Surabaya's notorious red light district
Originally published in
Kabar Magazine, December 2008
Saturday, midnight; most of Surabaya is sleeping. The skeleton crew, the handful of people who stay awake all night – becak drivers, petty hustlers, traders in the Keputran vegetable market – have settled into their bleary-eyed rhythm of endless kretek cigarettes. Somewhere past the towering outline of the Shangri-La hotel I turn my motorbike onto a narrow, rising street. The upmarket shops of the main road fall away; alleyways lead off into working-class kampungs and thin men with high cheekbones sit smoking in the light of hissing kerosene lamps. I lose my way in the tangle of roads and find myself in the heavy darkness of a sprawling graveyard. Figures move furtively between white gravestones in the insect-clouded gloom. Stories of ghosts and jins aside, the graveyards are the place of the night’s lowest and most sordid commerce, and I am glad when I come amongst the houses again. I stop at a crooked junction, peering left and right. A man in a grimy vest raises his head from a roadside bench. At this time of night, in this part of town, I could only be looking for one place: before I ask, he raises his hand and points towards the distant rumble of dangdut music. “That way Mister, Dolly.”
Dolly. Tell Indonesians anywhere from Kupang to Banda Aceh that you live in Surabaya and there’s a fair chance that they’ll nod suggestively and say, “Dolly, Mister, I bet you go to Dolly every night.” And no level of protest will convince them otherwise. People say that Dolly is Asia’s biggest red light district. It’s not (the largest lies in Bombay’s vast Kamathipura slum); it’s not even the biggest in Southeast Asia – according to connoisseurs of the Bangkok night. But for better or for worse, in popular myth Surabaya takes the title.
A hunchback dwarf waves me into a grimy parking space beneath a crooked concrete building.
“Looking for a girl, mister?” he leers at me, but I shake my head and walk out onto the crowded street. The air is trembling with the grumbling bass-lines of bad karaoke. The rumours and notoriety create an image of Dolly as a vast, glowing palace of illicit pleasures, a place to boggle the eyes and weaken the knees. But really it’s just two scruffy streets – Jarak and Dolly – among the graveyards on the high ground above the Banyu Urip canal. The daily life of the working class kampungs goes on oblivious around them in the markets and corner warungs, the schools and Muslim prayer halls.
A small man appears at my side. “Mister…” he nervously struggles to muster some spoken English. “Mister… I… English… you – girl?” He seems relieved when I reply in Indonesian and tell him that I just want to take a walk and perhaps a beer. Surprisingly, it seems quite normal to come to Dolly “just for a beer and a walk”. This is not a place of coercive street side solicitation. There are no scantily-clad hookers lining the pavements; the women lounge passively on the sofas behind the windows of the “guesthouses”. It seems that Dolly is not all about sex – not entirely anyway - for this is the only place for after-hours drinking in Surabaya. Jalan Jarak is grimy and rough-edged, but there’s no air of violence, and little sense of sleaze. The bars are dimly-lit and noisy, and the crowds on the street are cheerful young men – people who could never afford to drink in the over-priced and pretentious nightclubs back in the heart of the city. There are shops and stalls selling peanuts and cigarettes, and food stalls with sizzling woks.
Dolly is Indonesia’s most famous example of an official tolerance zone, known as lokalisasi: a government-sanctioned ghetto of sex industry. Between 1500 and 2000 women work in the brothels here, and the wider service industry of the district employs hundreds more. Rumour has it that the police take an enormous nightly cut of the profits from each brothel, but business goes on, unabated.
The Oldest Profession has a long history in Indonesia, particularly in port cities like Surabaya. The first official tolerance zones – with the women given weekly medical examinations - were created by the Dutch during the 19th Century in an attempt to curb rampant venereal disease among the military. Stern Christian morals saw the sex trade pushed into darker shadows in the early 20th Century (with a consequent surge in levels of syphilis), but lokalisasi policy was reinstated by the government of independent Indonesia in the 1950s. Dolly was officially sanctioned in the 60s, but there had been an informal brothel kampung in the area since the turn of the century, and the nearby graveyards had long been a place for late-night assignations. The quarter is named after one of the first madams of the area.
I step into the sticky gloom of one of the bars. Light is kept to a minimum in here, but the torn fittings and red-raw eyes of the drinkers still show. An aging woman with a hard face and too-tight jeans is leading a ragged band through dangdut classics while a gaggle of outrageously drunk men stumble on the greasy dance floor. I take a seat and a man sitting at the next table leans over to me in a cloud of boozy good-nature. He presses a bottle of over-chilled Guinness on me and tries to teach me to swear authentically in Javanese. He tells me that he lives nearby and comes to Dolly most nights – “Sometimes for a girl, sometimes just to get drunk.” He explains the way the quarter works: Jalan Jarak is mostly for drinking. There are brothels here, but they are second-rate, with older, cheaper girls. Jalan Dolly itself, a narrow alley at right angles to the main street, is all about business.
“The girls on Jarak are cheap,” he slurs, raising his beer, “but they’re ugly! On Dolly – beautiful, but expensive!” Once he’s happy with my pronunciation of the “J-word” I take me leave.
Jalan Dolly itself is different. Here the brothels are tightly packed and small men tug at my arm and hiss in my ear all the way down the street. Sickly strip lights blaze behind the windows and girls with bored, unhappy faces sit with folded arms, waiting. I see one girl sitting cross-legged on the floor eating rice from brown paper. She looks troublingly young. I had been becoming quite endeared to the cheerful atmosphere of the place, but when I see her I remember what Dolly is really about. The women here do well by the standards of sex workers in Indonesia, with regulations and fixed periods of annual leave, and more time off when the whole quarter piously shuts down during Ramadan. But they all come from backgrounds of grinding poverty and there are plenty of reports of under-age girls and trafficked women. HIV is an ugly presence – one report says that 8% of the women in Dolly are infected. Walking back towards Jarak I glance to the left and see another foreigner slumped on the sofa of one of the brothels. A girl with blond-streaked hair is sitting picking her nails, ignoring him. He is too drunk to raise his head and I hurry on, not wanting to recognise him as someone I know.
The hunchback dwarf takes the parking fee from me and grins. “Happy, mister? Happy in Dolly?”
“Happy enough,” I say and ride homewards.
© Tim Hannigan 2008