Covid-19 is continuing to take its toll. Not only has the disease claimed more than 520,000 lives, but it has also brought the world’s economy to a standstill. As countries across the globe begin to publish the latest figures of their economic indicators, it becomes more and more apparent that what we are facing now is the worst global recession since the Great Depression in the 1930s. China – the world’s growth engine for the past few decades – saw its economy contract for the first time in almost half a century, and the United States as the planet’s largest economy (by nominal GDP) recorded the highest unemployment rate since 1941. Elsewhere, countries that are heavily dependent on tourism have been badly hit by the crisis, as have those that were already suffering from their own economic woes.
Some governments, in a rather desperate bid to prevent their economies from falling even deeper into recession, have begun to ease full or partial lockdowns that have been in place for months – with the risk of a second wave looming on the horizon. Meanwhile, here in Indonesia, the central government has also followed suit although we have yet to see the peak of the first wave. “New normal” is the mantra now, with strict implementation of health protocols as a requirement for businesses to reopen. From operating at half-capacity, to scanning customers’ body temperatures and providing a washbasin and soap or hand sanitizer outside the premises, business owners have no other option but adapt. Customers must do too, unless they stay home and rely on online delivery like so many Jakartans have during the partial lockdown.
This new normal makes me think of the old normal, or life as I knew it until the middle of March when things gradually turned more and more surreal. Through this post I want to share with you how some of the places that I went to in Jakarta within this past year looked like, and how they may change in the foreseeable future. While sorting out the photos, I must admit I really missed the old normal. I miss not having to worry about getting infected by the virus, I miss going out without my nose and mouth covered by a mask, I miss seeing people’s smiles, and although I’m more of an introverted person, I do miss watching people having a good time with their friends and families in the city’s public spaces.
This part of Jakarta is not only home to the old town district – known as Kota Tua – filled with dozens of buildings constructed during the Dutch colonial period, but also the city’s vibrant Chinatown which is concentrated around the areas of Glodok and Asemka, directly to the south of Kota Tua. Last July, I went to Pasar Petak Sembilan, a traditional market at the heart of Glodok that basically occupies a narrow street leading straight to Jakarta’s oldest Chinese temple. It was my second visit to this part of the city, but unlike the first time when I only went to the temple, I had James tag along so we could also try some food Glodok is famous for.
On both sides of the street, we saw vegetables, fruits, herbs, spices and other ingredients that can be easily found at most traditional markets in Indonesia, as well as rarer items like frogs, sea cucumbers and some other stuff that are more prevalent in Chinese cuisine. The market was jam-packed with patrons, motorcycles, carts and a few tourists trying to move around from one stall to another. I’m interested in finding out how the recent movement restrictions have had an impact on this daily hustle and bustle, although I wouldn’t be too surprised if nothing has changed at all.
Five months later in December 2019, we returned to West Jakarta to check out Semasa, a quarterly pop-up market showcasing the city’s inspiring new talents who bring their best and most unique artisanal products to a broader audience. The venue for the event’s end-of-year edition was a handsome Dutch-era heritage building that has been turned into Museum Bank Indonesia – a history museum that is run by the Indonesian central bank. It was my first time visiting such a bazaar, and I was pleasantly surprised and heartened by what I saw. If you want to get a glimpse of Jakarta’s abundant creativity, this is a good place to start, although unfortunately this year’s March edition (which was supposed to be held at City Hall) had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. The organizer then switched to Indonesia’s most popular online marketplace for the time being, although in my opinion it can never replace the excitement and joy of touching and admiring the goods with your own hands and chatting with the creators themselves, whose passion for what they’re doing can only be truly felt when you see them in person.
This is where the presidential palace, the central bank, the supreme court, the national museum, the national stadium and many other important institutions of the country are located. And although I currently reside in South Jakarta, Central Jakarta is right on my doorstep since the Ciliwung River – which acts as a border between the two – lies less than two kilometers away from where I live.
On the very last day of February this year, James and I checked out the establishments behind Sarinah, an iconic 74-meter tall building that is also Jakarta’s first-ever skyscraper. Completed in 1962 and officially opened in 1966, the department store was conceived by Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, at a time when the nation’s economy was in shambles due to high inflation rates. Although ideologically closer to Moscow and Beijing, the president commissioned a Japanese company to construct the building using war reparation funds paid by the East Asian nation to the nascent Southeast Asian republic.
In 1991, McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Indonesia at Sarinah, paving the way for the department store to transform itself into a hangout place for young urbanites of the capital. However, the American fast food chain was not the reason why James and I went there earlier this year, just two days before the Indonesian central government announced the first two confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the country.
Decades after the introduction of burgers to the Indonesian market, they are now widely available in Jakarta. Not only can they be found at the usual international chains, but also in residential areas, down narrow alleys, all the way to the many urban villages that, together with modern skyscrapers, have made the city what it is today. Independent brands have been doing well, with some names better known for their simple and affordable burgers, while others focus more on premium ingredients. Amid the jungle of burger brands in Jakarta, Lawless Burgerbar really stands out.
Famous not only for their tall, indulgent buns, but also for the blaring heavy metal music that is constantly played at both their outlets (the other one is in Kemang, an area in South Jakarta known for its trendsetting cafés and restaurants), the burger bar was jam-packed when we were there. Contrary to my initial doubts whether or not I would enjoy eating in such a noisy restaurant, the incredibly juicy burger and the energetic ambiance of this place actually made the dining experience even richer.
We left this place feeling satisfied. As we passed the “Healthy Food Sucks” sign on the dark corridor of the burger bar, and went out through the glass door, we looked at a restaurant right next door called Honu. Specializing in poke, a Hawaiian dish that is increasingly becoming popular in Jakarta, this outlet of another local chain originating in Kemang was the complete opposite of its neighbor. Honu was bright and peaceful, and here healthy food is king. And yes, both James and I had another round of food right after that very filling burger we had less than half an hour earlier. Seeing the burger bar and the poke place sitting together side by side, I couldn’t help but think of this juxtaposition as a much-simplified version of Indonesia – or what the country should be – where diversity is celebrated. As the pandemic rages on, I’m curious about how these two places are doing. Lawless Burgerbar might lose some of its spirit, albeit temporarily, for the people and their loud chattering have been a defining characteristic of the restaurant’s premises. Honu, on the other hand, might suffer from the new reality that some diners are now avoiding uncooked meals, although the fact that it has been doing online deliveries even before the pandemic may help keep its revenue from plummeting further.
Home to some of the trendiest areas in the city, where a lot of Jakarta’s most unique and innovative independent businesses flourish, this is a part of the Indonesian capital I’ve been living in for the past eight years. I have written extensively about South Jakarta in a previous post, and when I was writing it earlier this year, ideas popped up in my head for future posts of Jakarta. I looked up inspiring new places across the Indonesian capital, and bookmarked them for urban explorations that I planned to do when the rainy season was over – supposedly around this time of year. However, due to this unexpected health crisis the world has been facing, it seems like I have to put those plans on hold for the time being and spend more time with my houseplants instead.
Talking about this part of the metropolis, I can’t help but think of M Bloc Space, one of the most inspiring success stories of old building preservation in Jakarta. The former warehouse and housing complex of the state-owned banknote printing company was given a new lease of life after being abandoned for fourteen years. In October 2019, it began welcoming people again, this time to dine in at its well-curated selection of restaurants, taste unique-flavored ice creams, and have discussions with experts on a wide array of topics: from building a more livable city and criticizing proposed legislation that would harm democracy, to talks about music and the arts.
M Bloc Space is one of the places that have hugely benefited from Jakarta’s MRT. But due to the current restrictions where the MRT can only operate at 50% capacity, and the fact that many offices still require their employees to work from home, I can imagine that M Bloc Space has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. It has partially reopened its doors since last month, but people have to register online beforehand, and it will be a while before independent bands and artists will be allowed to perform again at one of the former warehouses in this compound.
South Jakarta not only draws “southerners” to its cafés, restaurants, boutiques, art spaces and galleries, but also those from other parts of the capital. However, the current circumstances have undoubtedly presented a major blow to those businesses. We’ll be lucky if we see most of them surviving this storm, but with great uncertainties lying ahead of us, and the possibility of a severe economic downturn, I am personally expecting a bleaker outcome. I’ll be ecstatic to be proven wrong.
Nevertheless, I do still have hope that some sort of calm and normalcy will eventually return. Years from now, people might be doing some things differently as a result of months of being put under restrictions during this annus horribilis called 2020. But there can never be a replacement for direct interaction among people. Years ago, we were talking about the death of print publications with the advent of online media. But today, print not only survives but also thrives, only in a different way. It’s also interesting for me to see how Jakarta and its people will change in the next few years – if they change at all. But I really can’t wait for the day to come when I can explore the city like how I used to.