Medan the plantation city

‘Nowhere a village, or even a house. Not even a coco palm. Only forest and swamp. Presently we saw the first campong: a couple of coco palms rose like huge paint brushes straight into the sky; among the large, crenated, light-green leaves of the papaya trees, their fruits glistened, yellowish-green and smelling like melons; the giant tattered leaves of the banana trees, shining as if lacquered, quivered in the noonday sun despite the lack of a breeze. … Suddenly, as if marked out with a ruler, a huge clearing. Ditches dug in a straight line, paths, two-metre high tobacco plants in endless straight rows. As far as the eye could reach, there swayed a light-green sea of leaves. Everything one saw was carefully tended, almost exaggeratedly ordered.. And all at once we drove into the station of the capital. Everywhere order and cleanliness. Pretty stone buildings, an iron viaduct, a glass-covered lobby above the platform… In front of the station a large square. Smooth asphalt roads with mighty palms on both sides, pretty bungalows, lovely well-tended little gardens, strange flowers in variegated colours…’ (Székely, Tropic Fever, 70)

It was around 1910 when the Hungarian Ladiszlasz Székely entered the Sumatran city of Medan. The impressions he made then, he used for the novel Tropic Fever, from which the above quotation originates. Who now visits Medan, can see that the Dutch colonial ‘orderness and cleanliness’ has been changed for the hussle-bussle of Asiatic life of the twenty one century. Fortunately there are still many of traces of the past. Street patterns, squares and buildings who saw Székely in the beginning of the twentieth century, can still be seen.

Deli Maatschappij

The fresh white town

Medan was build in only a few decennia after was discovered that the Deli district, at the east coast of Sumatra, was highly suitable for the growing of tobacco. The Deli tobacco was named as the best in the world. The promise of wealth attracted all kind of people, Polish noblemen, German officers, persons who for obscure reasons had left their fatherland. It was a colourful society who settled in Deli. Jungle was replaced by plantations, exploited by tobacco- and later rubber companies, founded by Europeans, built and maintained by Chinese and Javanese plantation workers or coolies. Coolies were by the thousands recruited from China and Java to do the hard labour on the plantations. The financial and administrative centre became the new town of Medan.
Deli was the richest outer province of the Netherlands Indies.

Fortunes were made in the rubber- and tobacco industry and that you could see in Medan. Louis Couperus, writer of the famous colonial novel The silent power, visited Medan in 1922 and wrote:

‘..The fresh white town, as Medan is, with its elegant white buildings and villa quarters, lies though beneath a spray. It is never dirty as Western rains can make a town, and even Nature itself. Here there is no offensive mud, it is just watered earth.. She is modern and European; .. Hotel De Boer and Medan Hotel, the impressive offices of several Companies Harrisons and Crosfield, Deli Company… they are standing there … As white buildings of prosperity, of hard labour, of admirable effort..’ (Couperus, Eastward, 27,33,46)

Esplanade Medan

Mata Hari

Around the central square, the ‘Esplanade’, were the most important buildings of Medan located. Here was the office of the Java Bank, build by the architectural firm Hulswit, Fermont & Cuypers. Besides was the town hall from 1908 with the clocktower donated by the wealthy Chinese businessman Tjong A Fie. A bit further on was Hotel De Boer build in 1898,

‘..The principal hotel of Medan, hotel De Boer, was situated at a wide grass field round which went a broad asphalt promenade. The main building had two stories. Downstairs was the dance hall and the dining room, with a large terrace. Upstairs were bedrooms. On either side of the main building stood a pavilion, two long rows of bedrooms each with its veranda and its bathroom. The annexes were joined to the main building by a roofed cement path. Between the main building and the pavilions lay a strip of garden, a path, and a strip of grass..’.
So far a quote from the novel Rubber by Madelon Székely Lulofs. (Rubber, 31)

Hotel De Boer was famous all over the Netherlands Indies. The elite who visited Medan stayed in this hotel. In hotel De Boer stayed King Leopold of Belgium, the orientalist dancer Mata Hari and famous names out of the Dutch cabaret, such as Cor Ruys, Jean Louis Pisuisse and Koos and Cesarine Speenhoff. Louis Couperus stayed in Medan in 1922. Years later wrote mrs. Burghardt de Boer, daughter of the owner, about Couperus:

‘…Personally I met Louis Couperus, my most admired Dutch writer, but in reality, unfortunately talking in an elite way of gestures and speaking, in the Deli of that time, early ninety twenties, already walking around early in the morning in a perfect shantung suit, flower in the buttonwhole, surrounded by a distinguished cloud of perfume…’ (article Burghardt de Boer)


In Deli district of that time, Medan already had become a more orderly society. Before that Deli was also called ‘The Wild West’ and the ‘Dollarland’, where the rubber trees grew till in heaven and the planters lighted his cigar with a billet of ten guilders. The Deli Company, Amsterdam Trading Company and other companies cleared in those years thousands hectares of jungle for tobacco-, rubber- and palmoil plantations. Three hundred thousand (!) Chinese coolies were between 1870 and 1930 recruited to work for a small salary at the plantations. That was the other side of the ‘Wirtschaftswunder‘ that took place on east Sumatra. The coolies were hardly more than slaves, their labour was cheap and in the early period almost one of a dozen died of exhaustion, diseases and accidents. Slowly herein came a change and in the nineteen twenties and thirties the labour conditions of the coolies were improved. Many Chinese coolies remained at Sumatra after finishing their contract, with a consequence that there is still an important Chinese society in Medan. This society was also already there when Ladiszslasz Székely around 1910 through Medan:

‘..we arrive in the Chinese quarter. Narrow streets, where it swarms with Chinese, who pushes themselves with their yellow naked upper part of the body through the dense crowd… On both sides are small shops and ateliers. In the dirty ateliers, lighted by glaring carbid lamps are sitting half naked, yellow guys on low banks bowed over their labour, like mad they work, hammering, knocking, tapping, the sewing machine rattles with breathtaking speed, as swarming, drudging ants they toil, fanatically, in breathless and breathtaking surrender. The Chinese labourer works eighteen of the twenty four hours. He toils till he cannot more…When he wakes up, he hammers, knocks, hits on. They are always in a hurry, these Chinese coolies, because they want as fast as possible hammer a sum together, with which they can start their own business. They want to be a taukeh. The taukehs sit in front of their shops and ateliers and suck their thick waterpipes. They sit there as overfed pater familias and play with their youngest child, sit there as bigbellied Boeddha’s, contently noddling and meditating in an elevated way, while they let their coolies toil and drudge. That is why the coolies also want to be a taukeh. They also want to sit in front of the door of their shop and suck the entire day their waterpipe, they also want to keep coolies, marry and have children. Everybody however is content with the things as they are, the coolies as well as the taukehs. They all know, that the coolie has to work eighteen hours of the day and that the taukeh can laze about and have a big belly and long fingernails. Because who has money, also has power. As soon as the coolie has enough money, he also wants to be a taukeh and then let his coolies toil eightteen hours a day ..’ (Tropic Fever, 245,246,247,248,249)

Plantershuis Tandem Hilir


The writerscouple Székely depicted Deli in an untraceable way. In 1933 Madelon Székely published the novel Rubber which directly caused a wave of excitement and protest because of the course impression that was depicted of Deli and because of the ‘affaire’ which the married Madelon Lulofs had with Ladiszslasz Székely and whereby both Deli had to leave. Rubber became a bestseller and is even filmed. Not very flattering Madelon wrote about the Deli planters when they had their monthly day off, the ‘Hari Besar':

‘..It became a noisy dinner. There was singing and shouting. The hors-d’oeuvre was thrown through the hall. Plates and glasses broke. Leftovers of the dinner lay everywhere. The tablecloth were sticky of floods of beer. Over the head of one of the assistants three mustardpots and a butterpot was put..’ (Rubber, 50,51)

Bij Tanjung Pura

Red cadillac

Although Medan was a typical European plantation town, the most famous inhabitant was not a European, but the Chinese Tjong A Fie. In the rags to riches story about the Major (highest representative) of the Chinese Tjong A Fie goes the story that he arrived in 1875 pennyless to Sumatra and in a few decennia made a fortune in the plantation industry. Around 1906 he bought his first rubber plantation and at his death in 1921 he owned around twenty rubber-, tobacco- and palmoil estates and employed over ten thousand people. His righthand and trusted person was the Dutchman Dolf Kamerlingh Onnes, brother of the Nobel price winner Heike Kamerlingh Onnes. In 1923 Dolf travelled for the last time to Sumatra to arrange the financial affairs of the late Tjong. This time he made the journey with his cousin Harm who wrote during the trip long letters to his family illustrated with beautiful drawings. From Harm we also get an impression how the white upperclass lived:

‘..This morning at seven thirty Huelsen’s car, a bright red Cadillac, arrived, with a black Kling driver with darkblue cap, and I flew (the car drove very fast) to Tanjung Morawa. My gosh, what are these people spoiled with space if they come back in Europe! When you enter, you see somewhere at the horizon a breakfast table, Mrs. Huelsen, three children, a German governor..’ (De reis van Harm Kamerlingh Onnes, 96) (The voyage of Harm Kamerlingh Onnes)

They are still there

The remarkable thing of Medan is that almost all those buildings are still there. They are not torn down. The big villa of the Huelsen family in Tanjung Morawa still exists, Hotel De Boer, the office of Harrrisons & Crosfield, the house of Tjong A Fie, we can still see it when we drive through Medan. The bestseller of the Dutch writer Geert Mak De Eeuw van mijn Vader (The Century of my Father), was settled among others in Medan. Just as the Mak family there are countless Netherlanders who in one way or the other have ties with the town. It was a part of the Netherlands, with all positive and negative sides, with Dutch names, companies and buildings designed by Dutch architects. That Indonesian architects as Soekarno did not get so much opportunities to build we don’t want to emphasize here.
Sumatra gives home to one of the greatest unspoiled rainforests in the world. There are small towns where time seems to stand still like Sibolga and the trip from North to West Sumatra via the ‘Trans Sumatra Highway’ right through the jungle covered mountain ridge Bukit Barisan is unforgettable. Besides that still everywhere are old plantation houses, schools and plantations which reminds of the Dutch colonial history. It are the ‘bitter sweet memories’ of a former Dutch colony, it has not been disappeared, you can still find it.

Read more: City Tour Medan

Dirk A. Buiskool

  • Mata Hari, alias Margaretha Zelle, lived from 1897 till 1900 in Medan. Shortly afterwards she divorced her husband. In 1906 she started her career as exotic dancer in Paris, till her tragic end in 1917, when she was executed on accusations of espionage by the fire squad in Vincennes.
  • Harm Kamerlingh Onnes belonged to the Leiden artistic circle. In 2001 there was a special exposition about the work of Harm Kamerlingh Onnes in the museum De Lakenhal in Leiden, the Netherlands.


  • Buiskool, D.A. De reis van Harm Kamerlingh Onnes, Brieven uit de Oost 1922-1923 (The voyage of Harm Kamerlingh Onnes, Letters from the East 1922-1923) Hilversum, The Netherlands, 1999
  • Couperus, L. Oostwaarts (Eastward) 1923
  • Székely, L. Tropic Fever The Adventures of a Planter in Sumatra. Translated by Marion Saunders first published by Harper & Brothers 1937. With an introduction by Anthony Reid, Oxford University Press 1979
  • Székely Lulofs, M. Rubber Amsterdam 1933