In Central Jakarta, Ruins of Indonesia’s Colonial Past

By Alvin Darlanika Soedarjo
Agence France-Presse

JAKARTA ~ In the middle of Jakarta there is a place more reminiscent of the ruins of Cambodia’s Angkor than the heart of a historic capital seeking to promote itself to the world.

Trees grow through the crumbling ceilings of derelict buildings, while thick vines reach out into the sun through dark windows and cracked walls.

Jakarta’s historic “Old Town” of Batavia, the centuries-old centre of Dutch colonial trade and administration until only about 60 years ago, is in ruins.

What could have been the centerpiece of Jakarta’s tourism drive in “Visit Indonesia Year 2008” is instead being left to the elements and vandals, while investors spend billions of dollars on new shopping malls instead.

“This is actually one of the best and most complete old towns in Asia,” said architect Budi Lim, who has been involved in efforts to revive the area, known as Kota Tua or “Old Town,” for more than two decades.

“The anatomy of the original town exists in full form. The old port and warehouses are still there.”

But unlike other Asian cities that have preserved and celebrated their historic sites, such as Singapore’s Boat Quay and Malaysia’s Malacca, Jakarta’s modern caretakers have left Batavia to rot.

West Jakarta Mayor Djoko Ramadhan recently conceded that “some old buildings” had not survived the capital’s rapid growth into a city of more than 12 million people dotted with skyscrapers and slums.

“We realize that the Old Town’s infrastructure is far from adequate,” he said, referring to a lack of parking spaces which discourages visitors in the absence of public transport.

Kota Tua was declared a heritage site in the early 1970s and town planners have promoted several schemes to revive it over the years, all of which have failed.

About two years ago the city spent more than seven million dollars on a facelift for the European-style Fatahillah square in the centre of Kota Tua, and in the 1970s the 18th century city hall was turned into a museum.

Two other Dutch colonial buildings on the square have been repaired and converted into museums of puppetry and fine arts. The well-known Batavia Cafe occupies what used to be a colonial-era warehouse on the square, but otherwise the area is derelict.

Of more than 284 buildings in Kota Tua which are on the city’s heritage list, 19 are abandoned ruins and many more have been stripped bare with no thought for their historic importance.

“People chopped off the historic parts of their buildings, such as the teak from the 1800s, with no regrets. Many antique aspects of the properties have been vandalized or stolen,” said Kota Tua property owner Ella Ubaidi.

A law supposed to protect historic buildings says violators face six months’ jail and a fine of Rp100 million (US$9,200). But it has rarely been enforced.

“Law enforcement is weak because we don’t have a solid investigation team yet,” said Kota Tua development agency head Candrian Attahiyyat.

Abandoned and neglected it may be, but history still echoes throughout Kota Tua’s narrow streets.

Leading off the square are alleys and lanes lined with crumbling old shopfronts, warehouses and offices that formed the epicenter of the region’s spice trade for about 300 years.

Asian luxuries such as Chinese porcelain, silk and tea were packed and shipped off to Europe from Batavia’s markets, along with “spice island” delicacies such as cinnamon, pepper, cloves and nutmeg.

The port of Batavia was established on the northwestern coast of Java island by the Dutch East Indies Company in the mid-1600s and remained Indonesia’s capital until it was renamed during the Japanese occupation in World War II.

Since independence in 1945, the mainly Muslim country of 234 million people has naturally celebrated its resistance to the Dutch occupiers and built monuments to its freedom fighters.

The thought of restoring and caring for the remnants of Dutch rule is anathema to many Indonesians.

According to the development agency, most of the 19 heritage-listed buildings which have fallen into total ruin in Kota Tua are state owned.

“The high cost of renovating a building, about Rp10 billion ($920,000), has discouraged many investors,” said Robert Tambunan, manager of the state-owned Indonesian Trading Company, which has 22 buildings in the area.

Long-term resident Henry Leo said it was time to restore the historic centre of old Batavia, if not for the preservation of Indonesia’s colonial history then at least as a tourist attraction to boost the incomes of local people.

“I was born here. We’re angry and saddened that the government’s lack of action has caused many buildings to deteriorate,” he said.

“I once brought US visitors to the area. They’ve never come back.”

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