Sunday, May 12, 2002

Niagera Falls

At the edge of the city of Lawang is an old hotel called the Niagara. It was built a century ago, and at the time built was the tallest building in Southeast Asia, and boasted two elevators. Originally, it was not built as a hotel, but as a Villa where the family Lim could spend leisure time. Auntie Ming mentioned it to me. We were in one of the old godowns at her house on Klenting Street, and she was showing me a large brass gong. There were several sets of old Javanese gongs in the storeroom, and this one was enormous. The mallet was so heavy she could not lift it from its peg. She told me I must sound the gong, so I did. The deep response was a surprise, but too deep and full to be shock. When the sound died down, she told me that the man Lim had died just after the completion of his villa at Lawang. His demise convinced the family that the five-story mansion was haunted and they sold it.

A'Ong, an old Dyak merchant from Borneo sells second hand treasures in Malang not far from the city square. He mentioned the Niagara. He remembered that when he was young and the Japanese invaded Java, many Dutch were interned in the Niagara in a concentration not befitting a villa. And so I went to see the Niagara.

It is much taller for a five-story building than one would expect. That is due to the fact that the ceilings are 16'. The original glass, etched with Lim's initials, is still in the large windows. The window sills on the outside of the building are done in a terrazzo, with Chinese characters worked into them. It is a red brick building visible from quite a distance, the proud work of a Brazilian Architect and rich Chinese merchant.I asked the man at the front desk to see the listing of room rates. The most expensive was just over $10.00 per night. It was a room with a balcony and inside bathroom, a medium-sized TV and king-size bed. The bellboy was called to show me a selection of rooms. He brought with him a great ring of keys and we set off up the stairs, since the ancient elevators have not been restored by the present owner. The present owner, a Chinese businessman from Surabaya, boasts that he is renovating the building. He is not. The beautiful European tiles that were on the walls, with patterns, sometimes going all the way to the ceiling, are being removed, and the walls poorly plastered. The vast bedrooms are having bathrooms installed. This is done by simply building a bathroom in the corner of the room. It is inclosed, but it does not have a high ceiling. Therefore it looks like someone has brought a large box with a door and set it in the corner. It is a little less than half as high as the ceiling in the room, so looks strange at best. The design in the terrazzo floor is interrupted by this invasion of a modern and cheap bathroom. The floor in the new bathroom is about 8 inches higher than the floor in the room. Strange.

As we came out of class of room called by the hotel the Baron Suite (barren would have been a more appropriate spelling) a young, angry looking fellow came down the stairs to give us a glare and hurry on down the lobby level. After he passed, the bellboy went to the window and watched outside for a few minutes. Then he came back and asked if I would like to see the tower and take some pictures. Of course! It was not allowed, he told me, but the owners son (who descended from the floor above and had left) was gone for the day. We went to the third floor and he moved aside a small stand from the stairs that said "Do Not Enter". We went on to the 5th floor and then on to the roof. From there the view was what old Lim had died for. All around the roof were large Chinese gods holding watch over the old structure. We went down to the 5th floor and went from room to room and saw what a grand place it was before the renovation was begun. Grand old toilets with a tank high on the wall and chains hanging down were not yet replaced by squatters (a simple toilet set right into the floor that is merely a hole with foot pads on either side where one squats rather than sits. The tiles in the bathrooms had not been torn out yet with the new cheap replacements. I had a good long tour even to the stables and kitchens. A large sign that could be read from the road said, "Niagara is Renovated". Maybe it should have read, "Niagara Falls".

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