Taiwanese heritage advocate Eden Liu has a simple philosophy: do what you love and the money will follow. It has led him on a remarkable journey to the historic section of the port city of Semarang on the north coast of Java.
There, he and his wife, Jade, have overseen the restoration of the two-storey Soesmans Kantoor colonial building. It used to be the office of the Soesmans Emigration, Sale and Commission Office, which supplied labourers when the Dutch controlled Java and Sumatra.
Now the building is home to a social enterprise run by the Liu family, one that hosts cultural events as well as activities and employment for Indonesian women, including in Taiwanese-owned businesses.
“I love the old culture, the old buildings,” Liu tells the Straight over Zoom from Semarang. “I do what I love. I believe the money will come.”
Through their “Soesmans 1866” project, Liu and his wife have built a bridge between Taiwan and Indonesia. He has even offered advice to municipal politicians in Semarang, Indonesia’s ninth-largest city, as they try to have the historic Dutch section declared a UN World Heritage Site.
“Semarang presents an example of multicultural trading towns in Southeast Asia,” Liu says.
He points out that the port city has been a home to Javanese, Chinese, Malay, and Arabian cultures for centuries. For a fair amount of that time, they were under the control of the Dutch colonial power, which developed classical European buildings and a European streetscape in the city’s old town.
“With this footprint on the architecture, urban form, and technology, it shows the important interchange of human values in Asia in the early 19th century,” Liu says.
Liu will speak about his experiences via video at this year’s TAIWANfest, which runs from September 3 to 5 in downtown Vancouver. Liu's talk is part of the festival’s annual Dialogues With Asia series, which is focusing this year on connections between Taiwan and Indonesia.
Semarang came under Dutch rule in the late 17th century when the ruler of Java, Sunan Amangkurat II, handed over most of the island’s northern coast to the Dutch East India Company in return for reinstating him to power.
The Dutch later named Semarang “Europeesche Buurt”. Nowadays, the old town is often called Little Netherlands.
Liu developed an interest in old buildings when his family used to take him as a child to Lugang, a historic Taiwanese seaport. Coincidentally, Lugang was a trading centre for the Dutch when they colonized Taiwan in the 17th century.
Five years ago, Liu was working in a traditional manufacturing industry when he visited the company’s factory in Semarang.
At that time, Jade was his girlfriend and she had earned a master’s degree from Japan’s Waseda University with the goal of launching a social enterprise to assist women. Jade was inspired by a famous Indonesian feminist named Kartini.
“She told me if I help her to build out the base of [her dream] in Semarang, she will stay with me in Indonesia instead of returning to Japan,” Liu says. “I love her so much, so I just did it.”
Near the end of the interview, Liu reveals that he’s gained new perspectives from the Indonesian people, noting that most are satisfied with their lives. He also finds that they don’t harbour resentment against the Dutch over colonization, despite everything that occurred.
“They still keep a deep relationship with the Netherlands,” Liu says. “They don’t hate. They think, ‘History is history; the past is the past. We need to focus on the future.’ That’s what I learned.”