After years of being overrun by a racketeering mafia, drug addicts and prostitutes, Southeast Asia’s biggest textile market is cleaning up its act in an effort to win back shoppers.
Spread across several blocks in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, Tanah Abang market is a colorful whirl of activity that has attracted shoppers from across the region for centuries.
While glittering skyscrapers have shot up in the city center trading hub, the market itself, which was founded in 1735 by a Dutch businessman, is a series of modest buildings in an area of traditional, red-tiled houses.
Traders looking for wholesale bargains and shoppers looking for smaller items haggle at myriad stalls on several floors in the market buildings, looking for everything from raw cloth to branded goods.
“There is so much variety under one roof and 20 to 30 percent cheaper than in Kuala Lumpur. And fashionable too,” said Malaysian shopper Mariam Ahmad, who makes an annual trip to the market to buy clothing ahead of the Muslim Eid holiday.
However, the market’s increasingly seedy atmosphere and traffic gridlock in the area caused by illegal street stalls were putting shoppers off. Vendors estimated customer numbers have fallen around 10 percent in recent years.
Bag seller Desmawita, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, said that crime had been “getting out of hand.”
“Two prostitutes pounced on one of my customers from Brunei while he was praying and he had to give them money before they let him go. He bought 29,000 bags from me, but canceled a five-year business deal,” Desmawita said.
Jeha, who sells traditional patterned batik shirts and goes by one name, added: “Even for us locals, Tanah Abang was scary. It was normal to see hundreds of needles used by drug addicts strewn along the back alleys. Gangsters would demand money and beat us up if we refused.”
Popular Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, who took power about a year ago, decided to tackle the issue. In August, he pushed through a plan to relocate about 1,000 vendors who had been illegally hawking goods on the streets and were blamed for many of the market’s problems.
They were moved to a refurbished building in the area, joining another 15,000 vendors working legally inside the market’s original blocks. The number of public order officers, who help police in keeping the peace, but come under the authority of the local government, has also been dramatically increased.
With the vendors off the streets, the mafia-like gangs that demanded cash payments to rent out illegal lots have largely gone. And the increased security has succeeded in frightening off many of the sex workers and drug addicts, vendors say.
“A Philippine customer was shocked when she came yesterday to see how orderly everything was. She said she would definitely return — that’s good news for me,” headscarf seller Rinaldi said.
However, the change has not been without problems. Some vendors say that business has been hurt by the move from the street, where they could catch casual shoppers as they walked past.
Rahmat Hidayat, who sells dresses, said he had not made a single sale since moving indoors, but previously he could make US$50 to US$80 a day.
“I make money from impulse buyers because I’m not selling household staples like rice. Nobody will climb three flights of stairs just to come to my shop,” he said.
And while it is striving to change without losing its authenticity, some complain that the clean-up has wiped away the market’s old character.
Gone are the noisy, streetside market stalls that used to spill across the main roads and fill up narrow alleyways.
“Please bring back the old Tanah Abang,” said headscarf seller Andalusia, complaining there were fewer customers since the market had been spruced up.