Mengurai Lipstik, Tas, Ponsel, dan Pasar

Bila Anda termasuk pengguna aktif Twitter di Indonesia, mungkin seminggu ini perhatian Anda banyak terpaku pada perselisihan tajam antara 2 (dua) akun tentang pembelian dan pembayaran kosmetika asing untuk dibisniskan. Di antara banyaknya komentar yang lumayan sexist seperti “Urusan emak-emak lah, twitwar dagangan lipstik” ada beberapa yang bisa melihat cukup luas dan berkomentar, “Nggak mengira bisnis impor kosmetik besar juga, ya.”

Besar atau kecil itu relatif. Tapi bahwa pasar tercipta dari permintaan (demand) dan pasokan (supply), itu mutlak. Situ cari, sini punya, kita dagang. Pasar tidak harus berbentuk fisik seperti grocery market dekat rumah atau pasar modal (capital market) layaknya Bursa Efek Indonesia—selama demand bertemu supply, market tercipta. Di era digital ini, walaupun masih dalam bentuk seadanya, mungkin karena dukungan infrastruktur dari Pemerintah juga masih lemah, pasar banyak yang berangsur pindah ke dunia maya. Secara hakikat pasar juga tidak perlu restu dari Yang Maha Esa, emaap, maksud saya dari Yang Maha Penguasa.

Artinya, hanya karena penguasa tidak mengijinkan sebuah produk atau jasa diperdagangkan secara bebas, bukan berarti pasarnya tidak akan tercipta dalam wilayah kekuasaan. Selama masih ada yang meminta dan yang bersedia memasok, pasar gelap (black market) akan tercipta. Malah cenderung lebih gegap-gempita, karena dipersulit aksesnya. Jumlah dan jadwal keberadaan pasokan tidak menentu, mendorong pembeli untuk membayar premium demi mendapatkan produk atau jasa tersebut. Premium ini, setelah dipotong biaya operasional, bukan saja menjadi laba operasional bagi penjual, tapi kemungkinan jadi laba bersih karena ketiadaan 1 (satu) elemen yang biasanya ada di pasar terbuka; pajak.

Jreeeeeng.

Sekarang, siapa yang berhak memungut pajak? Yang Maha Penguasa. Nah, dengan logika dan realita sederhana di atas, yang diajarkan ke mahasiswa Ekonomi dan Bisnis sejak tahun pertama, Anda tentunya jadi sadar betapa konyolnya penguasa yang terlalu rajin melarang atau mempersulit impor ini-itu, entah karena nasionalisme atau isme-isme lainnya yang begitu cetar membahana. Dikiranya itu akan mematikan pasar? Yang ada malah penguasa kehilangan pemasukan untuk membiayai pembangunan, paling tidak dari cukai impor dan pajak penjualan. Sedap.

Itu baru soal pajak. Belum lagi soal kepastian pelayanan purna-jual, perlindungan konsumen saat produk atau jasa bermasalah, penyelesaian sengketa bisnis antara mitra seperti Lippensaga yang sedang ramai di Twitter sekarang, dan sebagainya. Namanya juga pasar gelap, sulit mencari titik terang.

Di sini mungkin Anda akan menukas, seberapa sih bisnis kosmetika sampai keran impor harus diperlonggar. Sebelum repot menggali berbagai data besar, coba iseng susuri Instagram dan hitung secara kasar volume dan nilai perdagangan kosmetika yang terjadi dalam seminggu di platform itu saja (kita belum bicara WA group, arisan, dan forum lainnya lho, ya). Kenapa demand melonjak? Keinginan untuk mencoba sesuatu yang baru diimbangi meningkatnya kemampuan finansial. Kategori beauty, baik skincare maupun makeup, pesat berkembang sampai menciptakan pasar klinik medis kecantikan dan jasa makeup artist di luar kebutuhan panggung profesional.

Ini baru bicara kosmetika, belum berbagai impor lainnya, misalnya makanan ringan, elektronika dan luxury goods. Bila Anda sering menjelajahi garis terluar Indonesia, misalnya Tarakan (Kalimantan Utara) atau Sabang (Aceh Darussalam), dengan mudah akan mendapati berbagai packaged consumer goods yang “tembus” dari negeri jiran. Barang relatif murah yang kalau diizinkan masuk resmi juga belum tentu akan menjadi market leader yang, anu, membunuhi karya anak bangsa, tapi karena sulit didapat justru jadi oleh-oleh yang lebih diincar pelancong penasaran ketimbang, misalnya, cemilan setempat.

Elektronika, gawai dan luxury goods, lebih jauh lagi, sampai menciptakan pasar sekunder (tangan kedua) dan bursa barang tiruan yang sama riuhnya dengan pasar gelap primernya. Karena 6 (enam) bulan lalu iPhone 6s telah beredar di Singapura jangan tanya berapa impor individual secara resmi (beli via online shop asing) atau tidak (titip teman) yang telah terjadi karena demand tidak terpuaskan, dan bayangkan bila beberapa bulan lagi tetap belum masuk bisa mulai beredarlah di pasar sekunder iPhone 6s yang baru sebentar dipakai oleh pemiliknya. Saat barang baru dibatasi masuknya, barang lama akan makin didaur-ulang ke tangan kedua, ketiga, dan seterusnya. Umumnya, secara informal. Negara dapat apa? Dapat gengsi mengekang dan sekilas cerita, nyaris tidak kuasa memungut pajak.

Luxury goods, “barang branded” istilah populernya di Indonesia, kurang-lebih sama. Berapa beda harganya sih kalau berburu ke luarnegeri, seseorang pernah bertanya. Selisih harga dan pengembalian pajak penjualan (GST) memang menarik, tapi keberagaman pilihan mulai jadi alasan yang lebih menggiurkan. Model dan warna luxury goods yang masuk resmi ke Indonesia sering terbatas karena sulitnya perizinan resmi, membuka pintu lebar-lebar ke wirausaha perseorangan yang, entah bagaimana, bisa mendapatkan benda-benda ini. Bila para drug mule (kurir narkoba) sering mengaku dijebak, para handbag mule atau shopper ini melakukan dengan sadar dan penuh perhitungan komisi jasa. Dilaporkankah komisi jasa ini ke dalam SPT Pribadi, kita tidak tahu. Kehilangankah Negara akan potensi pendapatan pajak penjualan, sekarang Anda tahu.

Dan itu baru pasar gelapnya untuk barang baru, belum bicara pasar sekundernya yang sering dianggap santai sebagai bazaar lucu-lucuan barang bekas bermerek diantara ibu rumahtangga, tapi akhir-akhir ini telah berkembang sedemikian pesat sampai bisa menyewa aula di mall mewah metropolitan dan memperjualbelikan tas, sepatu, dan jam tangan berharga puluhan juta rupiah.

Situ cari, sini punya, kita dagang.

Apakah saya sinis terhadap kewirausahaan yang tercipta secara organik diantara celah-celah ini? Oh, tidak. Saya menghargai kegesitan menyikapi peluang. Apakah saya menganggap Yang Maha Penguasa banyak kehilangan potensi pendapatan dan kesempatan untuk justru melecut karya anak bangsa agar lebih kompetitif dalam persaingan bebas? Nah, setelah 800+ kata di atas, menurut Anda sendiri bagaimana?

La, la, la.

Posted in Beauty Bee, Econ & Biz, Fashion, Virtual World | 1 Comment

Springing Art, With Featherlike Flicks

You know people who always know how to fill their days with a hobby or two? I do. Mom and my old friend Marika. Yet, while Mom has been unwaveringly into reading and gardening, Marika moves from a hobby to another every few years. Her latest leisure pursuit? Makeup artistry.

Ironically, none of us is a makeup junkie in our daily lives although I am, perhaps, a tad bit more familiar with makeup art, at least at the receiving end, due to my stage dancing in the past and TV appearances in more recent time. I sat on the makeup chair often enough to understand that good makeup is not about painting your face with colors following a rigid template. A good makeup is to accentuate your assets while ‘correcting’ your less than desirable features, should you have any. Every face is different, hence the need to artfully assess the face and decide what to apply, to leave as is, and to put the spotlight on. And with the plethora of choices out there it’s like an endless adventure every time we play around with makeup– which was why, when Marika asked if I wanted to help sitting as a practice model, I immediately said yes.

Then in my two days as a practice model, where I got to watch and listen as Marika slowly in taking her lessons, I ended up learning that it was much more of art than I’d already figured out.

First and foremost, before anything else, is the art of making your face a fresh, even-toned canvas, by laying the correct foundation. And that’s the trickiest part for skin tone varies greatly between one person to another even within same race, and one person’s complexion can vary from one day to another. It actually happened, as on the 2nd lesson I arrived with some reddish spots from a treatment for melasma the day before, and poor Marika had to ‘tame’ the redness and relearn the correct foundation mix from a dozen of pots and bottles in her standard kit.

And that’s the thing that struck me most. Beyond dozens of foundation jars and eyeshadow pots that make a fabulous Instagram picture, a standard makeup artist kit, at least what Marika’s instructor mandates his students to carry, stores things that are supposed to work exactly when things go awry. I was introduced to a crealine-based cleanser/toner that, used after your usual cleansing regime, lifts leftover traces of dirt and shrinks the pores. I discovered an unassuming tube of creamy moisturizer that gives extra moist sans oil that makes foundation blends better in your skin. I learned of different face sprays that calm down irritation before anything else can be applied, or set in the makeup after everything else has been applied. When and how much to apply, again, depends on the face of the minute and as such, another expertly artistic judgment.

The other pivotal act of art, if you will, is in the application. Whether it is brushing, patting, tapping, filling, shaping, spraying—the hands have to be as light as a feather, yet as steady as a rock. The key is, as the dancer in me closely eyeing the instructor’s movements, is in the wrist. The more agile one’s wrist flicks, the better one touches as a makeup artist. And that agility, as any dancer astutely understands, comes from constant practices more than physical genetics (Marika’s instructor, one of Jakarta’s renowned makeup artists, is a stocky and tattooed man, mind you).

Crafting art comes from a free heart, and the instructor helped setting the mood by playing great ‘70s music throughout the lesson, yet he interestingly also taught Marika the discipline to work from one side, so she’ll be flexible in any confined space when working as a professional makeup artist later. I doubt Marika will ever leave her cushioned, high-paying, finance career in the multinational company she’s in now, but it’s good to see a makeup art instructor preparing his students to be mindful of the personal space of colleagues and clients—a notion that is still foreign to many Indonesians who often equate the need for personal space with aloofness.

Agility. Freedom. Flexibility. The featherlike flick of wrist and the steely mindful discipline. Like the bouncy spring of summer trampoline.

What started out as a fun distraction to me ended up a rich learning session. Aside from learning how a good watercolor paint brush sometimes works better than a fancy makeup brush, I now know that my undertone is actually almost pink salmon, my small upper lip curves with such definition it shapes like Mount Fuji, and that if stroked strongly with wrong palette my upper facial bone structure may end up looking just a notch below Maleficient. I went home and started rummaging through my makeup box, throwing out what doesn’t work and vowing to make more efforts looking presentable, at least having optimally blended moisturizer-foundation on, the next time I leave the house.

In the meantime, as I tap-tapping my laptop writing this column, I take small breaks in between to flick my far-from-featherlike wrists around.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/04/16/urban-chat-springing-art-with-featherlike-flicks.html

Posted in Beauty Bee, UrbanChat | Leave a comment

Digital This, Auto That… Reality What?

(ring) H… hello?

Is this dotstoredotcom?

Yes.

I wanted to buy bandannas on your website but the system kept failing.

Whatsapp message me, then. I’ll get back to you tonight.

Tonight? You’re available now.

(tentatively) Actually, umm… I’m working. In an office.

But this cellphone number is listed on your website as Customer Helpline.

(whispering now) Y-… yes. Just message me your order. Promise I’ll respond tonight.

That was a conversation I had with a decent-sized online shop recently. To be fair, I did get a reply that night and, after transferring money to the personal bank account of the guy I spoke to, the bandannas arrived in the mail. When I regaled the tale to friends who’ve done much online shopping in Indonesia, most said that’s quite the reality—despite the fancy website or social media presence, many online shops here are one-(wo)man-shows with the owner clocking time as someone’s employee somewhere else.

Major points for entrepreneurial spirit aside, it got me thinking, with all the high talk about digital economy around, is the real face of Indonesia’s e-commerce rudimentary at best?

As far back as 1999 I was already a loyal online customer of Amazon, Victoria’s Secret and Nordstorm. Barely catching sleep as a graduate student in the US then, online shops became handy. My initial worry about using credit cards online was soon dissipated after witnessing the stores’ professionalism in processing orders, tracking deliveries, and handling complaints. After started working I even ventured out to buy vintage fashion items online. Minimum fuss, maximum result.

Fast forward 17 years, I don’t feel secure about any online transaction in Indonesia, including via credit cards. Plus, just too many hassles– the need to transfer to personal bank accounts, sellers not holding responsibility for order arrivals, domestic courier services rarely having online tracking system. Lack of infrastructures, mediocre services. Result? Low trust.

It’s worse that it feels pointless to hope our dear Government will soon provide the private sector with adequate technology infrastructures and policies to ensure securities, without curtailing businesses, since the Government itself seems unprepared in setting and maintaining their own technology-based public services.

Take the Immigration Office’s auto-gates unveiled at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in the last year of Yudhoyono’s presidency. That much-lauded initiative was swiftly embraced by many frequent travelers, including yours truly. Yet in recent months the auto-gates were often not working in full, or at all, as I experienced last week. Just because we changed Minister and President, does that mean progress would be pushed back because it wasn’t this administration’s “baby”? How partisan. Taxpayers are entitled to continuous availability and advancement of public services, regardless of who’s in charge.

Speaking about tax, let’s look at this administration’s own baby, the e-filing. While it undoubtedly will reduce snaking lines at Tax Office’s branches nationwide in March, the system cannot cater to people like me whose small income trickles in from many sources of different types– consulting office, media, SME venture—just to name a few. My tax reports typically have over 20 attachments, which the e-filing system can’t seem to handle.

So I still went one morning to my assigned Tax Office to file hardcopies. As I was waiting for my queue number 400+, the queue app Antrila was brought to my attention. Rejoice however was short-lived as the app was only available in Android. What Indonesia Tax Office has against us iOS users, I have no idea.

Guess who finally came to my rescue? The private sector. In the form of virtual assistant service YessBossNow. As if understanding that reliable Internet connection isn’t given, the service works on the low-tech format SMS (short message service) that many urbanites have deserted for Net-based chat apps. Yes, I had to pay for the SMS to instruct my virtual assistant Clara to download the app and get a new queue number—but it was worth it, as in 10 minutes flat she managed to retrieve queue number 14 for a special desk and text it to me.

A very smart man who had served in our Cabinet, during which I worked for him, once said to his deputies that “The Government can hardly keep up with tech innovations, so we shouldn’t worsen it by issuing policies that discourage them.” That’s humbleness and the very heart of reform, don’t you think? And if you recall the 2014 campaign trail, weren’t reforms the forefront promise? Yet 18 months on, I’m only seeing one disconnect and discontinue after another on our Government side, one too many for private sector to hope any. And don’t get me started on the Government’s bewilderment in dealing with app-based sharing economy like Uber or its obtuse decisions to block Tumblr and keep unblocking Vimeo, used by many creative heads to promote their works, while Mr President went touting digital economy plans at Silicon Valley.

Dear digital-based private sector and customers-taxpayers, the help is far from coming. Depressing, as starting this month common Singaporeans can simply relay from cellphones to pay for mass transportation fares. Think I should text Clara to get me the sugary banana syrup from Gowa. Somehow I have more faith in her procuring that obscure mood-buster than, say, us getting nationwide 4G by 2019.

I gotta lie down, peeps.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/04/02/urban-chat-digital-auto-reality-what.html

Posted in Life Bites, UrbanChat, Virtual World | Leave a comment

Indonesia Fashion Week: Serving Up A Platter

Indonesia Fashion Week kicked off its annual event last week in Jakarta. Organized by one of Indonesia’s associations for fashion and business folks, APPMI, it came on the heels of internal dispute that had seen several senior designers, once at the helm of APPMI, departing to eventually form another association. There are pending lawsuits on both sides. No wonder industry enthusiasts including yours truly intently watched the event, to see what the changing of the guard might’ve brought.

At a glance, it was shorter in days and rather smaller in scope. As for the format, the 5th Indonesia Fashion Week hasn’t veered off its usual course; a platter of fashion business.

I’ve written here before that the classic definition of a fashion week, such as the Main Four (New York, London, Milan, Paris) and other major fashion weeks worldwide, is an event to project future trends, hence why the fashion weeks in March are for Fall-Winter seasons and the November ones are for Spring-Summer of the following year. Invitations are extended mainly to media, head buyers of major retailers, and, sometimes, a slew of celebrities.

No trading takes place in a fashion week—a trade event may be organized alongside or afterwards, in which attendees are strictly buyers from various types of retail establishments to view the collections closely and negotiate business. Once the orders delivered a few months later, retailers may throw a trunk show of these readily available clothing to lure public, who meanwhile have read the runway reports on media, to make retail purchases.

Indonesia Fashion Week, positioning itself as a trade event, has always tried to do all of the above. There were some trend-projecting shows, there were shows of already available collections, and there was a good-sized bazaar of clothing which had little to do with the designers on show. A very few of the bazaar participants, like the Japan Muslim Fashion Association or the Mode IKJ, to their credit, came prepared to meet buyers with samples and price schemes, yet the only commercial activity I noticed throughout was cash-and-carry retail.

Perhaps this is where Indonesia fashion world is still at. There’s a disconnection between fashion designers and garment industry on production level, and another between fashion designers and clothing retailers on commercial level. Except for a handful of designers who have successfully pushed their designs into retailers or worked behind certain clothing labels, many still work from ateliers to cater to, however profitable, private clients. Business viable, yes; shaping into a full-blown fashion house the likes of Prada, no.

Hence why I salute any effort to bridge these yawning gaps. The Executive, a ready-to-wear label mostly known for office staples, for the 3rd time collaborating with a fashion designer for a capsule collection. I think it’s a clever move– not just to bring designers closer to the garment industry, but also to serve a sizable demand in the market. Most of Indonesia’s growing, middle class, workforce doesn’t work for creative industry—they want chic wardrobe that still adheres to corporate norms. Ardistia New York offers such line, but its price point may not be for many. The Executive’s capsule collection with ISIS Jakarta last year brilliantly answered those challenges, and this year, working with modestwear designer Hannie Hananto, who sent poised ensembles in black and cerulean blue down the runway, may just simultaneously answer another challenge—a corporate look for hijab-wearing execs. The past capsule collections must’ve been quite profitable that its sister label, Et Cetera, is now collaborating with Jenahara. I hope more of Indonesian clothing labels will follow suit soon.

Kudos is also reserved for the attempt to further incorporate heritage handwoven textile tenun into modern ready-to-wear, expanding far beyond the shrinking segment of stuffy ceremonial costume. All the way from the western corner of southeast Maluku, Tanimbar Islands’ bright tenun graced the main runway and praises belong to Danjyo Hiyoji, Pingtong (by Gugus) and the energetic talents behind Acakacak, a label set up by LPTB Susan Budihardjo for their alumni, for designing them into refreshing urban collections.

Last but absolutely not least, on designing for urban living, Patrick Owen and Mel Ahyar captured my utmost attention. Inspired by Jakarta’s monuments, Patrick Owen’s menswear retained a strong element of design without slipping into an indulgent froufrou that regular Joes would shy from wearing. Mel Ahyar juxtaposed her musing over the West Java’s Kawah Putih crater into a series of flyaway outerwear and bottoms that let her renowned prints came alive in delightful composition and refined execution.

So there it was– the platter of fashion business. As in the case of sampling from a platter, hits and misses are inevitable, and you always end up feeling there should be more. The new guard this year has exercised better selection for the retail participants, here’s hoping that next year they’ll bring meatier fashion designs. Come on, Indonesia Fashion Week, enchant us more.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/03/19/urban-chat-indonesia-fashion-week-serving-a-platter.html

Posted in Econ & Biz, Fashion, Marketing & Branding, UrbanChat | Leave a comment

In Madge We Forever Trust

It was all a series of coincidence. I rarely check social media while traveling, but I happened to log into Twitter while on road in October to find people talking about the concert. The concert trip happened to be organized by someone I know. Someone happened to cancel reservations. Before I left for my November trip I’d already pocketed the much-coveted pass to Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour in Bangkok on February, albeit with much concern.

Since my first visit as a teen, followed subsequently as adult, Bangkok and I never agreed with one another. Each visit ended up with a hospital episode. I’ve since shied away from business meetings, even holidays to Krabi or Chiangmai, because it involved passing through Bangkok.

But it was Madonna. The first female artist whose album I bought as a little girl, whose earlier songs I knew by heart before I had boys in my heart. The ultimate performer, the trailblazer for the likes of Aguilera, Beyonce and Gaga. The idol that went by one name before artists did it en masse. The one and only Madonna.

So, with quite trepidation, and a bagful of medications, I flew the redeye after the Chinese New Year. It happened to be Mardi Gras, the crazy Tuesday before Lent, so I figured if I could survive Mardi Gras in the Year of Fire Monkey, I’d survive Bangkok long enough for Madonna.

I survived Bangkok. Yet I almost didn’t survive Madonna.

My concert pass was for the 2nd day. As it was technically Ash Wednesday, I wore black lace, a heart-shaped ring in red leopard print, and a cross necklace. I knew I wouldn’t win any best dressed award, for typical Madonna fans are daring clotheshorses like the idol herself, but the visual attacks as we arrived at IMPACT Stadium warranted a mild stroke or two. Madonna diehards juxtaposed with Thailand ladyboys, a legend on their own, was explosive.

Racy lace was de rigueur, full-sized devil horns were proudly strutted around, fishnets and bold lips rivaled RuPaul circa 1990s, neon-colored wigs bounced about and, as I walked to my seat, the iconic cone-shaped bustier flew past by. Long lines were formed in front of photo-op backdrops, where soon we forgot to pose ourselves, too busy snapping pictures of the ladyboys– posing in all their flamboyant glory.

And it all still went pale in comparison to what Madonna had in store inside.

The stage itself was a giant crucifix, similar to the choker I wore. The first prop we saw was a row of cross-shaped sticks, used by dancers as anything from swinging batons to leaning poles. Just as I lost track of crosses appearing left and right, pole dancers, I mean aerialists, started scaling up and slithering down poles wearing what could only be described as a slutty version of nuns’ habit, taking breaks in between to receive obligatory spanks from the Lady Madonna. A scene akin to Mass procession took place next, floor-length canonical robe included, and just before audience could blink twice, the piece de resistance unfurled before them; The Last Supper.

A full-frontal, unapologetic assault on every major Catholic symbol, on the first half hour of the concert alone. Did I mention that it was also the start of the sacred Lent? That Madonna criticizes the Catholic Church is no news, for she’s done that long before priests’ child-abuse cases and Dan Brown novels made it trendy to do so, but that she’s still openly rebelling against the Church thirty years down the line took me a bit by surprise. I’d watched some of her concert videos, yet what she’s doing in Rebel Heart Tour takes the word “rebel” to a whole new level that should include a sympathy hug for Vatican. Singapore authority announced that her February 28th concert would be ‘curated’; a progress considering she was banned there altogether  in 1993. Bishops in Singapore and Philippines have both openly condemned her concerts and called for their flocks to stay away. I’m so grateful I caught Madonna in the more permissive Bangkok.

As for the rest of the 2-hour show, Madonna showed why she earned Billboard’s title of the top touring female artist of all time and Guinness World Record of the best-selling female recording artist of all time. The elevated, LED-equipped stage was an act on its own. The costumes were sensational without being reduced to wacky. No need for an army of dancers for the handful she brought was first-class, Cirque-du-Soleil-level of troupe.

The 57-year-old artist herself performed complicated choreographies throughout with dancers half her age, proving that lifelong discipline of exercise and diet does pay off in the form of long breath, strong core, steady arms, and agile legs that swayed, squatted, and swiveled constantly in 9-cm heels. Forget that stage slip last year, Madonna remains fitter than most 37-year-olds in the industry. Even if this would be her last world tour, and God forbid she should learn we’re discussing her possible retirement, she’d go with a bang.        

And for that world-class badass performance, for all the songs that marked my growing pains, for the constant reinventions that most artists can only dream about, and for the rebellious pang that lingers even after all is said and done, I’m forever your bitch, Madonna. In Madge we forever trust.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/02/27/urban-chat-in-madge-we-forever-trust.html

Posted in Art & Culture, Glitteratti, Religion, UrbanChat | Leave a comment

The Inglorious, Glossed-Over, Side of Love Sagas

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships / and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?”

When people talk about the Trojan War, a huge horse filled with enemies often isn’t the only topic on the table. Helen, the wife of Menelaus, the king of Mycenaean Sparta, who was seduced by Paris, the prince of Troy, makes for the other hot dish. If Helen hadn’t been that gorgeous—people would reason– Paris wouldn’t have been so besotted to steal her away, and Menelaus wouldn’t have stormed in. Great poets like Homer have waxed lyrically on her legendary beauty since the time of Ancient Greece, yet it was English poet Christopher Marlowe’s words above in Doctor Faustus play (1604) that have mostly been referenced around, most recently in a 2004 Hollywood blockbuster.

Hollywood being Hollywood, not only they cherry-picked the first part of Marlowe’s line for the movie poster, they fixated on a lovey-dovey story that ended with Helen and Paris bounded stronger. Glossed over were the numerous catastrophes that befit the tale’s true genre of Greek tragedies; the lost peace for innocent Trojan folks, the senseless deaths of fine soldiers on both sides including that of the much better Trojan prince, Hector, or the laconic laceration of Achilles’ precious heel.

Ancient Greek poets themselves had different takes on whether true love was there. Some wrote about Paris’ demise and Helen harboring wishes to return to Menelaus. But even if Helen hadn’t been kidnapped against her will, I think it’s definitely not a kind of love stories to be heralded, what with so many collateral damages to make way for such a feeble prince lusting over another man’s wife.

Ah yes, sure, there’s only so much you can debate upon a mythology. You want a real love story?

In my last column I wrote about my India trip. What is imprinted on our collective mind is the breathtaking mausoleum that Shah Jahan built for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died after giving birth to their 14th child. The queen, whose beauty “even made the Moon hide in shame” as a Mughal poet praised, requested in her deathbed for a monument that would be unrivaled in splendor and grandeur. Hence for 22 years since, which 12 years alone spent on the main structures, Shah Jahan strived for such perfection.

And perfection he achieved. We marveled at the grand idea, the geometry precision, and the meticulous details. But what is rarely discussed is how Shah Jahan managed to accomplish the almost insurmountable task.

For starters, there were over 20,000 laborers and crafters who toiled on the stone inlay technique pietra dura Shah Jahan had borrowed from the Italian Renaissance, whose names and working conditions are never made clear to this day. The only record showed that to feed them, as National Geographic’s documentary The Secrets of Taj Mahal revealed, Shah Jahan rerouted crops intended for other regions, thus creating hunger elsewhere.

Shah Jahan also got so infested in the mega-project and drained the state’s coffers along the way that at one point his children decided better they to rule than the absentee ruler they father had become. The musical Mohabbat in Agra tried to be delicate in portraying the coup, but Mughal chronicles clearly stated how Shah Jahan spent his last years in house arrest on Agra Fort, at a marble boudoir where he spent his evenings listening to valets reading him accounts of his past glory, and his days gazing out of the framed window into his beloved’s grand tomb afar—his legacy, as well as his downfall.

Rabindranath Tagore once quoted Taj Mahal as “The teardrop on the cheek of time”. Less poetry and more poignant would be “The teardrop on the cheek of every neglected and sacrificed Mughal subject in those 22 years”, if you asked me.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been madly in love, and I’m hopelessly romantic enough to enjoy great love stories at times. But it’s hard to keep wearing rose-tinted glasses when the glossed over minutiae, mostly of the minions, are quite visible when you peer through just a wee bit closer.

All is fair in love and war, many would argue, perhaps only half-jokingly. In the case of the innocent people of the mythical Troy, one man’s love meant war. In the case of the innocent people of the real Mughal Empire, one man’s love cost them a ruler who’d been so wise and just. Given such circumstances, fairness is the farthest on my mind, however grand the love was.

Now, shall we take a walk down our own romantic lane? Between those butterfly-in-the-stomach episodes, in the heat of those moments, or in the name of true love, have we forsaken innocent hearts, too? A loving parent, a concerned sibling, a faithful friend, an unfortunate bystander? The budding wisdom in me quietly concedes that we must, somehow, have. However inadvertently, however slightly, however privately. We must have, even if our love story never got to warrant the launch of a thousand ships.

As dig deeper into your entangled web of love, I wish you love and a little more light. You’re gonna need it.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/02/13/urban-chat-the-inglorious-glossed-over-side-love-sagas.html

Posted in History, Love & Romance, UrbanChat | Leave a comment

The Deep and Shallow End of the Fountain of Youth

It started with a swirling rumor and persistent text messages. Yep, juicy stuff coming up, people.

Some time ago former colleagues started dishing that a certain former boss had gradually, yet not so subtly, changed her appearance. Leaner, firmer, with a generous dash of youthful glimmer. Taking multiple leaves of absence, she eventually emerged looking not only younger by a few years, but by a whole couple of decades. In a mixed tone of shock and awe, the rumor mill spewed out speculation that, beyond rigorous exercises and diets, innovations from Korea were in play.

The messages, however, originated closer to home. A dermatology clinic at a fancy Singapore address has been sending me promotional texts on aesthetic procedures. I ignored them first and reasoned that active cellular GPS during my frequent Singapore trips must’ve been how they picked up my number—otherwise it would’ve felt somewhat insulting, like suggesting I had to have work done.

Then one day I decided to depart from gossips to gist. I launched a semi-scientific exploration that included dermatologists’ appointments, informal patient interviews and, as turned out to be quite insightful, chats with nurses and receptionists. Rather fittingly, my findings could be summed up to a mantra-like tagline; younger, faster, shorter, and wider.

Younger– the clientele. Mature ladies make steady business, yet twentysomethings are now also coming for mild needs (adult acne, sunburn) and many wants (eyelid crease enhancement and breast augmentation, just to name a couple).

Faster– the procedures. While full facelift or liposuction still need hours under general anesthesia, patients favor the less-invasive methods mostly developed in Korea; less than an hour under local anesthesia. “Lunchtime mini-lipo/lift” is the lingo that covers many services from eyebag removal to neck tightening and underarm slimming.

Shorter– the downtime. Urbanites no longer deign to disappear for a weeklong “spa retreat”. Now clients want scarless bruises that heal before Friday’s cocktail party. The aforementioned Korean techniques conveniently offer such ease.

Wider– the reach. Women no longer dominate. Men, and by no means limited to gays or metrosexuals, sign up for hair implants, chin tuck and, to put it descriptively, ‘manboob’ removal.

Many have long decried modern people’s vanity pursuits. Media-driven lifestyle, including social media presence, is tagged as the ultimate exacerbation of such shallowness. As active senior citizens now are on Facebook and chat apps, everyone’s feeling the pressure for not only doing cool things, but also looking their best doing those things. Everyone sucks their tummy or reapplies makeup before picture-taking, and scrutinizes the snaps after for the ‘sharing-worthy’ one.

I think the desire to look our best has formed since cave-dwellers finally made sense of the reflections on water staring back at them. The regimens have since run from basic grooming to fountain-of-youth-level preservation, like those peculiar potions Cleopatra reportedly religiously subscribed to. Seriously, which one of us who hasn’t been handed a jar of “trusted” concoction from our grandparents that promised to make our hair bouncier, or our teeth shinier? Vanity is no monopoly of modernity.

What the recent era contributed was a shift from looking the best that we can to looking better than we should. Forget looking good for your age, now you need to look like your younger self. The 46-year-old JLo has achieved that—looking better than her 30-year-old self, or any thirtysomething for that matter. But, strangely, while people seem to have developed the expectations, and applauded celebrities for accomplishing such feats, when a real fortysomething Jenny-from-the-block openly goes under the needle/knife, judgments rain down like February sky. I wonder why.

Our longer life expectancy is already turning “40 is the new 30” catchphrase into “40 is the new 20” lifestyle. Add the elevated pressure to be as fit and presentable as ever. Yet we refuse to accept that at this rate Spartan exercise and diet just wouldn’t suffice in the long run. Many opine that since celebs live off public life they’re pardoned for seeking professional help to remain preternaturally preserved, while commoners, who ironically aren’t born with great genes most celebs are bestowed upon, should strive to age gracefully in increasingly media-obsessed life. So strange the contradictory circumstances we set upon ourselves that is unclear where to tell depth from shallowness.

Can it go too far? Renee Zellweger made the latest poster girl for frivolity borderlining on psychological problems, and I’m sure she wouldn’t be the last. Yet tiptoeing on the ever-thinning self-restraint line is the price we all must pay for inducting selfie and please-like-my-picture buttons into our self-awareness realm. From where I’m standing, those who by far manage to tread the line, like JLo and my ex-boss, deserve equal nods.

None of the clinics I talked to released a definite number, yet from their qualitative remarks I could surmise that business is growing like collagen on 15-year-old skin. Old-moneyed Indonesians are longstanding clients, now new-moneyed Chinese, toting cash-filled satchels, fly to Singapore for tummy tucks and nose jobs. The same can be deduced for similar practices in Jakarta. I’m on the long-haul treatment for melasma (severe hyperpigmentation from years of unprotected sun exposure) and lately it’s hard to make my 45-minute procedure as my dermatologist is overbooked by patients scrambling for Korea’s latest; the V-shape, thread lift.

Nipped and tucked, in denial or not, into the deep and shallow of the fountain of youth we all dive.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/01/30/urban-chat-the-deep-and-shallow-ends-of-the-fountain-of-youth.html

Posted in Beauty Bee, Glitteratti, Society, UrbanChat | Leave a comment

Incredible India, Indeed

Last year I spent Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day confined to hospital bed due to nasty dengue fever, caught from a pre-sunrise hike near Borobudur Temple. The funny thing is, while lying in pain all I could think about was traveling again. During my corporate years I traveled frequently, and I sorely missed it.

Not long after being discharged I boarded a train to Pekalongan for a hotel opening, and every month since I’ve wandered about. Some for work, most for pleasure. Many first-times, too. Like to India, where I spent Christmas and rang 2016 in.

First off, while everyone says they’re dying to see Taj Mahal, not many are keen to actually visit India. Safety, hygiene and personal comfort are the top three excuses. A friend earnestly asked if it was feasible to stay in some airport hotel, pop in to Taj, and fly out the same day. I earnestly answered that this wasn’t some Taj in Vegas, this was the real Taj in Agra.

But, as luck would have it, I eventually found an eager travel mate. For safety reasons we booked a private tour, busting our piggybanks in the process. A local driver, a local guide, and two giggly Indonesian girls then set off on a 10-day road trip that started in Old Delhi and spanned into Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

India was every bit we’d braced ourselves to be, and some more. I’m very visual, so what I noticed as soon as landing on Indira Gandhi International Airport was colors. On saree women wore underneath sweater, on turbans donned proudly by men, even on the toilets’ walls. Outside the airport colors were soon rivaled fervently by horns—blared unapologetically by every running vehicle past decent dinner time at the volume and frequency that would make brash New York cabbies blush.

Yet, beyond the welcomed bursting colors and unwelcomed blaring horns, laid a country so rich in diverse heritage. The first two stops on the so-called Golden Triangle tourism of India, Delhi and Agra, are filled with gorgeous structures of red sandstone and white marble displaying Islamic architecture’s love for symmetry and geometry. Yep, a surprise for many tourists; India is not all about ohms and Hindu deities.

The Delhi Sultanate, whose towering Qutb Minar compound stands to this day as one of Delhi’s most-visited spots, ruled India for 320 years before being replaced in 1526 by yet another Islamic monarch, the Mughal dynasty, for 330 years.

The Mughals built grander structures and swathed semi-precious stone inlays across building facades. Shah Jahan’s love tribute Taj Mahal is the renowned jewel on the architectural crown, where I arrived in saree to properly pay my homage that morning, but later I came to adore more the walled city Fatehpur Sikri where Shah Jahan’s grandfather, Akbar I, respectfully mixed Islamic symmetry with Hindu altars to honor wife Jodha Bai who remained Hindu. The state of Uttar Pradesh, where Agra is, is still home to many Indian Muslims today.

The pink city Jaipur, which closes the Golden Triangle, is where the Rajput dynasty started wowing us with the elaborate, mostly hilltop, edifices. Being Hindu, engraved altars and adorned effigies were abundant. As touristy as it was to ride an elephant up to Amber Fort, it was a fitting prep to take in the grandness of the vast complex later. My friend and I were touring the third floor when a young guard shyly motioned us to the quiet rooftop, allowing us to have an unfettered bird’s eye-view of the walled city.

As we traipsed further down in Rajasthan state into Chittorgarh and Udaipur, the weather got slightly warmer and ‘namaste’ was greeted more often. We were the only foreigners that day on the Rajput’s early capital Chittorgarh Fort, so our experience also got, let’s say, more colorful.

The Rajput’s last capital, the city of manmade lakes Udaipur, was where all the colors seemed to rightly enmesh for me. The architectures were laid out more gracefully, the traffic flowed more easily, and the sellers peddled their wares less forcefully. There’s something rather languid about the city that was subtly enchanting. The Rajputs reportedly took four centuries to gradually embellish their hilltop, multi-story, marble, palace to perfection, and the resulting splendor was visible even as I was squeezed by the throng of visitors inundating its low-ceilinged, spiraled, almost hazardous passages that day.

Beauty, yes. Chaos and noise, granted. Poverty, everywhere. From the outright slums on the way to tourist destinations, including to our hilltop heritage hotel that had been an Udaipur royal retreat, to the random man lying motionless with limbs jutting out onto the busy street off Agra Fort, unclear whether dead or alive. Indian friends, rightfully, muttered I was lucky to have visited in wintertime and escaped funny scents of summer. Yet India is a dustily gilded mélange I personally would love to revisit—the supposedly breathtaking Kashmir is on the list—though I now fathom why it may be an acquired taste to many.

Paradox, aplenty. Incredible, in many different senses, India indeed.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/01/16/urban-chat-incredible-india-indeed.html

Posted in Art & Culture, Life Bites, Travel & Tourism, UrbanChat | Leave a comment

Year 2015: Under the Ever-Engulfing Virtual Spotlight

Has it really been another year? That’s pretty scary, my dear.

It’s even scarier when your ups and downs throughout the year are played out under the spotlight. And in these days of 24/7 news cycle on digital media, reverberated enthusiastically by social media, that’s an ever-engulfing virtual spotlight alright.

Now what if, instead of celebrities’ follies being recycled by the vicious Netizens, the first salvo into the gossip foray was actually fired by the celebrities themselves through their social media handles? Then holy hell would perpetually break loose like short-circuited firework machine on New Year’s Eve. Scary? Merry, baby.

The merriness certainly comes in varying degrees, depending on the magnitude of the salvo itself. Chico Hakim, former husband of actress-turned-politician Wanda Hamidah, got infotainment shows spinning after posting on Instagram a backside shot of him holding hands with singer Yuni Shara. Both are recently single again, so there was no scandal per se, and the only big thing that gossip shows were fixated on was the fact that the new couple had coupled before with another man and woman who, at some point, were a couple themselves. If Hollywood has “6 Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon”, perhaps Indonesia should have “6 Degrees of Separation from Yuni Shara”—and I do mean it in a nice way (We’re still friends, yes, Chico? Best of luck for the new romance!).

Yet, when a salacious scandal is the major potion in the mix, all kinds of demon would come out of the woodwork to play. Take the affair between Riana Rara Kalsum with Zulfikar Rakita Dewa that Riana announced unapologetically, almost gleefully, through her blog that she launched about the same time she filed complaints to the military.

The military, indeed, for the beau in question was in service, with supposedly promising career, stationed overseas in the prestigious UN Peacekeepers unit nonetheless. It certainly made it spicier that not only the man was supposedly seriously dating another woman back home; he is also the prideful son of a famous-actor-turned-Deputy-Governor. The affair reportedly had started off last year as flirtatious banters on semi-private social media platform Path and chat app Line, that later was taken to the next level during European romantic getaways. Riana spared almost none of the juicy details and tale-telling pictures of their sexcapade on her blogposts, sending all kinds of media in Indonesia into a wild tailspin that put corruption news pale in comparison.

Almost everyone nationwide got sucked into the scandal—following, commenting, opining, and everything in between. Riana brazenly rode on the hullabaloo by further employing Twitter and Instagram, sending both her fans and haters just a notch short of indecent hysteria. As if refusing to be overshadowed, Zulfikar’s supposedly official girlfriend decided to fire back by posting their own lovey-dovey snapshots on her social media pages—refueling the already heated rumor mill, prompting snaps from Riana and snazzier comments from the spectators. I’m not sure what’s the progress of the supposed military investigation in response to Riana’s report, but what I observe astutely is such drama the scandal has steadily supplied into the public discourse that even some of the levelheaded people I knew were reduced into good ol’ gossipy grandmas over this mess.

Not to be outdone by romance on social media wars, was commerce. Earlier this year a man sent Indonesian Facebookers and Twitterati into a fizz by claiming that the prominent online retailer Lazada sent him a boxed soap instead of the fancy smartphone he’d ordered and paid for.

As Lazada was scrambling to provide proper response, and I must say they did seem rather unprepared in the PR department at that time, somebody decided to search around and discovered on LinkedIn that the claimant was working for Lazada’s competitor Elevenia. Soon everyone, who’d just been wagging their tongues on Lazada, started wagging tongues back at the man. Initiated, spread, rebuked and closed all on social media in such efficient spinning cycle that honestly not many remember how the dispute was settled, it was just that it was eventually settled.

Scandals unfurled on social media have also given room to the rise of creativity called meme. Within hours, sometimes mere minutes, somebody would put together a visual and text appropriate to cast a light upon, usually in humorous tone, which would travel virtually alongside the news and, often, depending on its accuracy and wittiness, might boast more lifespan than the actual scandal.

We’re all gradually moving onto digital lifestyle whether we like it or not, whether we’re ready for it or not. Once we or someone else put an issue out there on digital realm, it’s practically unstoppable until it runs its course and technically un-retrievable ever. The challenge for individuals is to maintain a semblance of willpower on allowing one’s own life parlayed onto our social media presence. The challenge for corporations and PR firms is to prepare media-savvy response to produce in lightning-time manner before a snag brews into some uncontainable maelstrom. The challenge for mainstream media is to prove that beyond speed there are journalistic accuracy and ethics remaining on the news reporting delivery.

Gird your loins for 2016, baby! It’s a braver, ever-engulfing, all-consuming world out there by every histrionic digital minute of it.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2015/12/31/the-year-2015-under-the-ever-engulfing-virtual-spotlight.html

Posted in Communications, Entertainment, Glitteratti, Life Bites, Society, Virtual World | Leave a comment

Fashion and Art, Here Dancing At Last

A while back an esteemed London-based fashion and art writer expressed his shock upon learning from a small group of Indonesian journalists that fashion major wasn’t du rigueur in our art schools.

How you could separate the two when fashion was derived from art, he exclaimed. Some of the art schools have a textile major, I offered a consolation. Nice but not quite fashion now is it, he huffed.

The man had a point. Fashion and art worlds in Indonesia are often worlds apart. I’ve met too many artists who’d turn their nose down at fashion for being hedonistic, or a snooty art curator who’d look down upon fashion weeks for that matter. On the other side, the fashion community often found artists generally to be too brooding and uncooperative.

Quite a shame, as elsewhere bridges between the two worlds had long been built and maintained. If you were to revisit 18th century French aristocrats, it was clear that the dynamics of art not only inspired, but influenced high fashion a great deal. Conversely, artists were known to have been one of the first adopters, if not initiators, of the latest wardrobe style, in the age when laymen were still sewing their own clothes.

In modern times the alliances have continued. One of the most critically and commercially acclaimed collaborations was between Louis Vuitton and Takashi Murakami in Spring-Summer 2003. American designer Marc Jacobs, then Vuitton’s newly-appointed creative head, decided to inject excitement into the brand’s signature monogram that was going rather staid, and Murakami’s pop visuals and pastel colors enlivened Vuitton leather goods so fabulously that the Multicolore collection was continued for 12 years until Nicolas Ghesquiere, the new creative head, decided to phase it out last July.

Vuitton also collaborated with Stephen Sprouse (2001), Richard Prince (2008), Yayoi Kusama (whose polkadot pumpkin is installed in Jakarta’s Gandaria City), and, lo and behold, Indonesia’s own Eko Nugroho (2013). While the other artists worked with leather goods, Eko Nugroho’s commissioned work “Republik Tropis” was turned in its entirety into a silk scarf—a limited edition item that was fought tooth and nail for by Indonesian socialites.

Currently Eko Nugroho is teaming up again with fashion, this time with Indonesia’s own promising ready-to-wear label, MajorMinor. And to me it does feel more of an equal collaboration, for Eko’s signature gill-like visuals is adopted, instead of merely being copied, in different manners to suit various pieces of clothing. I’ve been fortunate to closely view the collections twice, and traces of Eko’s wild drawings are immediately recognizable throughout the collection that, somehow, remains within MajorMinor’s urban style and sensibility. Kudos to both parties.

For a capsule collection it encompasses quite a range of clothing including, aha, silk scarves. Judging from the throng of art aficionados and fashion enthusiasts at both shows during Jakarta Fashion Week and later, to open Eko’s solo art exhibition, in Salihara Theatre, the collection was received with due praises and much excitement.

Beyond straightforward commercial deals, art and fashion overseas also enjoy steady engagements. There are bona fide fashion museums and regular fashion exhibitions in prominent art museums, such as Costume Institute’s annual exhibit at New York City’s iconic Metropolitan Museum of Art, which opening party itself is a star-studded fundraising known as the Met Gala, in addition to standalone fashion and textile museums. Giorgio Armani even built his own museum, the Armani Silos in Milan.

Opened earlier this year, the 4-storey museum archived a 4-decade journey of Giorgio Armani in well-curated classy displays, equipped with multimedia presentation and databank. Being a diligent museum-goer I rented the audio-guide, and was pleasantly surprised to hear Indonesia mentioned as one of the inspirations for Armani’s so-called Oriental collections on the 2nd floor.

The Prada family went straight to art in the newly-opened Fondazione Prada, where impressive private art collections of Miuccia Prada and husband Patrizio Bertelli made up quite a bulk. Their ease with art is apparent not just through world-class installations by Louise Bourgeois, Tom Friedman, Damien Hirsch or Jeff Koons, but also by the sizable space dedicated to John Baldessari’s work that specifically mocked hedonism and unhealthy body image purported by fashion business. The devil may have worn Prada, but Prada definitely wears art in her sleeve.

At the beginning of 2015 I wrote about how seasoned designer Didi Budiardjo held our first ever fashion exhibition in a proper museum, albeit not having managed to find any fashion curator to assist in the process. It’s heartening to see that young label MajorMinor is now closing the year through their art collaboration. I have hopes that these all are just the opening number of a lasting and empowering dance between the two worlds—where intimate talks will burst between steps, handholding in trust will form between moves, and everyone goes home with more comprehension and less apprehension.

For that, darlings, I promise I’ll dance along.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2015/12/12/urban-chat-fashion-and-art-here-dancing-at-last.html

Posted in Art & Culture, Fashion, Learning & Education, UrbanChat | Leave a comment