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Surabaya, City of Work: A Socioeconomic History, 1900-2000

Author(s):Dick, Howard W.
Reviewer(s):Sutherland, Heather

Published by EH.NET (October 2002)

Howard W. Dick, Surabaya, City of Work: A Socioeconomic History,

1900-2000. Athens, OH: Ohio University Center for International Studies,

2002. xxvii + 541 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 0-89680-221-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Heather Sutherland, Free University of Amsterdam.

This study of Surabaya, by Howard Dick, is a unique contribution to the

history of Indonesia, and should be read with pleasure and profit by anyone

with a serious interest in a variety of fields: economics, history, urban

studies, sociology or politics. Integrated history, uniting several approaches,

is notoriously difficult to write. The dramatic tension and clarity of the

chronological narrative is continually undermined by the necessary exposition,

as specific topics are explained and contextualized. However, if a thematic

rather than diachronic approach is chosen, historical events have to be

recapitulated to explain the setting of individual subjects. All too often, the

result of either approach is unwieldy, without a confident sense of direction.

In this case, the author has found an elegant solution, through a well-judged

combination of five major thematic chapters, within which a broad chronological

structure prevails.

Howard Dick, who is associate professor at the Australian Centre of

International Business at the University of Melbourne, is primarily an economic

historian. However, his knowledge extends beyond the narrowly economic,

encompassing a wide and well-informed interest in social and political history.

In this book he wears his expertise lightly. The combination of a confident

mastery of his material, tables, maps and illustrations, together with an

accessible style, ensure that his book is easy to read, and will impress both

students and specialists alike. The first two chapters are essentially

introductory. In Chapter One, “Aspects,” the reader accompanies Dick into

Surabaya, first by sea and then by land. During the journey the author provides

a painless introduction to geography, history, the urban landscape and the

rhythms of daily and annual life, giving a concrete (in every sense) and human

face to the city. “Episodes,” the second chapter, is an eighty-page survey of

Surabaya’s twentieth-century history, focusing on the institutional and

political developments that shaped economy and society. This chapter epitomizes

the careful selection and judicious use of material from English, Indonesian

and Dutch sources, which is typical of the book as a whole.

The next five chapters, some 340 pages, form the core of the book, as each

examines one aspect of Surabaya’s development. Chapter Three, “Profile,” is a

detailed analysis of Surabaya’s people: their numbers, ethnicity, occupational

profile, education and living conditions. Comparisons with Jakarta add depth to

Dick’s conclusions. “Government” is the theme of the next chapter, almost a

hundred pages in length. Here topics from the preceding chapter are

reconsidered, but with an emphasis on policy, so housing, markets, education,

and public health (including prostitution and venereal disease) are discussed.

In each section the situations under the colonial and various post-war

Indonesian regimes are compared. In Chapter Five, “Industry,” the focus is more

narrowly economic, analyzing policy, manufacturing and the informal sector

during the main phases in the growth of this most industrial of Indonesia’s

cities. The historical scope broadens again in Chapter Six, “Land,” as the

extent and morphology of Surabaya is traced, with sketch maps going back to the

seventeenth century, before the author discusses in more detail transport, land

rights, squatting and urban planning in Dutch and post-colonial eras. “Trade”

is the subject of the last chapter, which places Surabaya in the context of its

plantation hinterland as well as depicting its role in inter-island and

international commerce.

In the book’s relatively brief conclusion of eighteen pages, Dick selects

several points for specific discussion. Here also a long-term perspective is

central, as he concentrates on the nature of Indonesia’s New Order regime

(1965-1998), comparing it to the late colonial period. He makes this comparison

his point of departure for a consideration of patterns apparent in the

interaction between Surabaya’s local economy and the global economy. These

were, most notably, industrial retardation and a cycle of boom, bubble and bust

in the real estate market. Dick also describes the conflicts between state and

city-dwellers in the Dutch and post-colonial periods. On page 471 he comments,

with regard to the long-term patterns which run through twentieth century

Indonesia’s economic and political history: “Relations with the global economy

are sufficient to generate parallelism; the internal dynamics of Indonesian

society have given rise to a repeated cycle of reaction and revolution.”

Nonetheless, Dick concludes his book on a guardedly optimistic note, in the

hope that the new autonomy law in Indonesia will give Surabaya an opportunity

to shape a future less subject to Jakarta-generated shocks.

Urban history is not well developed for Indonesia; indeed, if we consider the

importance of Asia’s cities as a whole we can only conclude that they remain

critically understudied. Moreover, analyses of urban society are often problem

and policy oriented, with a specific issue being examined in isolation, and

usually without a historical perspective. Howard Dick’s study of Surabaya is an

example of what can be done. With its explicit emphasis on long-term trends and

the socio-political context, it is a readable book for the general student of

Indonesia or urban history. At the same time the richness of the data

presented, and the sophistication of his judgment, make it a rewarding source

for the specialist.

Heather Sutherland is Professor of Non-Western History at the Vrije

Universiteit Amsterdam. Her current research examines how incorporation into

long-distance trade and changing state structures shaped the Indonesian port

city of Makassar, East Indonesia, over a period of three hundred years. In 2003

she will publish, together with Gerrit Knaap, the book Monsoon Traders:

Trade, Commodities and Captains in Eighteenth-Century Makassar.

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII