When most people hear of Chinese temples, they immediately envision Shaolin monks and their kung-fu, rather than purely spiritual imagery.
For temple custodian Hartanto Wijaya, the famous temple of Toa Se Bio in Glodok, Central Jakarta, has nothing to do with martial arts. He has been working there for 15 years because of the calling he feels to help others in their spiritual pursuits.
My Jakarta chatted with Hartanto about how he came to spend so much time at the temple, its history and what it all means to him and the community.
I think people tend to associate the custodian of any religious structure as someone who is unemployed, so maybe someone gave him the job because they didn’t want him having nothing else to do.
Well not for me and the other custodians here in Toa Se Bio. We don’t get paid to do this, and we never demand anything. I have my own job, and my son is a student at Trisakti.
During my watch at Toa Se Bio, people often offer money as tips for my guidance. When that happens, I often ask the visitors to instead donate the money to the temple.
Then why the dedication?
Here, I never feel like I’m working. I’ve been living in this neighborhood and visiting this temple since I was born, so I have this personal calling to take care of it. My mother also worked here once. So I guess the dedication runs in the family.
What do you do for a living?
I only have a high school diploma, and before I started with Toa Se Bio, I was a debt collector. And now, let’s just say that what I do pays for my family’s needs.
What do you actually do here as a custodian?
We mainly give guidance to the visitors about their prayers. Which altar they should go to first, and what purpose each altar serves. Providing them with the necessary items, like incense and prayer papers. Along with other people, I also manage the day-to-day maintenance and upkeep of the temple, such as cleaning and security.
Do you have a work schedule here?
No, the other custodians and myself come whenever we want. I have my own business just as they do, so we cover for each other. Once I was here for 30 days in a row. I have been taking care of this temple since 1997, so it’s been 15 years and counting.
Do visitors ever come after the normal hours of worship?
We have situations like that quite often. It usually happens when a worshipper has a family member with a serious illness, so they come to pray for blessings. We also close late on the first and 15th day of every month, every Chinese month that is.
This temple is always open to everyone. The operating hours are only for the day-to-day management and chores. So if anyone needs to pay a visit to this temple, there will always be someone available to assist them.
When you have a celebration like Chinese New Year, do you ever get complaints from neighbors?
Never. There is great mutual respect here. For instance, every first and 15th day of the month, Toa Se Bio is flooded with people, so much so that the nearby roads must be closed down to accommodate for parking. But the residents never have any problems. They respect this place and what it means to the visitors.
Have any historic events ever happened here?
I don’t know if you would call this historic, but during the 1998 uprising in Jakarta, many elderly Chinese took refuge within the temple. They stayed here for days while young people stood guard outside. That was a terrifying period. Thankfully nothing bad happened and we’re all safe and sound. So I guess the local Chinese have found the temple to be a place not just to pray, but also as a refuge for safety.
Do you know when this temple was built?
The only official record that mentions the existence of this temple dates back to 1740. As for when the temple was actually constructed, there’s no clear information.
Hartanto was talking to Erwin Chanputra.