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Indonesian hot spot evokes era of tolerance

Tip Top is largely unchanged since 1934, despite war and social developments

Tip Top Restaurant is a long-time fixture on Kesawan Street, Medan. (Photo by Peter Janssen)

MEDAN, Indonesia -- The oldest road in Medan, capital of Indonesia's province of North Sumatra, has lost much of its former glory. Once known as Kesawan Street, Jalan Jenderal Ahmad Yani was the central artery of Medan during the Dutch colonial occupation of the Indonesian archipelago in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the prosperous city was known as the "Paris of Sumatra."

Renamed in the late 1960s, it now commemorates Gen. Ahmad Yani, one of seven Indonesian army officers killed in the "Sept. 30 Movement" of 1965 -- a failed coup that led to the fall of President Sukarno and the rise of his dictatorial successor Suharto, who later the same year unleashed an anti-communist pogrom that killed more than 500,000 Indonesians.

Nowadays, the street is packed with cars and motorcycles during the day, but sadly quiet at night. Many of the colonial-era buildings in the neighborhood stand deserted and derelict. An exception is the Tip Top Restaurant, which remains a popular night-time hot spot for young and old, locals and tourists.

The restaurant has live music every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday night, an innovation introduced six years ago by Didrikus Kelana, 48, the current manager. Other than the live music, however, not much has changed at Tip Top since 1934, making the establishment a living example of tempo dulu, the Indonesian phrase for "nostalgia" or "time past."

Tip Top's owners have gone out of their way to make sure they are not keeping up with the times. "We don't improve anything, we just try to make it the same as the past because many people have good memories of Tip Top," Kelana said.

 Tip Top manager Didrikus Kelana is trying to keep things the same. (Photo by Peter Janssen)

The original owner of Tip Top was Yap Kie Jang, a Chinese immigrant of the Hokkien dialect group -- one of thousands of Chinese people who came to Medan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in search of opportunity. Many were recruited from southern China and the British colonies of Penang and Singapore to clear the jungle around Medan and cultivate plantations of tobacco, rubber, tea and palm oil.

"Medan was the center of the plantations industry -- you had the plantation offices here, settlers, stores and shops, so it also became a Chinese settlement," said Dirk Buiskool, a Medan-based Dutch historian who has published several papers on the Chinese diaspora in North Sumatra. Citing Dutch archives, Buiskool estimates that 30% of the population of Medan was Chinese in 1920, 10% Dutch or other Europeans, and the remainder indigenous Malays, Bataks and Javanese.

"The Hokkien, Hakka and Cantonese Chinese [dialect speakers] were traders and artisans and stayed in the city," Buiskool said. Most of the plantation laborers were members of the Teochew dialect group from southern China, and eventually these were replaced by Javanese Indonesian workers.

The Dutch authorities split Medan into Chinese, European and Indonesian sections, and made sure that people lived in their districts. But Kesawan Street was an exception to the rules. "Chinese also had their offices and shops on Kesawan, so it was a mixed Chinese-European neighborhood," Buiskool said.

Tip Top cash register on display (Photo by Peter Janssen)

Yap started out selling bakery goods at a stall called Jang Kei, on Pandu Street in Medan's Chinatown in 1929. In 1934, he moved to the current location, changed the name to Tip Top, and expanded the menu from cakes and cookies to include Indonesian foods such as gado-gado (a peanut and shellfish salad), European dishes such as steak ayam (chicken) and Chinese offerings such as steak a la Hong Kong, along with ice cream and drinks such as Bintang beer. The menu has changed little over the decades, allowing patrons to continue to enjoy old favorites.

But retaining the same menu is harder than it sounds. "We try to keep all the procedures, the decor and the machinery," Kelana said. "For instance, we stick to wood-based ovens for our bakery goods." The wood stoves give Tip Top cakes, still popular in Medan on birthdays, a somewhat smoky flavor. Tip Top waiters wear uniforms recalling the Dutch colonial era, and some are third-generation staff whose grandfathers served in the restaurant.

Sometimes keeping things the same can be costly. "The ice cream machine is almost 70 years old, and very difficult to repair," Kelana said. "I visited an old store in Jakarta that specialized in ice cream machines, and I asked about our brand. The owner was about 70 years old so he knew about this kind of machine. He told me you cannot find this machine in Europe any more. So it's a big challenge, but it is interesting for me."

Tip Top waiters, some third-generation staff, in Dutch colonial-era uniforms. (Photo by Peter Janssen)

Tip Top ice cream tastes different from other ice cream, perhaps icier. "I have an old friend who knows about ice cream," said Kelana. He told me that the Tip Top ice cream was World War II era style. I think it's a different generation of ice cream. The new generation is more creamy."

Tip Top has survived bigger challenges than keeping its ice cream machines in repair. During World War II, when Indonesia was occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army, Tip Top changed its name to Jang Kie, after the original owner. Yap was killed by the Japanese in August 1945, the month the war ended, for hiding a transistor radio on the second floor of his shop and allowing people to listen to broadcasts about the war.

His sons changed the name back to Tip Top and ran the restaurant until 1980, when Freddy Kelana (the father of Didrikus Kelana, and a relative of Yap) took over, eventually buying the business in 2000. Freddy Kelana is generally credited with making Tip Top popular again and introducing the tempo dulu theme.

 Tip Top birthday cakes are still all the rage in Medan. (Photo by Peter Janssen)

The restaurant lost many of its traditional customers in December 1957, when Sukarno gave 46,000 Dutch residents of Indonesia a month to leave the country after the Dutch government refused to cede western New Guinea (now the Indonesian province of Papua) to Indonesia. "After the Dutch [residents of Indonesia] were kicked out in 1957, we entered a period of dark economic crisis, which culminated with the ousting of Sukarno," said Soehardi Hartono, director of Medan-based Hartono Architects and a member of the Medan Heritage Trust.

Soehardi, who like the Kelanas is of Hokkien descent, was a young man during the rule of Suharto. Many Chinese were targeted by the authorities during the anti-communist campaign in 1965-67, and again during riots that marked Suharto's fall in 1998, when his ouster paved the way for a more democratic regime. "But somehow, economically they still depended on the Chinese to run the trade activities, even up to now," Soehardi said.

During Suharto's rule most ethnic-Chinese Indonesians downplayed their ethnicity and tried to blend in with Indonesian society. But the ethnic-Chinese in Medan were something of an exception, Soehardi said. "The [level of] intermarriage in Medan is probably the lowest in Indonesia, and in Medan you can still hear Hokkien being spoken on street corners."

Many of Tip Top's long-standing customers are now elderly, but a younger generation of ethnic Chinese and Indonesians are helping to keep the restaurant afloat. "We are especially popular among old people, but I'm glad the younger generation also want to come here," Didrikus Kelana said.

"They come to sample the old menu of Tip Top to learn about the past. One of the customers told me that his grandfather used to bring him here to eat ice cream when he was a child. He still remembers where he sat."

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