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.
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.
All pictures and texts copyright Kerk Boon Leng March 2020
Wifi-ed and waiting without dinner plans at the lobby of the Victory Hotel in Kefamenanu, a major town in inland West Timor, I struck up a conversation with a man I knew was Chinese-Malaysian by the way he spoke Bahasa with the reception. He told me he was in town to mass recruit workers for his oil palm plantations in Sarawak. “What are you doing here?” Mr Hong enquired of me in Mandarin. He said he had never before in his many visits to West Timor spanning over ten years met a person from Malaysia, especially one who was there with no specific reason or mercantile purpose.
Aside from sourcing for discounted labour, he was there also for lizards. Timorese catchers supply him with geckos when they can. These spotty arboreal reptiles with specimens up to a foot long, are sold for boiling with ginseng and herbs into a kind of Chinese witch soup. The geckos (tokek in Indonesian) are now hard to come by because much of their homes in the forests have given way to mining and agriculture.
“I don’t know what brings you here. There are no places to visit or things to do; no nice food, no KTVs or women to enjoy. Last time there were a few places that had ladies from Java but nowadays not anymore” he lamented before excusing himself to go upstairs to his room. A male middle-age outcall masseur the hotel had arranged for him had just checked-in at the front desk.
I had my reasons to be there. October is three-quarter period through the long dry season, a time of thirsty fields and half-empty stomachs in West Timor. Even so fuzzy-haired children in school uniforms and skinny villagers with Afro-Malay faces outside their thatched huts wave to our passing car with welcoming looks of cheerful stoicism in an immense landscape of bereft and desolate beauty.
Timor is an island (almost equal to Taiwan in size) located at the far side of Indonesia, a mere 300-mile hop over a cerulean sea from Australia.
Geographically, it is the most easterly of the Lesser Sundas – a necklace of volcanic islands strung across the eight to nine degrees latitude south of the Equator which begins with Bali to the west. The Indonesians call these parts Nusa Tenggara. Of this group of isles, Timor’s history is the most interesting and complex.
Divided since the early age of the spice trade by vying European empires, the west of the island fell to the Dutch and the east to the Portuguese.
Today West Timor is a part of the Republic of Indonesia; and East Timor, after a torturous and bloody struggle, is now the independent nation of Timor Leste.
The fate and fortune of Timor has been inextricably linked to the aromatic sandalwood tree (Santalum album). In the 14th century Chinese merchants, followed by Arab traders, were lured to Timor by this fragrant and precious commodity.
Not long after Vasco da Gama discovered the sea passage to India by rounding the bottom of Africa, the Portuguese raced to conquer Malacca, expanded to the Moluccas and set up base on the coasts of the Oecusse-Ambeno Kingdom (now the autonomous Timor Leste enclave of Oecusse) making themselves the dominant player in the export of this rare wood, later to be supplanted by the Dutch.
Despite the depletion of its forests by the heedless harvesting of sandalwood and territorial bisection of the island for commerce and Christian conversion, the interior of Timor was not so long ago still a place of petty kings, tribal warriors and betel nut chewing headhunters practising their traditional lifestyles and beliefs .
A British handbook prepared and printed in 1920 by His Majesty’s Foreign Office provided readers living in the early age of motorcars and cameras with a Marco Polo-like description of then Dutch (West) Timor:
“The future of the colony depends entirely upon the successful pacification of the native tribes or ‘kingdoms’. Of these there are about forty, usually in a state of enmity with each other. There are certain number of nominal Christians among the natives, but the bulk of both the Timorese, in the south-west of the island, and the Belonese, in the centre, are pagans, and most of them are dangerous and vindictive savages. The most troublesome people on the island are the black Christians, descendants of Portuguese half-breeds: they are proud, treacherous and cruel. The mountainous interior is not likely to be law-abiding for many years to come. The native hate strangers, and mostly live in small hill kampongs of a dozen huts.
The numerous Rajahs are constantly fighting amongst themselves, and, although most of them are pledged not to buy or sell slaves and to refrain from torturing and mutilating their subjects, such pledges are in most cases unfulfilled. These Rajahs are nearly all blood-thirsty tyrants. Even the tractable Rajah of Kupang claims to be closely related to the crocodiles in Kupang Bay, and till a few years ago virgins used to be flung to them, so that the family ties might be maintained”.
All Photographs and Text Copyright Kerk Boon Leng October 2019
Honestly, it is hard to think of a city in the world with a name as sweet-sounding and redolent of a tropical bygone era as Surabaya.
But the origin of the name Surabaya that hints strongly at the bestial instincts of struggle and survival is not quite so romantic. The name, it is said, comes from two words in the local Javanese language. ‘Sura’, meaning a big shark-like fish and ‘boya’, meaning crocodile.
Surabaya is situated on the northeastern coast of Java along a narrow straits facing the island of Madura.
Kali Mas (Golden River) which is a branch of the Brantas River flows through the centre of Surabaya from south to north. Chosen for its location, on the busy sea lanes linking multifarious waypoints in the world’s largest archipelago that is Indonesia, Surabaya has always served as a port.
Surabaya’s seagoing connection goes back more than 600 years when Java was ruled by the mighty Majapahit kings.
Around 1800, about two hundred years after the arrival of their first ships, the Dutch finally gained control of Java. They conquered Java by cunningly playing the island’s local muslim rulers off against each other and destroying those who dared to stand in their way.
True to form, the Dutch in the Age of Imperialism, were cold-hearted, efficient and bent-on-profit administrators. They cared little for the lives (much less the livelihoods) of the Javanese peasants, chieftains and noblemen over whom they governed.
Through a colonial policy introduced in 1830 known as Cultuurstelsel or Cultivation System the Dutch compelled their Javanese subjects to plant commercial crops like indigo, coffee and sugar instead of rice. Such export orientated policy brought huge profits to the colonial government, as well as to their middlemen and merchants but led to widespread misery, starvation and sickness among the population living in the coastal and central regions of Java.
Indonesia was then called ‘Hindia Belanda’ or the Dutch East Indies and Surabaya grew to become its foremost city and most important port. But by the time of the economic depression of the 1930s Surabaya’s fortune was on its way down and its position as main city had been overtaken by Jakarta (then Batavia)
Surabaya is still today Indonesia’s second biggest city, a vibrant centre of commerce, industry and an important travel hub. Many travellers fly into Surabaya to get to somewhere else. Some of them may choose to stay a night to take in a handful of sights but Surabaya is really not yet a traveller hotspot especially for texting teenagers or tourists chasing big-ticket attractions.
For visitors looking for vestiges of the Dutch East Indies in the delapidated doorways and grunge-covered gables of a nineteenth century colonial city separated into European, Chinese, Arab and native quarters, the old city of Surabaya is an absorbing place. It is also a veritable walk-through history book and street photographers’ delight.
All text and photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng April 2018
On the steamy swampy flats where the Landak ( porcupine ) meets the Kapuas, Indonesia’s longest river, across the imaginary line that divides our earth into perfect halves is a happy, sleepy city with a creepy name.
Many stories surround Pontianak’s name which in Malay folklore is a female ghost who had died giving birth to a child
The one often told is about a seafaring Sultan who set up a kingdom here in 1771. His name was Abdurraman al Kadrie.
He was a sayyid, a descendant of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), whose family had settled in these Eastern Isles from Yemen.
An outsider to these parts of Borneo, he gained political power and influence by marrying two local women from important families. One was a daughter of the Ruler of Mempawah to the north. The other was the daughter of the Sultan of Banjar on the island’s south coast.
According to legend, the site on which Pontianak now stands was once a haunt of blood-thirsty female vampires. The Sultan and his retinue spooked by the shrill eerie voices from the dark deep forests surrounding their settlement fired cannon balls towards their direction to scare off the nocturnal denizens.
The booms and blasts duly drove the spirits away. The relieved Sultan then built a mosque and palace there and gratefully named his realm after his evicted paranormal tormentors.
Thanks to Pontianak’s location in the middle of the Malay Archipelago equidistant from Singapore and Batavia ( the old name for Jakarta ), it became an important riverine port and trading station. Ships from across the sea sailed upstream filled with iron, opium and textile to trade for the seemingly inexhaustible supply of products from Borneo’s rich and vast interior.
Among the earliest visitors to the area were the Chinese. They made their seasonal journeys to Borneo by junk to procure from the Malay and indigenous Dayak people natural products that would fetch them a profit in China such as birdnests, agar wood (gaharu), and sea cucumber ( beche de mer).
They also went there, more importantly, to look for gold.
By the 18 th century the dream of striking a small fortune brought thousands of Chinese gold diggers to Pontianak and its surrounding districts.
In July 1818 the Dutch, worried that Britain’s would threaten its dominance and economic interests in the Indies, established a permanent station in Pontianak and began to exert its authority over Kalimantan.
Text and Photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng November 2017
Reading my western guidebooks I arrived in Bandung expecting a congested Indonesian metropolis (the country’s third largest) with slightly more bearable heat, high humidity and lots of garment shops and pollution. I was quite wrong.
Bandung may be long past its glamorous colonial heyday as “Parijs van Java” but it is no high altitude version of Jakarta or Medan either. For a start, the city is clean with many large western style buildings (some Dutch) along wide roads lined with tall trees. Located on a highland plateau at an average height of around 730 metres, the climate is a sure pleaser if you have flown in from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. In mid June with daylong temperatures in the upper 20s tempered by a gentle southerly breeze and average humidity it is perfect T-shirt and sandals weather for sitting out and an after-meal saunter.
Founded by the Dutch in 1810 as a military headquarter and later proposed as a capital of their East Indies empire, Bandung is today the throbbing heart and soul of Sundaland. Cihampelas, Ciumbuleuit, Cipaganti and Cibaduyut: street names and districts of Bandung reveal the city’s proud Sundanese heritage.
The Musi River (525 km) in southern Sumatra is the second longest river in maritime South East Asia. It rises near Gunung Kaba (1,937 m) in the Barisan Range and divides the city of Palembang into halves (Ilir and Ulu) before flowing finally into the Bangka Strait.
The city of Palembang is largely unknown to foreign tourists. Even to its closest foreign neighbours across the Strait, Palembang is just a place they remember from school textbooks as the hometown of Parameswara the legendary founder of the Malaccan Sultanate. This once capital of the mysterious Malay Buddhist Kingdom of Srivijaya (that ruled the island of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula from 7th to 14 th century) has not a lot to entice internet holiday makers but for the intrepid traveler wanting to see Malay culture in its natural setting and meet some of the friendliest urban inhabitants on this planet Palembang and its hinterland province of Sumatera Selatan (South Sumatra) are unmissable.