Postcards from the Past
Bruce Emond, WEEKENDER | Wed, 04/04/2012 1:02 PM |
Australian Scott Merrillees reveals his love for the Jakarta of today by collecting images of the city’s past.
Scott Merrillees was at the JW Marriott during the July 2009 bombing in Jakarta. The longtime resident of Indonesia suffered injuries to the left side of his body, but he was one of the lucky ones, he says: “Many others suffered much more than me. Five men in the same room passed away. I only survived because of where I was sitting.”
He showed that magnanimous spirit as he was being transported to the airport for treatment in Singapore, declaring “Saya mencintai Indonesia” (“I love Indonesia”) to waiting journalists. He may find the foreign news scribes’ melodramatic treatment of his words a little embarrassing now – “Bombed Aussie banker still loves Indonesia” – but there is much truth to it.
“I wanted to make my point that I didn’t blame Indonesia for what happened. And that I love Indonesia very much,” says Merrillees, who is married to an Indonesian, with whom he has two children.
The 48-year-old corporate executive has produced two books that are his homage to the city of Jakarta, where he has lived for most of the past 23 years. He published a fascinating coffee-table volume, Batavia in 19th Century Photographs, in 2000. His second book, Greetings from Jakarta: Postcards of a Capital 1900–1950, equally as gorgeous and interesting in its depiction of the city of yesteryear, was published in March.
There is nothing soppy or self-serving when he says, “Life is a wonderful thing. In a way, the bombing enabled me to complete the book during my recuperation. The fact that I am alive and I completed my book is my legacy of being here for 20 years, and to give something back to the people of Jakarta.”
Merrillees began collecting postcards and photographs when he was a boy in Melbourne, mostly from sifting through his grandparents’ collection. His interest in Indonesia began as a teenager studying Indonesian; in the 1980s, he came here to work in banking and was surprised by the lack of information on the city’s history. Returning to his childhood hobby, he collected images when he came across them in antique stores and galleries.
In 1994, he bought a valuable collection of photographs in the Netherlands.
“The man who sold them to me said I was not only buying the photographs, but also researching the contents about the landmarks to the city. He told me that I must bring them to a wider audience with a book. I thought that was an exciting idea, not realizing how much work was involved.”
The idea led to Batavia in Photographs, two-thirds of which came from his collection and the rest from international institutions and private collections. His second book is completely derived from his own collection.
For Merrillees, the images offer a way of seeing how the past lies behind the present.
“What really interests me is how a city develops topographically and architecturally, how it became what it is today, how it was 50 years ago or 80 years ago, what was there then and what is there today. Because of all these years of doing, I have virtual imagery of the city. I drive along a street and I can imagine what it looked like 20 or 50 years ago, the buildings and the infrastructure. I like to a place to where a photograph was taken, stand in exactly the same place as the photographer, and see it through their eyes.”
During their heyday in the 1900s, postcards were much more than “wish you were here” notes, Merrillees points out. They were matters of record of what was happening in a place, including for the Dutch colonial authorities in their development of the Dutch East Indies.
“They were providing information to the people,” he says. “For the colonists they were a sense of pride: ‘Look, here is our modern tram system, our fine government buildings, our fine commercial buildings.’ … As my collection grew, I realized that we can recreate the city, just like with photos in the 19th century.”
The Australian acknowledges that he has been criticized for neglecting the human side of the story, but he reiterates that his focus is the physical development of the city (he does include a collection of postcards of people and their trades as an appendix in the book). He continues to concentrate on a single medium, and says he is not sure how he could combine several formats in telling the story of Jakarta.
There are at least a couple more books left in him – perhaps about postcards from the 1960s through 1980s – that will hopefully come sooner than the more than 10-year interval between his first two.
The reception to his first book convinced his wife that his erudite collection of old images was more than “trash”, he jokes. Certainly, his books are valuable in showing Jakarta then and now. Much of the city is unrecognizable from the last century, and some of the losses are sad. He cites the Hotel Des Indes, demolished in the 1970s, saying “it could have been Jakarta’s Raffles, a lovely boutique hotel. Instead it has been replaced by some nondescript and pretty ugly shop-houses.”
He does not display nostalgia for the Jakarta before the traffic jams and malls, when the Dutch still cavorted in their swimming pool in Cikini, Central Jakarta (shown in postcards for friends and families back in Europe). He sees his role to show Jakartans how the city once was, for better or worse.
“Of course the city has to evolve, it only had a population of 116,000 in 1900, it has to move forward,” Merrillees says. “I fully recognize that, but then again not much has been done to preserve old buildings. I am not here to get involved in the preservation or conservation movement, my contribution is the book. I am a foreigner, and an outsider; it’s up to Jakarta to decide what it should do with its city. My focus is not to regret or criticize.”
When pressed, Merrillees readily admits he loves the city of Jakarta in all its many different, sometimes frustrating ways. “It’s in my blood,” he says.