26 February 2011


Jakarta, Indonesia: There’s a reason why shopping malls are so popular in Jakarta – all over Southeast Asia for that matter. They generally beat being outside, even for locals who are accustomed to the conditions. Most importantly the air is conditioned, and for more than mere temperature and humidity. Inside a Jakarta shopping mall is one of the very few times that one is not subjected to billowing clouds of auto exhaust and other forms of pollution.

There are two kinds of malls. One sort is where locals shop. They tend to be large, ugly, slapdash sorts of concrete constructions filled with hundreds, no, thousands of small cubicles, shop spaces and counters selling an astounding array of lower end items made in Indonesia or India, Vietnam, Sir Lanka, Bangladesh, etc. There are still some Chinese products as well, but they are moving upmarket.

The local malls are jam packed. Motorbikes and bajaj (the dreadful, three-wheeled coughing, sputtering, exhaust and noise spewing mechanical contribution of India to the foulness of the typical Jakarta street) buzz around the outside of them like so many pestilent mosquitoes. Instead of malaria, these mosquitoes are responsible for respiratory ailments. Inside people scramble for bargains, haggling and socializing and catching some slight respite from the world outside, even if it is only in little gusts from fans or the occasional enclosed, air-conditioned shop.

The other malls are something else. They’re enormous, modern, opulent, created by some of the world’s greatest and most creative architects and designers. Looking at the shops inside them you have to wonder who buys anything here? And there are a lot of them – at least eight or nine megamalls by my loose count so far.

As I write this I’m in the Pacific Place Mall where there is a Bentley dealer on the ground floor. There are people in this country who can afford Bentleys. But there aren’t a lot of them and my guess is that those who can don’t trot on down to the showroom when they want to pick one up. They have a driver for that. Or the showroom comes to them at home.

There’s an Apple store and a SONY Style store and all sorts of stores that are almost entirely empty here on a rainy Saturday afternoon. There are people walking around, stealing glances into the shop windows, but other than food from the many restaurants, cafes and coffee bars in the food court, I don’t see anyone buying much of anything.

I think these malls, some of which are enormous – enormous enough to rival or surpass such American behemoths as the Mall of America – are more concerned with prestige for their builders – mostly wealthy Indonesian-Chinese families – than they are with actually turning a buck. Even in America, where more people can afford to buy all this overpriced designer stuff – or at least go into credit card debt for it – a mall like this wouldn’t have any sort of mass appeal.

They are very nice places, however, to escape the world outside. Something that really needs doing from time to time. And while I can’t heartily recommend the bebek goring (fried duck) that I had for lunch at Grand Indonesia Shopping Town, it was pretty amazing to find it there along with two of the spiciest sambals (chili sauce) that I have ever had, at a price that was about a dollar, maybe two more than you'd pay for it on the street - if you could find it on the street. There’s plenty else to choose from in any event. It was in a four story food court, featuring, maybe, a hundred or more venues. And it was starting to get crowded.

In these photos I have failed miserably to do any sort of justice to the over the top opulence that is the Grand Indonesia Shopping Town.The "Damn! I Love Indonesia" store.

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