Chan Mie Ling can be found most days looking after customers at her modest shop, which sells prayer-related paraphernalia.
The shop, where she also lives, sits in a small alley in the Pasar Baru area of Central Jakarta. It is just a few meters away from a Dutch colonial-era building on which can be made out the faded writing “Tjap Potret Njonja Meneer,” a famous brand of herbal medicine.
Pasar Baru, which literally means “new market,” was once of old Jakarta’s most important business centers for the mostly Chinese, Indian and Malay traders who settled down and opened stores here.
Back then, the market mostly catered to the rich. It is said that young Dutch girls loved to walk up and down the market’s two sides in white dresses, umbrellas in hand.
Today, the market’s clientele is more diverse, with fair-skinned foreigners rarely seen in the area.
One indicator of Pasar Baru’s past is the vendors displaying old Indonesian coins and bills in front of some of the shops. The money dates back to the colonial era up until the 1980s. One vendor had a stack of old Acehnese money on display, which he said was original. He was selling the paper money for Rp 25,000 ($3) a banknote.
Most of the people who buy the old bills are either collectors or men about to get married.
Mixed among the older buildings with distinctive Chinese-Dutch architecture are more modern-looking shops, with their big glass windows. Among the area’s architectural gems is the Lee Ie Seng stationery store, built in 1873, and a herbal medicine shop located at the other end of the market.
One side of an intersection dividing the shopping complex leads to the legendary narrow street known as Gang Kelinci, or Rabbit Alley. A popular song of the same name in the 1960s explains the story behind the name. As the song goes, the population in the area grew “like rabbits” in the old days, which made the street crowded.
This alley holds some of the area’s best-known noodle eateries, the largest one being “Bakmi Gang Kelinci” (“Gang Kelinci Noodles”).
Bakmo Aboen is a far more modest Chinese noodle shop, located in an even narrower alley off Gang Kelinci. This is where lovers of non-halal noodles go, as the small shop, which has been around since 1961, serves pork dishes.
A few meters further down Gang Kelinci is Shalimar, an eclectic Indian mini-market that offers food items like thin, long rice for briyani — a hot Indian dish — spices and samosas alongside accessories and makeup. Located nearby are tailors that specialize in Indian saris.