Posted by: mel | January 19, 2010

Tripping Through Time at Pasar Baru

Jakarta Globe | Ade Mardiyati | 19 January 2010

A vendor selling hair at Pasar Baru. (JG Photo/Ade Mardiyati)

Chan Mie Ling can be found most days looking after customers at her modest shop, which sells prayer-related paraphernalia.

The shop, where she also lives, sits in a small alley in the Pasar Baru area of Central Jakarta. It is just a few meters away from a Dutch colonial-era building on which can be made out the faded writing “Tjap Potret Njonja Meneer,” a famous brand of herbal medicine.

Maria, Ling’s Indonesian name, runs the shop with her mother-in-law, an elderly woman in her 80s whom she calls popoh (grandmother).

“Please, make sure that you won’t cause me any problems with my talking to you,” Maria says at the beginning of our short chat. “We often experience unpleasant treatment, being of Chinese descent.”

Besides running the shop, the 64-year-old also collects plastic cups and bottles from the street and piles them at the front of the house to sell to recyclers.

“You see, we are poor people, too. But when the local [Indonesian] trash pickers see me pick up the litter, they get really angry. They say, ‘You Chinese can’t pick up trash here. This area is ours,’ ” she says.

But her husband’s family has been living in the area since the 1800s.

“I’m not sure of the year, but I think my husband belongs to the third generation,” she says. “We’ve been here a long time. This alley used to be a wet market, and our shop was one of many in the neighborhood.

“Now that we are the only remaining shop [in the alley], I close the entrance door most of the time although we are open.”

Maria’s family is a living testament to the changing face of Pasar Baru, one of the few places in Jakarta where you can study the history of the city through the architecture, food and shops. Pasar Baru, or Passer Baroe, as written on a new gate built at the entrance to the market, was established in 1820, during the Dutch colonial era.

To get to the gate from the main street, Jalan Pasar Baru Raya, you have to cross a small asphalt bridge that spans the Ciliwung River. Old-timers say there was a time when the trash-clogged river was clean, though it’s hard to believe.

After passing through the new gate, the journey into the past begins. The market is a huge, open-air shopping area, with a variety of stores. Vehicles, once not allowed to enter, now merrily drive down the road that passes through the heart of the pasar .

Pasar Baru, which literally means “new market,” was once of old Jakarta’s most important business centers for the mostly Chinese, Indian and Malay traders who settled down and opened stores here.

Back then, the market mostly catered to the rich. It is said that young Dutch girls loved to walk up and down the market’s two sides in white dresses, umbrellas in hand.

Today, the market’s clientele is more diverse, with fair-skinned foreigners rarely seen in the area.

One indicator of Pasar Baru’s past is the vendors displaying old Indonesian coins and bills in front of some of the shops. The money dates back to the colonial era up until the 1980s. One vendor had a stack of old Acehnese money on display, which he said was original. He was selling the paper money for Rp 25,000 ($3) a banknote.

Most of the people who buy the old bills are either collectors or men about to get married.

“I’m getting married on January 22,” said Teguh , a 24-year-old civil servant. “The dowry will be Indonesian bills that [will signify] the date 22-1-2010 put in a frame.”

Warman, who was manning a table stacked with old money, said he had a minimum of five regular customers a day and earned between Rp 100,000 ($11) and Rp 150,000. “Coins don’t really sell. It’s really only bills, which people frame bills for their dowries,” said the 60-year-old father of seven.

Passing through the market’s stores, one can discern a pattern: Most shoe shops are owned by ethnic Chinese, while most of the textile shops belong to ethnic Indians.

There are also shops selling housewares and accessories, and Matahari, once one of Jakarta’s most prestigious department stores before glitzy shopping malls overtook the city, also has a branch here.

Mixed among the older buildings with distinctive Chinese-Dutch architecture are more modern-looking shops, with their big glass windows. Among the area’s architectural gems is the Lee Ie Seng stationery store, built in 1873, and a herbal medicine shop located at the other end of the market.

One side of an intersection dividing the shopping complex leads to the legendary narrow street known as Gang Kelinci, or Rabbit Alley. A popular song of the same name in the 1960s explains the story behind the name. As the song goes, the population in the area grew “like rabbits” in the old days, which made the street crowded.

This alley holds some of the area’s best-known noodle eateries, the largest one being “Bakmi Gang Kelinci” (“Gang Kelinci Noodles”).

Bakmo Aboen is a far more modest Chinese noodle shop, located in an even narrower alley off Gang Kelinci. This is where lovers of non-halal noodles go, as the small shop, which has been around since 1961, serves pork dishes.

A few meters further down Gang Kelinci is Shalimar, an eclectic Indian mini-market that offers food items like thin, long rice for briyani — a hot Indian dish — spices and samosas alongside accessories and makeup. Located nearby are tailors that specialize in Indian saris.

At the other end of the market are two buildings that are obviously not from the same period.

The newer one is called Harco Pasar Baru, popular among beauty salon businesses. Harco is also known as a place where you can get good deals on cameras and camera equipment.

Metro Atom, the neighboring building, is home to old and new cameras shops, including some stores offering repair services. One can also find vendors in both buildings hawking all sorts of goods, including second-hand clothes.

Standing out from among the surrounding shops in Metro Atom is Utpala, owned by the ever-friendly Hans. Selling mostly traditional spa items like aromatherapy oils, soaps, home fragrances and other herbal products, Hans’s products have sexually-suggestive labels.

“They’re eye-catching and people know what the items are for without having to ask me,” said the Javanese man, who has been running the shop for five years.

“The shop is refreshing for customers after looking at cameras, clothes and other stuff, as this is the only shop of its kind here in this area.”

A jar containing small boxes of breast-firming powder is labeled “ montok , kenceng , padet , sintal ,” which basically means plump and firm. Another jar contains a formula of some sort that women are meant to apply for promised “tightness and pleasure.”

Outside Metro Atom exists another world, one filled with food sellers and people just hanging out with the vendors.

To make ends meet, Johan has been engraving steel rings for the past 18 years at the entryway to Metro Atom.

“My clients are young couples. They love to wear rings with their boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s name on it,” the 40-year-old said. “Married people don’t place orders. They have real wedding rings.”

A bizarre-looking scene marks the end of the market complex. There, vendors sell what they claim to be human hair, displayed on modest wooden racks or low pedestals.

“The hair come from agents in Brebes [Central Java],” said one of the vendors, Doni. “I sell quite a lot of hair a day.”

He said prices varied, depending on the length, and the hair was sold in bunches of about 100 strands each.

“A bunch of hair 60 to 65 centimeters long sells for Rp 200,000. It’s Rp 350,000 for hair 80 centimeters long,” Doni said.

When tired of the hustle and bustle of the many shops in Pasar Baru, people can find some peace and quiet inside one of the nearby Chinese temples. Situated behind the “Njonja Meneer” herbal medicine shop building, Sin Tek Bio — or Wihara Dharma Jaya, the temple of the business god, built in 1698 — is visited mostly by people seeking success in their career or business, said Santoso Witoyo, who has been managing the temple for 29 years.

Just behind this temple is another one, known as Koan Im Bio, or the temple of the goddess of love and affection. According to Acau, a caretaker, people come to the temple to pray and find answers to their personal problems.

“Many [of the problems] are relationship or marriage-related,” he said.

The temples welcome anyone and everyone.

“If you are thirsty or hungry, you can go to the kitchen, we have bihun [thin rice-noodles] there. Please, make yourself at home,” Santosa said. “Please, come whenever you want.”

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