Inside the bubble: the air-conditioned alternate reality of Jakarta's megamalls

Pass the security guards in their navy blue uniforms and white epaulettes, through the metal detectors that invariably beep (although no one seems to care), and you’re inside Jakarta’s glistening, marbled alternate reality: fluffy white clouds painted on the ceiling, gold lion fountain heads and glitzy designer stores that sell handbags that, for some, would cost an entire year’s wage.

For many well-heeled inhabitants of this steaming hot megalopolis, the megamall has all the answers you need – starting with air-conditioning. But there are also restaurants and playgrounds, nightclubs, bars, bookshops, gyms, salons, dentists, and doctors; there are supermarkets, gardens, karaoke parlours, cinemas, art galleries, and even evangelical churches. In Jakarta, the mall is a literal one-stop shop.

The city has an astounding 170 malls – so many that, in 2011, worried authorities issued a moratorium on new ones in central Jakarta. Nevertheless, in a city with next to no open public space, Jakartans still invariably find themselves inside a mall with alarming frequency.

“Oh, I come to the mall every day,” laughs 25-year-old Faisyah Dyanti, who both works and hangs out at Grand Indonesia, or GI, one of the higher-end megamalls in central Jakarta. “My office is right next to the mall so I come here to eat lunch. I prefer it because there is air-con and more choices.”

Over the years, mall upon mall has been tacked up in Jakarta – a resulting “mall sprawl” that has seen some malls situated just hundreds of metres away from one or even two comparable others, sharing many of the same shops.

But it’s not just about shopping. Malls in Jakarta effectively function as pseudo public spaces: a place to meet up with friends and family, take a walk, go out for meal or have a business meeting. Although the city’s planning law stipulates that 30% of land in Jakarta should be allocated as green space, in reality it accounts for less than 10%.

“You know why we like to come to the mall? Because we don’t have any other places to go,” says Deborah, who is spending the afternoon shopping with her teenage daughter. “Even if we do, it takes for ever to get there. The traffic jams – oh my God, I don’t like it and I am Indonesian. The mall is headache-free: you just go there and come home, easy.”

Indeed, most people cite traffic as their main reason for spending an inordinate amount of time in the mall. But another apparent draw, in a country that is 90% Muslim, is the more liberal dress code. “There is a different culture here. I saw one woman in hot pants and heels,” says Rita Damayanti, 29, a headscarf-wearing university lecturer from central Java who was visiting GI for the first time. “The combination is perfect … but they must be getting tired walking around the mall in those stilettos!”

“If you go to a traditional market you have to blend in, you can’t dress up like this,” agrees Deborah, gesturing to her above-the-knee denim skirt. “Each mall is different, but in central Jakarta you can wear what you want in the mall, and no one will stare.”

Whether malls really offer Indonesia’s women more real freedom, however, is more hotly debated. “At least we can learn diversity, but I’m still not talking about social justice,” says Indonesian author Ayu Utami. She says malls offer women a level of protection they don’t have on the streets, but it’s a false form of freedom.

Yet in the artificial bubble of the mall, she adds, Jakartans can learn new habits – such as a respect for diversity and non-smoking spaces. Before smoking was officially banned in malls, the only smoke-free spaces that were respected in the city were mosques and petrol stations, says Utami, only half jokingly.

“The street has its own norms, and the malls have their own norms, but of course it is a selective process,” Utami says. “Poor people cannot go inside the mall.” Jakarta’s luxury malls are a world of their own: an incongruous social scene compared to the reality outside. “Here you see a parade of characters, women dressed to the nines, wearing tens of thousands of dollars prancing around,” says Lydia Ruddy, a communications and policy analyst in Jakarta. “The family with the kids trailing around, the mum and her Gucci bag and the nanny in a $10 uniform because the baby can’t burp over mum’s blouse.”

One mall manager, who asked to remain anonymous, revealed that some of the high-end designer stores pay minimal or no rent; the idea being that their presence imbues the mall with glamour and prestige. And while malls function in lieu of public spaces, they are hardly free. Even going to the mall costs money – you have to pay for parking, and if you want to sit down you have to order in a cafe or restaurant.

“You pay perhaps 10 to 50 times more for your food just because it’s in the mall,” says Marco Kusumawijaya of the Rujak Centre for Urban Studies, over a coffee at one of the few independent coffee shops in the city. “You pay for the marble floor, you pay for the freezing air-conditioning, the useless atrium and these expensive guards and sweepers.” It all seems rather bizarre in contrast to how millions of Jakartans actually live.

Waiting for his afternoon shift near the Green Bay Mall on the Pluit waterfront in north Jakarta, Ahmed Setiawan is busy feeding flies to his caged birds. He’s never been to Green Bay mall, and has no desire to go.

“That place is just for rich people. We can’t afford to go there. The salary of fishermen is just Rp20,000 [US$1.50] a day.

“Actually the mall is a disturbance. Before we used to look for bait and mussels in the water in front there, but now there’s hardly any fish. It’s very annoying, and the government doesn’t care. They just care about money.”

Around the corner, Rohani is selling rice and snacks from her wooden cart. She’s been to Green Bay once since it opened several years ago. “I went there when it was the birthday of the mall and there were fireworks,” she says. “I just looked once. Only once.” Rather than malls, traders and fishermen like Rohani and Setiawan go to traditional markets. These are clusters of bustling street-side stalls, wooden tables stacked with cheap clothing, fruit and vegetables, and meat carcasses hanging in the heat. They also buy goods direct from street vendors, whose traditional wooden carts circle the local kampung neighbourhoods, selling everything from buckets and brooms to mountains of fruit.

It’s this colourful street life that is threatened by the ubiquity of malls – and the social inequity they represent, says Kusumawijaya.

Many malls in Jakarta grossly exceed the dimensions stipulated in the city’s 2010 spatial planning bylaws. Yet developers are permitted to build wider and higher by paying compensation. Kusumawijaya believes this is a form of “spatial injustice”.

“Why can’t you build more for your house? Because you cannot pay the compensation, while these people are building more and more,” he says. “The problem is that every additional square metre means additional water extraction from the ground, additional electricity. This creates more of a burden on the city.”

Still, the realities of the outside world are easily forgotten in the mall, especially the fact that many Jakartans cannot afford to spend time there – including some of the employees. But for many others, mall culture is the only type of urban experience they’ve ever known. At the Carnivalle section of GI – a virtual theme park – Herdi Herdiansyah, 32, a marketing consultant, rocks a pram with his six-month-old son amid the din and flashing lights.

“We’re just introducing him to the idea, for his eyes only. You know, so he won’t be too surprised when he grows up and is ready to play here.”

Source: K. Lamb, 2016, 'Inside the Bubble: The air-conditioned alternate reality of Jakarta's megamalls', The Guardian, 24th November: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/nov/24/jakarta-megamalls-air-conditioned-alternate-reality?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other