If you think this post is about the American South or Southern Europe, it is not since I have never been to those parts of the world. Rather, this is a story about the southern part of Jakarta, a city I have called home for almost 12 years.
Although it is Indonesia’s smallest province by land area, Jakarta’s status as the nation’s capital and economic center makes it the most densely-populated, with an average of more than 15,000 people crammed in one square kilometer. Comprising six subdivisions that are Central, South, West, North and East Jakarta as well as the Thousand Islands – not the salad dressing, but a small archipelago out in the Java Sea – Jakarta is a sprawling megalopolis which seems to endlessly attract people, opportunities, and disasters. I have written about the city’s transformation in a 2017 post and another in 2018 about some of the qualities it has that keep me from leaving. This ongoing change is perhaps most visible in Jakarta’s southern neighborhoods.
First, let’s talk about the brand-new MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) line Jakarta badly needed to alleviate its traffic problem. In the first few weeks after its inauguration in March 2019, people lined up with their families to try a transport system Indonesians could previously only experience abroad. The track stretches for 20 kilometers from the city’s main roundabout in Central Jakarta’s CBD, underneath the main avenue that connects Central Jakarta’s and South Jakarta’s business districts, all the way to the southwestern edge of the city. Although the closest MRT station is only around 4 kilometers away from where I live (I moved from West Jakarta to South Jakarta in 2012 and have been living in this part of the Indonesian capital since then), I waited a few more months until the euphoria died down a little before trying the new MRT with James for the very first time.
Surprisingly, the stations were practically spotless and almost everyone seemed to obey the rules, like standing on one side of the escalator. As I stepped inside the Japanese-made train, I had to pinch myself for it was a dream come true to take an underground metro system right here in Jakarta. I used to think that having the MRT would simply help people commute faster between their homes and offices. However, at M Bloc Space I learned that the mass transport system can actually bring a lot more benefits to the city and its people.
Formerly a 1950s-era warehouse and housing complex for the employees of the state-owned banknote printing company, M Bloc Space was abandoned in 2005 when the company moved to a production facility in a small city outside Jakarta and relocated its employees. As the MRT project unfolded, the government saw the potential to revive this derelict property as it would then be located within walking distance from two MRT stations once they were completed. Eventually, this newly-renovated compound was opened in October 2019, less than a year after the MRT trains began plying their route.
Designed as a family-friendly creative hub, M Bloc Space provides Jakartans with an alternative to air-conditioned malls. The former terraced houses were transformed into restaurants serving an array of Indonesian and Western dishes, a shop filled with items from local independent brands, an Indonesian comic book store, a gelato café that serves unusual flavors (from speculaas – spiced biscuits the Dutch introduced to the Indonesians – to kale and red cabbage), another café specializing in jamu (Indonesian traditional herbal drinks), and a shop selling all manner of vintage items, among other things. What makes those shops even more exciting is the fact that some of them also act as discussion spaces, bringing experts, aficionados and the general public together in one place. Behind the row of former houses, the old warehouse has been turned into a money printing-themed restaurant that has kept its industrial ambiance, albeit softened by tropical plants, as well as a hall for both big-name and independent artists to perform.
Farther down the MRT line to the south are some areas I rarely went to in the past because of the distances I had to cover to reach them. One interesting locale is Cipete, a mixed residential area with houses, trendy cafés, some supposedly good restaurants, as well as the Lycée Français de Jakarta – the city’s French international school. Living in a city where less of 15% of its land is green space (far below the minimum 30% many urban planning experts recommend), I always appreciate a place that provides a little greenery, and I found L.O.F. Kitchen and Plants in Cipete to be one such venue. It started as a neighborhood store that sold plants and gardening tools. However, one day the owner decided to open a small restaurant as well, turning this place into a little lush oasis for friends to hang out together. After all, what’s not to love about having a big kimchi and cheese burger, served with gochujang mayo and fries, surrounded by all kinds of plants? Who wouldn’t enjoy this peaceful ambiance in a hectic city like Jakarta?
A little off the MRT line, but still easily accessible by TransJakarta buses is, in my opinion, one of the coolest places in South Jakarta, if not the entire city. Pasar Santa was built in 1971 as a modern two-story structure for a traditional market. Over time, its upper floor became largely deserted as most trade activities happened downstairs. However, in 2014 a group of young Jakartans saw its low rents as an opportunity, and soon enough they came in droves, setting up a new crop of small businesses on the previously quiet upper floor. Then came greed. Tempted by the sudden influx of money and visitors Pasar Santa was receiving, the market’s management company decided to raise the rent four to fivefold, subsequently resulting in the exodus of many tenants to other places with more reasonable rates.
We came to Pasar Santa in May 2019, long after the hype was over and the rental prices had gone down again. When I first walked inside the building, I thought we had arrived at the wrong market because all I could see were vegetables, spices, meat and poultry vendors. Then I looked up a staircase at the stalls above and realized that this was the right place. It couldn’t have been a starker contrast with the traditional market down below, with shops selling vinyl records, clothes from independent labels, and tiny cafés serving fusion dishes filling the second floor. However, there was one place I was particularly eager to visit: Post. An independent bookshop run by our blogging friends, Teddy and Maesy, it started as a place where people can buy books that can’t be found at major stores. However, today it has evolved into a community space where bookworms meet and authors share the stories behind their creations. In fact, the day we went there, a book club made Post one of its stops on a day-long itinerary exploring spaces in Jakarta for literature enthusiasts.
“When Pasar Santa was at its peak, this place was packed with people,” Teddy recounted. “It was very hot and crowded – people barely had space to sit.”
“It’s more bearable now,” Maesy added.
I agree with her. Although it’s no longer the trendiest place in Jakarta, Pasar Santa has now attracted the ‘right’ kind of people – those who are genuinely interested in the sort of items sold at this place. I loved the independent spirit of this market and its tenants. I could sense that most, if not all, of the people who do business at this place do it with a certain degree of idealism. It felt to me that they wanted a platform to showcase their ideas, creativity and passion, not merely a place to seek profit. Despite the heat and humidity on the day we were at Pasar Santa, I remember feeling refreshed and inspired when I left the market. This visit made me ponder over the things I could have done and can do to encourage more young people to have the courage to go down this unconventional path.
Within walking distance from Pasar Santa, the cityscape changed again. Jalan Cikajang is a world away from the down-to-earth atmosphere of Pasar Santa and its immediate surroundings. A neighborhood street known to foodies, Jalan Cikajang is lined with restaurants serving a wide array of dishes, from Indonesian regional cuisines and modern Asian fare to Louisiana-style seafood. They all share one thing in common, though, as these businesses all occupy spruced-up houses and buildings. Thanks to James’s obsession with bread, this time we opted for Beau, a bakery and café owned by Talita Setyadi, a young entrepreneur who studied jazz in Auckland, New Zealand but found her passion in making bread. After returning home from training in Paris’s Le Cordon Bleu, where she graduated top of her class, she started this business which has proven to be a great success.
“This is the best croissant in town,” James declared, while I was sipping on the surprisingly delightful turmeric latte. We also tasted Beau’s version of smørrebrød which I believe was my first time trying this Scandinavian open-faced sandwich – unless I had actually tasted it before without realizing what it was.
If you’ve read this far, you might already understand why South Jakarta is a trendsetter in this bustling megalopolis. It offers many things other parts of the city can only dream of (or eventually follow). However, there is one particular area of South Jakarta called Kemang that truly epitomizes its progressive, experimental inclinations. It is home to loads of cafés (from simple ones where getting a cup of coffee is an unassuming matter to more sophisticated venues which offer all sorts of beverages you didn’t know you needed), restaurants (serving a wide variety of food, including some that can’t be found in other parts of the city), vibrant nightlife, a thriving expat community, and … a dog park.
Jakarta can feel hostile to humans, let alone pets. So when I found out that a dog park had been opened (this may not be a big deal in your part of the world, but it certainly is in Jakarta), I knew I had to check it out. Situated in the eastern part of Kemang, Como Park – as this place is known – is a collection of small offices, cafés, restaurants, independent retailers, and of course, a fenced outdoor lawn where pooches are free to roam. It is home to a retailer that focuses on vintage and secondhand goods, a café with one of the best chai lattes in town, a dog salon, and a zero-waste shop with an impressive product offering that encompasses all kinds of nuts, beans and dried fruits to spices, salt, flour, rice, honey, olive oil and even sambal (chili sauce) made with torch ginger, to name a few. Customers have to bring their own bottles, jars and bags, although the store sells them too for those who forget to bring their own.
Moving over to the southern part of Kemang, there’s a plant shop for those who want to take home a few pots of oxygen producers, or to simply make their abode more cozy and less of a suffocating, claustrophobic box. A self-styled “plant barn”, Kojo x Cayenne is hidden from plain sight as it is located behind a home furnishings store and a small restaurant. What I love most about this place is its unexpected location, the colorful murals that decorate the shop, and the ever-changing selection of potted plants it provides.
This, however, is not the only plant shop in Kemang. In East Kemang, you’ll find the recently-opened Hunter & Grower, a restaurant with a plant-dedicated corner where patrons can choose plants and planters to bring home. The restaurant itself serves Indonesian food with a modern twist, as well as some Western dishes. I love the fact that their bold experiments trying to present traditional food in a different way actually work, so much so that we have eaten there three times in the past month. The popular sayur asem salad takes inspiration from a sour, savory and spicy soup dish with the same name which originates from the western part of Java. In an unexpected twist, it’s served as a salad with all the components separate from each other, but when mixed together with the tamarind reduction everything tastes surprisingly authentic. The Manadonese sautéed beef is lovely for its rich cream sauce mixed with sambal rica, one of the many types of sambal from the Indonesian province of North Sulawesi, home of the Minahasan people. But the winner so far is the perfectly grilled salmon with sambal dabu-dabu, another take on Minahasan cuisine – mostly because of its fragrant nasi bakar or “grilled rice” (steamed rice seasoned with lemon basil leaves and other ingredients, then wrapped in banana leaf and grilled) which to date is the best I’ve ever had.
South Jakarta is indeed a trendsetter when it comes to fashion, lifestyle and anything new for that matter. When a new business is successful in this part of the city, others usually follow. But if one digs deeper, there are indeed many things other parts of Jakarta can learn from their more chic sister. South Jakarta shows how having an MRT line running through your area can be good not only for getting around the city more easily, but also for the preservation of historically significant but otherwise derelict buildings, and why it is a good idea to have greenery inside business premises to create little oases in this incessantly busy city. It also proves how providing young entrepreneurs a platform with which they can explore their ideas and creativity can have a positive impact on the local economy. It demonstrates how giving pets a safe and secure place to play correlates with the improvement of a city’s livability for its human residents. And lastly, it sets an example for aspiring restaurateurs that experimentation, when done correctly, can elevate traditional dishes and make the city’s culinary landscape even more alluring.
And I, a registered East Jakartan by ID card, but South Jakartan by domicile, can happily tell other Jakartans that embracing this southern lifestyle (or at least a little bit of it) will make your area a little more interesting to explore.
As I have mentioned in the About page of this blog, all posts published here are not sponsored, including this one.