Handi Renanta has worked in Jakarta’s restaurant industry since 2009, but it wasn’t until six years ago when he and his wife started their unnamed vegetarian restaurant on Jakarta’s Kalimati Alley, part of Glodok, the city’s Chinatown. At what he claims is the alley’s only vegetarian restaurant, the Chinese-Indonesian Renanta — who runs the front of house, while his wife, who prefers not to be named, is the chef — serve popular Indonesian dishes such as satay and rendang, the slow-cooked beef dish often considered the touchstone of Indonesia’s Minangkabau cuisine. Only here, they’re made using vegetables like mushrooms, soybeans, and tofu.
“The seasonings are [what you’d use for] cooking meat in general,” Renanta says, adding that the restaurant also avoids cooking with gluten as much as possible. Locals now know him as “Ko Vege,” or “Brother Vege,” in a Chinese-Indonesian way of combining an honorific with a nickname based on his vegetable-only business.
That hybrid approach — a blending of Chinese, Indonesian, and Muslim influences — is the heart of Kalimati Alley. The alley lies close to Vihara Dharma Bhakti, Jakarta’s oldest Chinese temple, which was built in the middle of 17th century. In Indonesian, kali mati means “dead river.” There are at least two versions of the alley’s origin story: The first is that some creeks were closed in order to build a road due to the rising population, while the other version suggests that the alley was an expansion of nearby Petak Sembilan, or a traditional market where trading took place.
Here, vendors exhibit a stronger halal presence compared to other parts of Glodok: One bakpia (or “meat pastry”) stall forgoes the common pork filling in favor of sweet versions, to accommodate diners adhering to halal tradition. At other stalls, more traditional Chinese cuisine comes to the forefront: A-Kin Kuo Tieh has been selling Chinese-style pan-fried dumplings by the box for more than two decades. Ministry of Tourism official Dodi Riadi, who’s responsible for the governance of Jakarta’s Old Town region which including Glodok, tells a story of a woman now in her eighties who remembered seeing a street vendor selling kue mipan, or savory rice cake, at Kalimati Alley in the 1930s. Indeed, one of the only two kue mipan vendors in Glodok has set up shop here, selling each rice cake for Rp7.500,00 (or around $0.49 USD); each order comes with two pieces, served with palm sugar and fried garlic.
According to Ardhina Rosa, a voluntary member at LWG DMO Kota Tua, a local working group of the destination marketing organization in charge of Jakarta’s Old Town, Glodok reflects a mixture of cultures. “We still can see the layer of its Chinese influence, then we see the layer of its multi-ethnic influence,” Rosa says.
That influence comes via a fraught history. According to the late Indonesian historian Benny G. Setiono, author of Tionghoa Dalam Pusaran Politik, there were more than 100,000 ethnic Chinese residents in Batavia, an old name for Jakarta, in the early 19th century. Glodok was initiated by the Dutch colonial government in 1741 as an exclusively ethnic Chinese settlement in the Indonesian capital. But according to Indonesian journalist Alwi Shahab and his book Betawi: Queen of the East, the Dutch governor-general Adriaan Valckenier had ordered the slaughter of the ethnic Chinese at Glodok’s current periphery less than a year earlier, during which 10,000 Chinese people, including women and children, were killed. The governor-general instructed that massacre in order to suppress the rebellion against the Dutch government by the Chinese.
In the 1960s, ethnic Chinese were targeted in mass killings throughout Indonesia that ultimately resulted in the loss of a half-million lives; in more recent times, Glodok was badly damaged by angry mobs during riots in May 1998, where many Chinese-Indonesians became victims of looting. The riots were fueled by a belief that ethnic Chinese businessmen colluded with Suharto, a dictator who ruled the country for more than three decades, causing a rising anti-Chinese sentiment in connection to the economic crisis that hit the country.
Despite those incidents, Glodok still thrives. In the 1990s, Glodok was known as Indonesia’s largest, or “most crowded,” electronics hub: According to Indonesian online news portal Detik, “All kinds of electronics were available in that market, from new to reconditioned or secondhand goods.” In recent years, thanks to the growing popularity of online shopping, sales have been in decline; one news source suggests the decline began in 2014. Now, the area is recognized primarily as a culinary tourist destination.
Speaking about Chinese culture in Glodok, Candha Adwitiyo, co-founder and guide at Jakarta Good Guide, thinks that the culture’s not fading, despite acculturation and current developments. “It’s not weakening, but [the culture is] adjusting,” he says. “It’s just evolving and adapting to the times.”
“I feel like I’m in Chinatown, [when I’m] here, at Kalimati,” Dodi says.