Surabaya: All together
now at Kya-Kya Kembang

Omar Prihandono, Contributor, Surabaya

""OK, reserve 100 tables right in front of the music stage. Just stay cool, there'll be flocks of people coming to see him,"" Freddy Istanto said in a somewhat panicked voice to his assistants.

Rumor had it that presidential candidate Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono would visit Kya-kya Kembang Jepun -- simply known as kya-kya among Surabayans -- that night and demonstrate his newly developed skill of singing on stage.

Although SBY had yet to leave his hotel room, Freddy was right that hordes of people were already descending on the 800-meter outdoor dining area, which is guarded by two huge gates with nine-meter wooden dragons on top of them.

Welcome to the hottest street in Surabaya.

""This is probably the only place in Indonesia where you can spot a presidential candidate singing his heart out while you are eating a plate of delicious kangkung cah (seared morning glory),"" said Freddy, who is a lecturer at Petra University, Surabaya.

The initial idea to revamp the area was simple. It set out to turn the main street of Kembang Jepun, the old, mostly forgotten Chinatown into a public area where people could come to have a good time, relax and eat good food from well-organized street hawkers.

""Before, nobody dared visit Kembang Jepun at night. It still is one of the busiest wholesaler centers in Surabaya, but when all the shops closed at 5 p.m., who wants to get mugged by thugs in a dark alley and go home without a penny in your pocket?"" said Freddy.

In early 2003, he presented the idea of revitalizing the nightlife of Kembang Jepun -- said to be named after a Japanese prostitute from World War II -- to the municipal government of Surabaya, with the name kya-kya, from the Mandarin for ""taking a stroll"".

He received a lukewarm response from the powers that be, as well as a corny suggestion for a more ""appropriate"" name of the center.

""They thought the name kya-kya was 'too Chinese' and came up with Taman Wisata Surabaya. I was like, what? This is a Chinatown and though it bears a Chinese name, everybody can visit it.""

Freddy and his event organizer went on with their plan and with support from local businesspeople as well as a local media mogul, the Rp 5 billion project was launched in May 2003.

""I didn't want a great idea to die young, so I established PT Kya Kya Kembang Jepun to professionally manage everything about the street festival.""

It is not just mere lip service to assure vendors and investors that they are onto something good. Seven days a week, at 4 p.m. an hour after shops close for the day, Freddy's force of 100 servers and cleaning service staff begins spraying the business area with sanitizer, before reloading the food carts which are stored at nearby depots.

Two hours later, visitors from all parts of Surabaya start flooding the street in search of dinner.

""I recruited members of Karang Taruna (a local youth organization) to become servers and cleaning service staff, while I approached some of the preman (neighborhood thugs who run protection services) of Kembang Jepun to keep an eye on the safety of visitors. I want every part of the community to get their fair share ...""

If it was once possible to get mugged in the shadier sections of Kembang Jepun, don't think that your pocketbook is completely safe at Kya-kya Kembang Jepun. This time, though, the damage will be done by splurging on the irresistibly mouthwatering dishes from around 200 food stalls that flank the old street.

From authentic Chinese food to the sumptuous East Javanese dishes, from tender grilled lamb to freshly served seafood, it's tough to pick only one kind of food and bring it to your table, under the glare of glitzy red lanterns.

Apart from the fact it has been established in a once bustling Chinatown, Kya-Kya Kembang Jepun might be just another ordinary street food center, like those to be found anywhere in the country. But surveying the number of visitors that can reach up to 7,000 on weekends, you sense that it's not just the food they are coming for.

Knowing that culinary enticements alone would not be enough to keep the visitors coming back for more, Freddy added the touches of a night fair.

Upon entering the gate, visitors come across a palm-reading corner owned by a Chinese granny, for instance, and there is even a tattoo artist who demonstrates his skills in the center of the dining area, surrounded by awestruck kids and their parents.

When you see an old Chinese fortune teller reading the palm of a Javanese young man or spot a guy singing the popular Cucak Rowo dangdut-Javanese language hit in front of his wife and children, it is clear that the place has revived the meaning of unwinding and dining out in an unpretentious environment.

Most importantly, it has a spirit of community that is hardly found in even the city's luxury shopping malls. Of course, for those presidential-wannabes, Kya-Kya Kembang Jepun serves as the ultimate see-and-be-seen place to gain support.

Following efforts by the aforementioned presidential candidate, Freddy and his team had to prepare themselves for the visit of another presidential hopeful, he of the horrifyingly neat hairdo.

""He'll come along with his 300 aides and most likely will also sing on the stage,"" Freddy said with a grin.

Fortunately, unlike those candidates who arrive for a fly-by-night visit, Kya-Kya is not about a one-time-only engagement for those who love good food and a good time. It's been playing its role as a true melting pot for the past year, and looks likely to become a much loved city institution.

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