Indonesia/Germany - Many Indonesians dream of travelling around the world on the high seas to support their families. At the Indonesian Seamen's Club in Hamburg, people who have put this into practice, meet regularly and for whom the port city has become a second home.
Hamburg is considered the centre of international container trade and the 'gateway to the world'. It is one of the major port cities where Indonesian seafarers also take a break on land. For some, the port city has become home.
One of these sailors is Malik. He left his home town of Surabaya in 1974 at the age of 21. He could not continue his studies of architecture for financial reasons. Although his girlfriend at the time had no problems with this, the discontinuation of his studies and his financial situation were reason enough for her parents to reject Malik as a son-in-law. This frustrated him.
A friend who was a sailor asked Malik if he would be interested in going on board with him. Considering the circumstances and his broken heart, he agreed. "I will only come back home if I become something," Malik said as he left his family without their consent. He liked shipping so much that he continued to work on ships in a variety of fields. As a sailor he was able to send money to his parents regularly and at the same time enjoy a varied life. Malik travelled around the world for eight years.
By ship from Indonesia to Hamburg
In the 1970s, it was quite common for seafarers to disembark after an average of six months at sea in Hamburg and go ashore for months on end. Around the Reeperbahn there were bars and discos where they met, drank and played with women.
At the beginning of the 1970s, a shared flat in Hopfenstraße served as accommodation for seamen on shore leave. The flat had four rooms, each of which housed about ten seamen. Many seamen reserved beds for their shore leave. When they received the call to embark and disembark, they left their bunk beds to a newly arrived Indonesian sailor.
The former sailor Bruri worked for Hapag Lloyd in Jakarta and decided to move to Hamburg to work with his family. Seamen who worked for German shipping companies were quickly granted German citizenship. He bought a house in the Seilerstraße. A few years later he started to let Indonesian seamen sleep in his house during their shore leave. In addition to his family, about 40 sailors from different religions and ethnic groups of Indonesia suddenly stopped there. In the following years, many sailors rented a house in the street, thus offering their fellow travellers the opportunity to rest in the city centre.
Contact to other diaspora groups, but also to the police
During their visits to pubs on the Reeperbahn the sailors made many acquaintances. "We were very attractive in the eyes of German women at that time because of our long hair and brown skin," said Malik. In a snack bar on the Spielbudenplatz, Indonesian seamen also met seamen from other countries, such as the Philippines. This also led to tensions between the groups, mostly triggered by gambling or women. As a result, many Indonesian seafarers to this day often distinguish themselves from seafarers of other nationalities.
Contact with the Hamburg police was not unusual for the seamen. Problems arose from expired residence permits. There were prejudices on the part of the state authorities. Once a police officer told Fadil, who had been arrested for a brawl, "When I see a group of unemployed Indonesians on the street, I wonder how they are going to survive. Fadil replied: "If you see a group of ten unemployed Indonesians on the street and one of them has money, the other nine will not starve.
Malik was arrested because he was involved in a brawl at a discotheque. When the police checked his passport, there was no stamp on it showing his arrival in Hamburg. In his wallet, however, were train tickets from the past six months, which showed that he had exceeded his residence permit in Hamburg. He was then detained for three months and threatened with expulsion. His German girlfriend offered him help to prevent his detention and deportation. Malik agreed and married her. Together they had two children and have several grandchildren.
Many of the Indonesian ex-seamen who settled in Hamburg received German citizenship because of their marriages to German women. Others continued their education in Germany, worked, paid taxes and finally applied for citizenship.
Indonesian identity in the Hanseatic metropolis
Since the 1970s, the former sailors have been meeting every Friday in Hamburg city centre. The first meeting took place in St. Pauli, where most of them used to live. They then moved to the former library in Mönckebergstraße.
For several years now they have been meeting in a café in a nearby shopping mall. The Community calls itself the Indonesia Seaman Club (INSEAC). The meetings offer them the opportunity to maintain their Indonesian identity: Speaking Indonesian, sharing Indonesian food, discussing politics and sharing personal stories.
Regular exchange within the Indonesian Diaspora
Sometimes someone from the group brings a guitar. "All ex-seamen here can play the guitar, everyone can sing", says Sapri Ambomasse, chairman of INSEAC. They still sing songs from the 70s, from Koes Plus, The Panber's, The Mercy's and D'lloyd. "We are all parts of a family who left home with the same motivation, namely to improve the economic situation of their relatives back home. Who sailed around the world, had similar adventures and settled in the same city," he adds.
Occasions such as birthdays, weddings, Idul Fitri (celebration at the end of the Muslim month of fasting) or a simple buffet are celebrated together. Inter-religious as well as cross-ethnic and cross-cultural meetings also took place in the church in Ferdinandstraße or at members' homes. On Christmas Day, the community shows its hospitality by welcoming people of different religions to the Consulate General.
The seamen are also there for each other in emergencies. "If someone is ill, we pay them a visit and talk to them so that they do not feel alone," says Musa, one of the ex-seamen. INSEAC has lost part of its core staff in recent years, as many members have grown older or have already passed away.
Sapri Ambomasse tells that annual meetings are also held under the name of Sabang Merauke. The meeting was initiated by INSEAC in 2016 and is supported by the Indonesian Consulate. Sabang Merauke is a nationalistic term of Indonesia, which is intended to bring together people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds from Sabang (in the westernmost part of Indonesia) to Merauke (in the easternmost part of Indonesia). This meeting is also open to other people from the Indonesian Diaspora in Hamburg. Music groups of individual community members will perform, and Indonesian food will be served. The meeting is thus an anchor point for solidarity and family atmosphere within the diaspora.
Wanderlust for the Indonesian homeland
Many of INSEAC's members miss their home country and revel in nostalgic memories of Indonesia, which they left in the 1970s. Most of them visit the country every few years. Then they traditionally bring oleh-oleh (souvenirs) from Germany for each family member. When they visit Indonesia, many of them have to get used to the Indonesian culture again, which they are no longer used to due to their life in Germany.
"You absorb something of the German personality in you after having lived in Germany for decades. While we learned there to be very straightforward in our dealings with people, this would often hurt Javanese* people. They are very polite and empathic. Sometimes I have to gloss over my criticisms a bit," Malik says with a laugh when he talks about his experiences in the past.
Many people returning home also have to change their culinary habits. "Sometimes it takes up to a week before I can eat Indonesian street food without my stomach rumbling. For brushing my teeth I usually use bottled drinking water. My body has a different attitude than when I left 50 years ago".
German-Indonesian family life
Today, the families of many seafarers consist of German-Indonesian children and grandchildren who all speak German. Many of their great-grandchildren* hardly ever visit Indonesia. But often the former seamen need help from their German family for bureaucratic matters. Those who are Muslims have taught their children the faith, but have not forced it upon them. For the majority of their family, marriage is voluntary and not compulsory.
Some of the former seamen have returned to Indonesia after their retirement, while others have remained in Hamburg. A return to Indonesia was also the original plan of Malik and his wife. Then his wife fell ill and now needs German health care facilities on a permanent basis. The two had to give up the dream of living together in Indonesia. Instead, Malik now looks after his wife in retirement.
"We didn't want to go back until something had become of us. We have had success in life because we were able to support our family at home. That is our pride," he says.