Back to my roots in Surabaya

My father’s family is from Dutch-Indonesian decent. My grandparents grew up in Surabaya (Indonesia) and lived there untill their mid 20’s. They lived there during the end of the Dutch colonial era, when the county was called Dutch East Indies. After 1960 the family had to relocate to the Netherlands because of commotion after the indepence. However, a big part of my grandparents’ lives, including getting together, took place in Surabaya.

This second largest city of Indonesia isn’t attracting many tourists, even though it has quite some nice sights. But we went there especially to see places of importance from my grandparents’ past. A couple of years ago they went back together with my dad and discovered that some of the places remained pretty much intact. So we set out to visit exactly those spots.

Zangrandi ice cream cafe

The name Zangrandi is famous in Surabaya for its delicious ice cream. It was founded by an Italian family in 1930. And although they now have several cafés throughout the city, the original shop is still there. They even kept the interior in the style of the old days, a true blast from the past. My grand dad and his family often went there to eat some ice cream and get his favorite drink: ice cream soda vanilla.


Droogdok shipyard

From the age of 16 until she left for the Netherlands my grandmother worked at a shipyard. She handled the administration for ship repairs. Even though it now has a different name, the wharf is still there. I wrote down how to explain our connection to the place and we walked up to security. After several tries they exclaimed: “ahhh, Nenek!” Since this means “oh, your grandmother” we now had high hopes of being able to enter the place.

Security took us to the reception where eventually the head of HR was located and he offered to show us around. We put on our safety helmets and got outside. Not only are many of the original places still intact they also took such good care of their machinery that some of them are still from the Dutch time. He proudly explained that it is all mechanical and no computers are used in the process. We were allowed to take as many pictures as we liked and he patiently answered all the questions we had. A good example of how friendly and hospitable the Indonesians have been to us.

The orphanage

My grandmother lost her parents at a young age and grew up in a Catholic orphanage. She told me many stories of that time, including how they did their best to drive the nuns crazy. The orphanage still exists and the church they all used to visit is also there.

Again I wrote down an explanation of why we were there but this time, it took a little more effort. They asked for my grandmother’s name and immediately thought we were looking for “Zuster Corry”: sister Corry. After we took care of the misunderstanding (thank you Google Translate), we also got a tour of the orphanage. Being able to visit this part of my grandmothers’ youth was a very special experience for us.

Peneleh graveyard

There is a tiny little graveyard in Surabaya, from before the indepence. It’s a bit strange to find so many Dutch names on tombstones, so far from the Netherlands. But it gets even weirder when two of those names are yours. My great great grandparents are buried there so we visited their graves. I know nothing about them but it still felt like the right thing to do since we were in their city on the other side of the world.

Colonial history

The Dutch colonial era is a sensitive topic in the Netherlands and just like in Sri Lanka, we were unsure of what people would think about our visit. Especially since Surabaya isn’t a tourist destination. We were met with nothing but smiles and friendly conversations. And when we told people about our history with the place, they would even make suggestions on how and where we could find certain things. Like lemper, our favorite snack made by grandma. In Indonesia, it was also made by a grandma. 🙂


♡ Thomas

2 thoughts on “Back to my roots in Surabaya

  • Hi D&T,
    That’s an impressive magical history tour.
    It must be a very special experience to walk through the history of your family and see the all the stories your parents and grandparents told you, come to life…


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