The City of Sawahlunto, West Sumatra’s Historical Gem

Stretched along the City of Sawahlunto are centuries of Indonesia’s historical legacy. Sawahlunto’s history as a coal mining town established by the Dutch East Indies government has turned the town into what it is today—a city rich in history and cultural diversity.

Sawahlunto was established in 1888 and started producing coal in 1892. After the first train carrying coal ran through the railway tracks of Sawahlunto in 1894, it immediately grew into a small town consisting mainly of Dutch government employees and coal mine laborers. These laborers came from various islands in Indonesia, which from then on turned Sawahlunto into a multiethnic entity.

The Cultural Center before restoration

This history is reflected in the city today and it is why Sawahlunto is a national cultural heritage. When coal production ended in 1998, the city began to develop its tourism sector to save itself from a declining economy. Old historical sites became the main attraction of its tourism industry, such as the Mbah Soero mining tunnel and the Goedang Ransoem Museum which was a public kitchen for the coal laborers. There are also the Train Museum and Ombilin Coal Mining Museum as well as the Info Box gallery and coal mine workers monument. All these give you a glimpse into Sawahlunto’s coal mining history. There are also many old buildings that were initially established to accommodate the vast demographic changes that occurred as an effect of the coal mine industry.

At the Mbah Soero Mining Tunnel

The old train station where loads of coals were transported was turned into a museum in 2005. The railway was built in Sumatra by the Staats Spoorwegen in 1891–1894 and it was used to deliver coal to Emmahaven Port (Bayur Bay). Located in Lembah Segar, the Train Museum or Museum Kereta Api houses a collection of wagons, communication equipment, miniature locomotives, rail jacks, factory labels, guard bell, and photo documentation, as well as the legendary locomotive, Mak Item.

Photograph displayed in the Train Museum

The Ombilin Coal Mine began to operate in 1891. Coal mine workers were treated brutally. They were prisoners from various regions of Indonesia sent to Sawahlunto and forced to work in chains and were paid very poorly; some were even only children. Contract workers from China and Java were later recruited and in the 20th century contract female laborers from Java also worked in the mines. These women transported coal from open-pit mines to the area of collection, sorted coal, cleaned mine hospital, and cooked for male workers.

The site is now a museum known as the Ombilin Coal Mining Museum (Museum Tambang Batubara Ombilin) which opened in 2014. Various artifacts and archives related to coal mining are stored in this museum which is located on Jl. M. Yamin Pasar Remaja. The museum still takes its original form as when the Dutch first built it. In fact, this building was once used as the headquarters of the coal miner’s union of Bukit Asam.

At the Coal Mining Museum

Old buildings around the city give us insight to the sociological landscape of Sawahlunto during its coal mining days. The old Catholic church, Santa Barbara, on Jl. Yos Sudarso was built in 1920 by the Dutch people who worked in the mines. It was built for the Dutch people, newcomers, coal mine workers and their children who were Catholic. Next to the church is the Santa Lucia School, also established in 1920 for the Dutch and coal miners’ children. The Sawahlunto Cultural Center with its Dutch architectural style, established in 1910, is located near the Train Museum. It was originally called Gluck Auf and was where Dutch women and men used to hang out and party. An area of the building was even used for playing pool and bowling.

In front of the Coal Mine Workers Monument

There are many historical buildings around what is called the “Old Town (Kota Tua) of Sawahlunto”, which makes the city the historical gem of West Sumatra. However, one must not forget to visit new places, such as the Info Box mining gallery opened in 2007 on Jl. Muhammad Yazid and the coal miners monument near it. The monument was built by Suparman whose ancestors worked in the mines. There is a documentary shown in Info Box which tells the history of how mining in Sawahlunto all started and about the workers who were forced to work in the mines. It was these miners that turned Sawahlunto into the unique multiethnic city it is, quite different than the rest of West Sumatra. Allowing the memory of the coal mine workers to live means acknowledging Sawahlunto’s true cultural heritage.

Written by Alemora Hadiz and Liza Hadiz


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If you are traveling to West Sumatra, its historical long house or “rumah gadang” is something you wouldn’t want to miss seeing. The traditional house’s unique architecture, especially the famous buffalo horn-shaped roof is the cultural legacy of Minangkabau, home to one of the largest matrilineal society in the world.


The traditional wood carvings of the rumah gadang is captured in the Sage II Vacation Home in Sawahlunto

Traditionally, the roof was made from palm fiber which could last over two decades. The rectangular house is divided into two sections, the front and the back, with a total number of odd rooms between 3 and 13. The number of rooms also depend on how many girls live in the house as when they are married they will have their own separate room with their husband. Young girls share rooms, while older female members and children sleep in rooms near the kitchen. Single men live in a separate accommodation not far from the rumah gadang. On the left and right wings, there are extensions used for ceremonies and the rumah gadang itself is a place where community decision-making is held.


One of SAGE II’s cozy rooms


Historically, the rumah gadang was built to stand against earthquakes. The four poles of the house were traditionally made of old juha (siamese senna) tree wood that were beforehand soaked in water for years so that they were strong enough to secure the house. The back section of the house was made of bamboo, while the front section was made of a wooden board which showcased the distinctive wood carving motifs of West Sumatra. These motifs include round-shaped and geometric motifs of leaves, flowers, and fruits. Each area of West Sumatra has its own distinct motif. They are inspired by the names of plants, animals, or things used daily. Sadly, this wood-carving culture is almost extinct in many parts of West Sumatra.


Traditional wood carving motifs in SAGE II extend such a warm welcome

The traditional architecture and wood carvings of the rumah gadang is captured in the Sage II Vacation Home located in Sawahlunto, just about 90 km from Padang, the capital city of West Sumatra. Sage II’s wood carving replicates the style of the area of Solok, where many rumah gadang still exists. This is because there are no longer any wood carvers in Sawahlunto that can replicate Sawahlunto’s traditional wood carve motifs. Unfortunately, the craft and knowledge was not passed on to the next generation.


A glimpse of the interior of SAGE II

Nevertheless, among the various wood carving motifs decorating the Sage II Vacation Home, one that is particularly interesting is the duck motif wood work, traditional called “Itiak Pulang Patang.”A literal translation would be “ducks walking home at sundown”. Some interpret this motif as symbolizing the journey of the Minang people to other lands, but that there will be a time when they will return home.

But like all of the wood carving motifs of West Sumatra, there is always a deeper philosophical meaning which describes the values and the way of life of the community. One is that the ducks illustrate how the Minangkabau community live in tune and harmony with nature; that they are one with their natural surroundings. It also describes the governance of the Minangkabau society; one that is orderly, organized, and harmonious.


Duck wood carving motif on SAGE II site

Moreover, the group of duck walking in one direction in an orderly manner is said to reflect the principle of the Minang people—consistency and persistency—as well the foundation of the Minangkabau society: solidarity, collective decision-making, and commitment.


Sage II is on the list of Japanese homestay for Sawahlunto

Built in 2012, the Sage II Vacation Home brings back the rich tradition of the rumah gadang. Many visitors, including those from around globe, have enjoyed the cultural experience that Sage II brings. We are happy to know that Sage II is on the list of Japanese homestay for Sawahlunto. We look forward to share our cultural tradition with the travelers of the world.


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The Umbrella Dance of West Sumatra: Is it Really the Dance of Love?

The Umbrella Dance or “Tari Payung” is a traditional dance from Minangkabau, West Sumatra, Indonesia. It is popularly known to symbolize love and courtship. However, there are different traditional interpretations of what the dance originally symbolizes. Moreover, its true origins have been questioned, is it really a dance from Minangkabau, West Sumatra?

Tari Payung for blog upload
                                                   Courtesy of Sigit, Sawahlunto

Payung in Indonesian means umbrella. In the dance, typically, the male dancers swing the umbrellas they are holding around their female partners. The opened umbrella in Tari Payung is said to be a symbol of protection and affection from a husband to his wife so that the family will always be happy and spared from negative things. The female dancers typically wears a selendang or a scarf that symbolizes union, true love, and loyalty.

Tari Payung is usually accompanied by the song “Babendi-bendi ke Sungai Tanang” in the background which tells a story of a couple on their honeymoon. The song starts with a slow tempo which gradually increases throughout the song until it hits a quick tempo, where the dancers shift to dynamic moves, reflecting the journey the couple will take throughout life. Traditionally, you can watch a Tari Payung dance in wedding ceremonies or other traditional rituals.

It is interesting that according to a number of sources, the rural areas of Minangkabau do not perceive the Tari Payung dance as part of the Minangkabau culture. This dance is said to have originated in the cities or the rantau areas, where there is a fusion of Melayu and Minangkabau people. Thus, this dance is considered to be a Melayu Minangkabau dance. The slower movements reflect its Melayu origins and its fast-dynamic movements reflect the influence of Minangkabau martial arts. Here, there is also a slightly different interpretation of the dance, a more urban and modern one. The dance is said to be about the tale of romance between a young city girl and boy on a rendezvous at Tanang River.

In contrast, in some parts of West Sumatera, the Tari Payung dance was originally performed as part of a ritual of when a baby is taken out of the house for the first time and is bathed in the river, adding to a completely different interpretation of the dance.

It is also interesting to know that in 1920s, the dance was performed by a group of all female dancers as there was a time when women and men were not allowed to dance together, in fact once women were barred from participating in public performances.

Over time, the dance is performed by women and men and on other occasions aside from ritual events, such as in cultural festivals and community festivities, as well as to honor guests.

Today the dance tends to have a different function. It has shifted from a dance which had a ritual purpose to a dance with commercial entertainment objectives. For artistic or commercial reasons, the dance moves have been altered over time by dance choreographers. The meaning of the movements is now subject to the interpretation of dance professionals and may have lost some of its traditional elements.

While these dance innovations may be viewed as a progressive way to maintain the existence of a traditional dance through the generation, it does not sit well with those who believe that tradition should not be altered for the sake of art or entertainment. What do you think?


Tari Payung

Tari Payung Kesenian Tradisional

Syafrayuda, Diah Rosari (2015) Eksistensi Tari Payung sebagai Tari Melayu Minangkabau di Sumatera Barat Ekspresi Seni, Jurnal Ilmu Pengetahuan dan Karya Seni Vol. 1 No. 2.

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Wandering Around Batusangkar, West Sumatra: Chicken Song for the Soul

In Batusangkar, West Sumatra, while stopping for lunch at Pondok Flora restaurant, a band was playing a number of traditional songs. For Jakartans like my family, being entertained by a group of musicians playing traditional instruments live is not something that happens every day. So it was an experience to enjoy. Like tourists, my cousin and aunt even took a clip of the band playing.

Bares Solok_cropped
This man is playing the “saluang”, a traditional instrument from West Sumatra.

The band played a couple of old numbers which your brain would slowly recollect as a tune you have heard somewhere some time ago, even if you are a Jakartan who have never been to West Sumatra. Some of the music are from songs that you learned in elementary school; for the older generation, these songs were once popular on the radio and on TV.

One of the songs is the all-time legendary West Sumatran hit, Ayam Den Lapeh. Although the song may ring a bell to many Indonesians (and Malaysians), but who really knows what the song is all about?  Ayam Den Lapeh, literally means “my chicken got away”. So I bet that is what most people think this uptempo song is all about—a chicken that went loose. This was what I thought too all through grade school. In fact, I thought den was short for raden (a Javanese title for royalty). So I figured it was about this spoilt raden who is complaining about some royal chicken he lost. Being older now, I knew it had to be more complicated than that. So I decided it was time I consulted good old Google and what I found was pretty much to my surprise.

Ayam den Lapeh_cropped
These girls are playing the “talempong”, another traditional instrument from West Sumatra.

Ayam Den Lapeh was a song written by Nurseha and Abdul Hamid which in the song he used chicken as a metaphor. In the old days in West Sumatra, chicken was an expensive livestock. In the song, chicken was used to symbolize something precious. So the song tells a story of someone regretting that he/she has lost something or maybe someone—which makes more sense, I think—very special or precious to him/her, letting it get away right under his/her eyes.

Although the song is actually talking about a dark moment, it is sang in a cheerful way and the music has an upbeat tempo. Some interpretations say that the song is about lessons learned and looking at things from a positive perspective, even if you have lost something valuable to your heart. Hence, the cheerful sound.

So to understand the song, you have to look at the context and culture of the Sumatran society.

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West Sumatran Coffee: A Dark Past and a New Beginning

For travelers and coffee lovers, tasting local coffee would definitely be on the “To Do” list. So for those traveling to West Sumatra, you should not miss out on local coffee and the coffee shops that offer the best quality beans. Here, in this post, I will share names of a number of coffee venues to visit.

Coffee is known to perk you up and put a smile on your face. But if you think about coffee in West Sumatra, I mean really think about it, you realize that coffee in this region has a dark past that won’t make you smile.


Enjoying coffee and fried tofu at the Sage II Vacation Home, Sawahlunto


Looking Back

The golden coffee age in West Sumatra was during the Dutch occupation where plantations were established in the inlands, such as Bukittinggi. But for the Indonesian people, especially during the 1840s, coffee plantations meant forced labor and coolies.

However, the coffee trade created a lot of changes in West Sumatra. When adat leaders turned to the Dutch during the Padri War, the Dutch took this opportunity to build infrastructure, schools, and coffee warehouses—training the Minangkabau locals to assist coffee businesses.

In fact, there was one famous—shall we say—coffee tycoon, noted in history, that is, Kota Gadang native, Abdul Gani Rajo Mangkuto (1817–1907). He became so successful that he even got to travel to the Netherlands. Nevertheless, continued tax disputes between the Minangkabau people and colonialists, among other things, affected the coffee business in the inlands.

Furthermore, local people were also recruited into administrative positions in the local government. A new class of Dutch-speaking locals, civil servants, and intellectuals emerged, which ultimately gave way to resistance against the Dutch and Indonesia’s independence!

But way before that, in the 1870s, coffee production was no longer profitable and was replaced by other crops, such as copra and tobacco. To make a long story short, the coffee golden age ultimately ended. Coffee was then grown in people’s gardens. People usually drink coffee made from coffee leaves rather than beans.

Visit These Coffee Venues

But luckily today, we can find fresh West Sumatran coffee beans at local markets and coffee shops.  After a decline in the popularity of the local coffee beans, things are looking bright as you can now find a variety of local beans—spicy and fruity—in a various places, such as in Padang and Bukittinggi. One example is at the Rimbun Espresso and Brew Bar in Padang and Bukittinggi (also home to the historical Jam Gadang tower clock).  And just to name a few other coffee venues in Padang, they are: Kubik Koffie, Lalito Coffee & Bar, M.O. Resto & Coffee, and Konco Coffee, and in Buktitinggi we have the Apache and Café Bedudal.

Meanwhile, in Sawahlunto there is a local brand coffee sold at Warung Kopi Datuk Silungkang Coffee. The makers have been producing local Robusta coffee traditionally since 1992.

And let’s not forget the Solok Coffee trend in 2014 which marked the emergence of a new era of coffee-making in West Sumatra. Under the Solok Radjo cooperative (which members include coffee traders), coffee producers from five villages in Solok District created the Solok Coffee specialty which has a hint of lemon taste. The coffee gradually hit the local market, including the big cities such as Jakarta, and it is now an export commodity. This has certainly put West Sumatran coffee back in the spotlight.

Enjoy West Sumatra, enjoy its coffee!



Minangkayo (2015) Cerita Kopi di Minang (accessed 13 January 2017).

Minangkayo (2015) Kopi Sumatra Barat Dan Ceritanya (accessed 13 January 2017).

Otonomi (2016) Perjalanan Kopi Minang Solok Menuju Kualitas Teratas di Indonesia (accessed 14 January 2017).

Republika Online (2016) Menikmati Kopi Khas Sawahlunto, Datuk Siloengkang Coffee (accessed 14 January 2017).

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Abdul Muis: West Sumatra’s Novelist and First National Hero

At school in Indonesia, we all learned about Abdul Muis (1886–1959), Indonesia’s first national hero and the author of the very famous novel Salah Asuhan (1928). Although I’ve memorized this many times in order to pass school exams, it was only recently that I realized the relevance of the novel—which talks about mixed cultures and national identity—not only for Indonesia before independence, but in fact, for Indonesia today.


Abdul Muis is known as a journalist, novelist, a nationalist, and advocate for independence.

He was awarded the national hero title after his death by former President Sukarno. Although born in Sungai Puar, West Sumatra, he spent a major part of his adult life in West Java, many years in exile. His father, Datuak Tumangguang Sutan Sulaiman, was the district head of Sungai Puar between 1870s and 1930s.  He was known to be very critical of the Dutch government and refused to implement some policies, which resulted in his exile. Like father, like son, as they say.

I have seen pictures of Datuak Tumangguang Sutan Sulaiman’s rumah gadang (traditional long house) in Sungai Puar. It’s also interesting to know that my maternal great grandfather was a Sungai Puar native and is related to Abdul Muis, but we don’t share the same rumah gadang.

My aunt at Abdul Muis Street, Sungai Puar

Anyway, this is why Abdul Muis is a national hero.

Adul Muis did not complete his university education (Stovia, Jakarta),  but his fluency in Dutch made it easy for him to find work, such as being  the first Indonesian to work as a clerk (civil servant) for a government department.

Thanks to his good journalistic skills Abdul Muis later worked for a number of newspapers. The first was the Bandung-based newspaper, Bintang Hindia in 1905, which was later banned. Fluency in Dutch got him a job at the Dutch daily newspaper, De Prianger Bode, around 1912. Being a nationalist, he had written articles for the De Express, a Dutch-language daily newspaper, bluntly criticizing Dutch occupation. Tensions with his superiors at De Prianger Bode led him to leave the paper and he became head editor for the first nationalist daily newspaper, Kaum Muda, which promoted anti-colonial views.

The rumah gadang of Lareh IV in Sungai Puar, my grandfather’s ancestor

Although Abdul Muis was a journalist and writer, he had only written the novel he is best known for during exile in West Java.

Abdul Muis was first of all a political activist. In 1913 he established the Komite Bumi Putra alongside other nationalists who criticized the Dutch government’s policy of collecting tax from the native Indonesians for the celebration of the Dutch people’s independence from France. Addul Muis and his colleagues were apprehended by Dutch Indies authorities because of this.

Abdul Muis also took part in Sarekat Islam, the first national political party in the Dutch Indies, which promoted Islamic modernism. In 1917 he represented the party in negotiations with the Dutch to obtain direct representation for Indonesia in the Dutch parliamentary system which, however, failed. In 1918 he became a member of the volksraad (the people’s representative body).

Abdul Muis was also a labor and human rights activist. In 1922 Abdul Muis led a worker’s strike in Yogyakarta to demand better conditions for workers and was arrested. In 1923 he led a protest against a land supervision law (landrentestelsel) which was going to be implemented by the Dutch and he lobbied local figures in Padang to object taxes collected by the Dutch government. As a result, Abdul Muis was banned from political activities. In fact, he was banned from leaving West Java for 13 years (1926–1939).

My cousin with pictures of our ancestors in the background

It was during his exile that he used words to compensate for his political restraint and penned the critically acclaimed, Salah Asuhan, published in 1928 and translated as Never the Twain in 2010.

His work opened the door to the modern Indonesian literature era. The novel highlights tensions between Eastern and Western culture and what it meant to efforts in building a national identity for an independent Indonesia. It seems to me that this issue is still relevant for our country even today, although not only in terms of East meets West, but in reference to tensions among local cultures and identities. What do you think?



Anak Nagari Sungaipua Community (2014) Minang Saisuak (14 January 2017).

Badan Bahasa (n.d.) Abdul Muis (accessed 6 January 2017).

Erwin Wirawan (2014) Bukittinggi: The Town That Killed Colonialism (accessed 6 January 2017).

Indonesia-Investments (2015) National Heroes of Indonesia: Abdul Muis; Writer, Journalist & Nationalist (accessed 6 January 2017).

Pahlawan Center (n.d.) Abdul Muis (accessed 6 January 2017).

Republika Online (2014) Abdul Muis, Tokoh Pertama yang Dapat Gelar Pahlawan Nasional (accessed 6 January 2017).


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Autumn Inspiration: In Memory of Amri Djamiun (Sawahlunto, 28 February 1951–Jakarta, 8 October 2016)


Autumn is a season which represents release and maturity. I have read that somewhere, I can’t remember where exactly, but by what our family is going through now, I am beginning to understand what the metaphor is all about.

We are here in the month of October, a month in the season of autumn. Our family has been going through a difficult time these last few months, my uncle from my mother’s side had been stricken by illness. On October 8th we lost him.

Just like a lot of families in the big city of Jakarta, bad traffic, long working hours, tons of school activities make the extended family a thing of the past. Families just don’t connect physically but through social media messages when they have the time. So as you can guess, I hardly saw my uncle. Only in important family occasions would I see him—during weddings, funerals, or Idul Fitri family gatherings—and sometimes, like most teens, I’m there because my mother had dragged me there.

Although we don’t meet as often as we should, I remember my uncle, “Om Amri”, as I would call him, as a friendly man who likes to chitchat with a sense of humor and a distinctive way of speaking. Even though I don’t always get his jokes, I remember the big smile he always had on his face. A warm and caring smile.

After the funeral, family members gather to enjoy the beautiful scenery overlooking the Sage II Vacation Home in Sawahlunto.

The last time I saw Uncle Amri was at the hospital and I couldn’t attend his funeral in his hometown, Sawahlunto. Funny thing, I always thought that he and I and Aunt Ita will visit Sawahlunto together some day. But that’s okay.

After graduating from high school in Sawahlunto, my uncle moved to Jakarta to go to college. Even after 48 years, he never forgot his hometown and visited it regularly. His heart belonged to Sawahlunto and that is where he wanted to return to. On Sawahlunto soil, close to the Sage II house, and under the Sawahlunto sky is where he chose to rest.

The grief and lost that our family is feeling with the passing of Uncle Amri is what autumn is all about. It is about releasing and letting go. The changes that come about because of it make us more mature and a better person. This is the phase my family, especially my aunt and her children, is going through at this time. Letting go of a loved one will make us grow spiritually and emotionally.

Rest in peace my uncle, Amri Djamiun, it was nice knowing you. Thanks for being part of our lives and teaching me this great lesson in life.