Nineteen: The lives of Jakarta street vendors

In 2008, Mercy Corps in Indonesia invited Josh Estey and me to produce a book profiling the lives of nineteen street vendors in Jakarta. We started with a very broad working definition of what a “street vendor” was. Basically, we agreed that it was anyone selling goods or services from an informal outlet on the street, whether from fixed premises in a ramshackle stall or wandering as an itinerant.

We decided to cover as many issues as we could. We deliberately looked for women household heads; street children; disabled vendors; people with criminal records; people involved in trash disposal. We included some vendors who lived in desperate poverty. There were others who were surprisingly rich.

We wanted to show that Jakarta’s street vendors are a diverse bunch of people.

Copyright Josh Estey / Mercy Corps 2008

As well as serving as the project manager, Josh acted as the photographer and videographer. I was the writer. With input and guidance from the Mercy Corps team, together we went out to find and select suitable candidates. After some discussion, we decided to include an underage sex worker who solicited while selling bottled tea on the side of the street. Josh found an old veteran from the struggle for independence who sold petrol from cans while wearing his old uniform, just to remind people that despite his desperate poverty, he had served the nation. He also found a young woman who sold jamu (herbal drinks) who gave us fascinating insights about the sexual harassment she’d experienced in a job in the formal sector. 

A street vendor: anyone selling goods or services from an informal outlet on the street, whether from fixed premises or wandering as an itinerant

Life was much better, she said, as a trader in the informal sector. I proposed a member of a very poor “Chinese” community on the edge of town, just to challenge the common perception that all “Chinese” Indonesians are rich. I was also keen to include a former labor activist, who had been fired from a secure job in the formal sector for his activism. The Mercy Corps team proposed a few candidates of their own, including a disabled seller of drinking water in an squatter community with no access to water.

Josh took brilliant portraits of the subjects using a medium format camera. His concept was to produce portraits that involved the subject in the process. They were usually looking straight into the lens, giving their full consent. In the end, the subjects appeared to be looking straight at the viewer, communicating with them, talking to them directly. I tried to adopt the same approach in writing: while the interview process involved questions and answers, I took the liberty of writing in the voice of the subject, in the first person. When it was possible, I showed the subject what I had written and asked them to confirm that I had expressed their story accurately.

Josh also produced short video profiles of a few of the subjects, including Eni, the young woman who sold jamu while wearing traditional Javanese costume in the dockyards of North Jakarta; Pak Hepi, a mustachioed vendor of chicken soup on the platform in the old Kota railway station; and Cahyan, a very successful snack seller who operated his base from a deceptively simple looking stall while organizing a large gang of itinerant vendors recruited from from his natal village. To enable Josh to produce these videos, I sat with the subjects and interviewed them to get them to reiterate the main points of the story. Later, Josh edited the material tightly to eliminate me and my prompt questions entirely. Again, we wanted to keep the presence of the interviewer, writer and photographer as minimal as possible.

Here are there stories, together with links to the videos

 

Eni: Selling herbal medicine to men

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Copyright Josh Estey / Mercy Corps 2008

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The dockyards and wharfs around Sunda Kelapa are primarily men’s space, a place where hard-working laborers and sailors strain their gnarled muscles to load and unload sacks of cement, piles of timber, wooden logs, bricks and building materials from the pinisi, the traditional cargo boats that serve to connect the smaller ports of the Eastern islands with the massive industrial centers of Jakarta and Surabaya. The world over, sailors and wharfies are not particularly famous for their polite, refined ways, and the workers here have been deprived of female company for weeks or months on end. It would take a brave woman to walk alone along the piers and jetties and around the warehouses of the port zone.

One such brave woman is Srimudjeni, the young, attractive, distinctly flirtatious seller of jamu, the traditional mixture of herbs, roots, medicine, eggs, and honey that Indonesians take for a staggering array of minor and not so minor ailments:

To tell you the truth, most of the guys here aren’t so bad. Of course, they come onto you at first, and there’s a lot of teasing.

“To tell you the truth, most of the guys here aren’t so bad. Of course, they come onto you at first, and there’s a lot of teasing. Most of the guys aren’t married or they’ve left their wives back in the village while they go out to sea or to work in the dockyards in the city, so of course they like to see a young woman. They like to try it on a bit. But the wharfies are the regular crew, the same guys every day, so they’ve got used to me. Even the guys on the boats come to Sunda Kelapa pretty regularly, so I see the same faces every few weeks. I don’t think there’s any danger. They treat me like a sister. They look after me. If there’s a new guy who takes it a bit too far, the other guys will pull him back. It’s mostly just young guys talking, showing off a bit to their mates. I can handle them. And of course, if they want to talk to an attractive girl, the best way to buy a bit of my time is to call me over to order a jamu. I’m always happy to talk to a man who’s drinking one of my jamu!

“I buy some of the jamu dried and ready to serve in packets and I make some of them myself. I make my own beras kencur: that’s a drink from rice husks mixed with palm sugar. You drink it after you’ve had a bitter jamu to wash the taste out of your mouth. I also make some of my own bitter jamu, from papaya leaves. I take the jamu from the packets and mix them up with a raw egg, some honey, and some sweet wine. It’s all good for you. It’s all meant to give you concentrated energy. If you have a jamu with an egg and honey, it’s almost like a meal.

“The jamu in packets are made by big companies, like Nyonya Meneer. In the old days, people used to grow herbs themselves or collect them from the forest, but that’s not very practical in Jakarta. Most of the time, people just have a jamu from a packet. It’s like instant coffee. There are hundreds of different sorts: there are jamu for women who’ve just had babies, to tighten their vaginas again so that their husbands don’t go running after other women. There are jamu for men, so that they can satisfy their wives. There are lots of those, but kuku Bima is the most popular. That’ll keep a man going all night long. Then, there are bitter jamu to help give you an appetite and to help you digest your food. Then there’s pegal linu, which is to help relieve sore, tired muscles. I’d say eighty to ninety percent of my customers are men. There are a few women at the offices near the front of the dockyard, but most of them are men. The most popular jamu are for men’s virility. Around here, pegal linu is also popular. The boys work hard, lifting and carrying heavy loads, so they often have pegal linu to relieve the pain. 

“On a really good day, I might sell fifty to a hundred packets of jamu, maybe twenty or thirty with eggs. A jamu with an egg goes for Rp 5000. Without, it’s around Rp 3000. I get the packets from the agent for Rp 1000 per, and an egg is about Rp 1000. On a really good day, I might make about Rp 200,000 – 300,000 for four hours work. I start off in the dockyards in the morning, and then go back through the fish markets.

The harassment I got from the rich businessmen while I was doing that was far worse than I get from the boys in the dockyards and on the wharf.

“When I first came to Jakarta, I had a few different jobs. For a while, I worked as an SPG, a sales promotion girl. You have to wear a mini-skirt and a sexy top, and you hand out brochures or give pamphlets to promote different products. Cars, televisions, electronics, all sorts of things. The harassment I got from the rich businessmen while I was doing that was far worse than I get from the boys in the dockyards and on the wharf. And it’s not regular work. You might just get a few days here and there. Sometimes, you only get a commission on sales, too. You are selling for someone else, so you can’t build up your own clientele, like I can when I’m selling jamu.

“After than, I worked in a factory at Bonecom, preparing fish steaks for packaging. I was a machine operator. The money wasn’t bad, about the same as what I make selling jamu, except that I had to work from morning to evening. At the factory, you have to clock on in the morning, and even if you are just a few minutes late, you get your salary docked. If you’re often late, you get fired.

If you want to look after your own children, you can’t hold down a factory job. Selling jamu is much more flexible.

“I met my husband at Bonecom. He’s still working there now. He’s doing okay, he’s earning good money. I left after we got married and had children. It was impossible to work the long hours every day and look after my children at the same time. The ones who go on working at the factory after they’ve had children are the ones who leave their children with the grandparents back at the village. If you want to look after your own children, you can’t hold down a factory job.

“Selling jamu is much more flexible. You can start a bit later if you need to, and you can finish early. You can take a day off, if you need to. It’s much better if you are a mother and you are looking after your own children. I’ve got three, now. The oldest goes to primary school, and I leave the others with a neighbor for a few hours while I go out and do my rounds.

“I’d say that almost all of the women selling jamu have kids. Almost all of them had other kinds of jobs before they had children. Almost all of them switched to selling jamu after they got married so they’d have more times for their families. A lot of them had good jobs, in offices. I know a few of the vendors that have university degrees and who worked at big companies in the cities. Even I finished high school and got my senior high school certificate. Women sell jamu because it gives them the flexibility to look after their husbands and children, not because they aren’t qualified to do anything else.

There are two or three other women selling jamu that I run into in Jakarta while I’m on my rounds.

“I started off selling jamu through my older sister-in-law. She was already working as a vendor, so she introduced me to the agent. That’s usually the way it goes: the agent likes to know who he’s dealing with, so he accepts women who are recommended by vendors he already knows. Almost all of them come from around Solo, in Central Java, like me. I’m from Sukohardjo, about an hour away from Solo. Just from my village alone, there are two or three other women selling jamu that I run into in Jakarta while I’m on my rounds.

“I don’t know why all the jamu sellers come from Solo. Perhaps it’s because traditional medicine is part of our culture. All over Indonesia, people know that women from Central Java understand herbs and traditional medicine. Most of us wear traditional costumes. It’s part of our culture, and it lets our customers know where we come from. I always wear a batik cloth, for example, although I don’t wear a kebyar (traditional women’s top) – it’s too hot and constricting to walk around in a kebyar. But if the boys see me wearing batik, they know I’m Javanese. A lot of them are Javanese, too, so they can talk to me in our own language. They like that.

“All that’s an important part of selling jamu. It’s not just like buying an aspirin and taking it when you have a headache. A jamu is more like sitting down to have a meal, or a drink, or a cigarette. You have a jamu while you are sitting around with friends. Having a jamu is more like a social event.”

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Pak Hepi: “Mr Mustache” sells soup at the station

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Copyright Josh Estey / Mercy Corps 2008

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“Today was quite a good day. I sold about 130 bowls of soto. But that’s more of less normal. I sell a bowl for Rp 3,500 each, so I took in about Rp 400,000. That’s about Rp 100,000 profit for me. Most of my customers are regulars. They catch the train every day, and they have a bowl of soto first. There are three of us selling soto. Who’s the most popular? Well, you better ask someone else! [To his friend:] Who’s the most popular? Me? Well, there you go, then!

If you want to look after your own children, you can’t I just think about making enough for me and my family, day by day. I don’t worry about the future.

“The food I sell is perfectly healthy! I buy good chickens from the market. Chicken has protein in it. Bird flu? Ha! I’ve seen it on TV, but I don’t know anyone who’s caught it! I don’t worry about it, and neither do my customers. I haven’t noticed anyone saying no to my soto. Yes, I put a little bit of MSG in each bowl. The customers like it. It’s like salt: if you leave it out, the soto just doesn’t taste the same. If my customers asked, I could leave it out, but no one ever complains about it. I don’t think it’s unhealthy. I eat it every day, and I don’t get sick.

“Originally, I came from Cirebon. My parents were agricultural laborers. I came to Jakarta in 1977, with my older brother. He’s dead now. He got sick and died. He started selling bubur [chicken porridge], I sold soto. We just learned how to make it by watching other people. I’ve never worked for anyone else. I’ve always worked on my own. My niece helps out: I don’t pay her a salay, I just give her board and lodging, and pay for her to go to school. How did I get the capital to start my business? Well, I just scraped it together. I started off small, so it didn’t cost much. I buy from the same people at the market every day, so they give me credit if I need it.

I only finished primary school. What kind of job could I get with only a primary school certificate? Even if I could find a job, I wouldn’t get paid as much as I make now.

“When I first came to Jakarta, I didn’t have any papers. I didn’t bother getting a proper Jakarta ID card for the first eight years. It was too difficult. You have to get a letter from the lurah back in the village, and all sorts of other papers. If you don’t have all that, it costs about Rp150,000. I didn’t think it was worth it. But after I’d been in business for a while, I thought I’d better get it done. It makes it easier to send your kids to school, stuff like that.

“I wouldn’t want to work for anyone else. This way, I can do what I want. I don’t want to be bossed around. And I only finished primary school. What kind of job could I get with only a primary school certificate? Even if I could find a job, I wouldn’t get paid as much as I make now. It’s different: with a job, you get less, but even if you get sick or something happens, you get your salary. I don’t have a bank account, and I don’t save money. When I make money, I spend it. I don’t get sick. I can’t get sick! Who’d look after my wife and children if I got sick?

When I make money, I spend it. I don’t get sick. I can’t get sick! Who’d look after my wife and children if I got sick?

“I’ve got four kids. They live in Pasar Minggu. I rent a small house near Kota train station, about two kilometers away. I can sell more here, that’s why I work here, not in Pasar Minggu. But my kids and my wife didn’t want to move. The kids were born in Pasar Minggu and they go to school there, so they stayed where they were.  I go back to visit them once every ten days. My oldest child is a boy. He’s finished Technical High School. He studied welding. He’s been looking for a job for a year, now. He wants a real job, he doesn’t want to work with me selling soto! Yes, he could start a business himself, but he wants to work for a company, something like that. Everyone’s got a different way of looking at things. He’s better educated than I am.

“My children have always been healthy. Sometimes, something unexpected comes along, like school fees, and I don’t have enough money. If I can, I borrow from family. If I can’t, sometimes I borrow money from money-lenders. Say you borrow one million rupiah for a month, you have to pay back 1.2 million. But they are flexible, they let you pay it back a few days late. But I try not to borrow money. Saving for my old age? [Laughs] No, I just think about making enough for me and my family, day by day. I don’t worry about the future.

“I don’t mind living away from my wife and children. Yeah, I have to pay the rent on two houses, but I don’t want to force them to move. No, I’ve never been tempted to take a second wife! It’s hard enough looking after one! I don’t drink coffee, and I don’t play cards. I do smoke cigarettes, Djie Sam Soe. They are the most expensive cigarettes. But I live pretty simply. I make enough for me and my family to get by.”

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Tahu gejrot: from the royal center of Cirebon to the paved streets of Menteng

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Copyright Josh Estey / Mercy Corps 2008

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As dusk falls, the distinctly up market shopping district around Menteng Plaza undergoes something of a transformation. Even before the cosmopolitan restaurants that line the streets close, a large number of carts and trolleys selling a vast selection of the uncountable regional culinary specialties that are produced by Indonesia’s multifarious ethnic groups are wheeled out from the lanes and alleys where they are parked during the day. Trading almost until dawn, long after the cosmopolitan outlets have turned off their lights, the visitor can see vendors selling sate Padang from West Sumatra, tahu gejerot from Cirebon, martabak from Medan, dishes from all over the archipelago. As one enthusiastic diner states, pointing at the row of carts and stall: “No need to go to Taman Mini to see all of Indonesia under one roof! You can find it all here!”

Come back at about two in the morning, but not on a Saturday. I’ve usually got a bit of a quiet patch after two in the morning on the weekdays

It is difficult to arrange to meet Pak Cahyan, the owner and operator of a cart selling a characteristic specialty of the Central Javanese seaport city of Cirebon, tahu gejrot. On one occasion, he is absent from his post: his brother announces that he is busy dealing with a special catering order, preparing several hundred boxes of his dish for a wedding party. On another occasion, on Saturday evening, he is there, but claims to be ‘too busy to talk’ – and indeed, he appeared to be serving customers non-stop. “Come back at about two in the morning, but not on a Saturday. I’ve usually got a bit of a quiet patch after two in the morning on the weekdays,” he says between orders. When he is finally available, he is faintly condescending about granting an interview:

“I’ve been interviewed more times than I can remember, now. There was a journalist from some Indonesian paper here last night, but I told him to go away. I was interviewed on television once, by Bondan Winarno [a well-known journalist, food commentator and television personality] I really don’t have the time for this, but I feel sorry for you. I know you’ve been here several times to see me, so I’ll make an effort.”

I’ve been interviewed more times than I can remember, now. There was a journalist from some Indonesian paper here last night, but I told him to go away

In fact, this does not appear to be bombast: it is clear that Pak Cahyan is a very busy man. Even in the wee hours, the interview is constantly interrupted as he gets up to prepare and serve yet another helping of his special dish.

“I just sell the one dish: tahu gejrot. It’s one of the specialties of Cirebon. If you see someone selling tahu gejrot, you can be pretty certain he’s from Cirebon. I’ll fix you a plate so you can try it.”

He shortly returns with a small plate consisting of fried tofu, cut very finely and served with a bowl of sauce consisting of vinegar, palm sugar, shallots and chili. The bowl containing the sauce is a distinctive stone vessel known as ‘uleg-uleg’. As Pak Cahyan says:

“With proper tahu gejrot, the sauce always comes in a bowl like that. I sell at least 150 plates a day from this stand here. Most days, I set up here at about five in the afternoon at the latest, and close up shop at around four in the morning. I sell for Rp 6,000 per plate. That’s a fair bit more than tahu gejrot goes for in other places, even in Jakarta. The average is probably Rp 4,000 to Rp 5,000. But this is an up market area. A lot of rich kids come and nongkrong [hang out] on the street. They come to Menteng from all over Jakarta.”

I sell at least 150 plates a day from this stand here. Most days, I set up here at about five in the afternoon at the latest, and close up shop at around four in the morning

Pak Cahyan points out a long row of tables, where a young clientele sit, chatting, smoking, and snacking in the open air:

“Customers can sit wherever they want. They can order any dish from any of the vendors. You notice I’m the only one here selling tahu gejrot? Well, if someone’s sitting somewhere else and wants tahu gejrot, they can tell the vendor near where they are sitting, and he’ll come and get it from me. The customer will pay him, and he’ll give the money to me later. If there’s a customer sitting here who wants sate Padang or something, I’ll do the same for him.”

Considering that orders are coming in fast and furious for a varied range of dishes from well over thirty vendors, it seems that a good record keeping system must be imperative. However, Pak Cahyan laughs:

“Most of the vendors don’t even jot down a note. They just remember who orders what. Sometimes, we settle up during a quiet period, but most of the time we work it out at the end of the evening. It relies on everyone being honest, but there aren’t any problems. We are all selling different things, so we aren’t competing against each other: we are actually all working together.”

We are all selling different things, so we aren’t competing against each other: we are actually all working together.

As Pak Cahyan explains, vendors require a permit to operate in the area, and the number of permits is strictly limited:

“Not just anyone can set up a business here. The vendors all used to operate on the main street, but the local government made us set up our stalls here, down this side-street. I’m okay with that: parking is a bit limited; that’s the only problem. But it’s a very good place to operate, so once someone’s got a permit, they usually stick to it. There aren’t many openings. If a guy pulls out, he usually passes his business on to someone else, someone in his family. We have to pay a monthly fee: several hundred thousand a month for the permit. There’s an informal coordinator who collects the fees. He’s a vendor, too, a Bugis [from South Sulawesi]. He does it because everyone here trusts him. Like I said, honesty is the most important thing if you are doing business together.”

As stated earlier, those using the food stalls sit at long tables with benches, adjacent to the stalls. When asked to whom these belong, Pak Cahyan responds as follows:

“The drink companies provide them! The the sosro and Coca-cola companies provide them. It’s part of their marketing campaign. There’s talk that they are going to set up a big awning for shelter when it rains. It will probably have company logos on it. Maybe our monthly fees will go up. Maybe it will improve our business, although things are already going pretty well as it is.”

In fact, the stall from which Pak Cahyan sells his tahu gejrot is only one facet of his business. As stated earlier, he is often involved in the preparation of special orders for weddings, parties and functions:

“If I get an order for a wedding or party, I might have to make up an extra couple of hundred of orders. The number of special orders varies according to the month, but it’s usually at least one or two a week.”

While discussions with street vendors often seems to create the impression that it is an option of last resort, a form of earning a living that one would only consider if one fails to secure steady employment at a reputable company with good prospects, this is clearly not the case with Pak Cahyan:

I just figured that I’d be better off working for myself.

“Well, I never finished high school, but I did a complete driving course after I left, so I had a heavy-truck driver’s license. I had a pretty good job, doing deliveries for one of the drink companies. I was getting a salary of Rp 1.3 million a month, which wasn’t bad considering that I’d only been with the company for a year or two. Most people would have considered that I was pretty lucky to have found a job like that. But I just thought that it was a bit limiting. There wasn’t really that much opportunity for me to grow or move up in the organization. I just figured that I’d be better off working for myself.”

Even if catering and street vending were the full extent of Pak Cahyan’s activities, he would be running an impressive small business. However, in addition to these activities, Pak Cahyan is also the manager of his uncle’s factory, which produces the tahu he sells:

“It’s not a very complicated process, but you’ve got to know what you are doing. You need a fairly large space to operate in. My uncle bought a 300 square meter block in Kuningan back in the seventies. He’s been offered Rp 4 billion for the land, but he’s not selling. He’s like a Chinese: he’ll only sell his land if the price he gets is so good that he can buy three times as much land somewhere else.

In the old days, people used to die of food poisoning from badly prepared tahu quite often. Our factory has a certificate from the health department, so people know we are doing it properly.

“The equipment isn’t that sophisticated. You just need some kind of crusher to crush up the soy beans. You cook the beans to get the curds, and then you drain off the whey and press it into moulds. That’s about it. Still, if you don’t keep things sterile, the tahu can go bad. In the old days, people used to die of food poisoning from badly prepared tahu quite often. Our factory has a certificate from the health department, so people know we are doing it properly.

“We cook up about fifty kilograms of beans a day. We sell to some of the big shops, including Carrefour, but we don’t have a brand name. The shops sell it under their own brand. And we supply a lot of street vendors.”

When asked how he has established the network of street vendors with whom the factory trades, Pak Cahyan provides an answer that goes a long way to explain exactly why certain dishes are so closely associated with certain specific regions:

Life’s better for a family in a small town, even if I have to live apart from them.

“I go back to Cirebon about twice a month. My wife and children live there. I don’t want them to live in Jakarta. Life’s better for a family in a small town, even if I have to live apart from them. If we need more vendors, I find them out in the villages near Cirebon. Like I said, my mother’s family is related to the royal family: I’ve got a lot of contacts and friends in the region. When I bring them into Jakarta, we give them somewhere to stay at the factory. We’ve got 25 rooms for workers and vendors. At the beginning, they usually get a wage, and they work in the factory or helping with deliveries. After they’ve been here for a while, they probably learn how to make tahu gejrot or nasi lengko [a rice dish featuring tahu, also a characteristic specialty of Cirebon], then they set up by themselves. Once they are established, they may move out and find their own house. But they still buy the tahu and the other raw materials from us.”

Considering his role as one of the chief managers in his uncle factory, it is perhaps surprising that Pak Cahyan continues to operate his own food stall. While he is not willing to divulge the details, he claims that his uncle has involved him on a reasonably lucrative profit-sharing basis, rather than on a salary. Given his position and prospects higher up the food chain, has he not considered employing someone else to run his stall for him?

People keep on telling me that I should open up new branches or outlets, but if I’m not there myself, it just never seems to work out. I’ve got to be there myself.

“Look, I’ve thought about it. But I’ve got to keep my hand in myself. I want to see my clients’ faces myself and understand what they like and what they don’t like. It keeps me in touch with the people that I’m making food for. And I’ve tried using an employee, but no employee seems to be able to pull in the customers like I can. As soon as I go away from the stall, business drops off. Even when my brother runs the stall, when I go back to Cirebon, sales always go down. People keep on telling me that I should open up new branches or outlets, but if I’m not there myself, it just never seems to work out. I’ve got to be there myself. It’s part of the magic formula that makes my business work.”

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