Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Kota Lights

Kota Lights

I've seen how for the past two years, Chinatown in Jakarta has grown to be a busy and bustling place again. It makes me feel elated to see new restaurants and entertainment centres sprouting up everywhere. Kota--as what the locals call the Chinatown area--has come a long way since those dark days of the riots in 1998.

During that time I was based in Singapore, travelling in and out of Jakarta every other week. I was there in Jakarta the week before the riots and was about to book my flight to go again the following week when my Indonesians friends called me to tell me that all businesses were closed as riots had broken out.

The weeks and months leading to the riots of May 1998 were frantic ones. I saw how the rupiah tumbled from the region of 2,500 rupiah to 17,000 rupiah to the US dollar. No serious business could be conducted during that time as the rupiah was plunging without control. Price quotations done in the morning had to be revised in the afternoon. And then the IMF measures brought things sliding further downhill. The atmosphere was a tinderbox waiting to ignite.

Two weeks after the riots, I managed to sneak into Jakarta again on the pretext of a business trip. My friend Setiawan took me on a tour of what remained of Kota. It was a sad sight: Pasar Glodok was burnt, McDonalds at Jalan Gajah Mada was smashed and looted, there were broken windows and burnt out buildings everywhere. One could hardly see a soul in the streets.

And of course, there were those horrifying stories of atrocities which circulated widely over the Internet. Friends told me how they had to arm themselves and take turns to patrol their neighbourhoods. It was a sad chapter in Indonesia's history. Hopefully the lessons of the past have been thoroughly learnt.

Before I left Jakarta in January, I made it a point to catch a last glimpse of Kota: The neon lights were flashing gaudily in the smog-filled night, discotheques were choked with Ecstacy-intoxicated youths, Chinese businessmen were happily carousing at the bars, massage parlours were operating furiously like meat-processing plants and lipsticked hookers roamed its numerous alleyways.

That was the Jakarta I knew before the riots and for a moment it felt like the good ol' days again.

No comments: