The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


© Duncan Graham 2006

Regular readers of these pages may have gained the impression that while Surabaya is economically blooming it’s not exactly a city of flowers. If so, here’s an apology.

Indonesia’s second biggest metropolis is certainly overcrowded and polluted. It’s a port and an industrial center, gray and grimy. The streets are paved with grit, not gold. But it also has charms, made all the more interesting through the virtue of rarity. Here’s a couple.

Kebun Bibit (seed garden) also known as Taman Flora (flower park) is a pretty little tree-studded park close to the city center and an ideal spot for another shopping mall.

That it’s escaped that retail virus is thanks to past city administrations who demonstrated that rare political quality called foresight - and this was long before conservation became an issue. Thirty years ago this area was one big wet hole in the ground, and as all planners know human nature abhors an urban vacuum.

The euphemism ‘sanitary land fill’ has long been used to describe the standard way of quitting trash, so inevitably this spot was designated a rubbish dump. Unusually it later became a welcome patch of green when there was no more space for crushed cans and shredded plastic. Now it’s a two-hectare delight, made even more acceptable by the banning of street vendors and other hustlers.

The Surabaya City Government promotes the East Java capital as a green and clean metropolis. In most suburbs that’s an absurd claim – though not here.

At Kebun Bibit you can sit hassle-free under a canopy of trees from across the archipelago. You’ll be shielded by leaves big and small, every shape and shade of green imaginable plus a few others demonstrating the limitless nature of nature.

Each one labeled with its Latin name, though sadly not with the provenance. This is a place where stressed students and frazzled business folk come to eat their lunch and read reports, though watching furtive young lovers with fumbling fingers seems to be a welcome distraction. The ambience is almost European.

It’s also a venue for concerts and outdoor meetings when the organizers don’t have sponsorship because their cause isn’t fashionable.

Which is why Anita and her colleagues from an activist group used the park for a late celebration of Human Rights Day.

“There’s a real shortage of good locations, particularly near the city center and where access if free,” she said. “This is ideal. We can easily fit 2,000 in this area. This is the right place for us.”

The 13 staff at Kebun Bibit propagate plants, promote medicinal herbs and maintain two hothouses. They’ll chat to you about the plants and their qualities, but they won’t sell their produce; surplus stock goes to help beautify the other city green spots, mostly tissue-sized.

Not to worry because next to the park is Pasar Bunga Bratang (Bratang flower market) Surabaya’s biggest. It has also been built on the land once used to dump rubbish (which was also a swamp) and the rehabilitation has transformed the area. Here’s proof that reclamation does work.

There are many other flower sellers around the city, but they tend to squat on river banks and median strips near open drains giving easy access to water.

Bratang has been purpose-built and it shows. The alleyways are necessarily narrow, but are well paved and clean. Buyers don’t have to wade through mud with the stench of gutters in their nostrils to find their orchid of choice.

The main hazard is bumping into hanging pots or tripping over vines that push their probing tendrils into every empty corner. If it wasn’t for the nearby traffic you could hear the plants growing. For Java is the world’s most fertile island and Bratang a most fecund place. Keep moving or you’ll sprout leaves; this is a real urban jungle.

Subandri, chair of the Bratang Florists’ Association said 200 stallholders operated in the area. Chinese Indonesians were the main buyers of flowers with many favoring European varieties like roses. Although Indonesia has a rich botany, it’s the ornamentals from overseas that get most attention. Another example of cultural cringe?

Small potted plants sold best because they could fit into apartments and back yards, Subandri said. Few people had the space for bushes and trees. These bigger plants usually sold to hotels and property developers.

“The recent boom in real estate has been a great benefit to business,” he said. “There’s new housing going up everywhere, mostly to the west of the city.

“This is a very good spot for us. There’s plenty of parking space and it’s popular with tourists. There’s a bird market next door that also brings in people. Many come just for recreation, but usually end up buying something.”

So next time you’re in the 700 year old city and need a break, try the flower market and the seed garden. No entrance fees, no pressure and best of all is the green.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 January 2007)

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