“The atmosphere and interior of this cafe fit perfectly my imagination of Nanyang.”
Dong Mei could not hide her excitement upon learning how well Cafe Batavia met her expectation: the imagination of an exotic restaurant in the South Ocean, or Nanyang – a term loosely used to describe regions south to the Chinese mainland what today comprises of Southeast Asian nations. She just arrived in Jakarta from a red-eye flight from Beijing a few hours earlier, and this was evidently a much sought-after welcome for her first visit to Jakarta.
Sitting at Fatahillah Square, Cafe Batavia occupied a two-storey old building dating back to the time when this part of Jakarta was the seat of Dutch colonial administration in the Netherlands Indies. Surrounding the square was a collection of some of the city’s best-kept 18th-century architecture jewels, some had been fully restored to their former opulence while the rest crumbling down and largely untouched.
Outside the restaurant was a huge gathering of families and friends sharing happiness on the sunny Saturday afternoon. Jakarta’s humid air did not deter some of them from cycling around Fatahillah Square on colorful vintage bikes, taking photos with a plethora of funny characters, and watching in amazement as street artists put their best performance for the inquisitive audience.
It was probably one of the happiest places in Jakarta that afternoon.
One particular performer caught the most attention. Clad in golden colonial-era military uniform with copper boots, the man sat still, holding a rifle on one hand. It was not his appearance that piqued people’s curiosity, but on which the flat-faced artist sat: thin air, or what seemingly to be. Men and women, young and old, all gave a good long look at him, some did a closer inspection hoping to learn about the trick, everyone was gleefully baffled.
That afternoon was a testament to the importance of having such a large public space in a city. Unfortunately in a rapidly developing urban sprawl like Jakarta malls and shopping centers are increasingly filling more space, consequently public squares becomes scarcer.
The tree of us – Dong Mei, Agus, and I – then left the joy-filled square and walked towards Glodok in Jakarta’s Chinatown, past one of the oldest train stations in Jakarta: the Jakartakota station, or simply known as Kota station. Its Art Deco exterior was a hint to the timeless colonial charm beneath the station’s arched ceiling.
After crisscrossing our ways through chaotic intersections, not unusual in Jakarta, we sauntered down the sidewalk where talented street painters displayed their best works in front of empty shophouses, some were left by their owners following the 1998 riots in Jakarta. Realistic images of prominent figures from the Princess of Wales to Leonardo DiCaprio, Marilyn Monroe, Justin Bieber and local celebrities as well as Nyi Roro Kidul – the queen of the south sea, arguably the most revered mythical figure in Java – lured passers by alike.
Short moments later we heard harmonious melodies from different musical instruments emanating from one end of the sidewalk. It grew louder as a music troupe walked closer to where we were. With both modern and traditional instruments in hand, they were busking through the relatively empty pavement, walking past us in a constant, rhythmic pace.
“I can feel desperation in the air, but at the same time, people seem to not focus on that. They paint, they play music,” Dong Mei described her perceived sentiment towards this corner of the city.
Agus, the most well-seasoned traveler among us who had explored Mongolia, Afghanistan, and everything in between, took us through narrow, and as Dong Mei put it, depressing alleys of Petak Sembilan at the heart of Jakarta’s Chinatown. Past a wet, dirty traditional market, where uncompromising stench assaulted our noses, we arrived in a rather humble Chinese temple for which this hidden maze of alleyways was famous for.
Kim Tek Ie, literally ‘Golden Wisdom Temple’, was first built in 1650 as Koan Im Pavillion. Almost a century later in 1740 the temple witnessed one of the darkest events in Chinese Indonesian history: Chinezenmoord, Dutch for ‘Murder of the Chinese’. Following unrest in Batavia due to the collapse of sugar price, a group of Chinese people attacked and killed 50 Dutchmen. Fueled by retaliatory spirit the Dutch systematically killed more than 10,000 Chinese people in a two-week long pogrom.
Fifteen years after the massacre the temple was rebuilt and renamed Kim Tek Ie, a reminder of what humans should put forward: wisdom in everything. Over the time the temple underwent a number of renovation works, and on our visit the temple was filled with people praying to multiple deities venerated in the temple.
Dong Mei had her reservations, however.
“I see people here pray really fast, they move from one shrine to another, and finish. In Tibet people pray more devotedly,” she explained. Then she raised her arms in the air, put both palms above her head, and slowly lowered them to a complete stop in front of her chest. “Like that.”
Inside the temple, rows of giant candles flamed ferociously under a semi-permanent tent, with big Chinese letters on its backdrop. The flames were so big that what I feared happened one week after our visit: most of the historic temple was destroyed by fire.
However Kim Tek Ie’s status as one of the city’s most important heritage sites, as well as its significance for the local Chinese community as a means to reconnect with their cultural roots, ensure future restoration works.
Jakarta’s old town district, formerly known as Old Batavia, was its focal point from the 17th to 19th century. But due to bad sanitation and the increasingly overcrowded neighborhoods of the district in the early 19th century Herman Willem Daendels, at the time governor of the Dutch East Indies, moved the center of administration of Batavia southward around Koningsplein – the Royal Square.
Today the square is the center of administration of Indonesia with the presidential palace, constitutional court, supreme court, and several ministries lining up the streets around the 1 sq km rectangular square. At its heart is Monumen Nasional, better known as Monas, a 132 m monument, inspired by lingam-yoni in Hindu tradition, erected to commemorate Indonesia’s struggle for independence.
Dong Mei enthusiastically followed one cute little girl to take photos of her, but the girl was too shy and her mother did nothing but enjoyed the scene. Then we drew ourselves closer to the whitewashed monolith, clad with Italian marble and topped with a 14.5 ton gold-coated bronze flame. On the ground, radiating from the monument were a throng of schoolchildren, seemingly curious about us. A few of them braved themselves to ask us to take a few photos with them – never happened to me before as a local.
“In China people don’t smile to strangers,” Dong Mei said. “The smile was one thing I missed when I lived in Beijing,” Agus added.
We did not stay too long, nor did we try to go inside the monument for the long snaking line at the entrance seemed to move at a snail’s pace, if it moved at all. Northeast of Monas was where we headed next, towards what was often dubbed as the largest mosque in Southeast Asia: the Istiqlal.
Unlike most mosques that I had been to, Istiqlal’s architecture and interior were rather dull in ornamental elements, more imposing than mesmerizing. To the nod of that Agus said, “it looks like a Soviet building with a massive dome added on top,” comparing it to the communist structures scattered in Central Asian countries.
Designed by a Christian architect, Frederich Silaban, the Istiqlal Mosque was built in a time when the newly independent Indonesia was leaning to Moscow, lending to the many Soviet-inspired buildings in the capital built in the 1950s and 1960s.
From dark history to promising future, desperation to joy, Soviet architecture to Art Deco, Jakarta’s old and new focal points unveil the city’s long and twisted history in becoming the capital of the world’s fourth most populous country. They tell me stories, and show me how appealing the city can be beyond its perennial traffic congestion and choking pollution.
All photographs were taken with my phone’s camera. Hence the unusual dimension.