Semarang in Central Java is a little known heritage trove filled with intriguing bits of history, interwoven with local myths and legends.
Words: Beverly Rodrigues Photography: Adam Lee
“She stood in the hall stark naked, and when the confetti fell, she just disappeared,” Bapak Bambang, director of the MGM said as he gazed at the grand old theatre. He was talking about Mata Hari; yes, the supposed double agent! If a local legend is to be believed, Mata Hari’s career began right here in Semarang at what was known during the Dutch occupation of Indonesia as the Stadschouwburg – an entertainment venue for Dutch soldiers and traders.
At 18, Mata Hari (born Margaretha Geertruide Zelle) answered an advertisement placed by a veteran soldier living in the then Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) looking for a bride, and married him a year later. While living on the island of Java, she immersed herself in Indonesian dance, and adopted the name Mata Hari, meaning ‘sun’. Later on, she performed as a striptease artiste in Paris, using Mata Hari as her stage name.
Throughout her life, Mata Hari played exotic dancer and seductive courtesan, forming liaisons with powerful men and moving in dangerous circles. Whether Mata Hari was truly guilty of espionage remains a mystery. She admitted to working for French Intelligence during WWI, but was also accused of spying for Germany. Mata Hari’s execution by firing squad in 1917 turned her into a legend, the quintessential femme fatale.
Standing in the hall where Mata Hari once performed was quite an experience. The original roof shaped like an overturned vessel has been retained, the architect seemingly inspired by Columbus. Lining the roof are hexagonal porthole-type designs, keeping in line with the maritime theme of the architecture. What I couldn’t quite fathom were the two mammoth insects perched on top of the MGM. Instead of a roaring lion – the signature of the famous Hollywood motion picture studio – the roof houses two red ants, rather at odds with the building’s stained glass images of Snow White and her posse of dwarfs.
This baffling blend of kitsch elements was soon explained. When Soeharto came to power, he was determined to stamp out all traces of Dutch colonialism. In the local language, red ants are called marabuntah, and Soeharto chose them as symbols of Indonesian nationalism; Red, for bravery, and ants for their spirit of solidarity. The letters ‘MGM’ boldly displayed on the theatre are merely a play on the name of the Hollywood studio; the initials stand for Marabuntah Gedung Multiguna (Red Ant Multipurpose Hall). This quirky rebranding gives the hall even more character, revealing insight into Indonesia’s fascinating history under Soeharto’s rule.