The Magic Along Pontianak-Singkawang

I don’t keep a bucket list, because such list would be too long, but if I did then Cap Go Meh festival in Singkawang would definitely make it on the list. This year the stars finally lined up to clear me a path to West Kalimantan.

Cap Go Meh, the 15th Night, the first full moon on a New Year, marks the end of Lunar New Year celebrations for Chinese worldwide. Known also as the Lantern Festival for lanterns hung grandly in preceding days, it’s not to be confused with Mid-Autumn Festival that is sometimes also named the Lantern Festival.

What is so special about the festival in Singkawang, if any Chinese community worldwide would celebrate it? The answer lies on Dayak tribes, the native of Kalimantan, who have meshed with the Chinese immigrants since their arrival centuries ago. As the well-researched-anthropology-dissertation-turned-history book Cina Khek in Singkawang notes, trade routes between West Kalimantan and Fujian had been established prior to European traders’ discovery in 16th century.

The magical prowess of Dayak shamans, called tatung in the local dialect, makes the centerpiece of Singkawang’s Cap Go Meh festival. Their ability to withstand slicing and impaling, including having metals inserted through one body part and poked out of another body part, without leaving any trace of blood, is a spectacle on its own.

Magic, or black magic for that matter, is at work for the thousands of spectators to see. Some tatungs smashed objects onto their heads before walking off casually. To prove that the weapons were real, most tatungs would chop off random items on the street, like woodblocks or plastic bottles, before gingerly returning the variety of knives onto their own body. At some point, and I have the video posted on my Instagram account as proof, one tatung devoured a live chicken while standing on his blade-lined sedan chair.

Don’t you dare thinking that it was only a bunch of men in trance—tatung is an equal opportunity profession. While most tatungs looked downright Dayak, many looked Chinese or of a mixed race.  Female and children tatungs also walked with sharp metals hanging through their body. There were times when I was too stunned to record the sightings that I just plopped down on the sidewalk, trying to take it all in.

The Tatung Parade in particular may not be for everyone, but the Cap Go Meh Festival is. Before the hundreds of tatungs walked the main streets of Singkawang, a dozen dragon barongsai, some about 50 metres long, pranced about with their animated troupe members. There was one particularly jubilant barongsai in fuchsia operated by female-only troupe clad in pink that I think would’ve made a great addition to the Women’s March Parade in Jakarta two days after. A troupe of kuda lumping arts from East Java sent a delegation, just as the alliance of Malaysian Confucian temples did.

The otherwise sleepy town was sizzling thanks to 20,607 red lanterns, a national record validated by MURI and presented at the opening ceremony. Offices and residences seemingly competed to decorate, everyone was in festive mood. Even local Muslim women in hijabs cheerfully peddled souvenirs and the halal version of the town’s famed Chinese delicacies. That Minister for Religious Affairs Lukman Saifuddin opened the festival put a nice ribbon around the sentiments that the Chinese basis of the festivity, a factor often creating friction in Indonesia, was not an obstacle to include everyone in Singkawang in the celebration.

150 km away in Pontianak, where barongsai were burned the next day to end the long Lunar New Year rituals, the similar feeling was apparent. Locals in Muslim headscarves and peci brought their kids to watch the burning that included Confucian rites. Muslims work in many diners featuring Pontianak famed Chinese dishes, and every Chinese proprietor I asked happily answered or pointed to another diner when I asked for halal Chinese food. A sobering realization that Chinese and Muslim Malays can co-exist peacefully, a centuries-old fact that has been swayed in recent years as identity politics taking center stage.

Another realization dawned upon my travel mate who muttered, as he watched Chinese descendants working as parking attendant and street hawker, that Singkawang was the place to crush stereotypes of filthy rich Chinese-Indonesians. While that was true, one need not need travel that far to gain such sobering observation—Tangerang, an hour drive away from Jakarta, is dotted by old settlements that to this day are populated by low-income Chinese Indonesians. In fact, one of them works as a go-to handyman for my parents’ house.

The on-going friction may not go away easily or quickly, as plenty academic publications have surmised so. But I always believe in people’s own power to build a bridge between them, if only they walk far enough with hearts and eyes open to realize that being different is a norm that should be dealt with wisdom instead of suspicion. Every year when I pen this column around Chinese New Year, including last year upon seeing the inclusive Imlek celebration in Semarang, I voice out my hopes. This year the hope is renewed along the sizzling and sobering magic between Pontianak and Singkawang.

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From the Mouths of Bright Young Minds

Kids say the darnedest things. From the mouths of the babes.

This week I bear witness to them. Twice.

A private school in Jakarta invited me to share basic knowledge of media and my experiences as a columnist to their fifth-graders. Sharing is always interesting, and the teacher gave me pointers, yet as I am yet to be blessed with children I admittedly was a bit lost upon preparing my presentation– to what depth should I speak, what level of vocabulary I should employ. Beyond my scant memory of my 5th grader self and the popular TV show Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? I had no idea what fifth graders would be like.

Generally throughout the session, I was pleasantly surprised. The fifth-graders showed a good level of media awareness and a healthy appetite for writing and reading. They asked good questions and needed only little encouragement to speak their minds. They enthusiastically pored over newspapers, magazines and tabloids, including The Jakarta Post’s own short-lived tabloid for youngsters Youthspeak, that I brought along.

However, as I drove home that afternoon, a tinge of sadness set in. So realistic some of the questions were that I was taken aback fifth-graders would be aware of certain situations already. When I talked about hoaxes, a girl asked why people would create hoaxes in the first place and if there were any real punishments for anyone doing so. When I mentioned media getting revenue from advertisements and subscriptions, a boy asked if it meant someone could be paid (read: make a living) from writing hoaxes for media which would welcome such writing. When I elaborated the differences between news and column, a girl asked if running a column meant I got to be rude to anyone I disagreed with. I answered truthfully– acknowledging the existence of bad people profiting from other people being misled, underlining the necessity of decorum even when writing a scathing argument– but it’s sad that today’s 10-year-olds had to be in the position to pose such questions. I thought the world would’ve waited for a while before making them aware of these grim facts.

The next day, still reeling from the realization, I spent the morning glued to the televised town hall meeting between survivors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the latest site of mass shooting in the US, and a handful of lawmakers. 17 people, mostly students, were killed on Valentine’s Day, a day that ironically was supposed to be about love for most coming-of-age teenagers. The tension was high as bereaved parents barely contained their grief and shocked teachers objected to President Trump’s bizarre idea of arming teachers in schools, but the powerful moments came from the students themselves.

Having survived the ordeal only to learn of their friends’ deaths, the students put aside their raw emotions enough to put together the most pointed questions and remarks. A teen boy asked not to be patronized because he knew the feeling of being trapped for hours waiting for his death and texting his mother goodbye. A teen girl asked a lawmaker if their blood weren’t worth the lawmaker’s blood money. Another teen girl asked the audience to be silent for she needed to listen to the NRA spokeswoman’s full answer in order to compose her rebuttal, which she later did. Another boy who’d just turned eighteen wondered why even after all that happened he could walk to a store and buy automatic weapons. The best question came from a young man who asked Senator Rubio point blank if he’d stop receiving campaign donations from NRA, a question which Rubio unsuccessfully deflected as the student kept drilling him with tenacity rarely shown anymore by White House press corps.

These are teenagers, whose worries were supposed to be passing classes, entering a college, and having a prom date. They weren’t supposed to worry about dying from assault rifles, or whether their political representative took blood money. Indeed the millions of twentysomethings marching across the US did end Vietnam War, but these students are younger and the US is not at civil war. Or is it? Is it a civil war now between the majority of Americans who want tougher background check for weapon purchase and the lawmakers who heed their contributors more than their constituents?

What a sad world we’re giving our future generation these days. We the adults seem to be clueless in best utilizing and managing the technology advancements we’ve achieved. We don’t appear to know how to balance freedom, of information or self-protection, and the necessary wisdom. We look like we enjoy arguments for the sake of arguing instead of problem solving. The mix of innocence and comprehension shown by Jakartan fifth-graders and American high-schoolers this week is both commendable and depressing, for it comes from the decreasing level of safety the world can offer them these days. I now understand how some of these kids may grow up to be disillusioned and fixated on trivial things they feel more rewarding, like fame, just as I wrote here last month.

The bright young minds have spoken. Now, when can the adults get their act together?

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Local Consumer Brands Going Pro

Earlier this week the bottled water brand Aqua unveiled new visual designs for Reflections, their premium label of the glass bottle kind, teaming up with another creative mind. There was fashion designer Tex Saverio a while ago, renowned artist Eko Nugroho last year, and fashion designer Sebastian Gunawan this year. For their plastic bottled water Aqua once engaged artist Sanchia Hamidjaja to design a child-focused theme in relation to Temukan Indonesiamu campaign, a move mirrored by competitor Oasis that worked with artist Taufik Habibi for art installation and bottle’s label design during last year’s Artstage Jakarta.

In the fast-moving consumer goods industry, where I built most of my corporate career on, not many products get more consumer than bottled water. Countries where one can drink from tap leave little use for commercially-bottled water. In countries like Indonesia, the lack of drinkable tap water leads to bustling bottled water business. In both contradictory situations branding gets more important than ever to lure customers. What Aqua Reflections does, giving an artistic edge to the label which tight competition is waged on fancy restaurant tables against imported brands by collaborating with Sebastian Gunawan whose clientele consists of society swans with a penchant to float elegantly between fine dining tables, is smart.

The new designs themselves are gorgeous, a clever juxtaposition of blue-green colors often associated with natural water and lush Chinese garden at springtime. Sebastian Gunawan applied the same design framework onto a 63-piece cheongsam couture collection of silk and sequins just in time for Lunar New Year. Fully acknowledging the fact that the increased ownership to majority since 1998 by French giant Danone must’ve contributed highly to brand management, the Indonesian in me couldn’t help feeling proud to see a brand founded domestically by the Tirto Utomo family 40-plus years ago now looks so polished and on par with major foreign brands.

What about local brands that remain locally-owned? It’s nice to notice that some have started to realize the importance of professional marketing in addition to providing great products. Packaging has gone better and more attractive, promotion has gotten smarter and creative.

Local fruit company Sunpride has managed to put forward its products aside imported fruits on the produce section of high-end supermarkets in Indonesian major cities, often leading A-class shoppers to think they’re buying imported bananas and pineapples. The packaging is unfussy yet adequate, two traits that local companies often fail at.

For promotions, in addition to maintain a good social media presence, Sunpride has sponsored popular events such as Jakarta Marathon and Jakarta Fashion Week, letting curated potential customers a chance to sample their products. Eventually for this category product’s quality and taste will determine repeat customers, but as far as putting on professional branding, the company can tick that box.

Another interesting move I saw recently was by Surakarta-based Singabera. Known primarily for their “Jahe Wangi” instant ginger powder in batik-patterned box, which design frankly can use an upgrade, the company has expanded to premium lines under the parent company name that not only packaged much more attractively but also made of more interesting variants.

I was lunching recently at Kaum, the purveyor of fine Indonesian culinary, when I stumbled into the ginger tasting organized by Singabera. I ended up spending the rainy afternoon learning about domestically-grown ginger varieties (red, white, Java), the usage far beyond wedang jahe hot drink (Kaum did a great job serving a mouthwatering spread of ginger-based dishes and cocktails), the trivia fact of “Singabera” being Sanskrit (which translates later to “zingiberi” in Greek and “ginger” in English) and the intricacy of Indonesian ginger business that hangs on the so-called ginger reviewing middlemen Singabera tries to cut by going straight to farmers.

The presentation was done in English by a professional young lady from the company, with self-proclaimed foodie Indonesians and curious foreigners in attendance gingerly, all pun intended, jotting down notes. I posted the event on Instagram and received positive feedback; the Indonesians were surprised a local produce has come to look that “cool”, the expats wished they’d joined for something akin to wine tasting for an Indonesian natural product.

And that’s the essence of three stories above, that the current lifestyle of increasingly urbane Indonesians are moving towards where products need not only need to be of good quality, but should also be well-presented all around when served at gatherings, brought overseas or given to foreigners as souvenirs, and even when consumed privately. To be fair, the local coffee and chocolate categories have taken the direction for a while now, but the majority in other consumer categories are rarely doing so. The local products that will survive in the long-run are the ones who no longer look at professional brand marketing as a side effort, but as the only integrated management system. No more dowdy packs, corny advertisements, and half-hearted customer engagements.

Can local companies pull this off? Looking back at my career experience often investment for a change is financially lower than what is feared of—the hardest undertaking is accepting the fact that changes are needed and inevitable. I learned that the hard way as a young brand manager, surely top management at local companies have long known that. After all, denial never serves anyone but farmers on the Nile riverbank, no?

Looking forward to better branded local products on the grocers, or a professional tasting or two.

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How Low Will You Go for Social Media “Views” and “Likes”?

We all have been there. Holding in tummy, reapplying makeup, rearranging dishes on a table, jumping on a mountain, assuming yoga poses on a beach, chasing stray cats in some random street; all in the name of social media posts. I certainly have, to all of the above– well, the stray cat bit I’d done long before social media existed.

In embellishing a picture, we hope, secretly or not, it will gain more “view”, ‘like’ or ‘favorite’. Peer approval is used to be compliments from your immediate circles, nowadays it may come from the buttons pushed by anyone with access to your social profiles.

I’ve written here before how the rapidly growing need to look (almost) flawless on social media has driven traffic to workout camps and beauty clinics. Recent events of youths assaulting animals in Surabaya and Taman Safari Puncak, or American Youtuber Logan Paul’s outrageous videos while in Japan, are also examples of the insatiable drive to gain audience and their approval. Yet, it’s for posts of themselves. What about the posts which origin have nothing to do with the person posting them?

A literature journal recently ran a poll among indie bookstores about stolen books and the perpetrators.  Book theft is nothing new, and most of the titles mentioned on the poll were regular theft targets, but what was surprising was a new type of thief discovered—stealing not for reading, but for posting on social media. Possibly to put next to a cup of frothy latte on a cool table as typical shots are presented on Instagram, I imagine.

It used to be that you were measured by the book you read and discuss. Now as people converse less in real life and spend more time online, posting a book’s image is enough to make people assume you read it. After all, in the era of emoji-filled short message, who has time to engage you in a genuine discussion about that book you’re supposedly reading, anyway?

If you think that’s twisted, wait until you hear the story my friend Gee shared during our New Year’s Day brunch.

One of Jakarta’s respectable creative minds, Gee juggles careers as visual art director, merchandising creator and sometime social media buzzer. Understandably, he has great grasp on visual composition and color scheme, which leads to fabulous pictures on his social media posts. Having a huge number of followers is no surprise. Having some of his followers begging for his pictures to be reposted as their own, now that was my big surprise.

Yes, you read it right. Gee have had followers who asked him to send them his pictures so they could repost, and claim them as their own, on their social media. And from the messages Gee made me read, the requests were more open and deliberate than what I exercised when I asked to borrow Mom’s fancy china to host a dinner party. Shame is probably not a word ever entering their vocabulary.

Gee tried to reason that these folks, mostly in their 20s and possibly on their first job, have no resources or access to things Gee often post, yet still crave the ‘glam’ association. And that’s what worries me the most; the need to create one’s likable life image leading to consciously re-purporting another person’s imagery, even with that person’s full knowledge of the lie. It’s as if they couldn’t care less that Gee, someone they claimed they adored, would see them as phonies, as long as their peer would adore them as they would of Gee. No difference than the captured book thieves who nonchalantly admitted of stealing for social media posts. It’s approval-seeking, bragging right and delusion of grandeur on a whole different level.

If this was a trait commonly shared by the twentysomethings, that they’d rather embrace a desired image than the real deal, wouldn’t matter then how edgy the Internet-policing machine Kemkominfo planned to keep buying, nothing could stop hoaxes, which often would feed to people’s darkest fears as well as desires, from becoming accepted truth in the future. Alt-facts would just more easily be taken as facts. I mean, after all, a book would only worth of its cover instead of its content, anyway, right?

Scared? This may well be potentially more destructive than zombie apocalypse and alien landing combined, and I’m only being half sarcastic here. If you still retain a clear understanding between truth and false you can figure out how to parlay with the aliens or outsmart the zombies. But if you’re so comfortable in muddling the truth and false, human race would self-sabotage long before actual zombie outbreak or alien arrival could materialize.

I have no solutions here, and I’m afraid I’d sound delusional if I kept saying to bestow your kids with education and wisdom so we all wouldn’t head to some form of doom too soon. So, unless any of you got any eureka-worthy solution for this possible trait of the future generation, I suggest we huddle to form our post-apocalypse survival team. I’m a terrible cook but I’m good with knives and directions; tell me what survival skills you’ll bring to the team.

Happy New Year, folks. Gear up.

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Women’s Equality and the Silver Screen

On December 22nd Indonesia commemorates 1928 Women’s Congress, where 30 women’s organizations across Java and Sumatra gathered to fight for women’s equality in then Dutch Indies. How after 1945 independence both Soekarno and Soeharto managed to domesticize the day to a celebration of motherhood remains a mystery, just as debates between those who try to fix the misconception and those who wish to retain Hallmark-type Mother’s Day remain heated on our social media to this day.

Watching the annual spats around December 22nd took a backseat for me this year, as a much bigger fight against patriarchy has been waged in Hollywood. Mega producer Harvey Weinstein remains the largest culprit, by the Tinseltown power he wields and the extent of sexual harassment accusations, while numerous A-listers have been called out.

The opened floodgate is a stark contrast to the progressive universe projected on Hollywood’s silver screen lately. Animated female leads are no longer confined to frothy Disney princesses waiting for a prince, but on the footsteps of boundary-breaking Pocahontas and Mulan. Now little girls worldwide can look up to sailor Moana who proves herself equal to a much-worshipped male deity, archer Merida who stands her ground against fixed marriages, resourceful Poppy who storms into giants’ lair to free her troll folks, and wise Elsa who not only rises above different physical traits but also rules as a queen regnant. We’ve come a long way since 28 years ago, when mermaid Ariel showed no desire beyond marrying the prince she briefly rescued.

The superhero genre is showing more females kicking together with their male counterparts, as opposed to being sidekicks or arm candies. The latest Catwoman and Wonder Woman are free-willing agents who bring equal arsenals to the battle, just as The Avengers and X-Men heroines are. There were no women on the revered Jedi Council, but now the order’s very continuance hangs on a young woman who fights with the last troops led also by women. The new Wolverine is literally a little girl.

Hillary Clinton didn’t get elected, but female US Presidents exist from TV series Scandal to the sequel of Independence Day blockbuster. Real life accomplished women such as female African-American mathematicians at NASA and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham got their long overdue spotlight in Hidden Figures and Post, respectively.

So, while its big wigs continuously dwell in misogyny behind closed doors and its production statistics are yet to show more women on decision-making positions, at least Hollywood has promoted women’s equality better on its final products, which effects, given the digital age where visuals steal attention more than texts, shouldn’t be discounted. Makes me wonder about how our domestic film industry fares on the issue.

Recent local movies showcasing convention-challenging women that I could immediately think of were only Ini Kisah Tiga Dara, Kartini and Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts.

Movie financing problems aside, Indonesia actually isn’t short of remarkable women worth their stories splashed across the silver screen. The women behind the much-touted 1928 Women’s Congress, for starters. There was Admiral Malahayati who fought off Portuguese colonialization and whose name was immortalized on Banda Aceh’s port, and women’s equality activist Rangkayo Rasuna Said whose name was immortalized on a Jakarta’s downtown boulevard. Martha Christina Tiahahu rose against greedy Dutch colonialists from the original spice islands. 16th century Aceh Sultanate had four reigning sultanas, just as older Majapahit dynasty had rulers Suhita and Kencanawungu.

Our folktales are also abundant with great female role models if we want to dig deeper than the often patriarchal portrayal available. There is more to Calon Arang than an angry sorcerer with possible mommy issues. The Greek mythology has Neptune, we have Nyai Roro Kidul—whose reign over the Southern Seas offer better story than her supposed role as a virtual spouse of every Javanese monarch.

Beyond history and mythology, we have thoroughly modern millennials like Fransiska Dimitri Inkiriwang and Mathilda Dwi Lestari from Parahyangan University who have been on a quest to summit world’s seven highest mountains in recent years. Their phenomenal journey started with our own Jayawijaya’s Carstensz Peak in 2014, and after summiting five more including Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua and Denali, now they’re setting their sights on Everest. Mountain climbing on this level is beyond overcoming physical challenges, it’s also winning serious mental fights—stronger men have failed to accomplish what these 23-year-old girls did. When they summited Everest, and I have no doubt that they would soon, I hope someone make a movie about them. Nia Dinata did a good job re-portraying the modern sisters of Tiga Dara, perhaps she could turn our mountain girls into household names next?

Happy Women’s Day, my Indonesian sisters. Women’s equality still has got a long way to go, even more so in Indonesia, but at the very least we could start with better role models for our daughters and nieces to look up to. Let’s cheer for less sexual harassment in any movie industry and more progressive female characters on any silver screen.

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Race You to be Fitter and Stronger!

It’s December again. Time for year-end reviews and next year’s projections, in business and life. I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but I did start 2017 with a plan to get fitter. I wasn’t entirely out of shape; I could walk for hours, which served me well while traveling, or snorkeling without life vest on. My problem was hiking, where my legs would just turn to jellies and my breath would be out in minutes.

So in early January I signed up for a kickboxing/muaythai class at a martial art gym in Kebayoran Baru. I almost died in the first hour, a cross-fit of cardio and weight training warm-up before the actual kickboxing, and only survived two kickboxing rounds later. But I kept returning, undeterred, pushing myself for more pushups and longer runs. Except when I travel, I typically train thrice a week. 11 months to that first day now I can do three cross-fit sets for warm-up and five kickboxing rounds. I’ve met twentysomething men who could only do half of my regimen before throwing up.

The first test came in July, at the height of Southern hemisphere wintertime, when I trekked up New Zealand’s Franz Josef Glaciers. Aside from an ego bruise from getting my derriere stuck in a particularly narrow trail, I survived—hiking, thin air, subzero temperature and all.

The real test was this past weekend when I tagged along a group of girls, who’d hiked mountains before, to Ijen Crater in Banyuwangi, because I just had to witness the world-famed sulfuric blue fire. I openly told our guide I’d need assistance throughout the ascent. The guide, a seasoned mountaineer, smiled wistfully and said he’d be right behind me. When we started ascending I was so focused in stepping forward I forgot about the guide after a while. I occasionally stopped to catch breath or sip water, and about 1.5 hours later I found myself summited (estimated height 2,400 m). I actually had to wait for our guide, who was with the other girls behind, for the gas mask, before descending on the 70-degree slope to the spot of blue fire, then further down to the crater lake.

All by myself, with only a couple of trekking poles, willpower and a bit of pride. I got so tired, but I didn’t feel like I was going to die. The pre-kickboxing me couldn’t have done this last December.

So the hell to people who say after thirty everything is down the hill. It’s not always the case. Though I’m admittedly no fitter than me at 27, when I worked out five times a week, I’m definitely fitter than me at 30, when I was busy chasing corporate career I barely had time for once weekly Pilates. There are a handful of people around me, including a breast cancer survivor mind you, who got to run in their 40s and now regularly do marathons.

The same spirit was apparent a couple of weeks ago when, thanks to my friend Layla, I got to watch a cross-fit competition. Named Jakarta WOD-Off, which WOD I believe stands for work-out of the day, the 2-day competition held by Jakarta’s most popular cross-fit gym attracted local and foreign cross-fit diehards, men and women alike. Some were accomplished athletes in the region– one had been crowned Asia Fittest Male Age 35-40 I learned– but many were just dedicated gym rats. There were twentysomethings competing, but mostly were in their thirties or older with admirable physical fitness.

One challenge consisted of lifting dumbbells followed by pull-ups, while another challenge was a series of lifting serious iron—70 kg for male, 40 kg for female. Heck, whenever my trainer made me lift just an ounce more than 10 kg I’d either whine or issue him a death threat, yet here at the competition girls not much bigger than me were lifting almost ¾ of my body-weight. Respect, girls, to the moon and back.

I chatted up a few participants, most of whom said they weren’t always this fit. Some didn’t pick up exercising until recent years, some sheepishly admitted to still savoring junk food, yet all of them committed now to continuous training.

Arm-chair psychologists may chalk it up to middle-age syndrome, but I think it’s more of a conscious decision than that. Urban life expectancy continues to get longer while medical costs get higher, it will be stupid to “let go” of oneself because you feel you’ve got hitched and borne a kid or two. With now possibly 30-40 years ahead on your life, would you spend it nursing a weakening frame or whipping up a healthier physique? God forbid your medical check-up stats start to get red flags but you’re too frail to sweat out the toxins.

I myself have a long way to go. I’ve subscribed to healthy diet for over two years now, but I still indulge in sinful meals over weekends. Layla my friend has long sworn off sugar including carbs, I’d still enjoy occasional Oreo and martabak. Yet, just as the Jakarta WOD-Off participants I talked to, we’re both committing to maintain our healthier life.

In fact, if any of you could get me passes to overbooked glacier treks worldwide, I promise I’d cut down on sugar and starch. Race you to Norway fjords in 2018!

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Teater Koma Turns 40, but the State of Our Theatre Isn’t Pretty

I’d never forget what my parents said when I, a student that summer in Massachusetts, was to make my first trip to New York City. All the way in Jakarta, my parents told me to watch a Broadway show and get the best seat, even if it meant I had to eat cheap through the trip. My travel mate, an Asian-American student who hadn’t been to NYC herself, got the same advice from her parents in California.

We did as we were told; seats so great we could see little details of the majestic stage and had a fully-costumed actor purring around our feet during Act 2 of Cats, then Broadway’s longest-running show. We wore our fanciest dress and had drinks at a posh bar afterwards, rehashing the play down to the last meow, feeling like fabulous Manhattanites– forgetting we were cash-strapped girls staying at a bug-infested hotel and mostly sharing hotdogs. I’d seen stage plays before but that evening the magic of Broadway simply enraptured me.

Theatre has all-around elements to fascinate us. Voice, sound, light, costume, décor—a make-believe story unfurled in three acts literally before our eyes without a screen getting in the way. As it’s not recorded there’s always a chance the actors deliver jokes better or the dancers jump higher on the particular show you watch. Intimate, and personal.

Back home in Indonesia, Teater Koma is the company that has consistently delivered such magic to me. The stories, the acting, the set, and the satire towards the ruling government. Back in the New Order era, Teater Koma offered unapologetic catharsis for us fed-up citizens to laugh at the antics of Soeharto, his shameless children and incompetent cronies. Their barbs got too pointy and illustrations too real Soeharto shut down their shows at some point.

The 1998 Reformasi means we wouldn’t need to see a theatre to criticize Indonesian government. Anyone’s neighbor’s cousin’s does it openly on social media these days. I like how Teater Koma has maneuvered since, taken more of the cultural heritage path. The legendary Chinese folk tale Sie Jin Kwie for example, upon which Teater Koma incorporated wayang tavip and wayang potehi, two vintage forms of shadow puppetry that are proofs of Chinese and Javanese cultures meshing well for centuries.

The 4th installment of Sie Jin Kwie was on recently, the 150th production of Teater Koma to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Purchasing power going down while ticket prices going up, yet it was a full-house the evening we went. It was also heartening to see teens brought by their parents. Teater Koma remained true to their court-jester role, poking cheekily at Governor Anies Baswedan’s sketchy plan for cheap housing and President Joko Widodo’s penchant for blusukan, much to the roaring laughter of audience.

However, theatre-going in general has not made much progress on the social calendar of Jakartans. Once phenomenal Swara Mahardhikka has long defunct, EKI the dance company garnered respectable number when they threw a production, and there was the rare fluke that was Laskar Pelangi a few years ago—but that’s about it. Great production like Sie Jin Kwie sequels should’ve lasted for several weeks each in a metropolitan of 12-15 million residents like Jakarta. Other theatre shows were held even shorter, sometimes only 2 days.

Months-long preparation costs much, and that’s before venue rentals, which are steep in Jakarta, and promotional expenses. Teater Koma has had the steady support of the Djarum Foundation in recent years, but I gather not all theatre companies are that fortunate. And yet, a poorly-marketed 2-day show doesn’t really generate much attention of audience or sponsor either, hence the vicious cycle.

Supply side problems aside, I wonder why demand seems tepid. Until a few years ago I had a group of friends who’d race after office for an evening at the theatre, but the group has since dispersed. Even if you work in downtown Jakarta’s traffic has gotten so bad in recent years it’s hard to reach Taman Ismail Marzuki or Gedung Kesenian Jakarta by 7pm, let alone Salihara in the southern of Jakarta. Many of my married-with-kids pals have moved to the suburbs; a 3-hour show a la Teater Koma would get them home past midnight on weekdays, while commuting to Jakarta on weekends was so unappealing considering how Jakarta roads have consumed their time most of the week already. I notice some of them still catch a show when they travel overseas, so art isn’t the problem—logistic is. If traffic has indeed discouraged old-timers, it certainly wouldn’t encourage new audience.

Sad, indeed. Especially because I see more Indonesians watching musical or play in neighboring Singapore, or in Jakarta when a good foreign company makes a rare visit. I don’t know enough of the business more than my aforementioned musings, but I believe theatre should be featured more in the rat race that is Jakarta’s daily life nowadays to stop us from completely losing our humanity.

It took decades for Jakarta to finally have a respectable contemporary art museum such as Museum Macan, as I wrote last time. I wonder if to have a vibrant theatre-going city within a decade, even a fraction of Broadway level, would be too much to ask. Anyway, here’s a hopeful toast to see Teater Koma’s 300th production– I’ll tote my grandkids along.

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Jakarta Biennale and Museum Macan: A Soulful Treat or Two

Have you ever felt hopeless about the world? Lately, I often have. Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un are a few tweets away from nuking each other, the Middle East has a new 4-way conflict, while medieval foolishness make a return in right-leaning Indonesian society every other week.

Art is one of the places I take refuge in when the world gets too much. These days Jakartans and I are in luck, for Jakarta Biennale 2017 and the new Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (Museum Macan) were recently unfurled.

Hosted for the 2nd time at lofty warehouse compound Gudang Sarinah Ekosistem, the Biennale chose “soul” for its theme this year, opened accordingly with a soulful performance of the South Sulawesi’s Bissu community. The androgynous shaman bissu is 1 of 5 genders traditionally recognized in Bugis native group, living with all aspects of gender combined to form a whole regardless of sex he or she was born. Embracing their calling peacefully among Bugis folks for over a century, connecting to deities at ceremonies and acting as a pillar for harmony.

Donning colorful garbs and makeup, dancing and chanting in a trancelike state, poking themselves with sharp objects without getting harmed, the bissu troupe were indeed a sight to behold that afternoon. Everyone in the audience recorded the ritual, and yet as I stood holding my phone camera, I silently wondered if my future kids would get to see them live. The Bugis Muslims, one of the most devout Muslim clouts in Indonesia, has long welcome bissu into daily life including to perform pre-hajj blessing, yet as Indonesian Muslims keep leaning right and the Government seems to be clueless on how to manage it politically, I doubt if the gender-bending bissu would have a place in the society for long.

Some of the arts inside also offered a poignant look at our history and identity. I loved how Made Djirna used thousands of pebbles to create an imposing tribute for unsung heroes—heroes who might’ve formed the path we walk on and the wall that shield us. Heroes who, like Semsar Siahaan’s famed 1982 painting of embattled female laborers depict, are often overlooked and left to be imprisoned between menial jobs and mediocre existence.

I especially loved Ho Rui An’s monologue, which dissected the perils of hardscrabble indigenous workers during colonial ruling in Asia through the lack of visible sweat on Queen Elizabeth II and white actresses. It was long and meticulous, and yet so smartly sardonic and richly researched I cracked up laughing along the way. I learned a new word, punkawallah, and all its possible wretched meaning that day, and I swear I’ll squint for sweat traces the next time I watch a Hollywood blockbuster.

Sometimes moments don’t stem from the art pieces, but from the engagements about them. At this Biennale, I got it from a side chat with celebrated sculptor Dolorosa Sinaga. When I said that for someone who grew up dancing I absolutely appreciate the anatomical precision of her works, she launched to tell how the hard training from orthopedics and osteopaths at a certain art program in the UK during the 1980s, during which she was also made to observe dancers in training, earned her the advanced skills to start from a sheaf of papers in forming such lifelike metal sculptures. Just listening to an artist animatedly telling you how they perfect their craft can round up the overall senses in viewing the art, adding more appreciation without losing the illusion.

Museum Macan also offers contemporary art delights in a decidedly a more modern setting. Housed in a high-ceilinged, sun-basked, loft-like floor on a brand new building in Kebon Jeruk, the private museum is truly a breath of fresh air compared to the general state of our government-run museums nationwide. Offering vast choices of Indonesian and foreign masterpieces from different era, the collection is accompanied with foreword at every section, making it easy for anyone to learn and enjoy.

Raden Saleh is no longer a name on art books or faraway museums– it’s a name on the works immediately greeting visitors upon entrance. Brilliant strokes of Hendra Gunawan or Lee Man Fong, emotive abstracts of Srihadi Soedarsono and Mark Rothko, or self-portraits of some of our maestros, are all within sight and sense.

For those inclined to indulge their senses further, there are room-shaped installations from Entang Wiharso and Yayoi Kusama. If exhibited infinity boxes from Kusama taught you anything, it was the virtue of patience and the importance of comfortable shoes while standing in queue. Come early. Fans of pop-art would also be treated to works by Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and Andy Warhol.

I’m excited to think of the possibilities once the Museum develops their permanent and temporary exhibitions. As I sipped ginger tea from the museum beverage stand overlooking the highway connecting Jakarta to Tangerang, I couldn’t help reminiscing of the similar rainy afternoon I spent at wonderful foreign museums, wishing my hometown would have one. Now it does.

The Jakarta Biennale runs until December 3rd. Museum MACAN opens daily except for Mondays. Bring your scattered mind and tired soul, and let art make it right—at least for a moment or two.

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10th JFW: The Fight for Legacy and Relevance

Time does fly fast. This week Jakarta Fashion Week (JFW) turned ten. While a 10-year run is relatively young, considering New York Fashion Week was initiated in the 1940s while the region’s most notable fashion week in Tokyo has run for over a decade, the 10th mark still posts bigger questions, such as seed of legacy and sign of relevancy.

Looking from its structure, JFW already has in place a few wagons to carry the challenges; design competitions and the coaching program Indonesia Fashion Forward (IFF).

One of the design competitions ran during JFW, Lomba Perancang Mode (LPM) actually predates JFW all the way to 1979, and has consistently served as a good launch pad for aspiring fashion designers in Indonesia. Past winners include today’s established names such as Musa Widyatmodjo and Carmanita, with a couple of recent winners like Tex Saverio and Lulu Lutfi Labibi quickly became the darling of fashion devotees and the target of copycats.

Other design competitions ran under JFW umbrella such as Lomba Perancang Aksesoris (LPA) or CLEO Fashion Awards (rebilled now as New Fashion Force Awards) have given birth to new labels with almost cultish following like Rosalyn Citta, Danjyo Hiyoji and Byo. Some of the new talents caught through these competitions often found their way into IFF since its inception six years ago.

Established by Forum Mode Indonesia Foundation in collaboration with JFW, the British Council, the London-based Center for Fashion Enterprise and the Indonesian government (now represented by the Indonesian Board of Creative Economy), IFF aims to develop the capacity of fashion designers with necessary skill set and infrastructure in order to establish Indonesia as one of the world’s fashion capitals in 2025. When you think about it, this is essentially the legacy JFW wants to build.

Has the seed of legacy been growing progressively to come to fruition within the target timeframe? Quite a number of IFF inductees have gained accolades from international fashion industry and finding overseas markets—Toton’s winning of Woolmark Prize 2016/2017 womenswear for Asia and London Fenwick’s pop-up store for Indonesian designers came to mind—yet while we rightfully celebrate those milestones we must never lose sight of the building blocks needed to create a fashion capital.

Infrastructure. Standard. Just as Indonesia’s problems elsewhere, so is the case here. As I’ve repeatedly written, the problem is the gaps between artisans and designers, then between designers and the garment industry. Beyond creativity that meets preference, quality standard from inner seams to color finish is a must, especially for export— which Indonesian designers often struggle to meet. Most of our artisans or crafters work on varying degrees of quality and punctuality while the local garment companies with technical capacity that meets international standards, the ones manufacturing foreign labels since the 1980s, work on a much bigger economic of scale than the typical first export order. And yet, if the first order fails the requested quality, buyers won’t place repeat orders.

The vicious cycle can only be bypassed by government policies and incentives that raise the quality bar of our artisanal industry and push local qualified garment companies to tap into emerging Indonesian designers, a kind of multi-ministry teamwork with legal and decision-making powers beyond ceremonial duties. Now, can JFW as an organization sell the real business potential of fashion to the related ministries and make them work together to build the necessary industrial blocks? 2025 is only a short 8 years away.

Interestingly, a handful of IFF inductees—Michelle Tjokrosaputro of Bateeq, Anandia Harahap of IKYK, Rani Hatta— openly stated that going global isn’t as much of their top priority than meeting international standards upon entering any market. That’s awareness of business fundamentals, humility in acknowledging the current state, and savviness in serving domestic and foreign market equally.

If every designer showing at JFW demonstrates the aforementioned traits and JFW can bridge government and private sectors to build an end-to-end fashion industry, then that will answer both the legacy and relevancy questions. JFW will not only be the annual fab fete that insiders love to grace and public clamor to see, but a powerhouse that co-builds a productive industry.

Beyond that, relevancy is continuously challenged in the ever-shifting industry. Digitalization has disrupted how fashion is presented, promoted, accepted and acquired. Before journalists can craft a proper report, anyone with camera phone can cheer a collection or call out plagiarism. Before the crown jewel show Dewi Fashion Knights is unfurled, social media chatter can sway opinion on whether this year’s selected “knights” will pump enough fresh blood to warrant a watch.

And yet, in the midst of migration towards everything digital, enough designers including Gloria Agatha of Jii, this year’s JFW Entrepreneur Award winner, admit that bankable customers still seek shopping experience in physical outlets despite having sought information online. That the minds behind Brightspot Market and The Goods Dept. won for institution category of the 5-year Pia Alisjahbana Award* granted this year showed JFW is attuned to how customers are getting more urbane and leaning towards pop-up or concept stores.

A proclivity to navigate through these moving factors—creative, business, media—should be nurtured among the talents promoted through JFW. It’s a tall order, and perhaps was never asked of the Big Four fashion weeks decades ago, and yet this is the age Jakarta Fashion Week finds itself to be in.

For 2025 and beyond, fashion and business forward.

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Travel: For Fun, or for the 15-Second of Fame?

Earlier this year at Singapore’s Chinatown, a trio of teenaged, backpacking Indonesians walked past me, arguing. The girls blamed the guy for having rushed to book hotel online, since they now saw some hotels charging SGD 5 lower for walk-ins. The guy defended his call, saying he wouldn’t have risked not finding accommodation in a country they’d never been to.

Last month I bumped into twentysomething Indonesians in London’s quirky Brick Lane who giggly told me that the savings from their first year salary only afforded them hostel bunk-beds and McDonald’s meals—reserving their pretty penny for one lunch at Brick Lane’s famed fish-and-chips joint that was on many travel blogs. Relishing every bite of the precious fish, they cheerily showed me their Instagram posts at every London’s landmark and marveled at my pictures of the Lady Diana’s exhibition in Kensington Palace, which admission of GBP 19 they found too pricey.

When I was that young and cash-strapped, I never dared to hop on a plane to travel. I had to rely on my Balinese dancing prowess to be included in students’ visit programs, rare gifts from my parents or, when I started working, occasional training programs. I traveled around on a string budget during my years in the US, but I was already there and familiar with my ways around.

To be fair, until about 1.5 decade ago choices were quite limited—low-cost carriers were yet to emerge, and rooms were mostly secured with fees through travel agents who never seemed to book lower than three-star hotels. The recent digitalization of travel bookings has indeed widened and democratized options—purveyors post their prices, customers make choices accordingly.

I once read the report on Indonesian tourists by the US Commercial Service. The 2013-2014 stats on Southeast Asia ranked Indonesian tourists just behind the Philippines and Singapore in an uptick trend. Anyone who’s lined up outside the American Embassy would acknowledge that its visa process was the farthest from a walk in the park, yet the jump on Indonesian middle class along with its travel appetite was sufficient to boost tourism to the US. VISA’s Global Travel Intention Survey 2015, also cited on the report, showed a 33% increase on outbound leisure travel and 30% increase on median travel budget of Indonesian travelers in 2013-2015.

The industry has clearly seen the potentials. There are at least 10 travel fairs so far this year—airline, destination, or travel agent specific. Japan and China have relaxed tourism visa requirements for a few years now; New Zealand following suit this past month. I suppose Indonesia’s image is gradually departing from the exporter of domestic workers or potential jihadists to source of bankable tourists.

The domestic destinations are also enjoying the boom. Professional local operators like Kakaban Trip have enabled Indonesians to enjoy our far-flung corners that had mostly been accessible to foreigners who could afford private transportations in this infrastructure-challenged country. In reverse, there is a rising demand from newly-moneyed folks outside Java for proper tours of Jakarta.

I’m personally happy with this phenomenon, as I believe travel enriches one’s experiences and broadens one’s views, something the diverse world can benefit from. Yet many in the industry don’t think that the intention is as noble or inquisitive—bragging rights is more like it.

“For the bragging rights of being the first in their circle” is the insight voiced out by both co-founder of London-based bespoke travel firm Nota Bene Global about the super-rich in 2017 and overseer of the annual Portrait of American Travelers about the millennials in 2016. Across the demography spectrum bragging rights is prevalent, and I guess it’s not that different for Indonesian travelers. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why—the digitalization of social circle has made it very easy, almost tempting, to brag.

Certainly before social media people would brag about their travels– but only to their immediate circle with access to the rehashed tales, framed pictures and displayed souvenirs. Nowadays, with a social media account and right hashtag, one’s travel tale can be shared across the globe for the Warhol-would-be-scandalized fifteen seconds it takes to view, like and comment on a stranger’s post.

I wasn’t exactly immune to the trap. I rarely post my face on social media, yet the snap of me jumping on glacier was possibly as much about the view as showing my physical fitness, just as the posted video of a local boy bareback riding his horse at sunset might’ve been as much about the dreamlike moment as parading how far into Sumba’s deserted beaches we ventured.

So, okay, maybe the surge of travel is also about propping up status, a once luxury leisure enjoyed by the elite that is now democratized and made available for the masses. If so, the optimistic in me wonders, what is so wrong about that? Didn’t we always say that the masses needed enlightenment the most? Once they outgrow the bragging phase, wouldn’t more travel bring them more perspectives and wisdom, steering them further from petty arguments over religions and politics?

While you ponder if your sojourns are for fun or for the bragging rights, let me google which part of San Marino during springtime that get the most Instagram-friendly sunlight.

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