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Book-hunting in the City of Heroes

« Book-hunting in the City of Heroes » by Tom Hoogervorst, 20/07/2017, KITLV blog

Situated in an inconspicuous residential area in the south of Surabaya, one could easily overlook one of Indonesia’s most intriguing libraries and its equally fascinating owner. Tom Hoogervorst looks back on a fruitful week of research spent at Medayu Agung.

“Some of the books are a bit sticky”, says Mr. Oei Hiem Hwie, as he deftly separates the pages of a 1919 book on traditional medicine. “I had to hide my collection above the ceiling of my old house. They burnt many of my possessions. In the end, everything was buried under a 15 cm coat of dust.”

Known to his friends as Pak Wie, the Malang-born septuagenarian and life-long book collector heads a unique library open to Indonesian and international visitors: Medayu Agung. Every day, students, journalists, intellectuals, and cultural activists can be spotted browsing through its books and newspapers. The library contains material in Indonesian, Chinese, Javanese, Dutch, English and German – among others – ranging from colonial to recent times. In addition to this wealth of printed sources, innumerable beautiful black-and-white photos of old Surabaya and other historical paraphernalia make it a living museum. Even an original edition of Mein Kampf signed by Adolf Hitler himself has found its way into the library.

The history of Medayu Agung is closely connected with the history of Indonesia. In 1965, at the peak of his journalistic career, Pak Wie was imprisoned without a trial on the unfounded suspicion of involvement with Indonesia’s communist party. As a result, he was detained for 13 years in some of the country’s most notorious prisons, including the gulag-style internment camps of Nusakembangan and Buru. While incarcerated, he developed a close friendship with fellow convict Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who later became Indonesia’s most famous writer. His ground-breaking “This Earth of Mankind” (Bumi Manusia) was first written down on pieces of paper smuggled in by Pak Wie. They are still kept in the library.

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