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Living in Batavia

by Soppy

It’s Friday afternoon and the rainy season has turned Jalan Rasuna Said into Sungai Baru. You’re nose to tail in a snarl that heads from Merak to Banyuwangi for all you know, the green bus has a special hue of black being emitted on your windscreen as your wipers work furiously to clear the raindrops that show no sign of easing your agony. Your mobile rings, it’s the missus reminding you to call into Kemchicks to collect some ham…you contemplate the traffic, the motorcyclists wrapped in plastic sheets knocking the wing mirror and you make a decision. A gargle in Aphrodite is infinitely preferable to hours on the street in this weather. You pick up your Nokia. Sorry dear, got a meeting.

It’s seems difficult to believe but Jakarta wasn’t always like this. A heart with carbohydrated clogged arteries pumping slowly against the odds. Once upon a time there were some 5 million people on the whole island of Java and not shoehorned in one bus. You could even see the gently rising mountains of the hinterland from the shore. What mountains I hear the denizens of 21st Century Jakarta cry, used just to the glass and concrete towers to mammon that line the Golden (!) Triangle.

But once upon a time Batavia was known as the Paris of the East in one of those sobriquets the Cathay traveler used to describe the Orient to the disbelievers back in the west. I have never found out why when many early accounts attest in fact to the high attrition rate in those far off days. As a transit point for the highly lucrative spice trade, Batavia attracted all sorts and all sorts never returned from whence they came for such were the conditions that people dropped like the flies that probably helped kill them.

In June 1775, a chap called Thurberg was on his way to Japan so before leaving had a nosebag with some 15 mates. When he returned just a couple of years later, eleven had been buried. The wonderfully named Von Wollzagen found that all his friends died in a period of 18 months in a case that would have had Miss Marple drooling. A ship by the name of Morgenstern deposited 150 men in 1770 and within 4 months a mere fifteen survived. Many would have been buried in Tanah Abang cemetery, later bulldozed into a silent, invisible history of it’s own, forgotten in all but the minds of historians and bookworms who should get out more.

But life did go on of course and a funeral procession would have been as little remarked upon then as an English batting collapse is today. People lived and died and gossiped and pondered life’s great issues. The raising of hats on public highways was one such issue. How long should one remove their hat when someone of a higher station pass and how long after should the hat stay removed? Putting it back on too soon could see the poor misfortunate horsewhipped for this insult of Vesuvian proportions. Forget the bus way, how long should we remain motionless as the great and good in their convoys pass us by?

But while many agreed that the city of Batavia may have been pleasing on the eye with several sturdy buildings and wide throughways that reached into the boonies of places such as Tanah Abang, Gunung Sahari, Manga Dua, Angke, it was recognized that the stagnant canals that criss crossed the area were the cause of coffin makers fortune. These waterways were as polluted and unattractive then as they are today but a great deal deadlier.

Many of the more well to do moved away from Batavia and settled on the outskirts, on the roads to Tangerang or to the hills in the South. Raffles of Singapore fame spent some five years based on Java but one of the first things he did was base himself in Bogor, a village with a much nicer climate than the heat of the plains and coastal regions. He would occasionally call into the heart of Batavia but seldom stayed long, racing back to the house in Bogor in a journey that would take approximately four hours. Plus ca change.

Cosmopolitan describes the inhabitants well. Contemporary records tell of a strict hierarchy. At the top of the pile were the Dutch Burgers. Puffed up gentlefolk of whiskers and western fashions sweltering away in those pre air conditioned days, rising at dawn, working a while, thrashing a slave or six before retiring for some well earned rest. Many were Dutch in name only, often being of mixed blood with some Portuguese and Malay added to the cocktail.

Mardykers, or emancipated slaves often of Indian origin, worked the land and lived well with schools for their youth. Arabs and Moors at one time were the dominant traders in the area due to their importance on the overland routes from the archipelago to Europe which transported the spices that eventually brought the Europeans. There were even some Javanese who settled in a couple of Kampungs on either side of the river that dissected Batavia and engaged in farming and fishing. There were large numbers of Balinese there at the time and their womenfolk were apparently highly prized by the Chinese. The Makassars were seen as the Swiss in Europe in earlier times, as soldiers of fortune. There were many from Ambon who were also considered good military material as were the Maduarese.

There were also some 100,000 Chinese in and around Batavia and were highly prized for their entrepreneurship, then as now. They were centred on the South Western suburbs and every home was a shop. Or every shop a home. At that time women were forbidden to leave China so the Chinese would often be forced to intermarry and as mentioned earlier the Balinese were highly sought after. It is estimated that immediately after the British arrived in Java some 5,000 Chinese arrived on Junks from the Middle Kingdom.

The Chinese dressed in long silk gauze robes, loose pantaloons with stockings and heeled shoes or boots. A small black cap was fitted to the baldheads while at the rear was a small tuft with a long tail. Which was taxed!

Of course, as you sit in the bar enjoying your first beer of the day, the rain outside slides into the subconscious and you spend a few moments trying to explain why the ham didn’t get brought but the aroma of Bir Bintang hangs heavy on your clothes. But seek refuge in the thought that 200 years ago, your predecessors sought solace in The Society, a gentleman’s club in Harmonie where they would unwind after a busy day and enjoy a drink and cigar among their own kind. Drink then was as much a part of the lifestyle as it is today, probably more so. A bottle of wine a day was as natural as a bottle of Aqua and this served as a supplement to the beer, sake and other spirits that were an essential part of the daily diet. And as you pick up the pillow and head for the sofa try the story of the strait laced widow of a Dutch Governor General who died, leaving behind 4500 bottles of wine and 10,000 bottles of beer.

This story was offered by pissedupasia.com, the lifestyle website for the discerning drinker... in other words, your guide to drinking yourself silly across Asia.

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