An excerpt from the following review of Leonard Lueras’ 2008 coffee table book on Jakarta was published in the first edition of Expat/ Kabar magazine last May.
Packed with color photos and a few essays Jakarta, Jayakarta, Batavia [2008, pp. 288] is more compact, contemporary and quirky than a traditional coffee table book. It’s like a cross between a big fat Nat Geo article and a juicy ‘blog.
It is the work of a band of scholars, writers, and artists, among them a microlight photographer, a go-go dancer-turned designer, and a Jesuit priest. Led by gypsy book wizard and author of Surfing Indonesia, Leonard Lueras, they’ve come from elsewhere and everywhere with peculiar dreams and visions.
Stylish but easy-going, Jakarta is highly imaginative, like Yogya on My Mind and Ubud is a Mood, other books in the series. Lueras would rather show than tell and the text merely illustrates the artwork.
According to one contributor, “the history of expatriates in Jakarta spans … a period of nearly five centuries [and] is an immense and chaotic collection of colorful tales and astonishing anecdotes.” In that case, Jakarta, Jayakarta, Batavia is a microcosm.
(A personal but sad note: Pak Ahmad Fahmy’s chapter on the enduring legacy of the Tanamur disco had not been completed by his untimely death in 2008. His friend Jeremy Allan gracefully closed the door on that chapter.)
Remove the Smog-Colored Glasses
If you’ve been there, you know Jakarta looks shabby, but only for a while—and then it brightens up fast. The metropolis is strange, not ugly; and never boring. In his Life in the Dome essay Simon Pitchforth wonders whether the urban planners who managed to get Kuala Lumpur and Singapore off the ground took “magic mushrooms at some intergovernmental management seminar during the 60’s” before coming over to lay out Jakarta. The traffic is magic alright. Walking would be faster than driving, except for the cars. And the colors are wild—“wisma blue,” “Badjaj orange” and pink for apartments, of course.
Jakarta’s gnarly place names come from fruit and flowers. But judging from the photos in this book (hundreds of them, nicely reproduced), architecture, art and advertising are what drive Jak city’s unique looks today.
In addition to Canadian surrealist Ken Pattern’s intricate and inspired stone lithographs, I like best Jez O’Hare’s shimmering aerials and Lueras’ portraits of Jakartans from all walks of life just doing what they do.
Jakarta is supposed to be age-old. So why are all the cars new? Father Adolph Heuken’s elegant, warp-speed tour of Jakarta-the-first’s 40,000 years provides the visually missing link between present and ancient past.
It is illustrated with photos of artifacts and documents that I found stunning: a massive stone inscribed with mystical Hindu runes by 5th century canal-digger priests, and a legible 1522 treaty between princes of Java and Portugal. In a few pages, Heuken tells the mind-bending story of all the empires, kingdoms and religions that have at some point pitched up at the port of Sunda Kelapa .
Bruce Carpenter’s Batavia, Batavia article is a chiaroscuro portrait of “naïve or dogmatic migrants” seduced by a “steamy, exotic eastern environment.” Even those who usually skip the history channel will be taken in by the 19th century Woodbury & Page photography the Dutch with their native servants, soldiers and entertainers.
And Carpenter’s story has a moral: Jakarta keras (Jakarta’s tough.) With supplies of “irrational bureaucracy, inflated egos, moral temptations, and culture chasms” holding up well over the centuries, expat life still is. Moreover, argues Carpenter, while society is still very much top-down, due to a “sobering karmic reversal in roles,” whitey’s no longer on top.
Tough Love, by John McBeth
While perhaps hard to prove, veteran East and South-East Asian news correspondent McBeth’s speculations and comparisons (such as between Jakarta and Bangkok) are a great pleasure to see in print: “motorists actually enjoy … being in close proximity to each other,” he says. And, “Jakarta simply doesn’t have a genuine focal point;” while that “gross combination of chrome and glass [really is gross].”
Foreigners often describe life in Jakarta as a love-hate affair. McBeth pushes on this a bit. His clear recollection of what it was like to be turned on to Jakarta as a young man provides further evidence that Jakarta “does grow on the unwary.”
He doesn’t mention it, but the expat also grows in Jakarta. Living overseas (at least to me) is like growing up again since it involves re-learning the most basic things. And this, I suppose, is why a “fly-blown Padang restaurant” or “foul-smelling ditch” may conjure up memories of being young or in love (instead of indigestion).
The Most Famous Dance Club in South-East Asia
By 1998 Suharto and the Tanamur were slipping into emeritus status. That was the year I arrived. The scene had all but moved to JJ Duit, Fahmy’s chill-out spot next door. The “why” of it all doesn’t matter so desperately anymore. But here it is, and it’s good to have. In 2005, after three decades of peaceful rebellion—Fahmy’s “flower power”—Animus closed its doors for good.
There were some counter-offensives. I remember how energy levels, normally pretty high at a Jakarta disco, soared when the DJ cut the music and turned on the lights one night at JJ’s. It was the prophet’s birthday (which I now observe more carefully). Clueless for a second, we looked outside as countless dump trucks unloaded a sea of men dressed in white. They began to chant and—rather ceremoniously—throw stones, breaking a few windows. As frightened as we were, it turned out the well-paid mercenaries had orders to visit a long list of establishments that night and soon left (after a brief eternity). However, this event contributed to the eventual demise of both of Fahmy’s clubs located in Tanah Abang Timur.
In the late 60’s the young Ahmad Fahmy went to Europe to pursue an education in textile production. He witnessed a social and musical revolution there. But, he said, when he returned to Jakarta in 1969, I found “my own country was just as exciting.” Opening without splash in 1970, the Tanamur went on to rock the boat for 35 years. It was said to be a place—and this doesn’t even make sense as the theme for a club—where everybody felt comfortable: gay, straight, rich, poor, Muslim, Christian, black, white, drunk and sober. Far out.
The Arab-Indonesian hippy sheik admitted Jakarta was off-kilter, but thought it would settle down one day. And then, someone “with a dream” would open “another Tanamur.”
Good pubs and storytelling cocok (fit) and Bart Santema needs no introduction. As in his eponymously-titled Bule Gila memoirs, the Dutch nightclub impresario, finds himself again speaking in tongues. Like a good barman, he messes with the mind, narrating in three languages (at the same time) the kalem of Old Man Willem, the last of his generation, who died in his favorite mebel with red bekleding because he didn’t have time to wait for the ambulance (which he realized full-well would arrive telat). This story explains why no one at my house, including the maid, knows what the furniture’s called.
What’s Dutch about Jakarta these days? Om Bart puts it just like that. But the answer is scattered throughout this book, including in the indispensable Dutch-Indonesian-English glossary and the restaurant listings at the far back.
Everywhere and Nowhere
Besides memorable photos of Jakartans wading through floods and riding atop trains, perhaps Irfan Kortshak’s essay, The Betawi, succeeds best at connecting the way Jakarta looks with how it works. Kortshak invokes the “impossible” art of M.C. Escher: the staircase leading nowhere. He seems to view Jakarta’s social structure as unwieldy and a liability. It reminds me of entering the lift of a large foreign bank, from the lobby, and exiting into a cavernous ecstasy-fueled disco some thirty floors up. What on earth was in between? Why did they put the underground on top?
So here’s the deal: Thirty-some floors down – to get your bearings – look for the goats in that “soon-to-be-developed” patch of green—and the shepherd. He’ll be smoking a clove cigarette, and he “is almost certainly a Betawai . . . .“
While the days are past when “government officials seeking high office would attempt to deny their Betawi backgrounds,” the Jakartesque irony is that this benchmark of a shepherd would have been traditionally invisible and possibly the object of ridicule—a backwards villager at best. The reason has nothing to do with farm animals. (Governor Sutiyoso always had a large cock in front yard, even when bird flu still made the news here.) The problem is the shepherd is a native Jakartan, not from elsewhere.
The Betawi blues, it seems, derives from a perceived lack of “truly indigenous traditions that cannot be traced to influence of outsiders.” Leaving aside the mechanics of tradition, with dazzling photos of Betawi pageantry and musical tradition, this essay rather convincingly proves the opposite: being Betawi is like nothing else in the world.
And so it goes in the Big Durian, where everyone is from places they’ve never been and you can’t make it on the local charts unless you tour overseas. Meanwhile, Everywhere and Nowhere is the title of a surreal Jakarta roadmap-inspired work by Ken Pattern. His images of squatter dwellings engulfing the Ciliwung River are unique because Jakarta’s natural and cultural roots—or skeletons or what have you—are always there but rarely seen.
Join a Gang
Like Pattern’s cows juxtaposed against skyscrapers, the difference between high and low in Jakarta seems to spells trouble. “[H]iding in plain sight,” however, there is detour and escape—the narrow alleyways crisscrossing Jakarta—known as gangs. With names no real estate developer could dream up, “like infinite rabbits warrens—or indeed like ganglia in our bodies” they represent Jakarta at its most horizontal. Original gangster (all these gang words have the same derivation), Richard Bennett points the way down the rabbit hole. With commuters clogging the suburbs and sidewalks, he argues, the “inner” city has become a quiet oasis, the veins if not the “very soul” of the global village.
The essay is illustrated with some of Pattern’s best-known Jakarta images such as Gang, a 1992 photo-based lithograph depicting—sure enough—a humble but sturdy gang-way complete with drying laundry, potted plants and a motorbike protruding from a doorway. This a front alley, mind you.
To me, it’s too real-looking to either love or hate. Camaraderie, serenity and even humor are there, if you look for them.
Local columnist Pitchforth tempts those who would be much happier dead than bored with an exciting “Blade Runner-esque” future here in “the dome” (a reference to The Simpsons Movie). Without a doubt he says, population—now estimated to exceed 34,000 per square mile—will fire the “pressure cooker,” soon yielding up a magic stew of gridlock, “environmental collapse and general chaos.” Pitchforth fears Jakarta has inherited Jedda’s bad genes for religion and Shangahai’s “heartless, monolithic” commercialism.
Apocalyptic graffiti of a city slipping off a hill photographed by Lueras in-situ under a bridge appropriately illustrates Simon’s article. But Jakarta by day is bright, even green. And there aren’t many night shots here. So, with a few notable exceptions, the book fails to capture the Tropical Gotham / Blade Runner look.
At night the city exhales and, in a matter of a few hours, becomes relatively cool, clean and relaxed. The dirt fades into the purple mist which is ethereally punctuated by bobbing kerosene lamps, and the listless lifts of transparent, ghostly office towers. (Not pictured.)
City of Ember, is supposedly a bad kid’s movie (I’m a bad kid); but the cheerful, bureaucratic, grimy, dysfunctionality is very Jakarta. Sci-fi Ember was designed as a distant but temporary (200 years max) outpost. But the descendants of the near-mythic “builders” can’t return, because they forgotten the way out.
Sprawling, powerful, hardly user-friendly, this is really a Jakarta book. The emphasis is on the “pinnacles and pitfalls” of the expat psyche, and Indonesian voices—or even women’s voices—are few. But if lacking breadth, the book is deep, with themes like the Dutch legacy and transportation receiving nuanced treatment. It is one thing to talk about the Dutch, another to have the Dutch talking about the Dutch in Dutch. Lueras is no fan of simplicity and always goes for the primitif ancestor seen through several layers of international airport; the folk tale drawn on the postage stamp; the young girl with Islamic head scarf and Barbie backpack.
By turns raw, tough, and tender—like good sate—deep elements like fire and water, recur throughout this book. Fire is there first because Jakarta is literally smoking hot, and second by sinister commercial design (see the ad for sizzling fajitas @ Amigos). Flames have been a favorite motif since founding father Sukarno – as everyone knows—set a burning torch atop the national monument (Monas). But the artwork smolders throughout, with various types of burnt offering (Hindu, Buddist, and Animist) pictured, in addition to hot food and heartwarming entertainment (like fireworks or one of Lueras’ tasty kreteks.) Meanwhile, McBeth hammers on the crowded “smoke-filled streets,” Bennett cites the “small shops selling essential food-stuffs and fuels for cooking” and Pitchforth predicts “the growing population will feed the fire and fan the flames into a roaring inferno.” Tough love indeed.
And then there are the hats. Peci, plume, krudung—dozens of distinct alternatives with hundreds in the aggregate. And shoes. And water. As Jakarta sinks (literally), water is an another underlying theme—receiving coverage from the Hindu era up though the record floods of 2007, including (of course) the Dutch canal builders.
The book is particularly valuable because Lueras knew what pictures he was after and got most of them from the Jakarta Post and Palace archives, then set out to bag the rest himself. Even if you hate Jakarta, you need the Jez O’Hare aerials—it’s a simple matter of knowing the enemy.