How Retro Luxury Sprawled in Indonesia


In a tropical city like Jakarta, time’s feet shuffle languidly through an amorphic season. Other than the rains, seasonal markers are faint, but one marker found deep inside the city’s high-end malls dutifully heralds that distant winter season. Without fail, Latinized sounding boutiques decorate their windows with Styrofoam snow and spray-painted fir trees to mark the arrival of the skiing season’s latest furs, scarfs and boots. This wintery tableaux delineates the high slopes of a lifestyle beyond the imagination for most.

PHOTO BY Tariq Khalil

Unbounded luxuriance is synonymous with Indonesia’s chosen few, and it has a story to tell. Whilst newly discovered treasure yearns for its secrets to be revealed, the purveyors of proto-luxury prefer to remain forgotten. But the trail to these inconspicuous consumers takes us on a journey back to the edge of living memory, to a destination architecture just outside of the cities. Along the zigzag arc of Java’s depleted volcanoes are countless guesthouses (wisma) discarded on slumbering hillsides – the once it destination.

Puncak, Lembang, Kaliurang and all the way to Batu and Selecta in Malang were the first organically chilled luxury retreats. Here, Java’s elite founded exclusive bolt-holes to create their own temporary make-believe lifestyle. Many vintage properties began as elegant weekend homes – the Dutch equivalent to the British hill station in India. These first-generation properties were as ethnically exclusive as temperate.

The sight of smoking chimneys, verdant lawns and tennis courts imperfectly created a reimagined far off homeland for Dutch settlers. A hundred years ago, Kopeng, high on Mount Merbabu, was typical of this kind of resort. The first good times went up in smoke during the 1940s when it became a battle-ground, changing hands between Dutch delusions of ownership and ascendant freedom fighters staking their claim. In 1949, tranquillity returned when it again became a rest house for Dutch planters and government officials.

Across the Pacific things were stirring, the Southern Californian oasis of Palm Springs was casting a spell over Hollywood’s glitterati, the mob and a new rich. Desert was being marketed as an adult playground and sanctuary. Mid-century styled villas and leisure spaces were fast becoming the new realty for America’s rich and famous. Back in Java colonial retreats, rather than being toppled like modern-day confederate statues, were being refitted in a modern Californian idiom. As the decade wore on, Indonesia’s new elite took full charge at the risk and reward casino.

The Dutch East Indies had it very own Great Gatsby characters, like Oei Tiong Ham, head of Asia’s most powerful conglomerate, the Oei Tiong Ham Concern. He died in 1924 leaving behind eight wives, a collection of mistresses and over twenty children. Indonesia’s very first starchitect was Oei Tjong An, a child from Ham’s inner circle of wives, received the finest of childhoods money could buy with schooling in Geneva. Oei Tjong An opened one of Java’s few architectural bureaus in Semarang during the 1950s, Java’s exclusive resorts became a happy hunting ground offering rich promise to the well-connected. A feature of Semarang’s high society, by night Oei Tjong An devoted himself to dancing, libation and networking.

By day, he worked upper end clients who were looking to him to showcase their status. Oei Tjong An went beyond peers such as Lim Bwan Tji to become a successful lifestyle brand. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Oei Tjong An’s spread mid-century modern architecture as the epitome of luxury design, brazenly promoted in Semarang’s press using a mix of Indonesian and English. Berating the work of his peers was standard; Don’t Build without Pride, Why Build Houses So Positively Ugly, in a spirit of imitation are the work of… monkeys. In that decade, he created a stack of bungalows, palatial villas and commercial buildings for Indonesia’s newly made millionaires. Although a landmark of luxury in Central and East Java, once stylish but decadent homes fell into ruin as fortunes evaporated and lifestyles of the next generation were upgraded.

The road to luxury and lifestyle has become a complex spiral. Once, miniscule numbers retreated to designer homes on cool slopes surrounding Java’s cities. Today’s wave is lured by ski slopes in Japan, Korea and the US. Both the changing aspirations at the top and the opening up to a larger middle class keep brand consultants and campaign advisors on high alert. Some luxury brands are nervous as precious ideas that have been used to gift wrap their prized product – aspiration, status, exclusivity and wealth – are being lured away by others.

Complexity in this market abounds: exclusive services like restaurants, cruises and hotels recognised high-end invisible luxuries now want to merchandise products. Bling, sports cars, cosmetics, designer clothes and branded handbags, the staple of visible luxuries, now market ‘experience’, pushing the luxury sector to be ever more creative. With clever branding, the luxury market is expanding: it wants to be less in their face and more in all our faces. Luxury is becoming more personalised and rather than buying something for its own sake, there is a new quest for authenticity. Smarter consumers no longer want simply the kudos of a designer brand.

The new direction for luxury goods is to merge our identity with the product. This allows us all to imagine that we are walk on characters in the product’s storyline. From affordable luxury to the disruption created by factory outlets, the pace of evolution in the luxury sector is accelerating. Handmade and tailored once the signature of heritage luxury now appeals to an aspiring hip segment within the middle class. Smart consumers may think they now need to have a deeper connection and personalised understanding of a brand’s heritage when it comes to their luxury purchase. Lutfi Hasan of Jakarta Vintage sells mid-century era pieces to those who are attracted to the unique allure of retro pieces – but done with a twist.

Naturally intimidated by luxury goods, he still respects those who can truly enjoy luxury in all its guises. Luxury orientated personalities serve a creative function socially. Inspiration flows through society from top to bottom then back up, swirling around the middle: the luxury industry provides an ecosystem for creativity. Scorned for centuries, the old meaning of luxury was simply lust and lechery. Over the ages, luxury remained sinful, derided as over-consumption and ostentation. Calvin’s preaching on hard work and the avoidance of personal luxury may still cast a faint shadow over Western consumer culture. Whilst Western intelligentsia and high culture may not be fulfilled by shopping alone, it still needs new forms of pleasing distractions.

It’s apt that luxury has moved beyond the classic ideas of rich and expensive to a grander domain, transcending materialism and into experientialism. In the future, we will seek fixes from designed experiences: a high from obtaining hard to buy tickets for exclusive concerts rather than just collecting records and owning a rare sound system. Sadly, things only have two seasons; Yin and Yang, one an evil to be avoided the other the conveyor of prosperity.

The age-old condition of our goblet overflowing has been re-branded as ’stuffocation’, a masuk angin like illness caused by an excess of things. To influencers and trend forecasters, more possessions means more hassle, more things to manage and more to worry about. Experience may make us happier and meet our need for status more effectively, stuffing things at the back to the closet. Minimalism and life editing are preached as quick cures for the symptoms of excess. We can find balance through experientialism: some stuff is good, but too much stuff sours. Deep structural changes such as the growing Asian middle class and social media are morphing luxury and consumerism.

During the mid-century era, the appreciation of luxury; the fancy watch, the imported car or a rare foreign holiday was extremely restricted. Now millions of us can partake in these old luxuries, but we also have to announce to digital friends that we had fun weekend or yet another great meal at a new restaurant. Our obsession with our place in the world is nurtured by fears about love, expectation, family relationships and our jobs. The lifestyle excess of others is apart from simple cruelty, another source of anxiety.

We spend a lot of time and money trying to find the keys to our happiness and satisfaction, but not nearly enough time trying to hang on to the happiness we forgot we already possess. Ancient heroes in Asia battled against our fixation on the worldly. Buddhism was conceived to cure the plague of desire. Like Taosim centuries later, the middle way counselled a balanced approach to living. This antiquarian middle way may become collectable again for mere mortals finding that path, exactly between materialism and spiritualism, remains precarious and therein lies the next opportunity for the luxury sector.

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Tariq Khalil
An accomplished street photographer, Khalil has spent much of the last decade wandering the gangs of Jakarta and cities throughout the archipelago documenting homes and buildings dating to the first decade of the boisterous new nation of Indonesia.

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