Architecture / Interior /

The Other Side of Blok M You Wish You Knew

At dawn and then at dusk offices, along Jl. Melawai Raya in Blok M, South Jakarta, open then close noisy steel shutters in anticipation of an ambiguous threat. Following tradition from decades past, staff clean the remnants of the passing night’s revelries. The crushed opaque plastic cups and black coffee stains the clear hint at Blok M’s vibrant ecology.

Photo by Tariq Khalil

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Blok Melawai, a vague tribute to Kalimantan’s jungle territory of Melawai, runs on a diurnal cycle. Early every weekday morning, an army of office workers emerge from the nearby bus terminal’s labyrinth of underpasses, gracefully dodging traffic. As the day warms, shoppers stream past hawkers clustered around mid-end malls. Afternoon sermons from a rooftop loudspeaker drift into offices. Uber drivers and Starbucks baristas jostle alongside provincial officials smoking and taking calls in short-stay hotels. It’s hard to imagine anything less glamourous than Blok M: Run down, trash filled, narrow streets, cars tightly parked diagonally in front of a mix of sleep-deprived Japanese-run shophouses that admit to no wares more salacious than ramen.

A walk through the maze-like blocks offers little more than a jumpy arrangement of stubby multi-stories. Short-lived voids appear during the demolition of vintage properties exposing old brick and painted plaster and derelict exemplars of the Indies architectural style. Nothing could look sadder. It was not always so. In 1956, the spanking new, Cuba-in-the-Orient Melawai shophouse complex soft opened Usmar Ismail’s classic romantic film Tiga Dara. The film’s recent digital restoration slaps you with dental-white glare from shophouse balconies, perforated screens and exteriors segmented by Shanghai plaster. The two-storey grid with its storefronts and unpaved roads could have doubled as a set for a tropical cowboy film. At high noon the luckiest dara, or young woman, sang duets whilst window shopping.

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Blok M’s two-storey rukos, or shophouses, offered Jakarta’s elite al-fresco shopping on a par with Pasar Baru and Jl. Nusantara up north, but with a traditional pasar to tick the social conscience box. Bookshops squeezed next to art galleries, tailors, provisioners and more specialised stores, such as Toko Tjiliwung for imported motorbikes. It was devoid of the eclecticism of Straits shophouses, which could be distinguished by signature Corinthian capitals separating three bay windows, rusticated piers and fluted pilasters. Straits Baroque followed in the footsteps of Europe’s post-Renaissance pioneers from the 16th century. These flashier cousins from Malaysia and Singapore shook up the basic shophouse elements, theatrically playing with proportions, recruiting fussy geometries and lavishly overstating classical Chinese and European elements in stone and plaster. The Dutch offered more sober forms, which confessed to a distant fling with Art Deco style. Their vision for commerce in the new Indonesia was a serious enterprise enlisting proper Calvinist designs that crafted a utilitarian modern: Plain facades with simple lines of parapet walls, saddle rooftops running parallel to the street and overlooking compact courtyards and chimney sized air wells on the other side.

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Baroque, Rococo, Georgian decorative fancies to even the five-foot way were profligate distractions for a sacralised industry. Yet hidden behind one-name signboards and tarpaulins are redundant tilted balconies for unlikely Romeo-and-Juliet escapes from the tedium of mercantilism.By the early 1980s, the conventional way of retail was disrupted by old style land clearing. The traditional pasar was burnt to the ground, making way for Aldiron Plaza. The modified landscape attracted other multi-story malls, such as Pasaraya and Melawai Plaza. With the retreat of shophouse retail, eating also began to sustain shophouse fortunes.

In the 1960s eating out had been pretty much limited first to Hotel Indonesia, then spread to a handful of international hotels, but remained a rare treat even for wealthy Jakartans. Period fine dining took hold here at the tail end of the 1970s, with Indonesia’s first burger outlet (American Hamburger), high-end Chinese cuisine at Ratu Bahari to western cafes (Maxim’s and Rendezvous) and a steakhouse (Gandy’s). Long queues of teenagers soon formed at Jakarta’s first KFC.

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The outside strip on Jl. Melawai was soon moonlighting as the cultural space Lintas Melawai, the weekend destination for boy racers, languidly cruising their hot-rods up and down the strip, oblivious to girls. This blunder was corrected by Bar Lintas Melawai in one of the area’s first generation hotels. Young women, referring to themselves as “students”, worked the edges of Melawai, leaving the heart around the bus terminal to preman thugs. Melawai’s enlarged bus terminal funnelled people from Jakarta’s growing suburban fringes: Kalimantan’s core in concrete became a den for organized gangs. After ruthless clean ups, the void was slowly filled by new groups. At dawn, skinny kids sporting tight trousers and earth-toned ukuleles can still be found slumped in doorways and beneath shophouse awnings – the pathetic remnants of Blok M’s punk scene. Throughout the 1990s and early
part of the millennium, fully formed punks had encroached from around Blok M square to the elevated walkway, laying out pirated music, stickers, pins and t-shirts on the pavements. With no political ethos, they were prone to infighting – these tropical provocateurs were oblivious to anarchy’s great thinkers and lacked a dalang like Malcolm Maclaren.

The governor’s next city “clean up” swept away this strange group. After dark, patchy street lights leave a few corners of Melawai in near darkness. Cold light from kanji-scripted neon menus and hostesses wearing ill-fitting kimonos guiding clientele inside. Their wives at home, Japanese salarymen clock into their second shift, enjoy Izakaya for beer, snacks and noisy ramen houses to expensive sashimi houses. After four decades of co-evolution, Blok M has a special place within the Japanese community; the cuisine is regarded by many as the best outside Japan and mimicked by local chains. This distinctly low-profile Japanese community transformed the district’s fortunes. Single men dispatched to the city after Soeharto’s investment decrees in late 1960s had limited options and rare nights to venture out of their dorms. Within two decades, Blok M had fully grown its new Japanese skin and side-stepped venues in Kota, Ancol and Central Jakarta. The salarymen from the north were the saviours for the area’s
landlords, who increasingly leased to Japanese restaurants, offices and discreet entertainment venues.

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On Blok M’s gridded monopoly board, old rukos were new Transformer toys in the hands of new tenants. They began to reshape shophouses, extending them upwards and outwards. Uncollected trash is put to work enhancing entertainment aesthetics: the cleaner a place the less attractive it becomes or as they say in Japan, “a fish doesn’t live in clean water”. Their lego style additions have re-created downtown Tokyo’s Kabukicho district. After dark, bright neon signs light up narrow streets packed with vertically integrated bars, restaurants and hostess bars. Synchronized with the Japanese landing, Western nightlife — lured from Menteng’s Jl. Jaksa — cautiously advanced towards Blok M’s northern watershed in the mid-1970s. The drab, uniform shophouses on Jl. Pelatihan were an unlikely place for a fantasy world in waiting. In sun-bleached plaster, below one parapet roofline are everyman hieroglyphs of a knife, fork and glass punctuated by diamonds. Americans and Englishmen converted the larger shophouses into venues like Tanamor, Oskars and Top Gun, making small fortunes for their investors by serving weary customers tired of Indonesian food and Western wives.

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The recently opened Octagon was once the Sportsman, which once attracted thirsty expats whose sport was drinking while screaming at athletes on TV. Jl. Pelatihan thrilled oil-field-trash (as rig workers on liberty were known) and tourists on shore leave. The street also satisfied a 9-to-5 cadre, who would meet for dinner and enough booze to find the courage to imitate offshore visitors. The next morning, idle company drivers sought to outdo each other with tales of western debauchery in basement car parks. Even when contained behind the bus terminal, the notoriety of these establishments soon attracted trouble. Unlike their Japanese counterparts, bule remained minor players, but like the area’s ersatz punks they lacked sophistication.

In the late 1980s the owner of Sportsman was murdered; other owners died prematurely. Western hegemony over this one street persisted until the mid 2000s with bars competing to be the least decorous and value for money. Today less than a handful of these bars remain. The younger generation of foreginers has lived through the rebalancing between East and West in Southeast Asia’s capitals and spurn the post-colonial ghettos of their fathers. They socialize with their Indonesian peers in new bars dispersed across the city. The unadorned shops of Blok M — the epicentre of Kebayoran Baru — were a blank canvas for subsequent cultural incursions. Over time these shophouses acquired their own dwifungsi (double role): a primary role as retail space for consumer goods and an emerging role as purveyors of cultural experience through food and entertainment. On its slow slide into the future, Blok M still reflects and shapes the experience of Jakarta’s diverse people.

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