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A Street Named ‘The End of the Asphalt’: Bekasi, West Java

On the map, Ujung Aspal (meaning the “end of the asphalt”) looks insignificant — a short street located at the periphery of Bekasi, West Java. The name sounds simple and uneducated, but at the same time poetic. It might contain a story. Perhaps, decades ago, no one lived in the area, but an asphalt road ended there, hence the name. Another name is Utan Kayu.

Goenawan Mohammad’s Komunitas Utan Kayu has made the name of the street in East Jakarta internationally famous for its literature and arts — but this is was not what I want to discuss here Evi Mariani says.

My point is, rather, about the sound of the name — the taste of those two words: Utan, Kayu (forest, wood). It feels like a name with a root and a story, or perhaps stories. The area was probably once a forest full of trees. The river there was maybe a favorite spot for local children.

In North Jakarta, bordering on Bekasi, there’s a large area named Marunda. Legend has it this name dates back to the Mataram kingdom of the 17th century.

The name was formed from an abbreviation of two Indonesian words; “MARkas yang tertUNDA” or “The Postponed Base”, the legend says. But the story, of course, is slightly implausible.

In the 17th century, the Mataram kingdom used Javanese words for communication, not Indonesian, which was invented around three centuries later. However, the story evokes questions about our stories and legends. Whether they are true or false may not be of importance. Parents can still tell stories to their children about the places where they grew up.

In West Jakarta, Tanah Sereal was said to be a kampung of Arab people (who used the rial currency). As the folk story goes, it was called “Tanah Sereal“, which means “One rial land”, because once upon a time people had to pay one rial to enter.

In short, Jakarta and surrounding cities have many poetic and genuine names that have roots in the local scenery, practices and conditions. For example, Sunda Kelapa, Muara Angke (Angke estuary), Karet (rubber), Kebayoran (bayur tree), Bak Air (water tank), Tanah Merdeka (freedom land), Luar Batang, Lubang Buaya (crocodile hole), Cempaka Putih (white cempaka flower), Duren Tiga (three durians), to name a few.

Some of the names may not necessarily have any particular meaning or story but simply sound poetic, like Salihara, Gondangdia, Palmerah, Galur, Sudimara, Manggarai, Bidaracina, Kalibata, Darmawangsa, Meruya and Ulujami.

Different ears may beg to differ, but names like Grogol, Pejagalan, Serpong, Petamburan, Pejompongan, Srengseng and Tulodong sound fine too.

Old sectors of the Bumi Serpong Damai housing complex, for example, have cute street names like Kubis (cabbage), Wortel (carrot), Anggrek (orchid), Ketimun (cucumber) and Palm Kuning (yellow palm).

Over the past decade, however, there has been a trend of newly developed areas adopting foreign names with mostly English words.

New clusters in existing housing complexes have taken up names like De Latinos (which houses Rio de Janeiro among others), Calista and Sevilla.

The Kota Wisata housing complex uses names of world cities for its sectors, so, when people ask, “Where do you live?”, Kota Wisata residents can reply “Paris”, “Ontario”, “Bellevue”, “Salzburg” or “Amsterdam”.

Many new apartments and hotels also have English names, like Thamrin Residence, The Manhattan, The Mansion, The Grove, St. Regis or Da Vinci. It seems developers have become disillusioned with local words and so have looked abroad for their marketing strategy.

However, they are not entirely responsible for this trend. To market an upmarket apartment, a developer would be unlikely to name it “Tempat Tinggal Thamrin“, “Rumah Besar“, “Pepohonan“, “Sunan Kalijaga” or “Affandi“.

These names may appeal to a small group of the Class A market with particular tastes, but not too many. People like musician couple Melly Goeslaw and Anto Hoed, who named their son Anakku Lelaki (my child is male), might be thrilled to live in an apartment with a name like “Rumah Kubis” (Cabbage House), but the list of potential customers might stop not far from there.

This is not to suggest foreign names are bad or good but, rather, to bring to light the potential depletion of stories we can share with our children about their origin and their identity.

Of course, we can still tell children stories about, for example, Kota Wisata.

Parents who raise their children in a cluster called “Toronto” or “Orlando” could tell them a story like …

A decade ago, our society felt inferior and unsure about its own identity. To be a proud Indonesian was not easy, so we looked outside and found some foreign names that we thought would probably improve our confidence. A respected author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer — may he rest in peace — called this attitude the ‘inlander complex’, but we call it ‘open-minded’…

Well, I must say, that story was not so bad … was it?