The darkness of the street nightlife in sexy-town Surabaya


As I was in Surabaya on my fieldwork trip, I could hardly avoid taking another look around Dolly – the infamous largest spot of sex industry in the whole South-East Asia. And it also includes a dark corner for the waria.

A pimp in Dolly main street took some viagra out of his pocket for sale

The area of Dolly can be divided into four areas. And the division is hierarchic. First, there’s a highly commercialized area where you can find young pretty women sitting behind glass windows, all organized in brothels. In front of the windows there’s couple of pimps warmly welcoming you to join the offered pleasure. A lot more cozy area lies behind these streets, where you might find the ladies bit older and maybe not-so-girly-beautiful. But here are also those women who simply prefer to work in a lot more a relaxed atmosphere than the commercialized area. Here, she receives 70% of the customer’s pay, while in the popular area it’s rather the opposite.

But somewhere in the darkest corners of Dolly, bit further from the mainland, the free-lance prostitutes are earning their daily bread right there between the old Chinese cemetery tombstones. At the other end of the graveyard there’s also the location for the sex worker waria.

I guess I was there already for the fourth time, but today everything was different. The street was empty, there was no waria. I remember a picture of Jihan in our movie, where she shows that all the ladies working here are warias, “Here from the bottom up until there, they are all warias,” she said. When I met Jihan here last time, she limped slightly and showed me her leg – there was a huge cicatrix running along her leg for about 20 cm.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Razia! There are constant police raids here in Kembang Kuning (the Chinese cemetery). I ran away to hide myself, but I fell and broke my leg, “Jihan told her story, as she reached out her cicatrized leg on high heels.

Under the very same tree where I last talked to the boss of Kembang Kuning was emptiness, only a very few guys were hanging around. There were some lonely motorbikes passing by, which is by far not comparable with the situation when I was here last time. And this is after all, malam minggu – Saturday night, the party highlight of the week in Indonesia.

Lonely in Kembang Kuning, seeking for some soto

Finally I meet only a few warias hiding in the dark behind the tombs, afraid of the possible raid by the municipal police. A waria with round belly tells me that they come on motorbikes, dressed in private clothes. What do they want?

“Money!”

What do they ask?

Apparently they still ask for ID-card. This is one of the major causes of trouble for large number of warias. Most typically, warias run away from their family to bigger cities, but without a permission letter from their parents they can’t get a new local ID-card, which is needed in Indonesia, and the absence of which gives a great excuse for the municipal police to arrest (and/or harass) them. And to make some extra cash.

With every motorbike passing, the waria took a step back to hide in the dark. There’s a slow police car passing. She said that’s no problem, but I should still get out of here fast, because the infamous municipal police might find a single foreign woman hanging out here suspicious. Oh, well…

It’s clear that street sex workers are in many ways the most vulnerable group of sex workers. There’s no organization, nor pimp behind them to protect them. They are all out there alone, trying to sell their services to anyone interested. To feed themselves.

When this intersects with non-confirming gender identity as with the waria, things get even more complicated. I remember when me and Kiwa were shooting our film one year ago in Yogyakarta, warias used to go out around midnight. This year there was nothing before 2am! Because of the police, who is still sneaking around at midnight. No wonder my nights of observations lasting til morning.

Fresh vegetables at the night market in Surabaya

We take a becak ride back home together with my friend, an Estonian artist Minna Hint who came to give Indonesia and me a spontaneous visit. I was talking to the happy driver, who was pointing at all the hotels we were passing.

“Karaoke, karaoke!” he sais, showing me his twisting tongue, referring to the hotels which offer the roof for those in need of some privacy in this sexy-town Surabaya. “Karaoke, karaoke!” he laughs, pulls his tongue out again, also mentioning how much he likes the waria. And I just can’t believe how freely he talks about those things, although never even mentioning the word “sex”, but talking about it in all other possible ways!

Then again, I have always been aware of it being around – have been seeing it on the stages of dangdut parties or while wondering around Dolly: Indonesians are passionate, sensual people! After all, this is birthplace of tantric Budism and tantric Hinduism. Oh, well, life in Indonesia, contradictions…

“Karaoke, karaoke!” he pulls his tongue out again, as if imagining himself giving head, and suddenly there’s a huge crash…………………………………………………

The world is in turbulence, blackout, light, blackout, flight, omnium-gatherum of colours, pain, crash, and finally – the ground. My legs are twisted around the neck of Minna, my back is in pain.

Looks like we just had an accident!

There’s a man lying on the road next to us, and a motorbike besides him. He pulls himself together and quickly tries to escape from the location. The becak driver, whose becak is now in pieces, tries to stop him. He runs after him, catches his shirt and pulls him over, so eventually the motorbike crashes again badly. The driver is completely drunk.

Both, me and Minna are in a mild shock. We pay our becak driver half of the negotiated sum (still having the flashback of his twisting tongue in front of my eyes) and try to get away before the police get involved. We just want to get home.