Next month, the Indonesian capital will turn 495. Its position as the business and economic hub of the nation will likely stay for many years to come, although it will soon be stripped of its special status as the country’s seat of government. The administration, rather hastily, has decided to move the center of power to the eastern part of Borneo, citing Jakarta’s environmental problems and the need to shift the country’s political gravity away from Java to a more central location as the reasons for the move. Many are skeptical and worried that we’re only transposing Jakarta’s old problems to the new capital. Others question the timing for such an ambitious project since Indonesia is still reeling from the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. But it is still happening nonetheless, with the current president demanding that the new presidential palace must be completed by 2024, right at the end of his two-term tenure.
Let’s talk more about Jakarta for now. Anyone who has been to this city will likely agree with the long-held notion that it is not a place that is easy to love. For many, it is not an easy city. Period. But in my case, time has proven to be an important ingredient to make this metropolis more palatable. I have written about how my observations led me to believe that the city aspires to be somewhat like Singapore, and how ten years living in this chaotic urban jungle had made me appreciate its oft-overlooked qualities, also how some corners of its southern areas often set progressive trends other parts of the city usually follow. In short, I have come a long way in embracing Jakarta as my adoptive home – or maybe more precisely, the city has adopted me and made me love it.
This time, join me on three separate trips around Jakarta using three different means of transit to take a closer look at this beguiling and endlessly fascinating city through three different perspectives.
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1. All the Way from Bombay
Taking advantage of the vast network of Transjakarta – Jakarta’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) – one can easily find his/her way to a rather small bus stop next to the Ciliwung River not too far from the city’s main cathedral. Across the river, an East Asian-style gate stands conspicuously amid a row of old Chinese merchant houses and Dutch-era buildings. Emblazoned right underneath its roof is the name PASSER BAROE, literally “New Market” in Indonesian, but written in Dutch spelling reminiscent of the European power’s colonial administration in Batavia (present-day Jakarta) during which it was established.
Since its founding, the city had always been centered near its main port on Java’s north coast. However, over time the so-called Oud Batavia (“Old Batavia”) grew weary with many of its corners deteriorating. When Herman Willem Daendels became the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies (at a time when the Kingdom of Holland was a client state of the French Empire) in the early 19th century, he moved the center of the colonial administration from Oud Batavia to an area roughly 5 kilometers to its southeast called Weltevreden. This sparked the constructions of new buildings in and around the latter, including a grand new edifice dubbed the Witte Huis (“White House”) which was envisioned as the new official residence of Dutch governor-generals in Batavia but is now used by the Indonesian Ministry of Finance, as well as the Schouwburg Weltevreden (now the Jakarta Art Building), and a new post office (the Weltevreden Postkantoor) among other structures.
Across the river from these buildings was the location for the new market which was filled with shops owned by the city’s Chinese community as well as those coming from the Indian subcontinent. Over the next century until the 1960s, Pasar Baru (the new Indonesian spelling that is still used today) flourished and became one of the most important shopping areas in Batavia. Today, it is still dominated by businesses owned by Chinese Indonesians with a sizable Indian Indonesian community running mainly textile stores. However, unlike in other Southeast Asian cities with a significant Indian population, Jakarta’s Little India is strikingly different for the absence of Tamil temples – easily recognizable for their vibrantly-colored sculptures of Hindu deities. This is mainly because most Indians in Pasar Baru trace their ancestry to Bombay or Calcutta, as opposed to any city in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and this can be seen in the Indian Indonesian-owned and India-affiliated businesses scattered around this area.
Although the main gate of Pasar Baru is unmistakably Chinese in style, you will immediately see Indian textile shops on both sides of the walkway as soon as you pass through it. Names like Maharaja, Bombay, and Ganesha clearly recall the owners’ roots in India. And as you walk by some of them, you’ll be greeted by Hindustani music with the iconic sound of tabla, sitar, and other South Asian musical instruments blaring from the speakers. Meanwhile, along the perimeter of this locale just outside the main gate, a number of institutions were established to cater to the needs of the Indian Indonesian community in Jakarta. A glass building housing Sekolah Mahatma Gandhi (the Mahatma Gandhi School), which is run by what was once called the Bombay Merchants Association, sits just a few meters away from a branch of a local bank that is a subsidiary of one of India’s largest lenders. Farther away on the same row is the office of the Jakarta chapter of the Sri Sathya Sai International Organization (SSSIO), a not-for-profit Hindu reform organization that operates all around the world, as well as a Gurudwara Temple – one of only a few Sikh temples in Indonesia.
Back to the other side of the river, just a short walk from the Jakarta Art Building is the former post office that has recently undergone a transformation into a space filled with independent retail shops and eateries. It is yet another example of adaptive reuse projects – where an existing building is repurposed into something different from what it was originally built for – Jakarta has been seeing for the past few years, which make the city even more exciting to explore these days. Pos Bloc, the new name for the one-time post office, is in fact the sister of M Bloc Space, a family-friendly creative hub occupying the formerly abandoned tenements and warehouses of the state-owned banknote printing company in an area where I will take you next.
2. Arigato from Little Tokyo
Now let’s take the MRT – Jakarta’s metro system that was opened in early 2019 and is now being expanded further north – and ride one of those Japanese-made trains to get to Kebayoran Baru. In the 1940s during the final years of the Dutch colonial administration in Indonesia, they started to develop a satellite city directly to the south of Batavia. Implemented by an office called the Centrale Stichting Wederopbouw (CSW), this project was carried out in a swampy area which was then divided into several ‘blocks’. When the Dutch finally left their former Southeast Asian colony for good, this development project was not terminated. It was rather sped up by the Indonesians and in the decades that followed what was once an undeveloped fringe of Batavia was transformed into a highly developed urban area that is now home to one of Jakarta’s busiest transit interchanges and dense commercial districts.
While the face of Kebayoran Baru has completely changed since the time of Dutch rule, the names of those development ‘blocks’ remain. “They sound like prison blocks,” James told me when he first learned about Blok A, Blok M, and Blok S in his early years living in Jakarta. Tucked away in some of the trendiest and most cosmopolitan areas near the city’s central business district, these ‘blocks’ of Kebayoran Baru host a cornucopia of establishments, from a street lined with a Basque restaurant, a French bistro, upscale cafés, and Indonesia’s first-ever Taco Bell among other things, to a neighborhood with probably the highest concentration of Korean eateries and shops in the city.
Blok M is arguably the most famous of them all. If you see this place now – where the MRT trains diligently ply their sole route on elevated tracks with a Transjakarta-only road running perpendicular directly above them while everything else squeezes its way through at ground level – it’s probably hard to imagine that not too long ago there was nothing but empty land here. Blok M’s rapid growth reflects that of the city itself, which was probably why in the 1990s one of the buildings in this area became the preferred accommodation for Japanese expats in Jakarta. With more people from the East Asian country coming to the Indonesian capital, demand for authentic Japanese food, cooking ingredients, and entertainment grew. And Jakarta’s Little Tokyo was born.
Walking around the narrow alleys and streets in this compact area, it’s easy to see why this part of Blok M got its moniker and why it’s still called that way today. Japanese restaurants and nightclubs seem to occupy every other building; some seem to focus more on their Japanese clientele, while others appear to be frequented by many Indonesians as well. I always visit Little Tokyo during the day, but I imagine at night it will look even more enticing with all the lights turned on. Nowadays, Japanese expats in Jakarta are more spread out and not only concentrated in the city’s Little Tokyo. However, the fact that those establishments still exist may be an indication that despite the abundance of restaurants serving authentic dishes from different regions in Japan elsewhere in the city, some Japanese expats still find Little Tokyo appealing. Or maybe they’re more drawn by the nostalgic feeling this place offers.
Speaking of nostalgia, Ennichisai probably encapsulates this better than other things in Little Tokyo. Held annually since 2010, this matsuri (Japanese festival) was created by Japanese businesspeople in Jakarta together with business owners in Blok M to show their gratitude for being able to live and make a living in this area. As with many other matsuris, a dashi (a decorated float pulled by people) or a mikoshi (a float that is carried on people’s shoulders) is usually present in each edition of Ennichisai. So do food stalls selling Japanese snacks as well as visitors doing cosplay of famous Japanese manga and anime characters. Unfortunately, the 2020 and 2021 editions had to be cancelled due to the pandemic, and it’s unclear whether this festival will return this year or not.
3. Back to the Roots
For the last part of this story, you will need to travel to the far southern corner of Jakarta, close to the border with neighboring West Java province. While you can drive to reach this place, the easiest and probably most stress-free way is by taking the commuter line (better known by its Indonesian abbreviation, KRL) which connects the metropolis with its surrounding cities. The KRL, and the Indonesian railway in general, is one of most talked-about success stories in the country. Once ridden with problems – overbooked trains, dirty cabins, poor service, accidents, late departures, and mounting debts to name some – the state-owned railway company and its subsidiaries (including the company that manages commuter trains in the Jakarta metropolitan area) underwent a major transformation in the early 2010s. The KRL still operates second-hand Japanese trains to ply its routes, but everything else has improved immensely, from ticket booking to the physical conditions of the train stations. It’s one of those things people who have been living in Jakarta for quite some time can attest to as real progress.
Progress often means looking forward to the future. But it should also involve looking into the past to see how far we’ve gone and how much of our roots still remain. This was probably in the minds of the Betawi community and the government of Jakarta when they came up with the idea of dedicating an area in the city to the preservation of the Betawi culture. The name Betawi itself is a local rendition of Batavia, and the Betawi people are the result of centuries of intermarriage between the natives and those coming to the port city from all over the archipelago and beyond, which itself created a new and distinctly different culture.
Setu Babakan, as the place is called, is an area around its namesake man-made lake which since 2004 has been the center of Betawi cultural preservation. The northern side of the lake is filled with replicas of Betawi traditional houses, a small museum dedicated to showcasing the many aspects of Betawi culture, as well as a multi-function hall easily distinguishable by its conical red roof. Meanwhile, everywhere else around the lake, food stalls selling primarily Betawi food – some are delicacies rarely found in other parts of the city – occupy most of the area. Some Jakartans understandably find an oasis in this place, thanks to the leafy trees that provide them with much-needed shade against the scorching sun while enjoying the serene lake with whatever food or snacks they have in their hands. Although this place’s raison d’être is to safeguard Betawi culture, its location around a lake fringed by many tall trees also acts as a reminder of the importance of adding more green spaces in Jakarta, as studies have shown their positive impacts on humans.
Happy residents make a thriving city. While my happiness toward my adoptive city remains a work in progress, exploring its nooks and crannies certainly helps to remind me that if I make the effort to know Jakarta better, the city will reveal qualities I would otherwise fail to see. And as the city moves one step closer to celebrating its quincentenary of its founding a few years from now, it keeps unveiling one exciting urban renewal project after another, and more public transport options for Jakartans to move around their city more efficiently. Watch this space.