Indonesia in Focus
Betawi culture Survives in Situ Babakan: West Java, Indonesia
Several years back, the month of June for 68-year old Samin bin Jebul was marked by the rambutan ripening on the trees in his backyard.
“Now the climate has changed. It is no longer rambutan season at this time of year,” Samin said, sitting on his spacious terrace at the cultural site of Situ Babakan in Srengseng Sawah, on the outskirts of South Jakarta.
“It is kontrakan (rental house) season now,” he laughed.
Relaxing at his newly renovated Betawi-style house, Samin explained how the area had changed, for better and worse. Like any other place in Jakarta, there is less greenery and more rental houses at the preserved traditional Betawi settlement area, he said.
“People think it is more profitable to clear the trees and built rental houses,” he added. “Even if it means that we can no longer preserve our culture.”
The Jakarta city administration declared the area a Betawi kampong in 2000, hoping to develop it as a tourism spot with both ecological and cultural allure.
Long before being declared a cultural site, a 32-hectare lake there had attracted tourists from all over Jakarta.
Later on, the city administration built a Betawi compound that included an open theater, a small motel and several of the oldest houses by the lake.
Houses are renovated in the kebaya style, with vast terraces fringed by decorative wood planks.
“Even though there are regulations on what kind of buildings can be built here, people have started to ignore them,” said Situ Babakan management head Imron.
Currently, only 69 buildings in the 289-hectare settlement area are built in the style meant to reflect traditional Betawi culture.
As more people come to the capital to try their luck seek a home, locals in Situ Babakan have decided it is more economical to built rows of rental houses not in the required style. And like other fringe areas in South Jakarta, the middle upper-classes seeking to live in greener settlements are starting to buy plots of land and build their houses in more modern — but not better — styles.
But then again, such changes are allowed only by the fact that it is the nature of native Jakartans to rent out their land or invest in building small rental houses. However, most of the people there, except for the very few who happen to own large plots of land, do not earn their money through being landlords.
While other kampongs in the capital have been crushed by modernity, people in Situ Babakan practically earn their living from their preserved traditions.
“The lake itself is the generator here,” said Samin. “People come on weekends for picnics and locals make use of such potential.”
The potential Samin mentions is an annual tourist count of more than 50,000 people. Last year, the area recorded 98,635 visitors, not to mention 199 foreign tourists.
“I used to come here in the 1980s. Now it has changed a lot,” said Nur Syamsiah, who took her family from Depok to enjoy the scenery and taste Betawi dishes.
Locals started opening food stalls selling traditional food, from soto Betawi (coconut-milk based soup) to semur jengkol (smelly beans cooked in soy sauce). Food vendors also come from as far as Mampang, an hour’s drive away, to serve kerak telor (rice omelette) to visitors.
“It is very crowded on weekends. There are a lot of attractions here,” said Hayati, a food vendor.
Food is not the only business that flourishes here.
On Saturdays and Sundays, the local art group performs traditional Betawi dances and plays. The group is often invited to perform at events related to Jakarta’s anniversary.
“This area has more potential than it has already revealed,” Imron said. “However, the promised developments seem to be taking too long.”
Imron complained about the stagnancy of the area’s masterplan revision.
“Aside from that, there are a lot of facilities that have not been built, like better pavements along the lake,” he added.
“More people have started to come here and development should not be taken for granted.”
Anissa S. Febrina
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