‘Postcards of a Capital’ Sends Jakarta Pictures From Its Past

By webadmin on 03:48 pm Jul 02, 2012
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Cody Eckert

It is difficult for residents or visitors to Jakarta today to have an idea of what the city was like a hundred years ago, but Scott Merrillees’ “Greetings from Jakarta: Postcards of a Capital 1900-1950” seeks to change that. The beautifully bound tome provides a compilation of more than four hundred postcards dating from 1900 to 1950 with accompanying commentary and historical references.

The book takes readers out of their contemporary surrounding and plunges them deep into Jakarta’s storied past.

“Greetings from Jakarta” can be seen as a continuation of Merrillees’ first book, “Batavia in Nineteenth Century Photographs,” which is a compilation of photographs taken in Jakarta from 1850-1900. It is obvious that Merrillees is a keen historian with a deep love and affection for preserving Jakarta’s history.

If a reader simply flips through the book, they can see with their own eyes what Jakartans of the past saw, but Merrillees’ immersion into the subject matter goes further and allows readers to nearly be able to smell the aromas, touch the surfaces of buildings and step into the photographs. 

Merrillees’ dedication to making sure that he could identify the physical location where each photograph was taken adds immeasurably to the experience. At the beginning of each chapter, there are two maps with the locations where each image was captured, so people can actually go and stand where the photographer stood.

Besides simply presenting a collection of postcards, the book is a joy to read as well. Merrillees’ talent for writing and dedication to historical accuracy is so great that it is hoped he will continue his research and complete a comprehensive narrative history of Jakarta.
One humble suggestion for Merrillees would be to follow up his two books with another including selected photographs and postcards from his previous work and pairing them with contemporary photographs taken at each specified location. Besides providing readers a visual reference to connect modern Jakarta with its historical appearance, such an endeavor would provide the author with an avenue to discuss how these places evolved over time. 

The author talked about his newest book with the Jakarta Globe:

What was your objective in creating ‘Greetings from Jakarta’?

I wanted to create a time machine with which people could peer into Jakarta’s past in order to make it come alive and relevant to contemporary readers. Modern Jakarta can be overwhelming for visitors and its past can be nearly indiscernible. I wanted to take readers into the past so that they could almost see, touch and smell the environment with their own senses.

In compiling the book I was adamant that with every postcard I included, people could be able to locate the specific location where each photograph was taken so that they themselves could step into the photographer’s shoes and see what [the photographer] saw with their own eyes.

Why did you choose postcards as your medium to tell Jakarta’s story?

For more than two decades I’ve collected photographs, postcards, maps, books, etc. in Indonesia and abroad in order to clarify Jakarta’s historical development. My collecting took me as far afield as Amsterdam where an antiquarian bookseller noticed that I conducted research on the items I collected and suggested I compile them into a book in order to bring my discoveries to a larger audience.

The early 20th century was the heyday of postcards and they provide an invaluable photographic and historical insight into that time period. Postcards had a very different function at that time. While nowadays we normally only send postcards while on holidays to tell loved ones “wish you were here,” they were previously used specifically to communicate a place’s physical nature. Early 20th century Jakartans, the Dutch primarily, were keen to show the outside world how modern and progressive the city was so we have many postcards of civic structures such as hospitals, schools, water reservoirs, tramways, etc. 

What kind of legacy would you like for yourself and your books?

I have had a deep love affair with Indonesia for most of my adult life. I first came to Indonesia from my native Australia in the 1980s to study at Satya Wacana University and it was love at first sight. I became fluent in Bahasa Indonesia and a student of Javanese language and Indonesian literature, history, politics and economics. When I moved to Jakarta in 1989 it was an attack on the senses. The sights, sounds, smells, etc. fascinated me and compelled me to build my life here. I got married, had children and built my career in this place.

I had a sense that Jakarta and Indonesia had given me so much, so I wanted to return the favor. I hope my books can provide scholars and individuals with a time capsule which will provide an insight into Jakarta’s history and evolution for years to come.