Legend of Three Hands


Surabaya is known for its impressive–and well-preserved–buildings that feature imperial and oriental-style architectural styles. One of the city’s strongest architectural accents can be found its old quarter, where the House of Sampoerna sits. The stately, colonial-style compound features several buildings as well as a museum that tells the story of Liem Seeng Tee, the founder of the Sampoerna tobacco company.

Photo by Bagus Tri Laksono & House of Sampoerna Doc.

The House of Sampoerna, open daily, is an impressive compound with Dutch colonial influences. Built between 1862 and 1864, the building was initially an orphanage run by the Dutch colonial government. In 1932, the compound was purchased by Liem Seeng Tee, the founder of Sampoerna, and turned into the company’s first cigarette factory. Liem added several Art Deco touches to the building, such as various stained glass ornaments that are still evident today. He also added an element of Art Nouveau in the door relief of the VIP cafe that depicts the beautifully curved chalice and snake of the Bowl of Hygieia, a symbol of the pharmacy profession. The relief also features tobacco leaves and cloves, to symbolize the kretek (clove) cigarettes for which the nation is famous, as well as the letters LST, which are the initials of the firm’s founder.

In colonial times, the compound comprised a vast auditorium, flanked by two smaller edifices in the east and west, as well as several sprawling wards behind. In later years, the flanking buildings were turned into private residences while the large wards, which resembled warehouses, were where tobacco leaves and cloves were blended and hand-rolled into kretek cigarettes that then were packaged and sent across Indonesia.

The idea to restore Sampoerna’s first factory started with the interest of various governmental agencies, corporations and educational institutions eager to gain insight into the successful journey of Sampoerna. It is no surprise, then, to see the live production floor at the House of Sampoerna where hundreds of workers still make kretek by hand. The main auditorium has been repurposed as a museum and souvenir shop while the east building has been restored and is currently used as a cafe and art gallery. The edifice to the west side maintains its original function as a family residence, whereas the vast ward behind the auditorium houses one of Sampoerna’s hand-rolled kretek cigarette factories.

Hand-rolling kretek is one of the nation’s largest businesses. Sampoerna has five such factories and works with 38 partners in the business to employ around 70,000 people to make cigarettes. The kretek factory occupies most of the Taman Sampoerna compound, which was built more than 150 years ago as part of the Jongens Weezen Inriechting orphanage.

The current owner’s commitment to restore the condition of the original building has been thorough. The repair and reproduction of damaged parts–such as the tile floors, old teak floorboards, door handles and stained-glass windows–was completed without the addition of new elements. The process of creating the restoration concept, research and planning and material procurement was done by Sampoerna’s in-house architect team. The revitalisation of the House of Sampoerna is embodied (literally) in the “Three Hands” philosophy espoused by Liem. The hands refer to the company, its partners and its customers, all of who must be in harmony for Sampoerna to prosper. A Chinese character that translates as king is emblazoned everywhere in the house–a reflection of Liem’s desire to prosper in the tobacco business.

In 2003, a cafe on the site opened its doors to the public as a place to lounge and dine after completing a tour of the museum. The restaurant serves local delicacies and aims to resurrect the glory of Surabayan cuisine by using heritage recipes. The opening of the cafe was followed by the inauguration of a museum shop and art gallery a year later. The gallery currently hosts events introducing up-and-coming local artists. In 2009, the museum shop shifted from the exclusive sale of Sampoerna-branded souvenirs to products created by the province’s local small enterprises. The House of Sampoerna Museum was inaugurated in 2003, to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Sampoerna. The collection on display includes a history of Sampoerna, from the humble warung, or food stall, built by Liem Seeng Tee to the activities of the corporation, which is one of Indonesia’s oldest tobacco companies. The museum, which is visited by an average of 15,000 people a month, is a tourism icon of Surabaya. The House of Sampoerna has also made the list of the top-10 museums in Indonesia for the last four years, based on praises from visitors from Indonesia and from around the world.

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Anton Adianto
Anton Adianto graduated from Parahyangan Catholic University majoring in architecture. His passion for writing, watching movies, listening to music, uncovering design, exploring the culinary world, traveling, delving into the philosophy of life, meeting people and disclosing all matters related to technology feeds his curiosity. Currently he resides in both Jakarta and Bandung.

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