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Padang vanishing history

Luc Citrinot, eTN  Dec 07, 2010

PADANG (eTN) - It has now been 15 months that West Sumatra (Indonesia) was struck by a powerful earthquake, which officially killed over 1,100 people and damaged some 200,000 houses mostly in the Padang and Pariaman districts. Hospitals, schools, and livelihoods were all affected by the disaster. The Indonesian government estimated in early 2010 that it would need over US$650 million to rebuild the area.

Time has passed and West Sumatra looks again to the future, but the marks from the earthquake have not disappeared. The return to normalcy has, in fact, been slower than predicted. It is as if West Sumatra was split into two provinces, offering to visitors a dramatic contrast: on one side the capital city Padang and on the other side, the rest of the province. But in contrary to many other destinations, this is the capital city, which suffered the most visible bruises.

On September 30, 2009, Padang became the epicenter of the eathquake. A year later, visitors can still discover collapsed structures all across the provincial capital. The earthquake struck all across the city, turning into rubble buildings of social significance to the city: Padang Cathedrale, Hotel Bumiminang, Ambacang Hotel ‚Äď Padang‚Äôs most historical hotel - or the Central Market are waiting today for their reconstruction, while the provincial Parliament building is the only large structure which is completed.

Despite having a population of almost a million inhabitants, Padang looks rather like a ghost city in many areas. After 8 pm, poorly lit streets turn empty. During the day, the only place filled with colorful life takes place around Imam Bonjol Park, Padang’s main square. School kids come here to play football or practice sport activities, while families still stroll around the green field or just picnic. Across the park, another symbol of Padang tries to keep busy: the Central Market collapsed during the earthquake, but in the shadow of the defunct shopping structure, sellers have taken into possession all the surrounding streets. The open air area is full of visitors, which brings back memories of a more joyful Padang, prior to September 2009.

The most poignant area is certainly the old town or Chinatown. This district used to bear the best preserved colonial-style city along the Batang Arau River. Following the earthquake, many 1930-old houses mixing Dutch and Chinese influences collapsed around Jalan Pasar Hilir. Some people still live in the midst of the ruins, but life mostly deserted the area, which used to be Padang's center for trade and textile.

Following the earthquake, plans were rapidly announced in November 2009 to reconstruct part of the historical structures. Last year, the Holland-based Prince Claus Fund for cultural emergencies, along with the Indonesia Heritage Trust, conducted a study to assess the damage done to this part of the town. The fund estimates that some ‚ā¨2.5 million are necessary to secure at least 10 buildings of historical significance. Among the buildings listed as a priority on the restoration list are the Old City Hall, a typical "Dutch East Indies" structure from 1938 and the Ganting Grand Mosque, as well as the Convent of St. Leo, built in the gothic style in 1903.

But so far, nothing or very little has been done, and Padang's historical old town is now threatened to rapidly turn into a fading memory. The UK publication, the Artnewspaper, asked El√©onore de Merode from the Prince Claus Fund, who highlighted that one of the greatest challenges faced by the Indonesia Heritage Trust was raising awareness among the local community and authoritative bodies to preserve historical and cultural structures. ‚ÄúThere is a strong tendency to pull down damaged heritage to make way for modern, concrete constructions. This is because neither the authorities nor the community have the technical capacity to address heritage conservation nor the awareness of its multiple benefits,‚ÄĚ said De Merode, according to a magazine quote.

Some houses have been reconstructed in a modern way, already losing their historical substance. ‚ÄúI believe that it is difficult for the government to enforce reconstruction laws, as most buildings belong to private people. They have no power to force them to follow enacted rules,‚ÄĚ said a local observer. Although half of Padang hotels were destroyed during the earthquake, it is still worth visiting Padang for at least half a day, just to show to the authorities that the city is still of some interest, and that tourism should remain a priority in order to bring back life to the city.

Meanwhile, most of Padang’s reconstruction has been done on public buildings, with priorities given to schools, hospitals, and government’s offices. Padang Museum was completed in September, but many of its collections - especially valuable ceramics - have disappeared. The only brand-new structure is the memorial to the victims of the 2009 earthquake. It was inaugurated on September 30 of this year.

Padang vanishing history
Padang's biggest hotel was the Bumiminang, due to be rebuilt / Photo by Luc Citrinot

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