Hello Dolly! – In Praise of Lokalisasi

Apr 18th, 2008, in Opinion, by

Timdog enthuses over the brothel district of “Dolly” in Surabaya.

Hello Dolly! – In Praise of Lokalisasi

On the high ground among the graveyards and working class kampungs above the Banyu Urip canal is Surabaya’s most notorious corner.

Mention the East Java capital to people anywhere in Indonesia and they are likely to rattle off a handful of associations: historical heroism, good food, violent soccer fans, and as often as not – with a snigger, a raised eyebrow and an obscene hand gesture

Dolly, mister, tahu Dolly? Sering ke Dolly, mister? (Nudge nudge, wink wink.)

For the upright, decent citizens of Surabaya it is a cause of some shame that their city is perhaps most famous as the home of a semi-mythical, much sniggered-over, much fantasised-about place: “Asia’s biggest red light district” – Dolly.

It is worth stripping away a little of the mythology of Dolly, the best known example of lokalisasi (prostitution tolerance zoning), for the place has attained epic proportions in more than a few grubby little minds. For a start, it is categorically NOT the biggest red light district in Asia (that dubious accolade goes to the grim and gargantuan Kamathipura slum in Bombay); connoisseurs of the grimier fringes of the night assure me that it’s not even the largest in Southeast Asia. But it is famous.

The old story goes that the quarter (which consists of a pair of interlocking streets, Jl. Jarak and Jl. Dolly) was named after the Eurasian madam who ran one of the area’s first brothels though I’ve come across nothing but anecdotal evidence for this. Dolly was first recognised as a tolerance zone by the city authorities in the 1960s, but there had been an unofficial “bordello kampung” along the nearby canal pre-independence. And of course, the graveyards had always been a place of late night commerce and assignation.

Dolly is not a glittering palace of illicit pleasure – it’s just a couple of rough and ready streets pulsing to a dangdut soundtrack. But neither, surprisingly, is it an utterly grim place. Anywhere else in the city it is all but impossible to convince “the man on the street” that you are not

  • a) a regular patron of Dolly,
  • b) a habitual user of prostitutes, and
  • c) in possession of six or more girlfriends.

But strolling along Jl Jarak of a night, the idea that you’re just there for a beer and a wander, and perhaps – depending on the quantity of beer – a bout of karaoke, is readily accepted. For Dolly is not only about prostitution: it is also the only place to find an alcoholic drink after 2 am, and it is the only real working class drinking district in the city. There is little streetside solicitation along Jl Jarak; in the pubs and dangdut bars, filthy as they are, you’ll be left to your beer and your drunken dancing. Outside there is a bustling industry of kaki lima, becak and taxis, cigarettes stalls, parking lots, and a general atmosphere of bleary-eyed cheer to a soundtrack of terrible dangdut.

Jalan Dolly itself is more businesslike. Narrow and lined with glass-fronted “guesthouses”, clinging touts prowl the pavement, and you don’t need to go more than a few metres to realise that if you really did just come for a beer and a stroll, then you should stick to Jl Jarak.

The whole quarter supports a huge industry: estimated numbers of working girls range from 1000 to 2500, but there are easily as many people again employed in the associated service industries.

The strangest thing about Dolly is how quickly – if you walk a little too far beyond the last bar or guesthouse – you return to normal kampung life: family homes, little shops, businesses and mushollas, apparently oblivious to the roaring trade going on nearby.

As a port city Surabaya has a long history of prostitution, and the idea of semi-official tolerance zones is not new. In the 1850s the Dutch authorities started a program of registering prostitutes, having them undergo regular medical checks, and confining “the oldest profession” to a handful of brothel kampungs. This was in an attempt to stem the epidemic of venereal disease among soldiers and sailors. Of course, it was never entirely successful, and there were other unofficial red light districts (the thoroughfare of Surabaya’s Chinatown, Jl Kembang Jepun, the Street of the Japanese Flowers, gets its name from the days when Japanese prostitutes were available in bars and hotels there), but it was far, far better than nothing. This was amply demonstrated as stern – and hypocritical – 19th Century European morality began to make itself felt in the colonies.

In British-run Singapore – a notorious hotbed of vice – prostitution was outlawed in 1887 to appease disapproving Victorian moralists back home. Previously it had been very effectively administered, with all brothels registered and all prostitutes given regular medical checks. After the end of supervision, inevitably, venereal disease rates rocketed. When the Dutch followed suit a few decades later – ending medical inspections in 1911 and outlawing prostitution altogether in 1913 – the same thing happened in Surabaya.

Post independence, registration and lokalisasi was officially re-established, along with occasional enlightened public health efforts (such as mass penicillin treatment of all registered prostitutes in an attempt to wipe out gonorrhoea in the 1950s). And this situation essentially continues. There is tolerance, and there is so-called police supervision, although in practice this is usually nothing more than extortion. I was told – and I cannot confirm this – that each brothel in Dolly must pay a full THIRD of their nightly takings in kickbacks to the police.

It is very important not to romanticise a place like Dolly, or to consider it an ideal situation. The disingenuous and self-deluding justifications of some otherwise decent men for prostitution simply don’t stand up.

These women choose to do it; they make a great living; if they weren’t doing this they’d be planting rice in some village.

Yes, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not fundamentally wrong that they have only the choice of planting rice or THIS, does it? On the occasions when the police do a little more than simply collecting the money, they frequently rescue trafficked and underage women from the “guesthouses” of Dolly. AIDS is an ill-understood threat, both among the workers and the patrons, and most of the health and education work in the field is left to NGOs rather than the authorities.

Prostitution IS an ugly business.

However, it’s not called the “oldest profession” for nothing. It exists; it is; and as previous experiments have shown, you cannot stop it. Due to “religious sensibilities” Dolly (and most of Surabaya’s nightclubs) now shut down for the duration of Ramadan. It would be foolish if things ever went further than this.

Whether your disapproval is based on old-fashioned morality, religious extremism, feminism or all-encompassing liberalism, you have to acknowledge that when it comes to controlling prostitution you can never achieve better than “out of sight, out of mind”.

Given this, lokalisasi is absolutely the best policy, but it needs to be properly, officially administered. Unofficial police kickbacks should be halted in favour of real policing; free, comprehensive medical checks should be not just available, but compulsory; massive sex-education programs – for workers and clients – need to be instituted, by the authorities, not by charities. And above all, the “forces of morality” should – on the powerful basis of past evidence – always be utterly ignored when they voice their opinions on this topic.

There are thought to be 2000 prostitutes in Dolly, but a 1998 estimate put the total number for the whole city at at least 10,000. It is probably more now. You see them – sad, flickering shadows under the trees beside the main roads. These women are beyond control, beyond medicine, and beyond help. If tolerance zones were ever abolished there would only be more of them.

39 Comments on “Hello Dolly! – In Praise of Lokalisasi”

  1. timdog says:

    Just looked at your youtube link rob – I think poor old sufiah yusof is probably a fine piece of evidence to suggest that the non-drug-addict, non-impoverished women who enter prostitution – so clamouously held up by the likes of mugwump – are likely to be terminally damaged people. With a childhood and youth like hers she was always likely to end up a bit of a mess… and i am aware that i sound mightily patronising as i say this 😉

  2. Achmad Sudarsono says:


    Achmad is just a humble ukuele player. All my wisdom comes from my teachers — the wong cilik, or ordinary people of Indonesia.

  3. dewaratugedeanom says:


    Dewa – great idea, want to go and find some working girls to join the discussion?

    How about a working man?

  4. Achmad Sudarsono says:


    Vox pop is a good idea, but I think bit impractical to to get the IM-ers to interview hookers & pros, except maybe Mugwump who sees them every day.

  5. Rob says:


    I thought the point was not to interview the “hookers & pros” but rather let them speak for themselves and provide us with an insight from the providers of these services…


    Why not? But perhaps you could invite some of your Kuta Cowboy friends to give us their own insights on the flesh trade?

  6. Achmad Sudarsono says:


    True. But ordinary people need a bit of prodding and gentle guidance when telling their own stories. Can’t just shove a tape recorder or microphone in their face and say “talk!”

    Sometimes have to be gentle and coaxing. Sex workers especially can have mixed and defensive emotions about what they do.

    But basic idea is, yes, capture their voices. Point is, it ain’t easy to get a vox pop like that.

  7. Rob says:

    Or they could just post under a pseudonym from an Internet cafe…no need to interview them at all…just a thought….

  8. Achmad Sudarsono says:


    Won’t happen.

    In practical terms, you’d have to persuade them to go to the nearest internet cafe (first find the hookers, then find the cafe), then either give the hookers the cash (they’ll almost certainly lie about how much they need), or pre-pay at the cafe, (“hey, um, can you just rack up a tab for the hookers who come in,”).

  9. Ev Ham Tenouye says:


    Kehadiran Lokalisasi di berbagai belahan dunia semakin pesat, hal semacam ini bisa saja tejadi karena desakan suatu bangsa yang miskin maka tempat-tempat itu sering dijadikan tempat bisnis bagi bangsa tersebut. Bangsa INDONESIA terhitung sebagai bangsa yang miskin maka bangsa ini menyewa wanita-wanita dari luar dan dalam negeri untuk mengususkannya di dalam tempat-tempat tertentu di seluruh Indonesia. dalam hal ini indonesia harus memahami tindakan ini, sebab anda telah membunuh orang-orang yang dengan HIV AIDS melalui WTS.

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