Vague Heritage: Treatments of Colonial Memory in Jakarta’s Old Town

On Kota Tua Jakarta – Heritage, Memory

Despite having lived most of my life in Indonesia since birth, I personally feel that it is rather difficult to find veritable traces of Dutch colonialism, considering that an extensive period of at least three centuries of Indonesia’s history was written under the Dutch empire’s rule. Even at the heart of the country’s capital city of Jakarta, the city throughout exudes an apparent lack of well-preserved colonial heritage; heritage which I consider to be rarities found and integrated only sporadically throughout the city—not in the least architecturally.

Jakarta’s Kota Tua (literally translates into Jakarta’s ‘Old Town’ in English) is a historic neighbourhood located in the centre of Jakarta and contains a number of cultural heritage sites. The Old Town downtown area has roots dating as far as the pre-colonial era, as it was a major trading port famous primarily for its spice trade in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The city was conquered by the Dutch East India Company in the early seventeenth century and was subsequently renamed Batavia. Batavia developed into a vital centre of the Dutch East-Indies, notably so with a growing variety of ethnicities.

Aerial view of Kota Tua as it blends into the wider Jakarta metropolis (Photo by Lee Jason, 2021)

Indonesia’s management of its enduring postcolonial heritage has progressively influenced the urban memory of Jakarta’s Old Town–otherwise known as Kota Tua in the Indonesian language–as well as its cultural representations. Given its immanence in the Dutch colonialization era, Kota Tua’s contemporary relevance is continually adapted today into sites of leisure, as the City of Jakarta is working within the framework of tourism and entertainment to spearhead the historic neighbourhood’s revitalization efforts. Dilapidated historic properties are modernized and readapted into various establishments such as shops, cafes and galleries. As a measure of progress, the government proposed for Kota Tua to be considered a UNESCO World Heritage site, which was ultimately rejected by UNESCO as it was deemed to be lacking in authenticity.

In managing its colonial heritage with Kota Tua’s locus as a historical district, the city’s urban development is rendered visible. The neighbourhood contributes to the production and transformation of a modern identity for Jakarta and its residents.

By presenting tourism with consumable colonial spectacles, the shift from a postcolonial neighbourhood into a productive and competitive site for the urban economy might indicate the suppression of urban memories withheld in the city’s colonial past. It also alludes to an erosion of intangible heritages throughout Kota Tua that were not preserved by the private owners of the new establishments. In this context, when decisions regarding the rehabilitation and reintegration of colonial architecture and urban heritage need to be made, sacrifices in favour of promoting Kota Tua as a vibrant cultural site—part of a larger global tourism scheme—are made conceivable. Reviewing this avant-garde process of perpetually materializing a post-colonial identity fit for globalization can illustrate an analysis of Jakarta’s approach to its urban development in an ever-advancing, unbounded world.  

As time passed, the deterioration of Batavia became increasingly apparent, as Batavia eventually fell to the Imperial Japanese army in 1942. The Dutch empire officially surrendered to Japan’s occupation of Indonesia and Batavia was then renamed Jakarta. Indonesia declared its independence in August 1945 at the end of the Second World War, with Jakarta being appointed as the capital of the newly established Republic of Indonesia.

Today, the remnants of the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Dutch East India Company’s rule over Indonesia are very insubstantially preserved, as only a few colonial buildings were selected to survive in Kota Tua. After the Second World War, the added challenge of preserving the remains from the period of the Dutch’s rule, on top of reuniting Indonesia—an archipelago consisting of seventeen thousand islands—proved to be too difficult.

Following the country’s decolonization, colonial heritage architecture often held less priority and less value, giving way to the new development of modern miscellany. This array of new development includes modern buildings such as high-rise developments, and monumental structures, as well as other buildings which primarily focused on contributing to growing the developing country’s economy and ability to attract foreign investments—such as the now abundant shopping malls—development widely ubiquitous in Jakarta today. This phenomenon marked the country’s desire to quickly leave behind its colonized days and develop as rapidly as possible. Such a trend progressively manifested in the ambiguity of Jakarta’s visible history, as traces of colonial buildings were masked over a new modern face of the desire to rebuild the nation into a relevant competitor in the international market.

However, increasingly so recently, Kota Tua has had a barrage of several revitalization projects which attempts to dignify its colonial heritage as the area’s main attraction—as if a resurgence in the appreciation of the country’s unfortunate past. In view of attempting to revive Kota Tua as a cultural hub of Dutch heritage, these attempts could largely be rendered as efforts intended to turn the objects and sites in Kota Tua into marketable properties in a wider commercial scheme. The scheme intends to attract local and international tourists by showcasing the colonial remains of the Dutch East Indies. Promoting the notion of bigger, faster and better commercial outputs, the scheme is essentially an attempt to facilitate the commodification of everything within Kota Tua, inevitably manifesting the area as a tourist attraction. This notion is similarly discussed by Guy Debord in his seminal book ‘Society of the Spectacle’ (or La société du spectacle in French), describing the intense condensation of life as it unfolds as ‘an immense accumulation of spectacles.

The layers of colonial heritage that have been progressively reformed by decay and negligence present in Kota Tua today with its underlying issues of a blurred collective urban memory show this notion of an ambiguous collective memory that engages a discourse of urban heritage. It is initiated by defining the preliminary explorations which are gained from investigating the present-day implications rooted in Kota Tua’s developing urban identity.

Influenced by the memory of extensive colonial history, Kota Tua has a symbiotic relationship with Jakarta’s performative functions of memory and history will also be explored. Discussing the re-emergence of history and memory in urban discourse, followed by addressing and clarifying Tempo Doeloe moves to assess the urban impact of the nostalgic construct Tempo Doeloe, looking at how it served as the foundation that propelled a wide intent in the commercialization of Kota Tua’s colonial heritage.

Past revitalization efforts have continued to shape this phenomenon of a vague postcolonial memory in Kota Tua. The juxtaposition between the high-priority commercial areas to the decaying, neglected sites in Kota Tua exemplifies the market-driven revitalization projects in Kota Tua that have contributed to the broadening obfuscation of the area’s urban memory.      

Memory and history are inextricably linked as architects think about how to build for the future by looking at the past. When architects become aware of the possibility of transferring to the realm of reality that which they had imagined in their memory, the prominence of urban memory and its associated sentiments surges; whether it is the desire to forget or to continue the existing urban memory.

With its trend of commodifying everything that surrounds its colonial heritage, Kota Tua isolates and reforms itself into a theatre of memory—colonial spectacles intended for rapid commercialization.

The overarching question herein lies; How do past and present preservation efforts reduce Kota Tua’s complex colonial heritage into a touristic site, resulting in an ambiguously rendered urban memory?

The need for a sensitive, careful logic and methodology of choosing how to repress—or embrace—the heritage left behind by the Dutch rule serves as a reflection of the approach that has been and is being taken by the responsible governing parties. This attitude reverberates to the city’s inhabitants, gradually allowing a collective response to be formed towards this urban heritage and memory issue.

Re-Emergence of Heritage and Memory

“To revisit the past would vastly improve history. If historians could go back in time and see what happened and talk to people who were living then, they would understand it better. “

-David Lowenthal

The nostalgic longing for the past has long been a fond desire. The allure of time travel offers a glimpse of reincarnation, as the irreversibly lost history seems intolerable in this day and age. Communities of heritage crave a method to recover the past, searching for ways to recapture or relive experiences in the belief that some form of a mechanism might provide a sense of closure. Memories always survive and have the potential to be recovered. For things to be brought back they have first to be preserved. Those who yearn to view the past often conflate the two processes.

Using Kota Tua’s context as a mnemonic device hopes to contribute to the expansive discourse of heritage and memory by exploring an understanding of heritage and memory in an utmost postcolonial relevance to the context of Kota Tua.

The construction of Kota Tua as a place represents the range of material, representational and symbolic activities of nostalgia preservation. This indicates the approach that individuals invest in such a place, allowing a collective unfettering of memories owing to investing themselves in the nostalgia of the place. Heritage is a cultural phenomenon, and not simply a subject of political or economic dialogue in the commercialization processes of Kota Tua. By not emphasizing the inherent value of heritage, the objectivity of said heritage is actively undermined. If heritage is framed as a performative tool, the contemporary perception of it is continuously negotiated in the context of the needs of the present. This process allows to stabilise or destabilise issues of identity, memory and sense of place, in that heritage has both material and social ramifications.

The trend-phenomenon of colonial nostalgia constructs such as tempo doeloe, demonstrates the modern condition; an acceleration of nostalgia-inducing globalization. The unsettling pace of life brought about by globalization accelerates constructs of nostalgia—increasingly causing a feeling of uprootedness. Urban identities are written and rewritten at an unprecedentedly radical pace, with a ‘globalization of memory cultures’ expedited by the rapid production of memory representation forms. Convoluted pasts are mitigated into consumable heritage products, giving rise to a commodified heritage culture, a ‘new kind of sentimentalism’ adopted by people and cultures.

Kota Tua exists not as a singular entity but as a place of heritage. Rather, as a downtown neighbourhood, it is a network of such places, as shown in the image below.

A superimposed map of the Kota Tua Area in Jakarta (Photo by Official Indonesian Department of Culture and Museums, Jakarta, 2008)

While a singular place or space does have the latent potential to provoke memories, a network of collected places has a further potential to reunify collective urban memory. Networks of associated heritage places, especially of which are thematically organized such as Kota Tua with its Dutch colonial heritage, have the potential to reach broader audiences and on a more profound level. People invest in places with social and cultural meaning, and urban landscape history can provide a framework for connecting those meanings to contemporary urban life.

Tempo Doeloe and a Tourism of Colonial Heritage in Kota Tua

It is vital to first address the phrase of the nostalgic construct ‘tempo doeloe’, an Indonesian phrase which literally translates into ‘the olden days’ in the English language. Tempo doeloe is essentially a nostalgic focus that recalls the ‘good old days’ of colonial life in the Dutch East Indies. It inspires the idea of enjoying certain aspects of life when Indonesia was still under Dutch rule.

Today, there is a recurrence of the trope of ‘tempo doeloe’ rising popularity of quasi-colonial styles…Indonesians are eagerly flirting with tempo doeloe.

-Yatun Sastramidjaja

A glaring paradox arises from this nostalgic construct; the paradox here is that the colonized are reminiscing, in a positive manner, the modes and quality of life during past times under colonization. The colonial past has always been suppressed in official Indonesian history. Since the early days of the island nation’s independence, Indonesia had been observing a postcolonial silencing of official colonial history. Indonesia’s colonial past was consistently perceived to be that of an inglorious one, for such an enormous country—the world’s largest archipelagic state by area and population—to have been under the rule of a Western force for over three centuries long, the nation had to look at itself in a different light.

Tempo doeloe’s evocative nature brings about a discourse that provides a mnemonic engagement for Indonesia’s citizens to romanticize modes of life from an otherwise more complex, more troublesome past. Seen this way, in its guise, tempo doeloe is sufficiently guilt-free enough, for Indonesians to immerse themselves. Sastramidjaja notes that ‘Tempo doeloe will continue to be haunted by the spectre of colonialism as long as discomfiting issues remain unaddressed.’

The unwritten consensus is such that traces of the nation’s humiliating colonial past has to be forgotten from its collective memory. Rather, righteously focusing rather on famous national incidents, such as those where the nation’s freedom fighters claimed glorious victories over the colonizers. Today, the problematic actualities of colonialism are not consistently being presented in a genuine, true-to-life manner. In the commercialization and marketing of present-day Kota Tua, the rather difficult realities of colonialism are being constantly understated, if not minimized. The selective omission of its factual colonial heritage produces gaps for styles of tempo doeloe that are more malleable, for tempo doeloe turns both the former colonizer and the formerly colonized into ‘innocent bystanders’ in history.

Collective memory notes the way in which social groups are constantly involved in a process of “implacement” whereby collectives are partly constituted by collaborative experiences of place, thus rendering it a key component of collective memory. Landscapes are frequently perceived to function as archives of human history and experience; this perhaps explains the “pull” of sites of memory, for the act of physical travel can be seen to stand in for something we cannot do: to travel back into the past itself.

One’s personal experience of a place has a particular potential to express how the past is understood in the present day. By extension, such an individual’s experience might be more ubiquitous than personal, it might be shared by others that experience the same place—this is collective memory.

Fatahillah Museum, the Jakarta History Museum (Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas, 2015)
Indonesian visitors pose for a photo with a man dressed up in costume outside the Jakarta History Museum (Photo by Adek Berry/AFP, Getty Images, 2015)

Taman Fatahillah Museum—the central square in Kota Tua, the city’s main local and international tourist draw. Originally, it was built in the early eighteenth century as the Stadhuis (Dutch city hall) of Batavia. In the present day, the square has been normalized as a public space for any and all purposes; used by a variety of people, ranging from general tourists to picnic-goers and crowds of loiterers, or to street vendors offering a miscellany of goods and popular street food items.

The historic museum has also undergone a process of appropriation in the perception of the general public, insofar as to host popular public celebrations, such as the observation of fireworks during New Year’s Eve.

The contemporary condition is modern normalcy for the general public to engage with playful colonial heritage attractions, such as the cosplaying of a typical Dutch woman’s attire during those times or dressing up as an official from the Dutch empire—jovially pointing a rifle at bystanders.

To exemplify the stark contrast of what had occurred in this area when Indonesia was still under Dutch rule, the Images below illustrate ‘the hanging of two men in front of Batavia’s town hall’ and an Indonesian man forced into the physical labour of watering the streets of Batavia amidst Indonesia’s tropical heat. Between the nation’s independence and the rapid postcolonial development of urban Jakarta, the juxtaposition shown describes how Fatahillah square has virtually no traces of austerity left in its space, nor a sense of a troubling memory. This juxtaposition offers an insight into this phenomenon which I recount as the issue of a vague urban memory and identity in Kota Tua.

The hanging of two men in front of Batavia’s Town Hall, now known as Fatahillah Museum, (Unknown Author, between 1895 and 1925)
Batavia man watering the streets (Photo by ullstein bild, Getty Images, 1920)

 Tempo doeloe discourses develop through interchanges of recalling and forgetting, depending on the obligations of its community. This is one of the main proponents of the issue of a vague identity and memory in Kota Tua. On the acceleration of nostalgia due to rapid processes of globalization, tempo doeloe has contemporarily restructured itself at an unsettling pace, in order to adjust to the commercial agenda of Kota Tua. The sentimental longing for tempo doeloe is not merely an ‘optimism of memory’.

Kota Tua’s colonial heritage is what substantially informs its built legacy, initiating a post-colonial urban landscape that accommodates itself in the present day. The ambivalences of Kota Tua’s colonial heritage underpins the acceptance that ‘architecture produced under colonial rule constitutes, by definition, a “dissonant heritage”’. The reuse and reappropriation of colonial heritage and architecture, attests to the ambiguity of Kota Tua’s urban identity, as its troubled past has not been able to keep up with the demanding speed of its commercialization. The dissonance, produced by its colonial contexts against its contemporary narratives, comfortably maintains its ambivalence through the tempo doeloe construct—it distils history into symbols of an identity predominantly fabricated by its contemporary commercial demands. Thus, the narrative of its colonial heritage only reveals itself selectively, offering itself in superficial fractions, sanitising the colonial past and ignoring widely composite motions of history.

Naturally, the passage of time and Indonesia’s desire to free itself from the shackles of its colonizers progresses some loss of Batavia’s historic character. Today, tropes like tempo doeloe and agendas of Kota Tua’s tourism industry are pushing again for the desire to relive the supposed brilliance of Batavia. While superficial, it hints at a rise of sensitivity towards its urban heritage. Why then, has this not translated to bettering the urban condition of Kota Tua and Jakarta as a whole, rather than selectively pursuing commercial agendas? In one Jakarta case study, Sugiantoro states that in Kota Tua, seventy-eight percent of land use is commercial while residential use accounted for five percent, but most of the residences are in urban villages with poor infrastructure services.

As tourism is now largely at the forefront of Kota Tua’s development, as a site of heritage, it opens itself not just to communities intimate with its past, but also to those with little to no affinity to its heritage. This ultimately weakens and blurs its sense of a genuine, urban memory or identity. Kota Tua’s issue rises from facing cultural heritage rooted in a growing obsession with promoting desirable objects and modes of life from its troubled colonial past. To isolate itself as the special province of the victims while hoping to contribute to its parent city Jakarta as a commercial zone is not an act of chauvinistic endeavour.

Kota Tua’s capitalistic pursuits are purposely oriented to its development. These give birth to technological and organizational advancements, which in turn may revolutionize or radically alter the complexion, therefore influencing the processes of its fabrication of place or space.

In a landscape of heritage, the memory of a place compresses human associations to its built and natural environments. This is what allows communities, especially those related to places of heritage, to establish and judge their past. For those commonly close to its history, it acts as a site of nostalgia, of memory re-enactments to certain extents. Doubly, these places also have the potential to reveal themselves to ‘outsiders’, intrigued by being immersed in the present adaptation of its heritage. Thus, it is critical to maintaining the integrity of the place’s urban identity and memory. When, like Kota Tua, rapid shifts in its identity can be felt through its change in use and popularity, an incomplete perception of its heritage is produced.

President Sukarno (1945–1966) and President Soeharto (1967–1998) were eager to reshape the perception of colonial Indonesia. Jakarta, being the capital of a newly independent country, was envisioned to construct a cityscape championing ‘modernization-rooted-in-tradition’. Under Sukarno; modern buildings and grand monuments, the national stadium, ennobling the arduous struggle for independence. Under Soeharto; skyscrapers, highways, and shopping malls, a period judged by the character of a flourishing economy and further erasure of colonial heritage.

Like many postcolonial cities in Southeast Asia, the remnants of a colonial past were treated as ‘irrelevant relics rapidly succumbing to the seemingly irresistible forces of modernization’. Kota Tua’s new museums were reserved for promoting and representing a new national culture, able to present whatever new narrative the government wished to push, instead of the historicity of its colonial heritage.

Model of ‘Hotel Banteng’ with President Sukarno (second from the left), (Unknown author, 1961)

Yet, after a period of mitigating or often erasure of colonial heritage, to advance the tourism industry, profitable properties in Kota Tua that focused on contributing directly to the economy were designed to represent seventeenth- and eighteenth-century architecture in past Batavia. This was done to ‘contribute to the economic rehabilitation of a developing area of Jakarta through the revival of the historical and cultural heritage of the ancient city…establishing a new pattern in urban development that can set an example to other cities in Indonesia’. Soon, this was considered to be an attractive feature for Kota Tua, in particular the idiosyncratic fusion of conflicting past and present.

In 1992, Jakarta collaborated with Yayasan Pelestarian Budaya Bangsa (Foundation for Preservation of National Culture). Here, Kota Tua was laid to be the foundation for a ‘Jayakarta Heritage Park’ in which the plan was to rebuild a glorious Jakarta, instead of restoring the old colonial town. It was intended to provide the Jakarta at that time with an exuberant—almost monumental—internationally admired site of touristic attraction. Though it attempted to evoke a matrix of Batavia, the old colonial city’s past splendour, it also hoped to fabricate a new, special historical identity. The name ‘Jayakarta Heritage Park’ implies that this fabrication of a new urban identity was to be based on its colonial heritage, poised as something magnificent as if from distant lands, non-native, a foreign addition to Indonesia’s landscape. Encapsulated as a theme park for tourist consumption, this ironically fabricated urban identity has remained throughout present-day Kota Tua.

Flourishing Attractions in a Decaying Neighbourhood

Theatre of Memory: A Map of Touristic Heritage Attractions in Kota Tua (Map by Astrid Prasetianti, Photo by iDiscover, Urban Discovery Ltd, 2018)

Kota Tua’s once persistent unwillingness to embrace its own colonial heritage quickly dissolves when it has the opportunity to elevate itself in view of the tourism industry. This is a trend where similar to Jakarta’s Kota Tua, neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia recognized that revitalizing colonial heritage borne these inherent benefits, ‘available as a stage set for consumption practices and, indeed, as a consumable spectacle in itself’ and opened officials’ eyes to the potential to tap into the high-end segment of the international tourism market. Accordingly, Batavia was eventually restored and thus the identity of  Jayakarta was quickly removed, as follows multiple changes in the governing of Jakarta.  

Sites of decay—though reused adaptively as is the widespread case across Jakarta and Indonesia, as temporary and makeshift stalls or market vendors. These sites continue to avoid the tourist gaze, especially those from overseas and poses the stark contrast between sites of heritage in Kota Tua and sites with presumably fewer heritages.

A common sight throughout Kota Tua: Temporary and makeshift stalls in front of an abandoned building (Getty Images)

Programming Kota Tua’s Urban Fabric

The vernacular city is inextricably linked to its urban heritage and memory, tradition and character. The formation of place identity is informed by the identities and practices of individuals and communities. It is a place developed by and for its citizens, and in turn, it reflects the social and cultural strata of the city.

The emphasis on restoring a building’s financial value leads to the commercialised touristic heritage preservation that focuses on fetishizing the vernacular. Essentially painting these sites with a motif of heritage eventually serves as an act of vandalism toward the urban fabric, via the condensation of heritage spectacles. It exists in ignorance of the mundane and the ordinary life of the people and communities that surround it, only justifying its existence by determining its financial value and potential.

An aesthetics-based and or consumption-driven heritage preservation emphasizes greater value on physical structures, more so than the lives that occur within and between them. When economic efficiency is pitted against nostalgia, it is frequently justified to replace a city’s ancient architectural environment with a new, modern enterprise that is seen to be more viable to the touristic landscape.

“Heritage, or the simulacrum of heritage, can be mobilized to gain a competitive advantage in the race between places.”

Looking at Kota Tua’s bricolage of history concerning Batavia and Jayakarta, it is apparent that the present-day approach taken by the responsible parties is by showcasing its cultural, social and architectural heritage, promoting the convenience for tourists. Though Kota Tua is an increasingly popular site for domestic and international tourists, Kota Tua still bears the stigma of being a slum downtown neighbourhood with a high crime rate and substantial socio-economic issues. Notwithstanding the discourse of a ground-breaking, sustainable local urban development to help preserve colonial heritage, it appeared that the only option to ‘repair’ the city was to make sites of heritage as marketable and superficially attractive as possible; uprooting local populations, commodifying mundane spaces.

What typically entails touristification is the creation of sterilized, isolated spaces, as they are intended to alleviate any traces of an urban threat, intensifying the juxtaposition with the turmoil and the urban decay, possibly resulting in the exile and dispersion of local practices, memories and identities. A trend of Kota Tua’s growing popularity might eventually foreshadow the demise of such a site, during Kota Tua’s revitalization processes.

Towards a More Considered Postcolonial Response for Kota Tua’s Heritage

In Kota Tua’s postcolonial context, colonial nostalgia has no set definitions since it is constantly influenced by the matrix of remembering and forgetting. Its narrative fluctuates, as exemplified by the desire to return to Batavia or the desire to build a greater city of Jayakarta. Colonial nostalgia, instead, reflects a multifaceted way of approaching the past. This interplay of forgetting and remembering defines nostalgia as the point of departure to assess the ‘status quo’ of a place, or a space.

When heritage is marketed as a modifier for Kota Tua’s commodified value, contraventions to the Old Town’s historicity will always exist. An urban identity that precedes heritage understanding becomes a resourceful concept to enhance the city’s competitiveness to attract tourists as well as capital investments.

What kind of heritage best inspires memories of the past? Should heritage be sterile and leave an always-pristine impression?  Or should it contend with itself, that traces of a complex past or a heritage that attests to the passage of time are equally essential to this continuity? ‘Pasts’ that have been formed or revived recently, along with pasts judged by time, respond to different criteria and provide different conclusions. The decision affects not just what we choose to recall and keep, but also how we distinguish between the past and the present.

Thus, nostalgia is neither inherently regressive nor progressive. It is cultural participation rather than a fixed substance, nor a set of defined attitudes. While urban heritage is affected by globalisation, it is not conceptually restricted to income-generating and simple cost-benefit analysis.

The preservation of urban legacy is intrinsically a process of renewing urban identity, meanings of urban places, and urban existence. Architecture is a culturally tied spatial marker that elicits place awareness, which necessitates the presence of a vernacular. Globally, urban identity is conveyed as a representative image of a place, with the looks of attractive urban landscapes becoming universal attractions.

In Kota Tua, remnants of the past, complete or partial, or recognisable only in traces, may be found all around the area. Yet only until recently have these relics become valued. Taking deterioration for granted, Kota Tua allowed heritages to decay as cultural, social or political whims demanded.

Architecture and the urban built environment play a role in the fabrication and the development of a city and its citizens’ identities. In order to obtain the coveted competitive city status, contemporary skyscrapers and technologically complex projects are being built in Jakarta. Kota Tua has built and rebuilt itself, and in the process, sequestered its vernacular qualities within its architectural heritage, tailoring the city essentially for tourists and businesses, and not for the people. The contradiction is such that, while independence is linked with breaking away from a colonial power, urban heritage is frequently focused on the preservation of colonial objects and sites. The exoticism of colonial architecture and nostalgic constructs of European urban spaces—and or other ways of life—create an appealing urban identity, enticing tourists to spend money in the city.

The emphasis on outstanding architectural heritage may be at odds with the vernacular urban fabric, which is more closely linked to local economic activity. At the same time, as the city is more dominated by magnificent mega-projects or projects of revitalization, local economic activity is declining. Urban patterns that favour these spectacles frequently result in the marginalisation of vernacular heritage, both culturally and in terms of the physical environments that we engage in.

The ‘urge to preserve’ stems from three assumptions: that the past informs the present; that its remnants are essential to our identity; and that remnants are brittle and declining assets, their loss hastened by rapid change, rendering even the recent past as irrecoverably distant.

Heritage is not to be understood as apolitical, the need to turn to more careful approaches to rehabilitating disconnected heritages is imminent. Heritage is a powerful resource for ‘creating a future’ and for the recognition of how a fundamental reconceptualization of heritage is uniquely placed not only to address claims about identity, ancestry and cultural transmission but to engage with key moral-ethical issues in our times.

We need a heritage with which we can constantly interact, one that connects the past and the present. This inheritance is not only necessary but also unavoidable; we can no longer avoid the idea that the past is, to some part, our creation. There is no access or understanding of the past without assessing the present, cultural, social and physical heritages move from the present to the past, not the other way around. When we construct a contemporary narrative to change the past, urban identities and urban memories are rendered ambivalent, displacing place and space with memoryscapes. The structures and meanings that we discover in the world are already there, in the information that we extract through the processes of perception; their source resides in the things we experience, and they are not attached on by the perceiver.  Then, perhaps, given that there is no absolutely correct approach to urban heritage, colonial or not, diverse cultures or communities will find different values in the past, and no one attitude toward the past will be more valuable than another, especially when examined via the individual-collective, personal-national frameworks. What matters is the maintenance of urban identity, in which perhaps only through a careful sensitivity towards heritage practices can it be maintained.

Employing heritage practices such as advocating for a participatory approach to urban heritage preservation issues might yield positive impacts. Its urban development does not necessarily have to be initiated by the local administration or responsible governing bodies. In Kota Tua, the public sector needs to be at the forefront in this endeavour of protecting its colonial heritage and its associated urban memory. Aside from this, the general public’s perception of its historical narratives also informs a great proportion of the urban heritage. Place memory, and how spaces in Kota Tua are utilized; this approach might allow for the community to retain better participation from its communities and the general public.

Present-day visitors to Kota Tua are not presented with a coherent urban identity to position themselves. Sites of heritage are very distinct entities, and visitors are compelled to forge their own connections via their own independent explorations. Therefore, as a narrative is imperative to placemaking, Kota Tua requires a much more delineated urban identity.

Rapidly globalizing cities such as Jakarta encourages reflection upon what is being lost and how identities are being reshaped—As a site, Kota Tua has been struck by an immediate commodification of its heritages at an unprecedented pace. The demand to quickly readapt itself as a theatre of leisure, offering experiences of nostalgic memory such as tempo doeloe, has extensively obfuscated Kota Tua’s urban identity. Along with its colonial heritage, Kota Tua doubly acts as a site of resistance. Kota Tua desires to embrace its vernacular identity, yet at the same time, it represses dizzying changes in its heritage.  Like space and time, places are social constructs to be understood and appropriated with a laboriously relative carefulness. Every act of acknowledgement transforms what endures. Simply appreciating a memory or protecting a heritage, let alone embellishing or imitating it, skews its shape and our impression and perceptions of it. Handling a heritage inherently refashions its appearance and meaning, in the same way, that recollection affects memory and subjectivity slants history. Interaction with the remains of the past, or heritages, modify their character and context indefinitely, unknowingly if not purposefully.

Perhaps, there does not exist a definitive response to Kota Tua’s complex heritage and memory affairs. Perhaps, it is rather about how its community should more sensitively respond towards its heritage, so as to not obscure its urban memory–when it chooses to openly invite ‘outsiders’ into its locus of a deeply-rooted colonial heritage.

Kota Tua’s vague urban identity and its ambivalent collective memory do not boil down to the fault of the community which appropriates it, nor the government which are responsible for maintaining its built landscape, it exists somewhere in between. Readapting the narrative of a colonial site requires a lot of time as a natural catalyst for its process, and it seems that Kota Tua simply needs more time.


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