-aged man named Djijanto Soetikno, who's better known as Om Tik. He's a part-time fence craftsman and construction worker, and full-time manager of the Gedung Setan. Born in 1957, he's the third generation of his family to live in the run-down building.

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Gedung Setan.

Gedung Setan was built in 1809 by a Dutch man from the Dutch East India Company who would be today's equivalent of a governor. In 1945, a doctor of Chinese descent, Teng Khoen Gwan, purchased the building. The doctor had planned to use the building to keep dead bodies of Chinese families before they were buried or cremated. The location was ideal for such a business, as it was surrounded by empty land and situated near a bong, a traditional Chinese cemetery.

Two years after Indonesia’s independence, the doctor had to totally alter his plan. An armed conflict between the Indonesian army and a left-wing opposition group broke out in Madiun, a city west of Surabaya, in 1948. The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) declared a new state in defiance of the Indonesian government. To avoid this conflict, residents of Madiun who were of Chinese descent escaped wherever they could find safety. “Teng Khoen Gwan gave his fellow Chinese residents, who were being targeted at the time, a shelter,” Om Tik told VICE.

The second wave of migration to Gedung Setan took place after the the PKI staged a failed coup on 30 September 1965. Following that, in a wave of violence targeting anybody suspected of being a leftist, again, citizens of Chinese descent became targets even though not all of them were sympathetic to the communist cause. The New Order regime, lead by Gen. Suharto, was always suspicious of Chinese Indonesians, assuming that their loyalty laid with homeland overseas ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. Another factor was that many Chinese residents, especially in Surabaya, were staunch supporters of former President Sukarno. Some were taken by authorities, never to be seen again.

“At that time, we fit around twenty people in a single room," said Om Tik. “The beds were like those in military barracks, all lined up in a row. We slept next to one another like sardines. No lights, no electricity."

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Gen. Suharto ordered the forced assimilation of Chinese Indonesians and banned Chinese books, schools, and languages. They couldn't even have Chinese names. This was when people began calling the building Gedung Setan. Its inhabitants endured in the darkness, hidden from the glaring eye of the regime. Their only sources of light were gas lamps and red candles.

“We only started getting electricity after the New Order came to power," Om Tik said. "We'd steal electricity from the city."

The residents of Gedung Setan shut themselves out from society, surviving by initiating a collectively-managed public kitchen. Organizations from China, like the Chongwa Chongwe Foundation, extended a helping hand to the residents.

“We used to get milk and green beans," said Edi, one of the Gedung Setan residents, jumping in on our conversation. "We would cook them, then lined up in the kitchen every morning. That was our daily breakfast ration for years."

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Liem, a longtime resident of Gedung Setan falling asleep in the community kitchen.

The isolation was necessary then. Most of the children who grew up in Gedung Setan were homeschooled, but more than once parents tried enrolling their children in a public school, only to have them return in torn uniforms and bruised faces, all because they were Chinese.

Gedung Setan stands on a 400-square-meter land. Each family occupies a room. All rooms are equally sized, each separated by plywood board. A new room is built whenever a couple marries. None of the residents pay rent—only a monthly fee of Rp 50,000 ($3.54 USD) for electricity, water, and basic maintenance.

The large hall on the second floor doubles as a church on Sundays and Wednesdays. Some residents have converted to Christianity, and some to Islam. Only a few of them still follow their ancestral beliefs. There used to be a Confucian temple behind the building, before it was turned into a bird cage.

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A former prayer hall that has been turned into a massive bird cage.

“Now, the number of totok ("pure-blooded") Chinese residents here have decreased," Edi said while stroking his doves. "They are now Christians. No one used the altar, so I put my doves there."

As decades went by, their inter-generational trauma of being Chinese Indonesians has slowly diminished. People like Om Tik and Edi could now talk about the past with ease. These days, what worries them is the building itself. No one is sure who has the certificate of ownership of the land it's built on. Many houses have been built around the building in the last decades, making it even more complicated to figure out the official ownership of the land.

Most people believe that Teng Khoen Gwan brought the certificate of ownership back to China after 1965. Some people have claimed to own the building these past few years. There's a businessman from Bangkalan Madura. Then there's Soni, a man from Jakarta, who brought police officers and military generals, and even a decision letter from Supreme Court to force the residents to leave the building. But Gedung Setan residents stood their grounds no matter what, and Sony didn’t dare push further.

“There were residents who wanted to burn Soni’s car," Om Tik told VICE. "He brought thugs and soldiers. The community supported us, and this was when we realized we're not alone. We brought the case to court. We held protests against him."

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In mid-2018, a retired US Navy member said he's the rightful owner of the building because his ancestors left it for him. Once again, the residents saw through the bluff.

“We asked simple questions," Om Tik said. "If they were the owner, they would know more about the building. They said they had the original certificates, but they all turned out to be fakes. All of them were issued by the Surabaya District Attorney's Office. Doesn’t it sound fishy to you?"

In 2012, Gedung Setan was named a cultural heritage by the Surabaya government. But none of the residents have talked to city officials about the future of the building since.

“Legislative candidates like to visit us during election season," said Edi. "They invite us to a feast. They talk about what they would give to us. But they stop coming here once they are elected. We still haven’t received government assistance yet."

Adrian Prakasa, an expert of Central Java’s cultural heritage from Airlangga University, told VICE that cultural heritage, both objects and places, can be individually owned. After the Dutch and Japanese colonizers left the country, new people can occupy the empty building without clear legal basis.

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Technically, residents of Gedung Setan have the right to receive renovation funds according to a new regulation. “The previous regulation, which was used as a base for conservation policy in Surabaya didn’t provide assistance in preserving cultural heritage, because it was not the government’s asset,” Adrian said.

But Om Tik and other residents have long stopped expecting the city or the country to provide any kind of assistance to them. After all, they've had to take care of themselves since the beginning. All they care about is having a decent place to live.

“This is the only inheritance that we have. We must protect it at all cost,” he said. “We were born in this building and we'll die in this building.”

This article was originally published on VICE Indonesia.

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