I was born in Jakarta in 1972. My parents, especially my mom, wanted a better life in another country. She has lived through the Japanese invasion and occupation of Indonesia, the Dutch trying to wrestle back control after the surrender of the Japanese army in 1945, and the bloody coup and the atrocities during the Suharto era. So we moved to Canada in 1977. My mother has never been back since. She’s lived in Canada longer than she’s lived in Indonesia.
A sprawling metropolis
Jakarta, capital of Indonesia, is located on the island of Java, which is home to more than half the population of the country (total population is about 270 million). The city has more than 10.6 million inhabitants while the city’s sprawl encompasses more than 30 million.
The first time I visited my birthplace was in 1999. It was during the six-month backpacking trip Paul and I did of South East Asia. Back then I thought it was a hellhole of a city — hot, crowded and polluted. I remember hopping on and off diesel-powered dinosaurs, the throngs of motorbikes, the toxic exhaust of public and private transport blackening the insides of my nostrils.
The Jakarta of 2019 is still a city that I couldn’t live in. (Thanks Mom and Dad for moving to Canada.) Many of the motorcycles have been replaced by cars now affordable to the middle class: new model Toyotas and Hondas. The traffic, although producing slightly less black smoke, is still a nightmare and getting from one part of the city to another requires a lot of time and sitting in a perpetual traffic jam. It took an hour to get from my aunt and cousin’s home in East Jakarta to Old Town, and an hour and a half to get from their house to the airport.
It almost doesn’t matter what kind of transport you take — public bus, taxi, private car — or whether taking the paid toll roads. There is a morning and evening rush hour but the roads are congested regardless. Although a motorbike will definitely get you somewhere faster, you risk getting into an accident weaving in and out of traffic, especially during rainy season. My cousin Megi sometimes gets a ride on the back of a motorbike to get to work and my cousin Michael commutes daily on one. Yes, he’s been in an accident.
A big reason we are here this trip is to visit my aunt and my cousin. My aunt was married to my uncle Eng Thai, who is my mother’s youngest brother. I say ‘was’ because sadly my uncle has passed away. The last time I saw my cousin Megi, she was about seven years old and I was 27. Now she’s 27 and I’m … feeling old.
Old Town Jakarta (Kota Tua)
Megi came with us to visit Kota Tua, or Old Batavia, the first walled settlement of the Dutch in the Jakarta area. It was the capital of the Dutch East Indies during the 17th and 19th century. There are still old colonial buildings in Old Town.
Cafe Batavia, located in Fatahillah Square, is a colonial building built in the 1830s. In 1990, the cafe was restored and turned into a 1930s themed restaurant and bar featuring a private collection of photographs.
The Jakarta Museum was in the same square as the Cafe Batavia so we went in. It was pretty interesting.
Some of you may know that my ancestors are from the southern Chinese province of Fujian/Hokkien. Information at the museum stated that the Betawi people consisted of people from other parts of Indonesia, China, India, Portugal and Arabia. It was interesting to note that the oft-persecuted Chinese community was mentioned.
Wayang Kulit Museum
The puppet museum was also in the square so we visited here too.