Medan has had several major incarnations. The plains were once used as a battlefield between the kingdoms of Aceh and Deli (the word medan translates as ‘field’ or ‘battlefield’) from the end of the 16th century to the early 17th century.
But more importantly, Medan was a planter’s trading post, a civilised district of tidy lanes and open-air cafés for society-deprived plantation owners. An enterprising Dutch planter named Nienhuys introduced tobacco to the area in 1865, which ushered in prosperity, imported Chinese labourers and investment in infrastructure. In 1886 the Dutch made it the capital of North Sumatra and by the end of Dutch rule the population had grown to about 80, 000.
Once the Dutch were kicked out, Medan tossed off its starched uniform and grew as it pleased. A wealthy merchant class, mainly of ethnic Chinese, dominates the cosmopolitan side of town, while a handful of ethnic tribes from all over Sumatra make do in the run-down remainder. Animosity towards the Chinese erupted into violent rioting on Medan’s streets on several occasions during the 1990s.