It was his parting question in a short FB message that lingered on my mind. Nobody had asked me that before. They have asked the usual though – “How are you?”, “How was class?” and “What am I doing?”, but never the question he asked.

Bekasi, a city in West Java, sits within the Jabotadek metropolitan region. I see it as a city separated from Jakarta by 45 minutes on a smooth traffic day. It walking towards future but still looks back in its melded past and present. In 2009, the year I came, Indonesia’s factory town was a breath of fresh air from the urban life I led in fast-pace Singapore. There was this rustic ambience that engulfed the city and, when you are piecing the fragments of your life, the slower life pace made it easier for you to get up in the morning. You didn’t get jostled to hurry up nor cursed for holding up the traffic. You were allowed to walk at your own pace and spared the name-calling and look of annoyance. Traffic still existed but it wasn’t an insufferable situation one finds himself/herself these days, which is an enervating traffic that comes to a standstill because of the sudden downpour.

He is Vic Carpio, now a nurse in Los Angeles and a former JASMS student of mine. Chatting with Vic was always pleasant. In a sea of angst-filled teenagers, Vic possessed a level of maturity that made an exchange of ideas and vocabulary (his favourite word: chicanery) possible.

Flying off the handle is not a daily occurrence, which was how life was for me before because the pace of living in Bekasi enables one to take in the sights, sounds and psyche of the locals. One is asked questions, not out of officiousness but earnest inquisitiveness. My asthma seemed to have vanished because, contrary to popular belief, the city isn’t that polluted despite the presence of factories. My bugbear then was the scarcity of couscous and asparagus. Carrefour was a huge disappointment because there wasn’t consistency with the availability of products plus its international section was non-existent. When it comes to malls, one had to temper expectations because local malls Metropolitan Mall (MM), Mega Bekasi and Cyber Park Bekasi (CBP) were nondescript.

Get your cup of joe  and pastry at Starbucks in Metropolitan Mall, Bekasi.

Get your cup of joe and pastry at Starbucks in Metropolitan Mall, Bekasi.

MM then was the only place to do a Starbucks or Baskin and Robbins, with its limited flavour selection, run. The cinema was another pull factor until that impasse between Hollywood producers and the local exporters when the latter refused to pay the new taxes, I believe, set by the former. With only local films shown, MM’s Cinema 21 was deserted resulting in CBP enjoying brisk business in selling pirated DVDs. It is a complete mall in the sense it has, for example, Pizza Hut, J Co, Dunkin Donut, A & W and KFC; other restaurants like Es Teler, Hoka Hoka Bento, a Chinese outlet called Ta-Wan that has flavourful Chinese congee, and a Japanese-Indonesian-Singaporean restaurant called Eaton; supermarket Super Indo; warehouse outlet Ace; pharmacies Century and Guardian; bookstore Gramedia; and bakery Bread Talk. The upper floors have endless shops selling mobile phones and related accessories, and a travel agency. Public holidays always see MM seething with people, young and old, kerudong-covered or not.

Mega Bekasi, on the other hand, although cavernous, was bland. Its smattering of shops sold vanilla items, but it boasted a Dunkin Donut outlet and a Pizza Hut franchise, and a larger Cinema 21 that had an arcade unlike MM. Then through the years it acquired tenants like Ta-wan, a Chinese dim sum place, and a bigger Gramedia, Indonesia’s ubiquitous school appliances store that has expanded its products to include DVDs, computers and accessories, and sports equipment.

Neighbouring CBP was insipid, but it attracted its own throng of followers particularly the movie buffs who preferred trawling through boxes of pirated DVDs. Helios, a gym, enticed its fair share of gym rats and pseudo- gym goers. Computers and all things computers also pulled its share of followers. Then the winds of change blew in its direction and the sole McDonald’s outlet on the long stretch of Kalimalang was refurbished; the only Domino’s outlet set up shop, and a new cinema franchise opened up to challenge Cinema 21’s hegemony. Blitz Megaplex, with its industrial decor, upped the ante with its ticketing kiosk, mini basketball area, numerous sitting areas, and the fact that they leased out their theatres for functions needing seats, a stage and a big screen.

People always did a double take to see who was speaking. Vic’s deep voice never failed to grab anyone’s attention. He also had the knack of looking the person in the eye – including teachers – when speaking, which didn’t sit well with my colleagues who held atavistic views of right and wrong.

Bekasi is doing swimmingly. It’s successfully re-imaging itself from mere factory town into an almost mirror-image of Jakarta.


To be continued


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