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Indonesia's Sin City Skirts Shutdown Plans

We were standing at the entrance to Dolly, Southeast Asia's largest red-light district. It's a sprawling complex of colorfully named brothels in the Indonesian city of Surabaya, and this was supposed to be its last night of business

by Ethan Harfenist
Jul 23 2014, 1:15am

“We need to live, do not impoverish us,” reads a banner hanging over Gang Dolly put up by the Sex Workers’ Front (FPL) in protest to the closure. All photos by Arman Dzidzovic

It was nearly midnight and Pokemon was growing testy. We were standing at the entrance to Dolly, Southeast Asia's largest red-light district. It's a sprawling complex of colorfully named brothels in the Indonesian city of Surabaya, and this was supposed to be its last night of business. My photographer and I landed in town 11 hours earlier, arriving to flooded roads and stifling heat.

Surabaya is Indonesia's second-largest city, a storied port city of more than 3.1 million people. But word travels fast among the pimps, sex workers, and alley sprinters of Gang Dolly. Pokemon, a pimp dressed in flip-flops and a weathered field cap like Fidel Castro on a beach holiday, heard that we had met with his opposition—a local village chief—and denied us access to the district’s people.

"Leave here now, or we cannot guarantee your safety," Pokemon uttered, arms crossed, his eyes averted.

Brothel workers union leader and pimp Ari Saputro, known as “Pokemon” speaks against the closure of the red-light district.

Pokemon blocked the entrance to his headquarters. Around the corner touts called out to men, tempting them with a final night of drinking, singing and fucking in the neon-drenched brothels that lined Dolly's winding alleyways.

"Get out of here," Pokemon demanded as the circle of pimps closed in. "You are banned! Banned from Dolly!"

Indonesia's "city of heroes" is known for its resilience and gruff demeanor. Surabaya was home to one of the nation's fiercest battles against the British in the immediate aftermath of World War II and is the birthplace of Sukarno, the country's fiery independence leader and rabble-rousing demagogue. The city's name is a portmanteau of the Javanese words for shark, "soro," and crocodile, "boyo," and a statue depicting the two creatures locked in eternal combat graces the city's center.

The Surabaya of today still grabs headlines in Indonesia. It's the base for the nation's largest Muslim organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama, home to the region's largest red-light district and features the country's worst-run zoo—the infamous "zoo of death."

It's also undergone something of a renaissance under the guidance of its unwavering reformist mayor Tri Rismaharini—famously known as "Ibu Risma" or "Mother Risma" in Indonesia. She is Indonesia's first directly elected female mayor and a cool breeze in the doldrums of Indonesian politics. She plants trees, builds parks, picks up litter and gave the city's poor free healthcare. 

Rismaharini then set her sights on one of the city's last great blemishes, the massive brothel complexes of Dolly and neighboring Jalan Jarak. The district spans dozens of city blocks and employs roughly 1,500 sex workers, as well as hundreds of pimps. It is thought to have been named after a Dutch madam, and has operated with impunity for decades in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, where prostitution is illegal but widely tolerated. 

Rismaharini gave Dolly until June 18th to shut down. We arrived that morning on a flight from the Indonesian capital, landing at the nearby town of Sidorarjo where a company owned by the country's whale-jawed tycoon Aburizal Bakrie punched a hole through the earth's crust and inundated a town in volcanic mud.

Our cab slogged through the city's flooded streets to arrive at the entrance to Dolly. The street was dusty. Banners reading "We need to live. Do not impoverish us" hung above the narrow street. Someone had thrown a rock through the window of the Putri Ayu II brothel. 

A child stands in front of “New Barbara 22,” one of the brothels located on Gang Dolly.

Dolly in the daytime looked much like any other street in Indonesia, only with about 10 times more unlit storefronts. Pimps were napping inside brothels and food sellers vigorously stirred steaming woks of fried rice. Children loitered on benches, smiled, and shouted an obligatory “Hello, mister!” at us.

At the end of the block was the headquarters for the Sex Workers' Front (FPL), a loosely affiliated union of pimps and prostitutes standing in opposition to plans to shutter Dolly. Pokemon was one of the first men to greet us. He launched into a well-rehearsed speech that elicited nods from a small crowd of men smoking kretek, sweet-smelling clove cigarettes that crackle as they burn, a fixture throughout Indonesia.

“These people, the sex workers, they are all working here to make a living,” Pokemon said. “They are working to feed their families. Do not treat them as if they are a lower people!”

Rismaharini would deny the claims, explaining that she was trying to raise these women out of an unfortunate situation. The city was offering each sex worker roughly $430 and a few classes on simple skills like sewing or cooking as for a fresh start. She was clear in her argument, drafting sex work as a means of oppression when announcing the closure.

Muhammed Ridwan, the village chief of the neighboring Putat Jaya Timur, agreed with the sentiment. Ridwan said he understood the concerns of the pimps and sex workers, but explained that he placed a greater importance on the future of the community's children—kids who were exposed to prostitution on a daily basis.

“The fact is, I am fighting for these people living around Dolly," Ridwan said "For older people, Dolly isn’t so much an issue, but young children can memorize everything. They are exposed to people changing partners and drinking (alcohol).”

Dolly took on a more sinister air at night—the atmosphere was that of a debauched bazaar. Men crawled the narrow streets, passing by aging brothels painted Easter egg pink by blazing neon lights. Bored women in skin-tight miniskirts thumbed smart phones on the cheap pleather sofas in brothels like “New Barbara 22” and “Madona.” Riotous dangdut music blared from blown-out stereo speakers as children weaved through the crowd. The scene seemed like it was business as usual, although with a more palpable tension as the next day, a nearby policeman told us, about 900 police personnel would be deployed to make sure the district shut down.

Pimps and prostitutes rose early to hit the streets in protest the morning of June 18. Men and women with covered faces blockaded Dolly's winding roads with motorbikes and benches. They diverted traffic, waved flags banged pots and pans and marched through the streets like a militia. They confronted hardline Islamists who dared to break their ranks.

Despite the show of force, Rismaharini declared the district officially shutdown that evening, but Dolly merely heard it and winked back, not taking it all that seriously.

Next time we would see Dolly would be one week later, and it would be a bona fide ghost town. Despite its reputation for sin and excess, the district observed the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and seemingly shuttered its doors on its own volition. Every brothel front had one thing in common: a white sign that read, “Vacation: Respect the holy month of Ramadan.”

We made our way to one of the only places that was still inhabited and would let us in. It was a modest brothel named "Rose," a five-bedroom house located on a sleepy side street near Jarak owned by a weathered woman named Rokhani. The brothel's speaker system was packed away. The neon beer lights were switched off. She brought us out a tray of cold Extra Joss—a painfully sugary energy drink that looks vaguely radioactive—and sat down at a plastic chair. Her daughter wandered in and out of the house, burping and comforting her baby.

Rokhani, has been running the Rose brothel for 27 years. She worries she won’t be able to make a living if Dolly is shuttered.

Rokhani raised her tattooed eyebrows and looked around the dimly lit room. The 54-year-old broke down in tears as she mourned the potential loss of Rose—a brothel she owned for 27 years.

“It used to be very crowded,” Rokhani said as she rhythmically tapped her heart. “There was karaoke every night. The (girls) had a lot of guests. With the closure rumors, the number of guests has drastically declined,” she said tiredly. “Maybe one or two guests (come per night). My girls usually served five guests. I have seven girls; every night I had 35 to 40 guests.

“We shut down the business two days before Ramadan. We will open again after Lebaran (the end of Ramadan). I still reject the closure—the whole village has agreed to reject it. I will still be working.”

Rokhani recalled a story from a nearby district, in which some former sex workers accepted Rismaharini's compensation and used the money to buy and sell rice. But once word got around that the women were former prostitutes, their checkered past turned off potential buyers.

“Who would want to buy (rice) if the seller is a prostitute?” Rokhani said. “The women would say ‘Don’t buy it, the seller is a prostitute.’ So the girls were forced to work again.”

Dina, a 32-year-old sex worker from Malang who lives at Rokhani’s house, brought us into her bedroom and spoke to us wearing a large hat and a face mask to shield her identity. A pack of Marlboro Menthol Lights sat next to several bottles of perfume and tubes of lipstick.

Dina came to Surabaya after divorcing her husband. “It’s the economy—I am poor and the economy pressured me,” she said. “Somebody asked me to work in Surabaya, so here I am.”

But as far as her 16-year-old daughter knows, Dina works in a store. “I’m sad to work in a prostitution complex,” she said. “But where else can I make money?”

Dina said that she used to earn 500,000 rupiah per day at the brothel and that five million in compensation will not be nearly enough for her to support herself and her daughter.

“I want the government to give me five million rupiah, and then give me a cigarette kiosk,” she said. “I want them to give me the capital to start the business—not only the money, but also the products, so I can develop the business later. Five million rupiah is not enough.”

And for Rokhani herself, the future looks grim.

“I am old. I can’t do other work besides being a pimp," she said. "I have kids, I don’t have a husband. I have two biological children and three foster children… It’s going to kill us if we can’t work.”

Aside from concerns about income, activists are now worried that shuttering the complex will only spread out the more dangerous parts of the sex trade. Before, non-profits like Yayasan Abdi Asih could find the city's sex workers in one place, making it easy to offer the men and women aid and track efforts to curb HIV rates.

“With Dolly being localized, it was easier for everybody because we can collect data on their health care,” said Irmasanthi Danadharta, an outreach worker at Yayasan Abdi Asih. “We can see how many sex workers use condoms, how many don’t use condoms. It helps us to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS. But with Dolly closing, it will be hard to for us track them again.”

Rokhani took immense pride in her brothel’s oversight of her workers’ wellbeing.

“This place is really healthy,” she said. “Every Thursday, the girls got injections and cleaned up—if they had a disease, it would be treated immediately… I have been working here for over 20 years, and not a single one of my girls had syphilis. They are completely clean.”

Dina was not oblivious to her career’s inherent risks. “If they close down the complex, HIV can spread,” she said. “I had a friend that was infected with HIV. She was taken to Soetomo Hospital. But she returned home and she eventually died.”

According to Abdi Asih director Liliek “Vera” Sulistyowati, HIV rates in Surabaya had steadily declined since 2012, with reported figures in and around Dolly dropping from 110 cases to only 14 in two years' time. Vera is concerned that efforts to keep the complex closed will reverse this trend.

“If Dolly closes, there will be no control,” she said.

Arman Dzidzovic contributed to this article.

Follow Ethan on Twitter: @eharfenist