For me, Hotel Indonesia has always been linked with tales of my Indonesian family.
Many times I have heard the story of my mother, who as a young woman found out through a lucky coincidence that the new boss of a German bank was a guest at the hotel. With little knowledge in the world of banking, but the determination and desire to get a good job, she decided to take fate into her own hands and simply knocked on the banker’s door. Startled, but apparently also impressed by my mother’s boldness, he granted her a job interview.
I was also always amused about one of my cousins, who wouldn’t dare enter the hotel because he insisted it was haunted.
“There is one room where Sukarno used to stay,” he used to tell me in a low voice. “It is not rented out to guests anymore, because his ghost still roams around in there.”
And when I was still a kid visiting my relatives in Jakarta over the holidays, one of the highlights during my stay was always a visit to the swimming pool of Hotel Indonesia, seeking temporary refuge in the cool and refreshing water from the blazing sun.
Every Indonesian and foreigner ever having set foot in Jakarta, it seems, has a special memory of Hotel Indonesia, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and was once the only hotel in the city, much as Sarinah, a little further up the road, was the city’s first and sole shopping center.
Hotel Indonesia, which was officially opened on Aug. 5, 1962 by then-president Sukarno, is more than just a place to stay. It was built to mark the country’s entrance as a player on the world stage, and it has been a silent witness to the development of an independent Indonesia.
It has observed five decades of both prosperity and turmoil, and welcomed numerous visitors to its halls throughout the years, from presidents and artists to celebrities and starlets.
The image of the hotel, prominently located on Jalan Thamrin behind the marvelous fountain that features the city’s Welcome Statue, a pair of children happily waving, is in the minds of many, simultaneously the image of Jakarta.
Though it is now managed by Kempinski, the foreign hotel group has dedicated itself to keep Hotel Indonesia’s legacy alive.
More than 50 years ago in his speech, Sukarno equated the opening of the hotel with the opening of Indonesia as a country to the world and hoped it would become one of the vehicles for the rise of Indonesia’s economy and tourism industry.
“[We need to show] that Indonesia is not the nation of tempeh, but a nation that is truly independent that deserves to be respected,” he said.
Before the hotel was officially opened for business, Sukarno ordered a test run so the staff could brush up on its service. Allen Atwalt, an American citizen and employee of the Rockefeller Foundation, became Hotel Indonesia’s first guest.
Abel Sorensen, an American of Danish descent, was trusted with the hotel’s architecture, together with his wife Wendy, also an architect. Although the building has undergone several renovations and makeovers, the hotel has maintained its original shape: two rectangular blocks in the form of the letter “T” and an eye-catching window front, housing 406 rooms.
Back in its prime, Hotel Indonesia was the most happening place in the city. People from all walks of life wanted a piece of it: the richer ones would check in for a night or two to experience a stay in a “world class hotel,” while others were happy enough to try the famous bubur ayam (chicken porridge) for lunch.
Hotel Indonesia was also the starting point for several famous Indonesian musicians.
Legendary singer Bob Tutupoly was among the musicians who regularly performed at the hotel during the 1960s and still holds sweet memories of the time.
“It was an honor and an unforgettable experience for me as a singer and entertainer to be asked to perform for the guests at the Nirwana Supper Club,” the Ambonese singer said.
It was indeed Sukarno’s vision to present a slice of Indonesia’s diverse culture at the hotel, especially to its foreign guests. The hotel even had a dedicated art and culture department that organized music performances and art events on its premises.
It was a big stepping stone for a musician’s career if they were invited to perform at the hotel as it normally led to swift success. “For me, Hotel Indonesia was the place where I could go international,” said Bob, adding that for that reason alone, it would always have a “special place” in his heart.
Indonesian pop diva Titiek Puspa was another singer who regularly graced the stage at the Nirwana Supper Club. When she celebrated her 40th birthday at the hotel in 1977, it was one of the biggest parties the city had ever seen.
“At that time, it was not very common to have big birthday celebrations in a hotel,” the songstress recalled. “It is still a special memory, especially because Ali Sadikin [Jakarta’s former governor] was among the guests. From the 1960s until today, Hotel Indonesia is a place of pride, for myself, but maybe also for Indonesian society in general.”
Sukarno wanted the hotel, as well as boasting a unique entertainment program, to show Indonesia’s national character mainly through art. Paintings, murals and statues from renowned Indonesian artists have decorated the hotel’s halls from the very beginning.
“In my opinion, Hotel Indonesia is very important in the context of Indonesia’s art history,” said Suwarno, a curator and lecturer at Yogyakarta’s Art Institute ISI.
“This hotel was built under a strong influence of Sukarno, who involved Indonesian artists in the process. As we know, Sukarno showed a high appreciation toward the world of art. One might even say that he was an artist himself. All the artwork that can be found in the hotel are made by Indonesia’s most important artists.”
To remember and celebrate the hotel’s 50th anniversary, a series of events will be held this month. One highlight will be a theatrical show by Garin Nugroho called “The Legendary Journey.” The performance will take place on Wednesday and feature stars of the older generation, such as Bob Tutopoly and Titiek Puspa, along with up-and-coming artists like Aryo Wahab and Elfonda “Once” Mekel. The show will feature several stories revolving around the hotel’s history and how it once served as Indonesia’s door to the rest of the world.
Artists and musicians may have found other outlets to have career breakthroughs, and competition in the hotel industry has grown fierce over the years. Jakarta is home to many establishments, ranging from five-star to low-budget accommodation.
Yet, Hotel Indonesia still exudes a sense of glamour and grandeur, because one thing remains: it has withstood the test of time and has become a true icon of the country in the process.
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