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

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Historian dolf Heuken has complained in this newspaper about the loss of Jakarta’s
heritage, particularly the Dutch era homes of Menteng.

The German-born Jesuit is now an Indonesian citizen and the author of scholarly books on old Jakarta. He’s earned the right to comment and be heard.

So what’s it like to live in this splendid suburb where you can almost smell the money
and sense the might?

I’d like to report my trial as an exercise in learning how the other half lives. Instead I
discovered a little of how half of 0.01 per cent thrives in decaying colonial
grandeur or kitsch modernism.

Cliché recyclers describe Menteng as a ‘leafy suburb’, but the evergreen menteng,
aka Burmese grapes, are now rare.

There are other trees, but the real attraction is the solid Dutch architecture that’s
fighting a losing battle against Philistine developers. These tasteless wreckers prefer garish mixes
of Venetian Gothic and Mock Romanesque to the steep tiled roofs, shuttered
windows and whitewashed walls of a Euro-centric past.

To live in Menteng is to do a time somersault. Soekarno once told the Dutch to go to hell, but some hibernated in Menteng.

Actually there were more Javanese in our villa than wrinkled ex-imperialists. But the latter controlled the soundscape, shouting greetings as though communicating across canals, not a narrow corridor of hard ceramic where consonants ricochet and vowels skate off the polished

The locals have learned to be spare in manners and movements, to keep the pace slow, to
perfect the Menteng Shuffle. This is a showplace for the refined Javanese art of energy conservation.

Traffic is so calm it’s even safe to cross the streets without first getting three
insurance quotes. The Hondas are muffled by a sense of reverence for Menteng and its up-scale residents. Even the mosques use quietspeakers.

The Australian ambassador lives close to his Vietnamese counterpart; across the road are the
Saudis and Iraqis. If they used their peaceful surrounds for a street party maybe the Middle East protests and the asylum seeker issues could be sorted out under the soothing perfume of the

A century ago architect PAJ Moojen designed Menteng as Jakarta’s first garden city.
Recent residents have done their bit to destroy the planner’s open vision by excluding
outsiders with high walls and steel screens.

Fortunately some servants leave gates open as they gather round roadside snack vendors
after saluting farewells to the tinted windows. Only they know if there’s anyone actually inside the limousines.

Once the sleek black Mercedes have slithered away the minders relax, giving passers-by the
chance to gape at the occasionally handsome, sometimes crass, buildings within.

This is a high security area bristling with police. But the cheery cops bored brainless watching for terrorists are happy to chat, treating us twilight strollers like human beings, guilty only of enjoying the environment. Imagine that happening in Pennsylvania Avenue or Downing

We’re not alone. The diplomats may be aloof but there are drivers, gardeners, maids and
guards abroad – mostly friendly folk.
And cats. These aren’t the scared kinky-tailed creatures of the kampong, but well-bred lynx-eyed lovelies.

Menteng’s pedigree pussies are regal, as befits creatures that patrol this weird
topsy-turvy world, with its mysterious little openings in the rusting fences
and crumbling concrete, gateways of creepers leading to dank and curious

Embassy courtyards are swept by movement sensors, monitored by cameras, but high tech
cannot reach the musty nooks and crannies where the felines prowl, knowing the

They’re the guardians of Menteng, along with Father Heuken who lives here in an understated
palace of books. He says the suburb will lose its identity if demolition continues.

Menteng’s architecture may change but it will remain an island in the Archipelago. Curved
roofs will yield to flat tops. The old will tumble and the grotesque grow, but the identity will stay.

Menteng is exclusive inside and mildly egalitarian outside, likeable but fully accessible
only to VVIPs as in colonial days. For those thinking of moving in, here are some tips: Hearken to Heuken. Be kind to the custodian cats - and wonder why more Indonesians can’t enjoy such surroundings.

(First published in The Sunday Post 19 February 2012)


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