Semawis Market, Semarang (Dwi Putri Ratnasari / Travelboogie)

The situation along the road of Gang Warung on the weekend is very different from the usual weekday. While the sun is about to set, some of the shops along the road start to close while some small warungs are opening to take over the crowd for the rest of the weekend. This is Dwi Putri Ratnasari report for Pasar Semawis, the Semawis market, located in Semarang’s China town.


In this the capital city of Central Java, the acculturation of the Chinese and the Javanese has survived for hundreds of years. The ship of the great Admiral Cheng Ho once anchored on this city’s shores and now the anchor and the replica of his giant statue stand at one of the biggest temples in Semarang, Sam Poo Kong. Admiral Cheng Ho played a significant part in bringing Chinese culture to Semarang.

As Chinese immigrants in Semarang gathered in a particular area to live and do business, this area was eventually called Pecinan, or Chinatown. They built temples where they could fulfill their spiritual needs. During the regime of Soeharto, the religious activities were banned, not only in Semarang but also all over Indonesia, and they were afraid to participate in religious activities. But since the reformation regime took over in 1998, their practices are slowly reemerging.

The Semawis market is located along Pecinan’s main road, which is used as a business center during the day. Just like any other Chinatown in this country, Semawis is also located in Semarang’s old town area, where historical buildings still survive. Some are well preserved; the Chinese descendants still live in some of these old buildings and open shops at the front side of their houses, while other buildings are empty and abandoned.

The area used to be very quiet at night because the shops are only open during the day, but since the night market started operating in 2005 and is now held regularly, it has become a very lively place. Although it’s not as large as the Chinatown in Surabaya,
the Semawis market is always full with people visiting the market to spend time during the weekend.

The Semawis Market is also known as the largest culinary destination in Semarang, so is a haven for the foodies in the town. There are many choices of dishes available in this market including choices such as Lontong Cap Go Meh, steamboat, foods with pork, and many types of noodles including kweetiauw, the Chinese flat noodle. The Chinese believe that this noodle represents a long life, so no wonder you often find it in most of Oriental restaurants as well as in certain ceremonies and celebrations. You can also find traditional snacks such as Mooncakes, and Semarang’s most favorite, Lumpia.

Not only offering Chinese traditional dishes, some other Indonesian favorites can be found in this market too. The food stalls sell soto ayam and pisang planet, as well as lalapan, traditional beverages such as wedang ronde, wedang kacang tanah and choices of traditional teas. One of unique food I tried was an interesting culinary item called mie jelly. This unique food is not noodle made from flour, but instead this is a one kind of dessert made of various flavored noodle-like jelly, so you need to use chopsticks to eat it.

Not only a culinary destination, the Semawis market is also a place where you can find traditional Chinese accessories, including jade. You can find jade in bracelets, pendants and key holders, some of them are said to be imported from China. The Chinese have been using jade in jewelry for thousands of years now, and believe that this stone can bring calmness and happiness to whomever is wearing it. It can also be given as a gift or souvenir.

The market also becomes a place to meet and gather with the family, where many of them sit in the karaoke booths in between the food stalls. Some of the visitors are the old Chinese people who sit in a group singing Chinese songs or spontaneously dancing in front of other visitors. The Chinese music makes the situation more Oriental.

Don’t forget to go around the market and visit some of the Chinese temples within the neighborhood including the Tay Kak Sie temple located on Jalan Gang Lombok, Liok Hok Bio on Gang Pinggir, and few other interesting temples around. Those temples look very beautiful at night with the dim red light of their lanterns glowing at every corner.

The Semawis market will become one of the busiest venues in Semarang on Chinese New Year, which falls on January 23. There will be many lanterns hanging everywhere as well as barongsai, potehi (wayang), and street opera performances that have become an annual program to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The temples will be full with people visiting to pray for a year full of prosperity.

The existence of this Semawis market in Semarang’s Chinatown has a special purpose, to make it a cultural icon and tourist attraction in the town. The market is both an interesting culinary and cultural destination for domestic and international tourists, and not only for certain ethnicities. Like any other cultural heritage site, the Semawis market is a mark of Indonesia’s Chinese identity to be preserved. []

This feature has been published on Bali and Beyond Magazine, January issue.