One of the most beautiful things I’ve come to love about traveling is leaving pieces of your heart everywhere and every once in a while, finding places that make you feel like you’re home when you’re so far from it. And that feeling of home can come at really unexpected places, such as a small cafe in Semarang.
My dad and I had had a long day on the road from Yogyakarta to Semarang that Saturday and couldn’t wait for lunch. We had planned on going to this one place near Old Town and figured out the directions to get there but when we arrived, all we saw was a sign pointing at a closed and locked door. Apparently the place was not open that day.
We remembered that we had passed by this one place with an entrance that was painted vividly green, exposed brick walls, and a sign that said “Retro Cafe” on it just down the corner so we backed up and decided to have lunch there. To be honest, I actually thought the cafe was a shady one at first because there were no windows and decors.
I was surprised to walk in and find an archway made of bamboo, old paintings of flowers framed on the wall, and an old bike with a basket at its side. Chinese karaoke songs were blaring from the speakers with two men singing loudly into the microphone. I looked around and found partition made of cardboard separating the dining area and the kitchen, walls with peeled white paint, and various seemingly random objects hung on the walls or placed on counters.
And just like that, I was instantly reminded of home.
The very haphazard placement of everything along with the broken walls and tiles reminded me of my family’s house. My family’s house is filled with a jumble of travel & religious mementos, trophies, and photos and they are literally everywhere to the point that others might see it as clutter. Its walls are cracked in places and the paint is peeled in others and don’t get me started on the tiles at home! That feeling of being at home grew stronger when I headed to their bathroom and found the interior to be similar to the bathroom in my grandma’s house where I’d spent a lot of my childhood in. It also smelled very strongly of my grandma’s soap which is always a comforting scent to me.
When I got back to our table and ordered food, a young woman dressed in a shirt and flared skirt came up to our seat, gave me a folder and said cheerfully, “Pick a song! We have unlimited karaoke here, you can sing as much as you want to.”
The folder turned out to be a catalog of songs that the cafe’s karaoke machine has. And yes, apparently, anyone can do as much karaoke as they like in public.
I saw the two old men seated in front of the karaoke machine were still having the absolute time of their lives, belting out Chinese karaoke songs while puffing cigarettes. But they’d started to notice us and asked after every song whether we wanted to sing because “we’ve been singing way too much, so you should try it.” I smiled and said, “Not now, thank you” and flipped through the song catalog containing a lot of hits from the 80s to 00s.
A short while later, the food arrived to my absolute happiness. Since everything tastes brilliant when you’re at a certain level of hunger, my judgment about it is clouded. But I will say that the taste is similar to that of other places. The Iced Chocolate Hazelnut that I got though – that was something else.
It was after the lunch, while watching the two men singing that I thought, “you know what? I’m going to sing. Screw it,” and gave the woman who came to our table earlier the numeric code of songs I wanted to do. She pressed some buttons, one of the old men gave me the mic and I did it.
I absolutely didn’t expect was the two old men commenting in the middle of the song. “You’ve got a good voice, be confident with it. Hit those notes,” one of them said. The other stood up next to me, extended his arms toward the TV and said, “Let it go! Come on, don’t be afraid to use your power when you sing. Let it go!”
I also didn’t expect the two old men to clap enthusiastically along with the manager and an older couple seated at the payment counter in spite of my sub-par efforts. The manager walked up to me and asked, “Another one?”
Another song and another vocal coaching session by two very experienced karaoke singers later, I handed the mic back to them because I wanted to see what’s up with the collection of items on the wall. Upon closer look, they were all as eclectic and fascinating as I expected them to be.
There were mannequin heads with military helmets on them, old shotguns, and family pictures and letters lining up one side of the wall. Old records and hand-drawn graffiti lined up another side. There was a rickshaw and a toy car at one corner while a painted piece of cardboard with an old bike in front of it filled up the other. There were old irons and sewing machines, plates that could very well be my grandma’s, and a giant chessboard made of old plastic bottles.
After circling the restaurant, I felt like I’ve delved into someone’s personal life so deeply and learned facts about them that I needed to talk to Retro Cafe’s owners to ease the discomfort. I walked up to the woman who seemed like the restaurant owner and asked,
“Ci [an Indonesian-Chinese way to say “sister”], are those pictures on the wall your family’s?”
“Yes, they are. This cafe is owned by my family, actually. These are my in-laws,” she motioned to the couple behind the counter and I shook hands with them.
I started asking them about Retro Cafe and their family and learned that the cafe was actually opened quite recently – in 2011. It’s usually crowded with students on Saturday night. The woman I assumed to be the manager is called Ci Yunny and she runs the place with her husband and with the help of her in-laws. And the two men slaying their karaoke game are regulars at the cafe. The walls that were painted inside the restaurant and the rickshaws and old bikes in front of them are the photo booth of the cafe for visitors to take as much pictures with as they want to. I told her a little bit about myself too and she told me a little bit about herself as well. When her husband came to the cafe, he wrapped his arms around her and Ci Yunny introduced him to me.
After more karaoke with the two old men and my dad, more conversation with the family, and several more hours later, it was time to leave Retro Cafe.
I wanted to stay longer at the place. I wanted more conversation and more songs. I wasn’t excited to leave because somewhere between the singing, the talking, the photos, and the interior of the place, I had felt like these people in the small cafe in the corner of old town that we accidentally found are part of my family and I was a part of theirs.
Ci Yunny exchanged phone numbers with me and told me to come back there anytime I’m in Semarang again. I shook hands with everyone at the cafe and told them I was leaving the way I would say goodbye to my aunts and uncles at family meet-ups. And after some photos were taken, I walked out of Retro Cafe feeling like I had just said goodbye to a family and a home I’d found in the most unexpected place and the most unexpected time.
Retro Cafe Semarang | Jl. Garuda (behind Gereja Blenduk), Kota Tua Semarang | Open: 11 AM to 10 PM | +6224 3243624