Batavian Rhapsody


Roughly around the time of Chinese New Year this year, Jakarta leapt to my mind spontaneously. The spectre of a gargantuan city that is a poster child for cataclysmic third world dysfunction played continuously in my head like a kafkaesque daydream.

I needed an excuse to go to Jakarta for a weekend, to get it out of my system. I reasoned that I could take a closer look at this city which author and film-maker Andre Vltchek describes as “the most depressing city on earth” to try to imagine how life must be for majority of its estimated 11 million inhabitants who have to eke out a daily existence in its desperate, polluted and collapsing urban environment. **

[ ** Jakarta combined with its satellite cities Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi known by its threat-sounding acronym ‘Jabodetabek’ has a population of more than 32 million making the city the second largest in the world after Tokyo]

The ideal time to go was I reckoned between January and March – the season of lead-coloured skies and unrelenting rainfall, when the rivers, canals and drains in Jakarta bloat and often overflow. I also needed to make this trip before the coronavirus closes in, shutting off as it has done now all air travel and borders.

A wet vision of my weekend from the hotel window
Soto Ceker or Chicken feet soup is a popular street diners option in Jakarta.
Fresh produce in a market lane in Glodok including here at the bottom left the stinky Petai or Pete (Parkia Speciosa) bunched up and in their pods.


Jakarta’s fertility rate has fallen from 3.99 children per woman in 1980 to 2.3 in 2012. To combat poverty the Government wants to reduce the rate further with family planning but faces religious oppositions. 
The Dutch bequeathed on Indonesia not only buildings, bureaucracy, and political borders but also an ethnicity. The Betawi indigenes have their own creole language and customs moulded by centuries of mingling of peoples from across Java, the outer islands of the archipelago and beyond.


The old Chinese area of Glodok is not far from my hotel which is located close to the corner of Jalan Gajah Mada – 2.2 km away according to Waze. I decided to walk there under a looming sky after a hearty buffet breakfast. Keeping to a northerly direction on the sidewalk, I looped gingerly around puddles, hawker carts, and helmeted Gojek delivery boys on their shiny scooters; now and then darting between shop awnings, dripping tree canopies and tarpaulin banners to avoid the rain.

History books recount the city’s origin as the Hindu-Buddhist port of Sunda Kelapa. To its harbour ships arrived from near and far to trade including during the 16th century fleets from Portugal that were fitted with cannons and guns. To stop the Christian Portuguese from gaining a foothold in Java, Fatahillah a part-Arab military commander sent by neighbouring Demak burned and captured Sunda Kelapa. The town was renamed Jayakarta and became part of the Banten Sultanate.

Despite the official commemoration of Fatahillah’s victory on 22 June 1527 as the city’s birth date, in truth it is to the Dutch that Jakarta to this day still owes most of its history, architecture and cultural melange.

In 1619 the ambitious Dutch governor Jan Pieterszoon Coen seized Jayakarta from its muslim rulers. He razed the town to the ground, evicted its native inhabitants and built on the site a capital and home port for the Dutch East India Company or Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC).

The new harbour’s strategic location on the northern coast of Java between South China Sea and the Indian Ocean would help the Netherlands gain a dominant position in the valuable Indies trade.

Coen wanted to call the settlement Nieuw Hoorn after his birthplace. But the Board of VOC who represented powerful shareholders known as de Heeren XVII (the lords seventeen) vetoed his plan. Instead the Directors decided to name it Batavia after an ancestral Germanic tribe from their boggy windswept estuarine homeland in Europe – Batavieren or Batavi as they were referred to during the Roman period.

The city kept its Dutch-given name for over 320 years until 1942 when the Japanese Imperial Army rolled in during WWII and took over. The lightning speed at which the Japanese went about destroying and dismantling Europe’s empires in the East convinced them of their divine destiny not just to become the new masters of Asia but also its liberators in freeing Asian people from the subservience and mental grip of centuries of white men’s rule.

Japan restored back the name Fatahillah gave to the city in a move to win over the hearts and minds of native Indonesians and in doing so inspire and embolden them to rise up against their former colonial overlords.

The city’s waterways described in 1897 by an American visitor E.R. Scidmore as places “where small natives splash and swim, women beat the family linen, and men go to and fro in tiny boats, all in strange travesty of the solemn canals of the old country” are today clogged with all manner of rubbish and refuse. About 20% of Jakarta’s daily waste ends up in its rivers and canals contributing to recurring floods and yearly loss of lives.
Lemongrass, a key ingredient in Indonesian cooking, is sold fresh and bundled up in stalks at a morning market.
Jakarta’s unofficial symbol: the omnipresent ‘Gerobak’-  hawker carts that sell cheap, delicious, although not always hygienic food at every curb and corner (‘kaki lima’) any hour of the day.
Costumed model in Taman Fatahillah (formerly Stadhuisplein), the old administrative heart of Batavia now a theme park with painted street performers, palm-reading key-chain sellers and congregating youths.
Art and Dissent. Some may disagree but Jakarta leads Southeast Asia in its creative freedom and output, breathing truth to the saying that bad times produce good art.
I don’t yet know of any city in the world with the population and problems the size and magnitude of Jakarta that can better this place in the openness, geniality and positive spirit of its people.
Old-styled ‘Sate’ grilled patiently over smoking charcoals on the back of a bicycle before a small crowd of waiting customers.
Inundating thoughts. By the time this girl becomes a grandmother, half the area she is standing now will be under the sea. Jakarta is sinking at an alarming rate (up to 6.7 inches a year) due to over-development, population growth, and climate change.
Recent report suggests that other Asian cities like Manila and Kuala Lumpur have overtaken Jakarta in traffic nastiness but the city’s legendary ‘Macet’ should never be underestimated, even on a Sunday.
Jakarta’s fashion spillover
Delman or horse-drawn carriages at the city’s iconic Monumen Nasional (Monas). In 2018 they were once again allowed to take tourists despite complaints by animal activists of accidents, cruelty and maltreatment.
Saturday shoppers in Glodok
Young woman with face mask seated beside colourful recycling bins outside a tourist shop in Kota Tua, Jakarta’s Old City.
Batavia was built mainly by the labour and commerce supplied by the Chinese who in the early years accounted for a quarter of the entire population.
In 1740 the Dutch, fearing unrest due to low sugar prices and closure of mills, unleashed a pogrom that killed 10,000 Chinese in the city in an orgy of retributive murders and mass slaughters. A year on, Chinese were moved to a ghetto south of the city walls called Glodok that became today’s Chinatown.
Jakarta is the toughest place in the world to be a bin man where rubbish carts are pulled by human muscles.
Vihara Tanda Bhakti also known as Klenteng Tan Seng Ong was renovated in 1974 from an older structure that had stood here for 200 years. This temple is secluded behind Kali Besar, the 18th century canal built along the Ciliwung River to ship goods from the port at Tanjung Priuk to the old city of Batavia.
Success and disproportionate wealth have contributed to Indonesian hostility towards their fellow Chinese citizens. Triggered by an economic crisis, horrific violence against Chinese broke out across Indonesia in mid-May 1998. In Jakarta Chinese shops and homes were burned and 130 women, many stripped and paraded naked, were gang-raped.


After decades of discrimination, in 2000 laws banning Chinese culture and language were finally repealed and Chinese New Year or ‘Imlek’, was at last declared a national holiday in 2002.


Volunteers for an Islamic charity with donation boxes.


Hope lies with the young. In a country where religious intolerance is perceived to be on the rise, a whopping 89.1% of those aged between 20 to 35 years prefer diversity to conservatism according to the Indonesia Millennial Report in 2019.
Mindful sharing at a temple courtyard


Riesa Tan and her friend preparing for  Saturday evening mass at the Santa Maria de Fatima Catholic Church in Glodok which looks on the outside every bit like a Chinese temple. Nearly half of all Chinese-Indonesians belong to the Christian faith with Catholics making up 15.76 %. according to the 2010 census.


All pictures and texts copyright Kerk Boon Leng March 2020

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