As a technology-dependent millennial, the thought of going another hour without an adaptor to charge my laptop and smartphone was unbearable. One of the first things I did after I landed in Jakarta was head to a mall. Fortunately within walking distance from my hotel there was a massive mall; Ciptura World.
It can be a bit confusing when you first reach a country. One has to adjust themselves to the new surroundings. When I landed I was struck by the infamous Jakarta traffic. Sure, I read about it prior to arrival. However I didn’t really believe it could be worse than Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City like so many people claimed–but it was. With that said, just crossing the mega-road to reach Ciptura World was a game of Frogger, where I had to dodge oncoming cars and motorcycles.
Nevertheless, as I approached this enormous building, what I thought to be Ciptura, I was thrown completely off balance. I saw this security check through the huge glass walls. Three guards stood there: one with a handheld metal detector, another monitoring the screen of the baggage scanner, and the last physically looking through some patron’s bags.
My initial reaction was, “There’s no way I am at the right place.” I must have mistakenly approached an office building. Or maybe even an embassy. Either way, there was no chance this monolithic structure could be a mall.
So I turned around and headed back towards my hotel. Luckily along the way I found an adaptor at 7-11. Whew.
A few days later, after much trial and error, I finally found an apartment for the time I would be in Jakarta. Very kindly the building owner drove me to buy a SIM card for my little Nokia phone. Surprisingly, because I still had no concept of Jakarta’s layout, we ended up driving past the “mall” I walked away from just a few days prior. She pointed to the mall and said it was one of the largest in Jakarta. At that point I realized I had been mistaken; I had made it to the Ciptura Mall all along.
Entering a Mall
Since the turn of the century several bombings have been carried out in Jakarta. Most recently and perhaps famously, at least in the capital-city area, were the 2009 attacks at the Ritz Carlton and JW Marriott Hotels. These bombings left as many as 50 were injured, including foreigners.
Correspondingly, security measures tightened across the city. Especially at locations deemed ideal terrorist targets, such as embassies, luxury hotels and of course malls.
While security precautions differ from mall to mall, there is almost always a customary car check when entering the mall’s premise. That is, a guard checking the trunk for bombs. Taxicabs included. Also almost always guaranteed will be a bag check. Less often one must walk through an x-ray device similar to that at airports. And depending on the guard working, and how seriously he takes his job, a pat down on male entrants can even ensue.
And that’s just to enter the mall. When finally inside, security guards can be spotted every 50 – 300 meters. Some stores and restaurants, like Starbucks, even go as far as to have their own guard on duty.
Inside the Mall
Only a day after I avoided entering Ciptura World, I made it to my first mall in Jakarta. And since then, I have made it to some mall in one way or another practically everyday. Malls are everywhere.
One of the first things that struck me about many malls in Jakarta were vast the store offerings. Oftentimes extending far beyond just fashion or electronics.
Sure there are movie theaters and arcades, a common feature in Asian malls. There are also fitness and beauty centers—again very normal. However, not so normal, I would see nurseries and daycare centers; concert halls and ballrooms; “culture centers” and museums. Yes, in the mall. Not to mention designated areas with computers where people could surf the web. Heck, some malls in Jakarta even offer free WiFi—like Plaza Indonesia.
A trend even more unusual, at least to me, were the people hanging out at these malls. During weekdays, malls would be virtually empty. But then evening would come and they would slowly start to fill. However, unlike the US, malls never really became crowded. Also unlike the US, the people at the mall on weeknights were not shoppers. Instead I saw some sitting at the food court, on their laptop. Or sitting on a bench, on their cellphone.
The Purpose of Malls
To fully understand the symbol of malls in Jakarta, it is essential to understand their purpose. Malls are designed so that people can spend hours inside, without having to leave.
For instance, at the magnificent Grand Indonesia, portions of the giant mall are resemble the outdoors with plastic trees, cobblestone pathways, fountains, street signs, even “outdoor” seating areas. That is, seating areas that mimic the outdoors.
Serving the intent of keeping people inside, some malls are like a one stop shop. From fitness to food to entertainment to childcare and of course WiFi, these malls become a home away from home—for Indonesians who can afford these amenities.
As far as the busy weeknights go, Indonesians and expats alike flock to nearby malls after work. Jakarta traffic is notoriously terrible. “Rush hour” lasts from about 3 PM to 8 or 9 PM. So rather than sitting through a three-hour commute, many opt to sit at the mall for a few hours. At least there’s WiFi, right? For these white-collar workers, the mall becomes a place to kill time by relaxing. Rather than shopping, they simply hang out at the food court or one of the many restaurants with WiFi. And then by 9 PM it will only take 40-60 minutes to get back home.
People at the Malls
Another feature I quickly noticed at the more luxurious malls in Jakarta were all the preened and coiffed attendees—a stark contrast from the rest of the city.
When I first picked up on this, I suddenly felt underdressed. All the other girls were strutting around carrying Chanel bags with perfectly tamed hair and, naturally, high heels. And there I was toting a backpack, with frizzy hair and sneakers. A total crack to my confidence, may I add.
But once outside the mall, it was a totally different story. So many people were clearly in a much less fortunate economic situation. I frequently came across beggars standing in traffic. Others hitchhiking their way home from work, a common occurrence here. Just overall chaos.
I also found myself frequently being the center of attention. Perhaps many people do not cross paths with Westerners on a regular basis. And when they do, it is typically Western businessmen working in Jakarta– not so often young women. Either way, after some of my experiences in the streets of Jakarta, I actually feel empathy for someone like Lindsay Lohan or other celebrities with paparazzi close behind.
Yet at these middle to upscale malls, barely anyone batted an eyelash in my direction.
Becoming a Regular
After spending a few days in Jakarta I found myself flocking to the malls. Just like Indonesians.
All the attention I received outside, on the street, began to make me uncomfortable. Simple things like walking from my homestay to the convenience store a few blocks away were tiring. Perhaps if I stayed in a more upscale area, or in one of the many residences actually attached to a mall, I wouldn’t have been in such a spotlight.
And I hate to say it, but the waving, the photographs, the men shouting and whistling, the forced conversations, the kids following behind… It was draining. Most of the attention was curiosity. Most was in good nature. Perhaps even all. But, still, it was tiring. I felt like a pageant queen: waving non-stop, forcing myself to smile, taking pictures.
But then, when I walked outside my neighborhood, on the busier roads, the streets quickly became empty. There were cars, of course. But no other people were walking on the sidewalk. Very quickly I would feel like I could be put in a dangerous situation. Which made me feel even more anxious than all the attention received in my little neighborhood.
I was in this world of two extremes. Not feeling secure outside, I took to the indoors and began hanging-out at malls: the bargain, the entertainment and, yes, the luxurious.
Especially at these luxury malls, I felt like I blended in. No one gave me any extra attention. No person stared when I walked by. No one asked for any pictures. These mall-goers are wealthy, or at least appear to be. Some probably have travelled to Europe or the US. And even if they had not ventured far outside Indonesia, it was clear I was nothing special. Plus they were probably too proud or preoccupied to give me the time of day, anyways.
It was a sigh of relief. But maybe more importantly I felt safe. With security guards every fifty meters or so, how could I not?
Who Are Malls For?
Luxury malls in Jakarta are like artificially controlled bubbles. They are escapes from Jakarta’s realities: the traffic, the poorly planned city streets, the poverty, the chaos and so forth.
Ultimately, Jakarta’s luxury malls embody the gap between the have and have-nots.
But this symbolism is ironic. Malls are easy to navigate, purposefully designed, spotlessly clean, cater to the elite and are highly secure: the opposite of Jakarta’s roadways and neighborhoods.
In the end, these luxury malls are a microcosm of Jakarta’s elite. And one does not need to step inside to see this. The Mercedes Benzes and Porches being valet parked at the entrance is enough evidence. However, the luxury malls and their visitors do not represent the real Jakarta.
A Confining Space
The case has been made in many countries across the world, including the US, that the elite have little societies and subcultures of their own. However, in many of these places the wealthy do not gather at malls like they do in Jakarta.
Nonetheless, I have witnessed malls as a flocking ground for the wealthy in cities such as Bangkok. But what caught my attention about malls in Jakarta was the high level of security. Yes, to prevent future terrorist attacks from occurring. Yet also, in my mind, these security measures seemingly further kept out the “have-nots”.
Also, unlike my impressions in Bangkok, in Jakarta there appeared to be basically no other alternatives of places to hangout except for malls. In Bangkok, there are tons of areas in the city streets filled with shops and cafes, perfectly safe to sit and enjoy. On the contrary, in Jakarta I felt confined to the malls.