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Jakarta Post

Kalijodo shutdown: Requiem for a legendary red-light district

  • Callistasia Anggun Wijaya

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, February 25, 2016   /  10:16 am
Kalijodo shutdown: Requiem for a legendary red-light district Kalijodo: A poster of a man and woman looks lost as buildings behind it are demolished in Kalijodo of North Jakarta following the city administration's plan to shut down the capital's infamous red-light district and turn it into a green space. ( Parwitasari) ( Parwitasari)

Kalijodo: A poster of a man and woman looks lost as buildings behind it are demolished in Kalijodo of North Jakarta following the city administration's plan to shut down the capital's infamous red-light district and turn it into a green space. ( Parwitasari)

A woman in her thirties sits at a food stall in North Jakarta's red-light district of Kalijodo, looking dumbfounded at the men going back and forth moving goods.

Two men pass the alleyway carrying an air conditioner to a pick-up truck parked on the street.

They then move back in to carry out other household items, such as chairs, refrigerators, mattresses and speakers.

The woman's eyes look empty as she witnesses the clearance of the Kalijodo area, which she relied on for income.

Speaking to on the afternoon of Feb. 18, the woman refuses to give her name or even initials.

She wears a gray hospital mask, which she says is to hide her face.

With her "work area" being in the spotlight recently, she wants to be sure that no cameras of television crews covering the Kalijodo story capture her face. She wears a T-shirt and shorts, with her long hair tangled into a bun.

She says on normal days she would get ready in the afternoon; that was before all eyes focused on the upcoming closedown of the infamous red-light district of the capital.

At 8 p.m., cheerful traditional dangdut music would blare from the speakers of dozens of pubs and cafes in Kalijodo, she recalls, pondering where the sound would go as she watches speakers being carried away.

"I work here as'€¦ you know," she says with a bashful smile.

"I'm a freelancer," she added, explained that working as a freelance prostitute meant working on your own without help from a pimp.

A gloomy atmosphere covers the area, which knows its end has come, following the city administration's plan to clean up Kalijodo.

Residents, some of whom have lived in Kalijodo for more than 30 years, pack their belongings, close their small shops and go back and forth to the pick-up trucks taking them elsewhere.

Kalijodo, an infamous area for middle-lower class pleasure-seekers, has changed its face in the past few weeks.

Pubs and shops are closed; residents prepare to relocate, in stark contrast to the colorful lights and noisy music Kalijodo usually offered.

The city issued the first warning last week, giving residents 11 days to clear the area.

Only a few shops are still open, selling soft drinks and snacks, like the shop where the speaks with the sex worker.

Sex workers

She is willing to talk, while others refuse to do so after having their statements twisted by the media in the past.

"The media exaggerate our statements," shouted a local man.

Many sex workers have moved to other areas, some to the Sinar Budi guesthouse not far from Kalijodo, the woman says with a thick Javanese accent.

"I'm still here," she says, adding that in order to move to another house she needs extra money for rent.

The ailing business has left her without customers for several days.

As a freelance prostitute, she usually had up to three clients per night for fares ranging from Rp 100,000 (US$7.43) to Rp 150,000 per man, with no time limit.

"It depends on their stamina," she says.

Unlike sex workers organized by pimps, who usually wait for customers in brothels, freelance sex workers serve their clients in small rooms they rent themselves.

She would set aside Rp 30,000 for a room fare from the customers' fees and use the rest for her own and her family'€™s needs.

She is relatively new in Kalijodo, having arrived from her hometown Malang in East Java four months ago.

The 34-year old then joined Subur Indah cafe with 15 other prostitutes under a pimp, only to be expelled not long after she joined when the pimp found out that she had rented a room outside the cafe.

It is hard for a female sex worker in her 30s, she says, citing competition with other prostitutes, especially the young ones. However, she enjoys her freedom as a freelancer.

Working under a pimp, she could easily get customers but had no liberty.

The pimp would monitor the meals eaten by the girls and restrict their days off and going out.

Sex workers at a Kalijodo brothel could serve up to 10 customers on a good day, but fares would be as low as Rp 100,000 and half of that would go to the pimp.

For a night out, the sex workers would usually charge Rp 300,000, with one third of it going to the pimp.

'€œI just give a little money to budhe (aunt), who brought me here. She doesn't ask for a particular amount, so I just give her according to what I feel is fair,'€ she says, pointing to the older woman who owns the shop.

Jakarta Governor Basuki '€œAhok'€ Tjahaja Purnama'€™s ultimatum to Kalijodo residents prompts her to consider moving back to her hometown.

Some of her friends have invited her to move to Royal, another prostitution spot in the same Penjaringan sub-district, but she is thinking about going back to Malang to her three children, who are currently looked after by her aunt.

'€œI want to go home. It'€™s fine; I can go back to farming again. But will I get some money to go home? I don't have any money left," she says.

There were around 150 sex workers working in Kalijodo, according to Pejagalan village secretary Ichsan Firdaosy, most of them coming from Cianjur and Indramayu in West Java and several areas of Sumatra. He says many have already left following the shutdown plan.

In the latest turn of events, Jakarta Police named Daeng Azis, a local figure who runs the entertainment business in Kalijodo, a suspect of prostitution.

Police charged Azis, who controls most of the business since 2002, under the law on human trafficking.

Prostitution in this North Jakarta neighborhood has raised health issues too, such as HIV infections.

Penjaringan's community health center has registered 72 patients infected with the virus.

Not all who are infected get proper medication, as the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS still hinders them from getting treatment, according to the coordinator of Penjaringan's unit on sexually transmitted diseases, Mulia Suryandari.

"While some are scared to be evicted from brothels for having HIV, there are also people who are still oblivious to the risk of HIV,'€ Mulia told

The health center gives out free antiretroviral (ARV) drugs to the infected. The center also hands out condoms in the area as part of its awareness campaign on HIV/AIDS.

Prosperous history

Kalijodo, often called Kali Angke after the Angke river, has not always been infamous for prostitution, gambling and alcohol sales.

In the 1950's, people of Chinese descent and local people flocked to Kalijodo, as the river was clean and the many trees and green areas made it a popular spot for young people to gather.

At that time, Chinese Indonesians liked to join the traditional Peh Cun ritual, which would see young men and women get into separate boats cruising the then-clean river. If a man was attracted to a woman on another boat, he would throw a traditional bean cake to the woman. The woman would throw the cake back to the man if she was also attracted.

Hence the name "Kalijodo", which is derived from Kali (river) and Jodoh (mate), as back in the old days, people used to go there to find a match, historian Ridwan Saidi explained.

"It used to be a civilized area," he said.

Kalijodo inspired prominent Indonesian author Remy Sylado to publish a novel entitled Ca-bau-kan in 1999, which turned into an award-winning movie of the same title in 2002.

The novel tells the inter-cultural love story between Tinung, a courtesan of Betawi culture and Tan Peng Liang, a Chinese-descent tobacco and opium businessman from Semarang, Central Java, set during Dutch colonialism and Japanese occupation up to Indonesia's independence.

Prostitution began to develop in the Kalijodo area in 1963, Ridwan says, adding that it all started with visitors from Central and East Java.

"Kalijodo has always been a favorite place for low-class society to find prostitutes, while richer men would prefer elite places like Hauber Alley or Petojo,'€ Ridwan says.

More people then came to build houses in Kalijodo, usually without acquiring land certificates.

Kalijodo stretches between North and West Jakarta, but most of it lies in North Jakarta. The area has around 300 buildings, with more than sixty cafes and pubs.

Other buildings include houses, a mosque, a church, shops and a community center.

Around 3,400 people live in the area, according to data from the Jakarta administration.

Governor Ahok insists the city administration will shut down the old Kalijodo, citing its "negative impact on society" and plans to return it to its original function as the capital's green space area. (rin)(+)