Once upon a time, Fatahillah Square (in what we now call Jakarta, Indonesia) was the centerpiece of Batavia, the town built by Dutch colonizers in the image of their cities back in the Netherlands. With its bustling canals, open spaces and graceful townhouses, Batavia in its heyday reflected the prosperity of its residents.
Some remnants of old Batavia remain to this day, but the once-prosperous town has largely been left to the ravages of time. In the daytime, the square is littered with homeless people sleeping on the steps of the former Stadthuis (now the Jakarta History Museum). The nearby Kali Besar canal is stagnant and reeks to the heavens, and other old structures in the vicinity are occupied by squatters.
Not all is lost: as one of Jakarta’s rare public squares, Fatahillah Square is bustling at all times. Its blocked-off roads now shelter food stalls, from which you can order Jakarta street food like kerak telor (omelet) and bakso (noodles). Bicycle tours are available on the side of the square facing the Museum Keramik.
At night, street performers, food stalls, and live music acts enliven the atmosphere of Fatahillah Square, attracting a very young audience. Lights from the food stalls and vendors of knick-knacks dot the crowded square.
A number of museums in the immediate vicinity show locals and tourists slices from the history of Jakarta. And Café Batavia, a wonderfully-restored bistro at the corner of Fatahillah Square, does brisk business with expats and tourists.
History of Fatahillah Square
Fatahillah Square is a 1.8 acre paved open space that used to be the social and political center of the Dutch empire in the East Indies. The Stadthuis to its south used to be the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company and the Dutch colonial government.
Fatahillah Square’s decline began even as the Dutch still held sway: during his stint as Governor-General between 1808 and 1811, Herman Willem Daendels moved the capital to Central Jakarta for sanitation reasons. The marshy, low-lying old town was susceptible to flooding and mosquito-borne disease.
Despite its being named a National Heritage Area in the 1970s, restoration has continued in fits and starts. A 2008 renovation effort blocked off roads on both sides of Fatahillah Square, and a number of concrete balls were installed as traffic bollards. The Fatahillah Museum is currently undergoing a massive renovation which is slated to finish in 2014.
Set in a 200-year-old building on the northwestern corner of Fatahillah Square, Batavia Café is the area’s lone fine-dining establishment, and does good business with expats and tourists who want a taste of late-colonial Batavia.
When Batavia Café proprietor Graham James built the place, he sought to capture “the feeling of a grand European café before World War II”. (source) Indeed, walking inside is akin to stepping through a rip through time: you instantly experience the disparity between the noisy, smelly Fatahillah Square and the genteel, warmly lit art-deco-inspired interior of the Batavia Café.
The Batavia Café is two storeys high, with about 1,600 square yards in dining and drinking space inside. The spacious second-storey Grand Salon is meticulously preserved in its 19th century state, constructed from Java teak wood and decorated with the Café’s trademark portraits of celebrities. Opposite the staircase leading up to the second floor, the Churchill Bar stands ready to serve.
The menu serves a mix of Dutch colonial dishes and hearty Australian fare; good, not outstanding, but pricey. The desserts are something else entirely, exquisite concoctions that go very well with the establishment’s spiked coffees.
The Batavia Café is open from 8am to 12 midnight on most weekdays, with closing time extended to 2am on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
Jakarta History Museum
Across the square from the Batavia Café stands the Jakarta History Museum, once the Stadthuis from which the Dutch authorities ruled its East Indies colonies. The museum’s 37 rooms house around 23,000 artifacts, including a replica of a stone inscription proclaiming the ancient Kingdom of Tarumanegara, documents dating back to pre-colonial times, and weapons from European and Indonesian powers alike. The Museum also holds the most complete collection of Betawi, or Jakarta Javan, furniture from the 1600s to the 1800s.
The building’s darker side is evident in its gruesome prison cells. Prisoners were kept in the grim dungeon under the front portico, a dank pit only four feet high. Another compartment held prisoners in several inches of dirty water. Prisoners in either compartment were shackled all throughout their stay.
Once proven guilty, they would be shuffled off to the square, where public hangings were often conducted. In 1740, a rebellion by the local Chinese population saw thousands meeting their end at the gallows on the Stadthuisplein (the name of Fatahillah Square in the days of old).
The Jakarta History Museum is currently closed for renovation, with an estimated completion date of 2014.
Fatahillah Square’s Other Museums and Attractions
On the Western fringe of Fatahillah Square, you can find the Kali Besar canal – you’ll never believe this stagnant pond was once a nexus for trade in old Batavia. A number of 18th century houses still stand on the canal’s west bank, although these are rather decrepit. North of Fatahillah Square, the canal is crossed by a drawbridge of Dutch design.
A number of other museums on Fatahillah Square are worth seeing. The Wayang Museum on the west side of the square contains collections of Indonesian puppets – wayang - from all over Indonesia and the region. The Ceramic Museum on the east side offers a small collection of old ceramics and paintings from Indonesian artists.
You can get to Fatahillah Square (coordinates 6°8'4.89"S 106°48'47.45"E) by bus or by taxi. The TransJakarta bus rapid system (Blok M-Kota corridor) terminates near the Kota Train station. Once you disembark, walk north along Jalan Lada until you reach Fatahillah Square, with the Ceramic Museum on your right.
A taxi from Jalan Thamrin costs about IDR 20,000 ($2).