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A hint of HDB in Jakarta's new estates

Governor relocating squatters to HDB-like rental blocks; Kalijodo red-light district is latest target

Nasi padang hawker Nurhayati and her family of eight used to live in a dingy shophouse in Kalijodo, Jakarta's infamous red-light district.

They would usually fall asleep to the cackling laughter of prostitutes and dangdut music from the nearby bars and brothels.

The 46-year-old has been living in the seedy precinct, located north of Indonesia's capital, for more than 40 years, but not anymore.

  • Not always a hotbed of vice

  • Kalijodo was not always a red light district infamous for prostitution, gambling and other vice activities.

    It was a popular spot for young people in the 1950s when the Angke river, which runs along the shanty town in North Jakarta, was clean.

    At that time, Chinese Indonesians liked to take part in a traditional ritual called Peh Chun, where young men and women would get into separate boats and cruise down the river.

    When a man was attracted to a woman on the other boat, he would throw her a traditional bean cake.

    If she throws the cake back to the man, she's interested - hence the name "Kalijodo", which is derived from kali, which means river, and jodoh, which means mate, historian Ridwan Saidi told The Jakarta Post.

    Prostitution arrived only some time in 1963 with visitors from Central and East Java, he added. More people then came to build houses in Kalijodo, usually without acquiring the proper land certificates.

    In 1970, then Jakarta Governor Ali Sadikin declared the Kramat Tunggak area in North Jakarta as a prostitution precinct. But illegal gambling den operators, pimps and sex workers who were not accepted there by the more established vice kingpins moved to Kalijodo, according to Tempo magazine.

    The area was later marked out by the new Jakarta city administration in 2010 as a green zone - for the development of a public park.

    However, a proactive push by current Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnamato to clean up Kalijodo to build a green lung started only after a fatal car crash on Feb 8. 

    Arlina Arshad

Last week, she was relocated as part of Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama's plan to clean up the area, and moved into a new two-bedroom rusunawa, or rental flat, in Marunda, North Jakarta.

"It's quiet and comfortable but after four decades living in Kalijodo, the silence is strange and intimidating," said Madam Nurhayati.

That is why even though her family members were allocated four apartments by the city, they all choose to sleep in one - for company, she added.

Yesterday, some 5,000 soldiers, police officers as well as public service officers arrived to clear out the remaining occupants in Kalijodo.

The eviction, to the surprise of many, went by without much resistance from residents or activists, as bulldozers and excavators tore down more than 100 makeshift buildings and homes in the area.

About one-third of the estimated 3,000 people living there, mostly illegally, were moved to two of 27 blocks of government flats in Marunda.

Hundreds more were moved to a similar public housing complex in Pulogebang, East Jakarta, while those without proper Jakarta identity documents, including some 450 sex workers, were asked to return to their home towns in other parts of Indonesia.

Mr Basuki, better known as Ahok, had started the ball rolling by issuing an eviction notice earlier this month, in the wake of a fatal accident blamed on rampant drink driving in the area.

The new four-storey rental apartment blocks bear a striking resemblance to Housing Board flats in Singapore.

A source familiar with the project told The Straits Times last week that Jakarta officials had met their Singapore counterparts from HDB and the Urban Redevelopment Authority on township management some time in 2014.

Just like in HDB neighbourhoods, the new estates come with community gardens, covered walkways, futsal courts, kindergartens, a mosque, a hospital, and even a centralised bin centre.

While residents say they enjoy the tranquil and clean surroundings of their new homes, those who relied on visitors to Kalijodo for a living, such as textile assistant Sumadi, now worry about their rice bowls.

"What can we do for a living here? We are far from everywhere," said the 45-year-old.

Coconut rice hawker Ema, 40, said Kalijodo and her new home are as different as "night and day".

For one thing, there are no more beer posters and women in hot pants and spiked heels working the labyrinth of alleys and decaying bars. "It's like getting out of the tiger's lair, and going straight into a chicken coop," she said.

The latest move by the Jakarta government will not be the last.

In a little over a year since becoming governor, Mr Basuki has been cleaning up the city at breakneck speed, relocating squatters to rusunawas in other parts of the city.

His target is to build 50,000 government rental flats by next year.

While Mr Basuki had been criticised for being inhumane and anti- poor by evicted residents and rights activists, he insisted that they were getting better living conditions as a result of the move.

"Lee Kuan Yew had done this more than 20 years ago," said Mr Basuki, referring to the public housing plan of Singapore's late founding Prime Minister.

Forced resettlements have become commonplace in Jakarta as it battles with rapid urbanisation and a population explosion, which saw numbers soaring from 9.6 million people six years ago to more than 10 million in 2014.

Although residents who have been relocated are still getting used to their new domiciles, urban experts such as Mr Rudy Tambunan, a senior urban studies lecturer at the University of Indonesia, are on Mr Basuki's side.

"Jakarta is facing a population crisis, so we must support Ahok's initiatives whether we like them or not," said Mr Rudy.

The lure of a better life continues to draw Indonesians from rural areas in the country to Jakarta, affectionately known as the Big Durian.

Many who flocked to the city continue to live illegally, often squatting along canals and under bridges and viaducts.

Whenever they are evicted, they simply make new homes elsewhere.

Former Kalijodo sex worker Rina, however, said she would try to look for work back in her hometown of Medan, Sumatra, but plans to return to Jakarta some day.

"It may be goodbye to Kalijodo for now, but my life doesn't end here," said Rina. "Surely there is a Kalijodo elsewhere in Indonesia waiting for me."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2016, with the headline 'A hint of HDB in Jakarta's new estates'. Print Edition | Subscribe