Puppies and pussies on the streets of Jakarta


Julia Suryakusuma ,  JAKARTA   |  Wed, 07/01/2009 12:14 PM  |  Opinion


One day, my husband Tim and I were driving through Central Jakarta. As we passed rows of cute puppies, caged for sale on the sidewalk near Taman Lawang, Tim remarked, “What a truly bizarre street this is. They sell puppies in the daytime, but when they go home at night, the waria *transvestites* ply their trade in exactly the same spot!”

Spontaneously, I said, “Yeah, puppies and pussies!” He looked at me and burst out laughing.

Well, it’s true. Yes, I know Taman Lawang connects to Jl. Latuharhary, where the National Commission for Human Rights and the National Commission on Violence Against Women are situated. But if women’s rights issues are being taken care of during the day, by night the area is famous (or notorious?) for being a place where men’s “needs” (if not issues) are taken care of – sometimes by very beautiful-looking “girls” who are really men. So under the cover of night, the puppies of the day are replaced by the “pussies” of the night.

You see, the slang term for gay sex workers in Indonesia is kucing (cat). So maybe our waria could put a new spin to the 1965 Tom Jones song, “What’s New, Pussycat?” and call it . er . “What’s Up, Pussycat?”. Or how about turning another Tom Jones song, “She’s a Lady”, into “He’s a Lady”, like the title of the TBS reality show?

In any case, whatever their theme song, the waria of Taman Lawang remain a well-known feature of Jakarta, and try as the police may with raids and arrests, the waria just keep on coming back. It’s simply a matter of supply and demand, and waria need to make a living.

But if sex is a universal need, so is entertainment. Of course, there’s no shortage of that for the elite, but what about the lower classes, whose means are far more limited?

In the case of my own staff, I periodically send them out for “refreshing” – which Indonesians use to mean “entertainment” or “outing”. Since it’s currently the month when we Jakartans celebrate the anniversary of our city, I asked if they wanted to go to the Jakarta Fair again, like last year. But Bagus, my driver, said, “Ah, no bu, it’s too commercial – it just tricks you into buying things you can’t afford. Even the tickets are too expensive *Rp 15,000 or US$1.50 on weekdays, Rp 20,000 on weekends*, especially if you take the family.”

Instead, my staff chose to take themselves on their own personal tour of Jakarta by night. I lent them my tiny car and off they eagerly went: Bagus, Yayah (my cook) and Inah (my washerwoman), with her two kids squeezed in the back.

The next day I asked them where they’d gone and what they did. Turns out they first stopped to eat at a Blok M roadside warung (food stall), before heading to Plaza Indonesia for a glimpse of a lifestyle they could only dream of, gawking at gleaming stainless steel and marble, and checking out overpriced merchandise. All for just the cost of parking the car!

The next stop was the National Monument, better known as Monas. When Yayah told me about it, her face lit up with excitement. “Wah, it was luar biasa *extraordinary*, so big!” she exclaimed, “I’d only ever seen it on TV before and it looked so small then!” She felt like she was dreaming.

A month ago, it would have been an impossible dream, because it was only recently that Governor Fauzi Bowo (or Foke, as he is affectionately called – no, really!) ordered Monas Park to be opened again to the public. Former governor Sutiyoso, Foke’s predecessor, closed it for eight years because it was used by gepeng (gelandangan dan pengemis, or homeless vagabonds and beggars). This smacked of the Dutch colonial period when the park was famously said to have been barred to inlanders (natives) and dogs. Hmmm . wasn’t Sutiyoso a former general? Repressive military habits die hard, I guess.

Yayah and Inah (who had also never set foot in Monas Park before) told me the place was packed, not just with Jakartans, but with people from beyond Java. Those who had more money ate at the food court, while those with less had to be content with food from roving vendors. There was plenty to choose from, including the traditional Betawi specialty of kerak telor (glutinous rice and duck egg pancake sprinkled with spicy desiccated coconut).

There was also a night bazaar selling clothes, toys, cell phone accessories and other paraphernalia; people in old Batavian costumes including some riding sepeda ontel (old bikes used in colonial times); while photographers roamed, ready to immortalize what was for some a once-in-a-lifetime trip. As Bagus said, the anniversary of Jakarta was for him the second most important “national day” after Independence Day, because, “Our city is the capital, isn’t it?”

And it’s very fitting that Monas is now a center for the “little people’s” celebrations. The Dutch had intended the area as a kind of Central Park for their own use, and so Monas itself was built smack in the middle to symbolize Indonesia’s hard-won independence. Erected (and I use the term advisedly!) under the supervision of former president Sukarno, he consciously chose the ancient lingga-yoni (masculine-feminine) fertility imagery to symbolize prosperity for his nation and people.

So it’s good that Monas Park is open again – even if the facilities are not that great. Proper toilets would be good for starters, Pak Foke, not just the mobile toilets that made Yayah cross her legs for hours, because she couldn’t get her head around the concept of a toilet that wasn’t grounded.

Yep, let’s all try to remember that household helpers, transvestites, puppy vendors and people from the margins all deserve to enjoy Jakarta just as much as those who can afford big, flashy malls, expensive cars and five-star hotels. History shows that those who forget that the Big Durian belongs to the “little people” too don’t last forever – the “little people” are still here!

The writer is the author of Julia’s Jihad.

One thought on “Puppies and pussies on the streets of Jakarta

  1. Priscilla says:

    *brilliant and amusing article, Julia*
    i really enjoyed it 🙂
    and i did realized small things about our interesting Jakarta 🙂

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