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Eye on the prize: Sea of customers swarm Tanah Abang, sellers couldn’t be happier

Vania Evan

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Tue, May 4, 2021  /  04:22 pm
Eye on the prize: Sea of customers swarm Tanah Abang, sellers couldn’t be happier

No worries: Buyers flock Tanah Abang, many to buy new outfits for Ramadan. (Antara/ADITYA PRADANA PUTRA)

Southeast Asia's biggest textile market Tanah Abang is always jam-packed with customers, and a ramp-up in numbers nearing Idul Fitri is always expected. So it may be of little surprise that not even a pandemic could stop customers from flocking the market in Central Jakarta. (The market was closed during last year’s Ramadan due to the pandemic).

Photos and videos showing how particularly swarmed Tanah Abang was on May 2 went viral - a tragicomedy meme that people both lamented and made jokes about. An estimated 87,000 people visited the market entering the third week of Ramadan, as confirmed by Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan.

Inside Blok A of Tanah Abang, where most of the retail stores are housed, people were shoulder-to-shoulder. As the virus is transmitted through droplets, it increases the risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus at an alarming rate.

So is the consumer boom considered a boon or impending damage in the eye of the sellers? Is the glimmering revenue stream worth the risk of catching and spreading the virus?

A much-awaited comeback

The early days of the pandemic last year brought a halt to many business sectors, including the ever-bustling Tanah Abang. Feri, 40, who has worked in Tanah Abang for nine years, was told to stay home by his employer around this time last year.

"I had to make ends meet with what I had in my savings. Meanwhile, I have a 5-year-old daughter and my wife to feed," Feri told The Jakarta Post.

During that time of unemployment, Feri spent his days watching the news on how the world went through a major shake-up. So in the horror of the pandemic, the customer spike feels like a blessing rather than a threat.

Back to work: Feri has worked in Tanah Abang for nine years, and after being told to stay home without pay for the past year by his employer, says he is just happy to be able to make a living again. Back to work: Feri has worked in Tanah Abang for nine years, and after being told to stay home without pay for the past year by his employer, says he is just happy to be able to make a living again. (JP/Courtesy of Feri)

The store where Feri works sold fabric for pajamas and wasn't directly impacted by the crowd as it is located next to Blok A, in the rows of shop-houses with similar goods for sale. But nearing Ramadan, it bustles with a notable number of customers.

When the Post asked Feri whether the store owner had given any incentive for the workers that risked their lives to work in the middle of the pandemic, Feri answered, "There is no incentive, and I’m not expecting one. I’m just thankful that this store reopened so that I can go back to work. Some customers swing by, even if it's not many, and I’m already thankful for that."

Ramadan, always good for business

The tradition of getting new clothes for Idul Fitri makes Ramadan a momentous event for fashion businesses to rake in profit.

"The sight of congested Tanah Abang during Ramadan is so common that it feels like a ritual," Lenny, a store owner, told the Post. She owns two stores in Tanah Abang selling Muslim attire.

The 38-year-old businesswoman has extended operational hours from Monday to Sunday to cater to Ramadan demand.

Her 15 years of experience in the business has helped her see a repeating pattern: The second and third week of Ramadan is where the cash is.

"The crowd on May 2 was not as large as usual during Ramadan. But the fact that we are in a pandemic put Tanah Abang in the spotlight," Lenny added.

So are businesspeople concerned about the health of their workers? Lenny said yes, but she's in a moral dilemma as the nature of business is to seize any opportunity, especially the lucrative ones.

"I have my fair share of worries, but what can I say? It's a business and I’m pretty sure that other businesspeople would do the same," said Lenny, who supervises her store remotely.

To prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus among her team, each of them have been vaccinated. Lenny also supplies face masks for the team, even though her worries are not completely dispelled. 

Different definitions of dangerous

Similarly, 23-year-old store owner M. Hanif sees this phenomenon moving in his favor. His wholesale clothing store is located in Blok A, on the first floor, where people flocked.

"I witnessed how last year so many of us [Tanah Abang sellers] went bankrupt, so we will never shy away from the crowd. The crowd is a good sign," said Hanif, who is in his third year of business in Tanah Abang.

As for the risk of getting COVID-19, Hanif doesn't see it as being relevant to him. The kind of work that requires direct interaction with people reveals a considerable divide in reacting to the pandemic, including Tanah Abang sellers.

"The burglars and pickpockets scare us [the sellers] more. The virus is less troubling than theft.”