Iwan Tirta’s fine-grained Jakarta oral history

A relatively recent Jakarta Post feature is headed “Personal Reminiscences of a Jakarta Long Gone.”  Most such articles are available online; but this is harder and harder to find. Full text was recently reproduced at a Yahoo Groups page.Elsewhere, it’s apparently for sale.

I’m reproducing the article here, as per Fair Use, because you’d have to sit down with quite few grandfathers, these days, to produce a Tirta-quality oral history image like this.


Personal reminiscences of a Jakarta long gone

Iwan Tirta has been a witness to the changing fortunes of Jakarta. Save for periods of study at Yale University in the U.S. and a stint at the United
Nations in New York, the 68-year-old batik designer has lived his entire
life in the city. Below are his personal observations of the most important
streets in Jakarta.

Photo by Adi WohonoAfter moving here from Madiun in East Java, our family settled at Jl Mampang No. 72, now called Jl. Cik Ditiro. Mampangweg, as it was known in those days, was a quiet, leafy street, bordered with old tamarind trees.

It stretched all the way from the flood canal on Jl. Latuharhary to what is now known as Jl. Gondangdia Lama.

The streets running parallel to Mampangweg, such as Jl. Tegal, Jl. Cirebon and Jl. Lembang, were closed off during the Japanese occupation due to the fact that the houses on them were used as internment camps for Dutch women and children. Tall bamboo fences and barbed wire marked the enclosures.

As I walked to my school on Jl. Cikini, I would hear screams of women being beaten, probably because they did not bow low enough to their wardens. I can still remember the horror of them to this day.

My earliest memories of the city — it was already called Jakarta under the Japanese occupation — are about magnificent Jl. Matraman Raya. It was one of the widest streets, and my grandparents lived on a side street called Jl. Paseban.

In my young eyes, Matraman Raya was a grand street. It stretched all the way from what is now Jatinegara — formerly known as Meester Cornelis — through Kramat to end right in front of the Schouwburg, now the Gedung Kesenian.

In the center of Matraman Raya was a double track for the electric streetcars. Along Matraman were stately homes of the rich, but these were later converted into all kinds of offices.

St. Carolus Hospital is still situated along this broad street and so is the National Library, formerly the elite high school for the Dutch called the HBS (Hoogere Burger School) KW III, short for King William the Third.

There was also the central streetcar depot, and the main military barracks, which is now Lapangan Banteng in front of the Borobudur Hotel.

The most elegant and impressive streets in the residential area of Menteng were the three boulevards. They were called Oranye Boulevaard, now known as Jl. Diponegoro, Nassau Boulevaard, now Jl. Imam Bonjol, and Van Heutsz Boulevaard, now known as Jl. Teuku Umar.

The large houses on all three boulevards were occupied by the likes of president directors of Dutch shipping companies and American oil companies. The former house of the Stanvac president at the corner of Jl. Madiun and Jl. Diponegoro is currently the residence of Indonesia’s Vice President.

The residence of the Dutch ambassador was formerly the home of the governor of Bank Indonesia (Javasche Bank).

On the corner of Jl. Cik Ditiro and Jl. Diponeggoro stood the former home of the president director of the Dutch shipping line “Maatschappy Nederland”, which has since become the residence of the ambassador of Egypt.

Nassau Boulevard, which is nowadays known as Jl. Imam Bonjol, was equally prominent. Starting at the Burgemeester Bischopplein, now Taman Suropati, it stretches all the way to the Imam Bonjol/Thamrin fountain or the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle.

The houses on Van Heutsz Boulevard were bigger and older in style than those on its two sister boulevards. The trees lining it were also more impressive. Even today, the boulevards retain their prestigious reputation.

My family later moved from Jl. Cik Ditiro to Jl. Mendut, the British enclave surrounding the cricket club at Boxlaan or Jl. Borobudur, and then to Jl. Imam Bonjol No. 80, which is presently the site of Deutsche Bank. Our house was the very last one on Nassau Boulevard, and in front of us was a swampy area. We watched the construction of Jl. Thamrin, Hotel Indonesia, the German Embassy and later in 1974, the Mandarin Hotel.

Pasar Baru occupies a special place in my childhood memories, with all its eating places and shops selling different kinds of beautiful textiles.

I went to Pasar Baru just to window shop or accompany my parents to eat at one of the fancy restaurants. I vividly remember Hoenkwee Huis, a  restaurant specializing in cakes and ice cream. Then there was Toko De Zon, or as we called it, matahari (sun), the first department store in pre-war Jakarta.

There was a special section devoted to children, a kind of playground to enjoy while parents would go shopping.

Just walking around was great fun, and I am glad that an attempt is being made to recreate the spirit and atmosphere of the old Passer Baroe.

Cikini Straat, today called Jl. Cikini Raya, was special to me for a couple of reasons. First, my school was located there, and second it was home to the Raden Saleh Zoo. One of the first concert halls in Jakarta was at the zoo, and next door was the Cikini swimming pool.

My junior high school, SMP 1, is still standing. Cikini was not a commercial street at the time. Instead, there were many grand houses along it, but that has all changed over the years. The last remaining grand house is the residence of the Hasyim Ning family at Cikini Raya No. 24.

Important in the history of the city is Jl. Proklamasi, formerly called Pegangsaan Timur (Pegangsaan Oost). It was on this street that the flag of the Republic of Indonesia was hoisted for the first time. In attendance were Bung Karno (Sukarno) and Bung (Mohammad) Hatta.

The house itself was not large, but its gardens were. As a boy of six years, I found it a welcome playground along with the other children in the neighborhood.

We watched the flag hoisting while sitting on the branches of a tree in the front garden. It is a great pity that former president Sukarno chose to demolish this historical house and build the Gedung Pola that stands there today.

I am constantly amazed at the development of the Mangga Dua area. Watching it today, it seems like a whole new city is being built from the ground up. What formerly was a sleepy, swampy area bordering the industrial downtown has now become a lively shopping area that can compete with Singapore.

Another almost unrecognizable area is the old airport of Kemayoran, now the site of the Jakarta Fair. It was the meeting point of Jakarta’s elite. The restaurant was right next to the apron, and one could watch friends and relatives board their planes while sipping refreshments in the open air.

All the activities moved to Halim Perdanakusuma Airport, which was formerly a military airfield known by the name of Cililitan.

Last but not least, there was a sleepy street known by the name of Jl. Budi Kemuliaan. In the olden days it was the street where Jakarta’s one and only Armenian church was situated as well as a maternity hospital. The Canadian Embassy was also located on that street.

It has since been transformed by the towering Bank Indonesia complex and the mosque belonging to it, which could almost rival the Istiqlal Grand Mosque in its grandeur.


2 responses »

  1. I am the daughter of the owner of Toko de zon and it is interesting to read about the department stores that my father owned. I was not born then.

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