Jakarta

Weekly 5: What’s in a
name, Jakarta?

JP/Ricky Yudhistira

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare said. Or, as a Javanese incarnation of the Bard might say, Jakarta by any other name would have traffic just as horrendous.

Dubbed one of the nation’s distinctive cities, Jakarta boasts areas with names that are as unique as the metropolis. Even dyed-in-the-wool Jakartans might be clueless as to how — or why — residents found names for different parts of the sprawling city.

So, as the city readies to mark its 485th anniversary on June 22, let’s look at the surprising origins of the monikers of five parts of Jakarta.

1. Gambir

Despite what you might hear on the street, the name Gambir — a subdistrict that hosts many historical buildings in Jakarta, such as Gambir train station, the State Palace and the National Monument (Monas) — does not derive from the Uncaria gambir latex plant.

According to historian Ridwan Saidi, the name itself originated from a half-French, half-Dutch lieutenant identified only as Gambier, who received ordered from his boss, Herman Willem Daendels, to spearhead development in the area in the 1800s.

Among Gambier’s works was the open plaza known as Medan Merdeka square today. The Dutch named the square Koningsplein, but Gambier was apparently quite popular with local residents, who took to calling the square and its environs as “Gambir”, without an “e”, as was written on the lieutenant’s birth certificate.

2. Glodok

Although Glodok may be notorious as a haven for pirate movie vendors selling everything from Hollywood blockbusters to X-rated film biru, it is without a doubt the mighty heart of the capital city’s economy.

Recognized by Jakartans as the place to buy electronics at the best price, Glodok is the largest commercial hub in the capital. Betawi historian Rachmat Ruchiat said that the area took its name from a nearby reservoir built in the 1670s.

The water flowing from the Ciliwung River into the reservoir made a “grojok, grojok” sound, according to reports. For the Chinese who arrived in Jakarta, then called Batavia, “r” was difficult to pronounce, hence the name “Glodok”.

3. Kemayoran

The French nobleman Isaac de l’Ostal de Saint-Martin arrived in Batavia in the late-1600s after the Franco-Dutch War. He was a fearsome soldier, according to his opponents and his exploits were made into the stiff of legend by a Dutch playwright.

L’Ostal, who fought sultans in Java and Ternate, owned hectares of land in the north of the city, where he built a mansion and a garden with a Japanese-style pavilion.

His artistic and distinctive estate led local resident to refer to the area as “Kemajoran”, referring the rank of major that l’Ostal bore when he went to war.

Kemayoran is now best known as the site of the month-long Jakarta Fair, which features various events and exhibitions to celebrate the city’s anniversary.

4. Kwitang

Mention Kwitang to any bookworm in Jakarta and just wait to see the excitement in their eyes. The area was formerly a rendezvous for Jakarta’s bibliophiles searching for inexpensive fix for their literary habit. The area was said to have belonged to a wealthy Chinese-Indonesian named Kwik Tang Kiam, and locals later referred to the area as “Kwik Tang’s village”, which was itself shortened to Kwitang.

There are no more book vendors in the area today, however, as the city administration relocated them to Senen Market and Jakarta City Center mall, behind the Grand Indonesia shopping center, in 2008.

5. Tanah Abang


The name translates as “The Land of Brothers”, although there’s no connection to the small group of intimidating men, some say gangsters, who reportedly control the area.

It perhaps traces its origins to de Nabang, a painting by Johannes Rach, a Dutch painter in Indonesia during the colonial period. It is unclear why the painter named his work, which depicted the area was it once was, as such.

However, local residents, using the painting as an ersatz map of the area, mistakenly referred to the work as “Tenabang”. When a train station was built on the site in 1890, its apparently confused builder called it “Tanah Abang”.

There are mixed opinions on the name’s origin, however. Other historians claim that the area was named Tanah Abang after the red soil (abang means red in Javanese) in the colonial era. — JP

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