Sat, 02 Dec 2000

Jl. Gajah Mada three centuries ago

By Ida Indawati Khouw

Jl. Gajah Mada and Jl. Hayam Wuruk in West and Central Jakarta respectively are streets that motorists avoid during office hours because of the horrendous traffic. This 67th article on old Batavia briefly describes this area during its early days some 300 years ago.

JAKARTA (JP): Places around the present-day Jl. Gajah Mada and Jl. Hayam Wuruk were a filthy residential area infested with malaria three centuries ago.

Residents, then predominantly Chinese, strived to make their neighborhood a better place to live in by drying up the swamps. The area then developed into a busy business and trading center. Today, the place is one of Jakarta's largest business districts.

In the 1980s, an estimated 60 percent of the money circulation in Jakarta took place in this particular area. It is also known as the heart of Jakarta's nightlife. This part of the city never sleeps.

Few know that the place was once the residence of the elite, where big and beautiful houses with spacious gardens stood. The canal between the busy main streets has a unique history. It was constructed with the citizens' own money.

The story dates back to 1648 when the Chinese accounted for the majority of the residents. They were under the authority of a Chinese captain (or kapitan, title given to the leader of certain ethnic groups) called Phoa Beng Gan, who was also known as Phoa Bing Gam or Phoa Bing Ham.

This wooded area was regarded a suburb because it was located outside the walled city of Batavia (present-day Kota). Like all other "out of town" areas, the land was swampy. Malaria was epidemic.

A certain Phoa Kian Sioe wrote in an article Seorang Ahli Pengairan dari Tiongkok, yang Membikin Kali Molenvliet (An Irrigation Expert from China who Built the Molenvliet River) that Beng Gan knew that to solve the problem, the swamps would have to be dried by constructing a canal.

Beng Gan's idea was supported by Kong-koan the Chinese Council, but the project needed big sums of money and the Dutch colonial government could not afford to finance it.

"The Chinese Council then urged the people to collect money for the canal's construction," Kian Sioe said.

The construction of the canal started from the area which is today the parking lot of the State Secretary's office in Central Jakarta (in front of Harmonie clubhouse). It was Beng Gan himself who supervised the work.

There is no information on how long the canal's construction took but it was only in 1657 that it was named Molenvliet or "mill way" because a section of the river was diverted to power a sugar mill.

Kian Sioe described that the swamps then dried up and turned into fertile lands. Farmers and merchants who had money then transported their crops in small boats to be traded. Thus the canal played a role in developing the economy of Batavia.

However, Beng Gan continued to search for other water sources to prevent the canal from drying up during the dry season as economic activities depended on the canal for transportation.

The irrigation expert then ventured further to the south after he was granted land at the Tanah Abang area (in Central Jakarta) by the Dutch government due to his achievements.

The captain turned the land into a sugar cane plantation and built another canal to transport the sugar to the city center. At present the waterway still flows through Jl. Abdul Muis.

The waterway was a multipurpose project. It was used to transport wood, for ship building and the construction of houses in the walled city in the north, from the forests in Tanah Abang and its surrounding area.

Kian Sioe said that due to ill health, Beng Gan was replaced by Lie Tju Hong. But Myra Sidharta, an expert on sinology, doubts the accuracy of this information because Tju Hong only became the Chinese leader in the 19th century.

In the course of time, the Molenvliet turned into an elite area with spacious houses built by Europeans or Chinese. The rich chose to live outside the walled city of Batavia because it had become an unhealthy and dangerous place in 1730s.

Mansions were built along the two roads at the east and the west sides of the straight three-kilometer canal, namely Molenvliet Oost street (now Jl. Hayam Wuruk) and Molenvliet West street (now Jl. Gajah Mada).

Writer Maya Jayapal said the Europeans built single story (for fear of earthquakes) and red-tiled houses.

"They were spacious whitewashed dwellings adapted to tropical living and, unlike the houses of the old town, were set apart by deep verandas, classic columns and floors of marble and red tiles, uncovered to remain cool to the touch," Jayapal said in the book Old Jakarta.

Molenvliet then linked the so-called "lower town" (Kota area) and the upper town (in the south).

Scott Merrillees described in his book Batavia in Nineteenth Century Photographs that it was common for many Europeans in the second half of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century to commute along Molenvliet from their homes in the south to their offices in the old city of the north.

"Horse-drawn carriages were the first mode of transport for this purpose but from 1869, there was also the option of using horse-drawn trams. Thirteen years later in 1882, steam trams were introduced, followed by electric trams from 1900," he said.

A French visitor described the straight three-kilometer area in 1810 as streets where people could get some fresh air. It was also one of the most beautiful spots (in the city) with splendid mansions belonging to high ranking officials and rich merchants.

But Merrillees said other visitors in 1862 had a different description of it. They had described it as "the very dusty road along the perfectly straight canal with poor public lighting."

In the early 20th century, people used the canal for various purposes.

Jayapal said the Javanese "immersed" themselves in the waters for a number of reasons: for washing clothes on long, bamboo- legged washboards; as a vast sink for cleaning cooking utensils; and for bathing.

"They are full of people, not boats but people, and they walk into the water fully dressed and stand there in bright array washing the most maddeningly beautiful garments like masses of bright flowers," Jayapal said.

Kian Sioe said the attractive part of Molenvliet was indeed in its "bathing beauty". "... along the river people will be able to view nude women," he said.