Why Makassar's seafaring tradition and colonial charm are worth exploring in Sulawesi

The port city is known for its lucrative spice trade and fresh marine bounty.

The Amirul Mukminin Mosque is reflected in the calm waters of the bay with fluttering Indonesian flags in the foreground (All photos: Lee Yu Kit)

The name Makassar brings to mind the salty tang of the sea, an association with far-flung islands under the sun, the spice trade and Indonesia’s seafaring tradition. For centuries, Makassar was a fishing and trading port dealing in the bounty of the sea and trading in everything from Chinese ceramics to spices, a melting pot of cultures. Under the aegis of the powerful Gowa Kingdom that arose in South Sulawesi, Makassar became one of the most populous and prosperous cities in Southeast Asia.

First the Portuguese in the early 16th century, then the Dutch in the 17th century, came to Makassar. In the Makassar Wars of the 17th century, the Dutch allied themselves with the Bugis, one of the ethnic groups in Sulawesi, to overthrow the Gowa Kingdom and establish hegemony over the lucrative spice trade.

The entrance to Fort Rotterdam

Fort Rotterdam stands near the waterfront, opposite the busy harbour with its huge cranes and stacks of shipping containers. Built by the Dutch in the late 17th century, it is a reminder of the city’s colourful past. It was built on the remains of an earlier Gowa fort called Jum Pandan, from which the city derives its alternate name, Ujung Pandang, Pandang referring not to the view (as in pandangan) but to the screwpine plant, pandanus, that grew in the area.

The fort is open to the public and admission is free, although the volunteers who administer it expect donations from visitors. The layout of the fort is straightforward, with walled ramparts and a number of protruding bulwarks for protection. Extensively restored after it was abandoned by the Dutch in the first half of the 20th century, the fort is a local landmark that is popular with both local and foreign tourists.

The central part of the fort is occupied by a church building in a large, open, grassy area, bounded on all sides by long, double-storey buildings that once served as quarters, stores and administrative buildings. The buildings are sunken in relation to the outer fortifications, to which they are connected by sloping tunnels. Some of the buildings now house museums, and the fort is often used for cultural or festive occasions. It is possible to walk along the outer fortified wall, just above the rooftops of the buildings within.

In the center of the compound of Fort Rotterdam is a church building used by the Dutch

A trading centre for centuries, Makassar developed its own local culture and cuisine. It is something of a food destination in Indonesia, with several local specialities. Seafood restaurants clutter the downtown area near the waterfront. These range from modest affairs to multi-storey, air-conditioned palaces with tablecloths and full service, where you can dine on lobster done Western style and a cornucopia of other fresh seafood.

Asking a resident about the local dishes is one of the best ways to start an animated conversation, since everyone has an opinion and wants to share it. There are various local specialities, which include pallubasu serigala (a thick meat stew), nasi urap (steamed coconut rice with condiments), buruncong (grilled coconut-flour cakes), sup konro (beef rib stew), pisang epe (banana that is grilled and then flattened) and coto Makassar, a local version of soto.

By consensus, the best coto Makassar is served at Coto Nusantara, in Jalan Nusantara, which runs between the harbour and Chinatown. Vehicles are often parked on the roadside outside the restaurant. A sign saying “ADA” informs guests that they are in luck and that the dish has not run out, as it invariably does later in the day.

Bananas are grilled before being flattened, for the popular snack of pisang epe

Coto Makassar is a meat stew, with calamansi and sambal served on the side. Nasi empit (compressed rice wrapped in leaves), hard-boiled eggs and fried onions can be added, and soup refills are free.

After a heavy meal, if you are inclined to a cup of coffee, Toarco Toraja Coffee is the place to go for fragrant drip coffee from Torajaland, a region in South Sulawesi.

Behind Jalan Nusantara is Chinatown, a warren of buildings where the Chinese community predominates. They are one of several ethnic groups that make up the population of Makassar, with the major ethnic groups in South Sulawesi being the Bugis, Toraja, Mandar and the Makassar. The Chinese have a long history in Makassar, dating back to its early days as a trading port when the sultanates held power.

Like Fort Rotterdam, Chinatown is a throwback to the past. Makassar is advancing and modernising rapidly. Modern-day Makassar is a busy, bustling city, with the air of having grown up too quickly — the infrastructure has failed to match the pace of growth. Old and new rub shoulders, sometimes making for strange bedfellows.

Traffic congests the roads almost all hours of the day and well into the night, a disorderly swirl of cars, motorcycles, pale-blue minivan taxis. Amid all this, trishaws are still an important means of transport for city residents.

On a Sunday morning at the waterfront, crowds keep the tempo with a lead exercise instructor

A short walk away from Fort Rotterdam is the Makassar waterfront, which is also called Pantai Losari. This is the face of the new Makassar. Far from being conservative, it is unexpectedly modern, cheerful and breezy, with a broad, paved sidewalk.

Families gravitate to the waterfront in the evenings to shoot the breeze, grab a snack or a meal at the outdoor stalls with tables set out by the waterfront. Models of the two-masted pinisi, the traditional sailing craft of the Bugis and Makassar ethnic groups, of past Sultans and other heroic figures rise on pedestals, looking out over the placid waters of the sea. Bold lettering in red, “Makassar”, “City of Makassar”, “Bugis”, “Mandar” form a backdrop for selfies against the harbour, where pinisi offer leisure trips.

Loud music and the squeals of children herald the play area with giant inflatable slides and other play sets. People dressed in cartoon character costumes pose for photographs with families; pythons slither around the necks of squealing women and petrified men. Further on, the large, blue-domed Masjid Amirul Mukminin stands as an unmistakable landmark. The mosque is built over the waters of the bay. Its reflection shimmers in the water on calm days, and its call to prayer skims over the waterfront in the crepuscular light of dusk.

On Sundays, the tempo of the waterfront goes up by several notches. That is when several roads are cordoned off and the area becomes a car-free pedestrian zone. It’s a big carnival. A street market offering everything from clothes to pets and toys clogs the side roads. Roads approaching the waterfront are cluttered with parked motorcycles and impromptu stalls. There is food aplenty, with street snacks and colourful drinks.

Dancers in traditional costumes wait for their turn to perform on a Sunday morning

There are free traditional dances with performers in elaborate costumes, glittering fake jewellery and headdresses. The crowd watching the performance includes teenagers attired in the zeitgeist of contemporary Western culture, made up to look like zombies and vampires. White-painted faces, fake blood leaking from fake ruptures in the face, gouged eyeballs, Heath Ledger Joker-style makeup, T-shirts splattered with fake blood make for a strange effect as the women also don the traditional Muslim head cover. The teen scene is more evocative of Harajuku, Tokyo, than Makassar, South Sulawesi.

Nor is that all, for just next door, an outdoor aerobics dance session is in full swing, with the lead dancer in a leotard and sneakers, punching and kicking the air to throbbing music. Families, singles, men and women, wave their hands and sway their hips in unison.

On the main section of the closed road, teenagers glide, leap and perform tricks on skateboards while trishaws glide by. On Sundays, Makassar throws off its mantle of conservatism and swings to the tempo of modern rock music.

Beyond the mosque is the ambitious project called the Centre of Indonesia, a complex of housing, hotels, shopping complexes, offices, parks and artificial beaches built on 50ha of reclaimed land. (Never mind that the actual geographical centre of Indonesia is 192km from Makassar, it is good marketing.)

The port city, founded on trade and a seafaring tradition, has outgrown its roots, with one foot firmly in the past — of tradition, culture and history — and the other planted firmly in the present, modern and progressive and looking out to the future.


This article first appeared on June 10, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia. ​


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