The peculiar relationship between sex and jasmine tea in downtown Semarang keeps both police and prostitutes in a game of cat and mouse.
Christopher A Urbanski
Poci refers to both the tea and the pot it's brewed in
‘Operations all night tonight’, grumbles Fita. Half a dozen motorcycles roar into life, each carrying away a barely dressed teenage girl.
Two minutes later, a police truck lumbers down the street, accompanied by several smaller vehicles, some motorcycles and a throng of tabloid reporters. It is 2.30am on Pandanaran Street, Simpang Lima in the Central Javanese city of Semarang. The municipal police force has just started its third anti-prostitution operation for the evening.
‘They don’t bother questioning us, because they already know who is really selling tea; but we carry this union card’, explains Fita. The card distinguishes young female tea sellers from the ‘ciblek’ (from cilik-cilik betah melek), a Semarang-Javanese acronym describing the very young commercial sex workers found at the poci tea houses around Simpang Lima.
Suddenly, Fita calls out to a passing kijang van: ‘Poci, poci mister! Come in! Chicky-Chicky!’
Poci (pronounced po-chi) is not just a pot of fragrant jasmine-infused tea; in Semarang it means sipping it from tiny glasses in a tranquil setting, and the promise of introductions to some of Simpang Lima’s ciblek. The vehicle slows to a halt and its tinted windows roll down.
‘Poci mister? Drink it here’, she repeats, smiling.
The driver explains that he and his friend are looking for ciblek. ‘No problem mister! But won’t you drink first while we find one for you?’
Warily, the men get out and enter the tea stall. There are plastic stools on the vinyl mat that covers the sidewalk; a small counter stocked with glasses, tea pots and a gas burner adorn the otherwise bare stall. The spot-lit surrounds of Simpang Lima, the babbling water in the filthy drains and the scent of the tea combine for a cosy ambience. The men are served tea, coffee or hot ginger. They chat with the tea seller and puff meditatively on clove cigarettes.
A second tea seller is dispatched across the street to a crowded all-night warung where a group of young men and women are hanging out. After some discussion the tea seller returns, accompanied by three ciblek. She gestures them towards the guests. Drinks are bought and the girls start flirting, all the while exchanging glances with the tea sellers, who are already dividing up the proceeds of this encounter into their respective commissions.
‘If you haven’t drunk poci tea in Simpang Lima, you haven’t been to Semarang’.
Amidst the smoke and coy conversation the tea seller discreetly ascertains the men’s preferences and a deal is struck. After the drinks are paid for and an advance booking fee for the ciblek is received, the group climb into the kijang and disappear into the night.
Poci tea originates in the Central Javanese city of Tegal. Mixed with jasmine flowers and brewed in a special earthenware pot (the poci) that is only ever rinsed with clear water —thus imbuing it with its heady scent and making it more delicious each time — it has a unique aroma that has made it popular all over Java, where it is sold in the many warung tegal or ‘warteg’.
It is only in Semarang, however, where this tea has become synonymous with teenage prostitution. Even locals attest to the saying: ‘If you haven’t drunk poci tea in Simpang Lima, you haven’t been to Semarang.’
This peculiar pairing really started in 1998. During the monetary crisis, the spike in unemployment and fall in household incomes led to an increase in informal occupations such as the late night tea trade. There was also an increase in the number of professional prostitutes in Semarang, as young girls were forced to support families when their parents were unable to find work. Raids by religious militia on formal prostitution complexes across Indonesia also led to larger numbers of women engaging in unorganised or street prostitution.
Although street prostitution existed in Simpang Lima prior to 1998, it was on a smaller, ad hoc scale and was conducted at certain chicken and rice stalls where girls would exchange their services for a cheap night out at a nightclub. But in the face of economic crisis, the ciblek had to support themselves and their families. The previously amateur sex workers increased in number and professionalised – turning a pastime into paid employment.
And so a new way was needed to disguise the commercial sex trade to the public eye. A plausible cover was required should its participants be questioned by the authorities. The poci tea stalls gave the ciblek a safer working environment and the tea sellers helped them attract clients. The tea sellers’ sales increased, and they received a commission on every commercial sex transaction they negotiated.
Surprisingly, this flimsy guise appears to have satisfied the local community. Aside from occasional derogatory comments from passersby, poci tea hasn’t drawn a backlash from religious militias or local residents. Only the city authorities are frustrated by the ongoing trade, which they consider an embarrassment to Semarang’s good name. Accordingly, in 2000, the municipal government passed a new city ordinance banning prostitution anywhere outside of the government sanctioned prostitution complexes.
This regulation, and its enforcement by the municipal police force, established the present status quo: regular late night raids in the Simpang Lima area and the cibleks’ efforts to avoid detection and arrest. In a country where lofty political goals are seldom matched with practical means, the police have not been able to stamp out street prostitution in the poci tea houses.
Cat, mouse and the Prostitute Transport Squad
There is now a nightly bout of cat and mouse, or permainan kucing-kucingan, as the police operations director describes it, between the city authorities and the ciblek, abetted by their intrepid band of motorcycle taxi drivers.
The young men, who call themselves the ‘Pasukan Anjelo’ (Pasukan Antar-Jemput Lonte or Prostitute Transport Squad), are responsible for safeguarding the ciblek from arrest as they wait for clients to arrive at the tea houses. They are paid Rp20,000 (A$3) for helping a ciblek flee Simpang Lima in the event of a raid and receive smaller amounts for other moonlight transport services.
Reclining on mats beside a warung, gambling, drinking, and smoking, it might be surprising that the members of Pasukan Anjelo are quite a sophisticated operation. They are conducting reconnaissance so that they and the ciblek stay one step ahead of the authorities. They use mobile phones, sometimes posting scouts at key access points to Simpang Lima tasked with sending an SMS warning if approaching police are sighted. There is also a network between a number of red light districts in Semarang, such as the nearby ‘massage plus’ strip of Tunggal Indah and the transvestite sex worker muster at Taman KB, the Family Planning Park. If one location around Simpang Lima is raided, the others are immediately warned that an anti-prostitution operation is underway.
Should the early warning system fail them, Pasukan Anjelo is equipped with several 110 – 135 cc bebek (‘duck’ mopeds) to outrun the police. Although the police have larger, faster motorbikes, the bebek easily outmanoeuvre their pursuers as they race down Semarang’s rat-runs. The authorities only succeed when they get close to Simpang Lima undetected and then rush into the poci tea strip on motorbikes, apprehending the ciblek before they can flee.
And so it remains most evenings at the tea stalls of Simpang Lima. Each time an operation rolls out, the ciblek are sped away, only to return to the scene minutes later.
The end of the game?
Recently, however, things have changed. Over the past five years the police’s power to enforce city regulations has steadily increased. The department’s manpower tripled between 2003 and 2006, and they have been provided with newer equipment and vehicles.
This increased capacity is a major reason for the decline of the poci tea and prostitution partnership in Simpang Lima. The number of tea stalls shrank from 22 in 2002 to just eight in 2006. Although the ciblek are resilient and continue to evade arrest most of the time, the game of cat and mouse is now being played out more often. This makes it increasingly difficult for them to be available for clients, and their patrons are being scared off.
It is twilight now for this partnership of sex and tea; the game of cat and mouse is almost over.
In the face of these challenges, many ciblek are finding other ways to supply the commercial sex trade, moving to nightclubs, karaoke lounges and massage parlours. Fewer prostitutes on the streets of Simpang Lima means fewer customers and lower revenues for the tea sellers. They too have begun to leave the business. With each departure of a ciblek or tea seller, the fame of poci tea and the Simpang Lima scene diminishes – as does the fascination that drew clients from across Indonesia.
It is twilight now for this partnership of sex and tea; the game of cat and mouse is almost over. What remains is a reflection of the lives and struggle of one lower class community in Semarang and the unusual means they found to fend for themselves and for one another. ii
Chris Urbanski (email@example.com ) is a fourth year student at the Australian National University. He has lived in Indonesia for four years, studying at Jakarta International School, Gadjah Mada University and the Muhammadiyah University of Malang. This article was based on a research project undertaken as an ACICIS student.