Discovering Jakarta's "Kota Tua"

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All but hidden in the chaos of modern-day Jakarta’s urban sprawl lies a rich history. Paula Tan finds that for those who make the effort to discover it, the legacy of the splendour of Batavia awaits as a compelling reward.

The evening sun casts long shadows across the weathered stone floors of the Café Batavia in Jakarta’s Kota Tua, the old Batavia. In its golden glow, Duke Ellington floats across the gentle murmur of voices in the square, and the clink of china adds to the mood of Valentine-ready patrons. Through the casement windows of the elegant Churchill Bar upstairs, the old City Hall stands resplendent against an indigo sky. Built in the 1800s and used as the office of the E. Dunlop & Co. trading company in 1884, and by kantor Kapal Hadji [ Kongsi Tiga ] in the 1920s, the building which houses Café Batavia was purchased and converted by owner Eka Chandra in 1992. Featuring 15-foot ceilings and lazy fans, Café Batavia is graced by photographs of old Hollywood stars from Harlow to Gable. Linked by a sweeping red carpeted staircase, its elegant Grand Salon dining room is a vision straight out of the roaring ’20s, filled with the forgotten fragrance of fresh tuberose. Almost every room in the establishment still utilizes items belonging to owners of the past, lamps and chairs, to tables and cabinets made of fine teak from the late 19th century. It is said that during the renovation of the building in 1992, a land passage was found, linking it to the underground prison – complete with human bones – within the City Hall premises, which is today’s Jakarta History Museum.

See Also: Six Amazing Destinations in Indonesia


A Troubling Past

The Jakarta History Museum’s 37 rooms house roughly 23,000 artifacts, including a replica of a stone inscription, evidence of writing in Java that dates back to the Sanskrit Tarumanegara inscription of 450CE, and weapons from European and Indonesian powers alike. Also displayed is an extensive collection of Betawi furniture dating from the 1600s to the 1800s. Originally called the Stadhuys, the museum, located near the Court of Justice, banks and old port of Sunda Kelapa, was once the administrative headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, and later, the Dutch Government. Built in 1710 by Governor General van Riebeeck, its regal façade conceals below it notorious dungeons and filthy water prisons of only four feet in height. Most prisoners of the era, both Dutch rebels and Indonesian patriots, were publicly flogged, barbarically impaled and executed on the square called the Stadhuisplein, now known as Fatihillah Square, while the Dutch overlords gazed down on the proceedings below from the portico and windows above.

In the center of the square, a fountain remains today, which served as water supply for the colonial capital. To its north sits a Portuguese cannon, believed to be a font of fertility.

Café Batavia and the Jakarta History Museum are merely two of the historical landmarks in this vicinity. In its glory days of the 16th century, Batavia was known as “The Queen of the East” and “The Jewel of Asia”. Its Sunda Kelapa harbour thrived with merchant vessels from Europe, China, India, and across the Indonesian archipelago, transporting precious nutmeg, pepper, tea, coffee, ceramics, cloth, and other exotic products of the time. Its warehouses were stacked with spices, tin, and copper. Batavia’s booming trade filled the coffers of the Netherland’s Treasury.

Expanding over time to the west bank of the Ciliwung river or Kali Besar in today’s Kota Tua, the city of Batavia is where the Dutch built a fortress, a city wall and canals, beyond which lay Chinatown [Glodok] and homes of the indigenous people. The city became the administrative center of the Dutch East Indies, and in 1942, during the Japanese occupation, Batavia was renamed Jakarta, and still serves as the capital city of Indonesia. In Kota Tua, the historic heart of the city where it all began, the Kali Besar canal remains linked by a drawbridge of Dutch design built in the 1600s, but now lovingly restored. Covering 1.3 square kilometres, the entire area is currently known as the old Batavia, or Kota Tua, and remains a present-day part of North and West Jakarta.


Colonial Relics And A Heritage Preserved

Several other museums on Kota Tua’s Fatahillah Square continue to keep its cultural and colonial memories warm. Previously the Geo Wehry & Co. warehouse, the Wayang Museum on the west side of the square contains a collection of shadow puppets from all over Indonesia and the region. It also displays traditional puppets and dolls from other nations, as well as memorial stones from the Dutch occupancy. The Ceramic Museum, which used to be the Court of Justice on the east side, offers a small collection of old ceramics and paintings from Indonesian artists, notably works by the romantic, Raden Saleh, and expressionist Affandi. Old cannons and a massive ancient tree in its compound still offer a faded glimpse of an illustrious bygone era.

Another beautiful colonial relic to visit is Toko Merah on the west bank, built in 1730 as the residence of the Governor- General of the Dutch East Indies, Gustaaf Willem Baron van Imhoff. Having played many roles, from Asia’s oldest naval academy in the 1700’s, to that of a hotel, it previously featured an additional row of carriage houses and stables for the establishment’s eight carriages and sixteen horses. In 1851, Toko Merah was purchased by Oey Liauw Kong, Batavia’s Kapitein der Chinezen, for use as his residence and commercial premises. It was then painted brick red, and became known as Toko Merah. Today, this distinctive red building has been restored as a conference hall and commercial gallery.

Maintaining their imposing stance in Kota Tua are the stately Mandiri Bank, once Kantoor van der Nederlandsch Indische Escompto Maatschappij, and the Indonesian Bank, which was previously the De Javasche Bank. Despite serving their purpose today, these buildings nevertheless still evoke an aura of the past. In a blend of two time zones, art lovers have resurrected several colonial buildings as art cafes, like the charming Djarkate by Fatahillah Square. The vintage Batavia Minang restaurant on Jalan Kali Besar also features a good range of local dishes. By day, you can rent a colourful vintage bicycle that comes with an accompanying hat at Fatahillah Square, and ride your way through history in the sunshine. By dusk, the vicinity comes alive with costumed street performers and a lively night market with a variety of local souvenirs, winding around its old streets. A friendly face at the square is the painted soldier, who makes an appearance daily in front of the Jakarta History Museum.

In 1972, the Governor of Jakarta, Ali Sadikin, issued a decree that officially made Kota Tua a heritage site. From the top of Menara Syahbandar, the city’s Lookout Tower, it unfolds over the Kali Besar. To the north, a view that has remained unchanged over the centuries reveals itself across the old harbour’s colourful phinisi schooners to the Java Sea. Here, the scars of old battles remain etched in the soil, and the spirit of a people who would not be broken still echoes in native poetry. At first glance, Kota Tua may seem a relic of the past which has seen better days, but look a little closer, walk its streets, and its captivating history will resurface before your very eyes. Described centuries ago by Dutch writer Francois Valentijn as “even more beautiful than cities in the Netherlands,” Jakarta’s most iconic legacy is coming back to life.

Travel Tip

The Trans-Jakarta busway has a central line called Kota. Take it to the end of the line, and Fatahillah Square will be just a short walk away.

Source: The Expat Magazine April 2014

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