Why I’m Regularly Mad at Soeharto

No, I’m not talking about the events of September 1965, which have since regularly caused heated debates at this time of the year. Not that I didn’t think those debates were useless either, for the record.

I get mad at Soeharto mostly when I travel, which is pretty regular. Let me tell you a story.

One day on our way to the famed Ora Beach in Central Moluccas, a woman in the group told us that her grown daughter was also waiting for a flight to London on the other side of Soekarno-Hatta airport. 15 hours later the girl texted her mom that she’d just arrived at her apartment in London. Guess where we were? After flying to Ambon, driving to Tulehu port, taking a ferry to Seram Island, riding forever on bumpy roads to a village on the other side of Seram, in addition to hitch a small boat to the beach unreachable by land from that village, we’d just arrived ourselves at our Ora Beach inn. In fact, that text was the last we got before signals went off completely.

How is it okay that it takes the same time to reach Europe’s major city and a beach just two time zones away in the same country? If you traveled a lot within Indonesia, you’d find this often.

Yes, Soekarno left a tattered economy when Soeharto rose to power, and sure, there have been multiple presidents afterwards. But Soeharto ruled the longest, with many advantages; the urban population was only starting to grow, the country’s income from oil was very robust, and no red tape or opposition rows to hold back if he wanted to build something.

I imagined in 32 years Soeharto could’ve completed first-grade Trans Sulawesi highways, built respectable ship lines from Sabang to Merauke, resuscitated and developed Sumatera railways, and formed reliable mass transportation modes in 5 largest cities.

With his iron fist Soeharto wouldn’t have gotten bogged down by land clearing and decentralization, major thorns for foreign investments in recent years (what an irony that decentralization sometimes means more nods to win?). With his total grip he could’ve marshaled down the troops to help infrastructure projects in far-flung corners, just like for the stone-based road paved throughout Banda Besar Island I once saw. With his dogmatic actions he could’ve trained the masses to use, at the time when the middle class wasn’t yet emerged, a reliable public transportation mode.

Instead of laying a great foundation in full force for 32 years, Soeharto left us with insufficient infrastructures and the seed of human resource largely not equipped to act as world-class citizen once the economy took off. 72 years after independence electricity and water are still scarce to some, the water transportation modes are pathetic, the masses are bad at queuing, the middle class get into debt to buy private vehicles for convenience and status, and the upper-middle class is bedecked in luxury products they often can’t pronounce properly for foreign language proficiency is still relatively low.

To be fair, post-Soeharto Presidents haven’t really done that much to catch up. The road on Banda Besar I mentioned above remained the only one existed when I came in 2014. We have jaw-dropping malls and apartments mushrooming in urban cities in the past 15 years, but our pedestrian walks are below those in countries still at war until the 1990s.

I recently spent time with my dad exploring 3 of the 7 countries that until 1991 made up Yugoslavia. The relatively young countries Slovenia and Croatia are now EU members with city sidewalks better than most of Jakarta’s, highways solely on automated payments and air-conditioned public buses that work on schedules. Ljubljana bus passes are obtained through user-friendly machines at bus stops that feature both Slovene and English, no different than subway passes in Hong Kong. Bus drivers in Dubrovnik spoke enough English to tell us which bus to take and how to purchase the pass. The trails at Postojna Caves and Plitvice National Park are paved and secured better than what you may find in Indonesia. Ljubljana and Zagreb don’t have glitzy malls or overly opulent hotels, yet their service industry’s human resources show professionalism and speak much proper English than ours.

Bosnia-Herzegovina, which war ended in 1995, is mostly rural and in dire need of foreign investments, and many buildings including in Sarajevo still bear holes from mortars thrown by the Serbian military, yet Sarajevo’s main downtown boulevards feature proper sidewalks and bicycle lanes. The public toilet at Mostar’s historical old town and the streets at Sarajevo’s heritage old city are cleaner than the facilities at Jakarta Kota Tua in any given Sunday. Dad and I scratched our heads throughout our trip as to how Indonesia had gotten this far behind from the former Yugoslavia countries.

Soekarno got bogged down by grandstanding politics and post-1998 Presidents spent much time battling oppositions and polishing image, but Soeharto had the longest time and total control. He could’ve built proper foundations and systems. He could’ve been our Lee Kuan Yew. But he didn’t. And most times when I travel, I’m sorely reminded of that missed opportunity. If only those now busy repainting Soeharto’s image as Indonesia’s most benevolent leader would just shut up and start traveling with me.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/09/30/urban-chat-why-i-m-regularly-mad-soeharto.html

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

Healing Hand for a Humane Habitat

Many moons ago I attended a graduate business school far, far away. Not very many Indonesians then or since, but the global alumni association has done a pretty good job in staying in touch. Back in school we have Thursday Pub Nights (yes, there is a pub inside the school, run by students), and after graduation the alumni worldwide have First Tuesdays.

Jakarta’s soul-crushing traffic jams have made it too strenuous for us to huddle every first Tuesday when there’s still three weekdays to survive, so it’s First Friday here. Particularly last month, it was a Saturday– at a village a stone’s throw away from Jakarta. Why? Cause we went building houses.

Well, technically the houses had been built by the time we as a group could agree on the volunteer date. What was left was painting that Saturday in a village not far from Sentul City, where one of the homeowners only spoke the local dialect while his young kids, playing with broken plastic toys on dirt, getting doe-eyed whenever expats in our group muttered in English. Split into two groups, each assigned to a house, we got working under the watchful eyes of the homeowners, village head, actual handymen, and supervisors from Habitat for Humanity.

Founded in 1976 and headquartered in Atlanta, the international NGO’s main purpose is to build decent and affordable homes for unfortunate families, recording around 800,000 abodes worldwide since its inception. The Christian charity undertone notwithstanding, the NGO practices non-discriminatory policies in selecting families to help. They’ve had Indonesian presence for 20 years, with 50,000 families assisted in record. Homes are built through donations and, among others, volunteer labor.

Members of our Indonesia alumni chapter donated since last year, sufficient this year for two standard houses tagged for IDR 36 million each. Some of us including yours truly volunteered our hand– where I got my most cherished moments.

I’d expected to get down and dirty, but I didn’t expect to get meditative in the process. As my friend Odie and I stood on the tiny terrace painting the front façade, acutely aware that the homeowner and his kids sat nearby watching us doing the future face of their new house, the genuine focus for task at hand released us from whatever weekday stress we brought to the site that morning.

Turns out, there is something very soothing about applying a coat of fresh paint, carefully rolling the long applicator down the wall. Pressing too much it gets uneven, pressing weakly you get blank spots. Patience is also a virtue, for if you rush to apply another coat the paint will run all over the place. Another bag of tricks needed to ace narrow patches or the wooden surface of door frames and window sills, where awkward angles can botch your effort at the first go. Odie, a property contractor businessman by day, found a new respect for his field crew, while I found a new activity to replace late-night dishwashing that I once felt therapeutic before it got routine.

A renewed sense of gratitude also arose, at least for me, as we went laboring under the hot sun that mid-morning. The donated IDR 36 million got a 36sqm house with a common area, two bedrooms and an indoor bathroom—plastered, painted, roofed, wooden-doored, glass-windowed, and tiled for the bathroom. It’s decent and humanely habitable, but it’s really not that much. I noticed the crude quality of the wood, which I suspected wasn’t even treated for anti-termite, or how small the bedrooms were. As a whole the house was smaller than my medium-sized pad, without any of its facilities like indoor kitchen.

Yet when I turned to see the tattered shack they were living in during construction, a remnant of their initial abode, far improving their living conditions were and hence, as the welcome session showed, profusely thanked for. Odie and I missed last year’s volunteering, where reportedly it was still during rock-chopping foundation phase, but we thoroughly enjoyed our session this year that we’re thinking to enlist as permanent volunteers. Helping hands to them, healing hands for our own.

Many of you perhaps should, too, more than shelling out a few bucks to donate. And if you happen to have bratty teen kids on the verge of becoming fully-spoiled young adults, the kinds who wail at the first imperfect sign of air-con volume and WiFi signal, or accustomed to nannies and drivers carrying their school bags, you definitely should. Drag them by their mollycoddled, very possibly unexercised bottoms (no, don’t get me started on the children obesity phenomenon) for a day’s honest physical labor to help families where cheap smartphones are more than a month’s wage and brick-walled bedrooms aren’t attainable until today. I perfectly understand now why lovely Miss F, a friend’s pal and heiress of one of Indonesia’s largest family businesses, from whom years ago I first learned about Habitat for Humanity’s Indonesian activities, loved volunteering here. She must’ve felt grounded, which, to think of it, in this age of easy access and self-entitlement, what else than that feeling should come highly recommended?

See you at the next construction site, pampered urbanites!

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/09/02/urban-chat-healing-hand-a-humane-habitat.html

Posted in City Life, UrbanChat | Leave a comment

Art: Shared and Democratized

Picking up from my last column about art merchandises at, among others, 9th Bazaar Art Jakarta, and the frank talk with artist Eddie Hara, I’m pleased to see how art has been further shared and democratized.

Launched last year with much fanfare, partly thanks to its Singapore affiliation, last week’s Art Stage Jakarta has consistently accomplished two things—bringing quality artworks for collectors to peruse, and letting public to have access to arts they can enjoy.

Last year it was the collaboration with Sotheby’s to exhibit Affandi’s paintings, curated thoughtfully and displayed grandly. Borrowed from various sources including private collectors, the masterpieces wouldn’t have otherwise been accessible to laymen like me, or my friends who’d never ventured out into museums yet came dragging their kids last year to see Affandi’s legendary self-portraits. Taking into context how poor art is taught in schools and how inadequate most of our museums are, granting an easy access to fine art and managing to lure the masses deserved due praises.

This year Art Stage went further by collaborating with more art’s stakeholders to create a weeklong festivity in Jakarta, similar to how ArtJog drives a month-long art event in Yogyakarta. For collectors there are satellite events throughout August like Sakato Art Community’s group exhibition in Nadi Gallery and Iabadiou Piko’s solo in D’Gallery.

During Art Stage itself there were a small contemporary art exhibition and an art bazaar located inside the mall adjacent to the main venue, making it accessible even to random mall passersby. Titled “Spirit Today”, it comprised of contemporary art installations owned by five young Indonesian collectors with different personal taste and yet the similarity in their borderless view in collecting art, a departure from the previous generation who often placed importance in an artist’s nationality. To see their curated collections at a metropolitan’s shopping mall frequented mostly by patrons under the age of thirty was a step further into art education we’ve sorely been lacking.

Called Art Square, the bazaar was small, yet stocked with art merchandises and very affordable art pieces for art aficionados. Located at the mall’s atrium, it cut off any possible psychological boundaries of “watching a spectacle I may not understand”, although walk-ins would be surprisingly delighted by adorable ceramics from heavyweights likes of Marc Chagall and Marina Abramovic or Jeff Koons’ famed balloons.

As for Indonesian talents, aside from interesting pieces offered by art schools and emerging artist communities, or popular pieces from the likes of Eddie Hara and Roby Dwiantono, there was an exquisite silk scarf designed by talented fashion designer Stella Rissa based on Sudjojono’s four sketches selected by S Sudjojono Center—produced for a limited number by the newly opened Can’s Gallery. Silk scarves based on an artist’s work are all the rage nowadays, but this latest addition deserves its own spotlight for the seamless design and meticulous finish. Maya Sudjojono, the late painter’s daughter, believed public should still be able to enjoy her father’s works long obtained by collectors. Echoing the sentiment, Inge of Can’s Gallery said everyone should have an access to art depending on their current level of interest and commitment. I said amen to both.

The democratization didn’t stop, for this week until the end of August Plaza Indonesia is hosting a fine art exhibition of 45 Indonesian artists. Themed “Becoming Indonesia” and curated well by renowned art critic Suwarno Wisetrotomo, multi-generation artists from three large cities put forth what they think Indonesia has become or is becoming on its 72nd year.

There are Sigit Santosa’s pointed message on how the “Indonesia” in Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia (NKRI) is yet to form, a sculpture by Basrizal Albara showing how acronym NKRI is only a lip service, Arie Kadarisman’s depiction of Jokowi contemplating the state symbol Garuda Pancasila, Nasirun’s cheeky installation of the disappearing of Indonesian native group’s costumes, and Hari Budiono’s haunting painting of Chinese-Indonesian youth holding back tears.

Curator Suwarno repeatedly stressed the importance of bringing art closer to public, especially where consumerism swings wildly, like at downtown malls, to balance off the consumption drive. Asked whether he was worry that art, which has long served as social critique to hedonistic excesses, would be diluted when consistently placed in close vicinity with the very matters it posed to ponder, Suwarno believed that while the worry was warranted, it wouldn’t materialize as long as artists held their critical ground and chose a side accordingly. Sounds abstract, but when you think about it, it does make sense and is considerably doable. So, kudos to the artists and mall management who chose to build a bridge between the two worlds and shared it with the audience at large.

You go inside while I wait out here—years ago someone said that after driving me to an art gallery, like I was going to take him to some daunting exercise. Now that art has been relatively more shared and democratized, I hope they’re seeping into our collective consciousness. From my personal experiences, art gives room to questioning ourselves, to working through changes, and to rounding off the sharp differences. In the current state of Indonesia with too real diversity and too little unity, art is one of the paths to cool heads and open hearts. Here’s to your 72nd anniversary, Indonesia.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/08/19/urban-chat-art-shared-and-democratized.html 

Posted in Art & Culture, Society, UrbanChat | Leave a comment

Urban Art Scene and A Chat with Eddie Hara

You may still recall what I wrote here about my gallery-hopping in Yogyakarta around the time of Artjog. One of the art merchandises we acquired was a lovely scarf screened by the work of Eddie Hara, the renowned Basel-based Indonesian artist. I wanted to wear it, while my travel mate planned to frame it as a wall-hanging. Sounds good, until I told a couple of art collectors, who coldly responded that the only art belonging on a wall is real artwork, not some scarf refashioned as a piece of art.

I’d heard before rejection towards art merchandises, especially wearable art. On one side I can understand how serious art aficionados who have spent years honing on their aesthetics to appreciate brush strokes, perspectives and palettes, in addition to resources to afford a masterpiece, might be miffed when suddenly a happy-go-lucky nobody could score something from the same artist that required less art education or funds.

Yet, can we afford such elitist attitude on art education? During my academic years the art teaching was rudimentary while our public museums were far from adequate, and now “the masses” have grown into the thriving urban middle class with insatiable consumption drive. Having perhaps bought enough luxury bags and watches they now start to travel and peeking at art, even if for social media bragging right, so why not taking it as a chance to educate? Why not granting access to art products that mandate less investment? I inherently believe that once access is granted and joy is gained, interest and appreciation shall grow organically. If by wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with Arkiv Vilmansa’s work or toting a clutch with Hendra Hehe’s sketch they can stop viewing art as an unreachable hoity-toity concept, doesn’t it mean we’re opening them a path to approach Arahmaiani’s daring installations, FX Harsono’s deep political messages, and maybe one day, Ma Han’s and Tom Friedman’s abstracts?

I am no art critic, but I find it intriguing that the local artists that have come to the urban public mind in recent years—Eddie Hara, Eko Nugroho, Darbotz, Indieguerillas, to name a few–come from the genre often called street art. Their colors vivid, their graphics grand, their executions wild—pretty much like the pressure-cooker daily life for most urbanites. It’s smart that this year’s Bazaar Art Jakarta not only returning with affordable art merchandises, but also engagement with art—children sessions with Ronald Apriyan here, adult coloring outlet using Eko Nugroho’s sketches there. You may not able to draw like Eko, but you get to put a piece of you into his work.

Timed on the opening day of the 9th Bazaar Art Jakarta also was the unveiling of Eddie Hara’s collaboration with a few fashion designers and the fabulous pottery maker Kandura at Art Dept, the art section of the local high-street retailer Goods Dept.

I was very fortunate to have been offered a moment to sit with Eddie Hara himself and gather his thoughts on the urban art scene. To begin with, Eddie shared why he’s more attuned to urban living; it’s the posing architecture, bustling business, melting cultures, and constant dynamics that include anxiety and harried traffic as well. Having resided in Switzerland in recent years, Eddie views Jakarta to be getting more urbane albeit the Jakartans still catching up in being urbanites—wanting free mobility but not deigning to use public transportation, for example.

Yet more interestingly was what Eddie observed of the aforementioned street art phenomenon. Whereas in other metropolitans street art originated from peripheral artists that later made it to elite galleries, in Indonesia it’s often coming from students (by definition, the elite class) who might’ve found troubles channeling the genre inside the established art schools. Isn’t that funny, I noted, now that the said arts are darlings of both the gallery-frequenting elites and “the masses”, even if the latter only access it through merchandises and wearable art pieces. In a tongue-in-cheek manner Eddie suggested that the art market needed a fresh genre to work with, hence the lovely timing.

Eddie himself firmly believes that everyone deserves to own a piece of art, and has no problems on making his work more accessible through selected collaborations in limited numbers. I thought that was a grounded thing for an artist of his stature to partake, unlike a certain rising artist, who shall remain nameless, who once indignantly told me at his solo exhibition that his works only belonged to collectors and museums. Personally I think professionally-managed art merchandises give access for upcoming artists to gain revenues to sustain them into their next projects because, after all, creations need resources, often of the capital kind.

Our urban art scene is thriving, more urbanites are directing their eyes and dedicating their wallets to it, I say it’s up for the stakeholders to build better bridges. The classic approach may well be to educate before enabling consumption, but just as Indonesian street art moves in the opposite direction than the norm, perhaps in here we should educate through easy consumption and popular engagements.

I can’t wait to see what the 2nd Artstage Jakarta had in store for us next week. See you all there?

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/08/05/urban-chat-urban-art-scene-and-a-chat-with-eddie-hara.html

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

Kiwi Winter Wonderland

A few years ago my parents were invited for a private event at the residence of then New Zealand’s ambassador to Indonesia. As it coincided with my birthday, my parents were kind enough to bring me along. The ambassador and his team put together a great promotional presentation of New Zealand’s nature wonders and a luncheon featuring the country’s best dairy and winery products. I talked him into opening a Twitter account, he intrigued me of his homeland.

My trip didn’t materialize until this month, at the high of Southern Hemisphere’s wintertime. Having seen countless pictures of summertime New Zealand, my friends and I decided to see something else.

New Zealand’s winter feels like four seasons rolled into one. Green pastures, multi-colored autumnal foliage, blooming buds under bright sun, silent snowfalls—all of them happened in a day, or like that midmorning we drove across Canterbury, in an hour.

Many people had said not to bother visiting North Island, but I’m glad we didn’t heed it. Auckland is a charming urban city where we rented a modern flat in a centennial building on the famed Queen St., with vintage postbox by the lobby and a Yayoi Kusama lookalike across the courtyard. There were well-spent trips taken to Devonport, St. Helier’s and Mission Bay for a wintry-beach feel. The cherry was certainly Hobbiton, the vast Alexander family’s farm that was used to shoot Lord of the Ring trilogy and The Hobbits and is now preserved as a tourist destination with Peter Jackson reportedly still on board. I’d seen a few movie sets to appreciate the meticulous details and precise scaling shown in Hobbiton; worth all the awards they won and flying into North Island.

South Island indeed packed more adventures. Aside from pleasant drive for a few days, we enjoyed different experiences on scenic bus tours and Kiwi Rail’s Trans Alpine. Most bus drivers on scenic routes over South Island worked as a semi-guide, bringing information, anecdotes and wit into the hours-long journeys that could be rainy, like the day through Hokitika and Lake Wanaka, or snowy, like that morning to Fiordland National Park.

But the Trans Alpine was something else altogether. Trekked from Christchurch to Greymouth through Arthur’s Pass (737 masl), it offered breathtaking landscapes that were so versatile—from dreamy farms and bridges that mirrored Thomas Kinkade paintings to all-white terrain that might’ve been borrowed by Hallmark’s Christmas cards to foggy dark mountains that eerily reminded me of Mordor. The train featured an open carriage that I braved for several minutes to snap pictures and videos, shivering under my mohair coat as the temperature marked zero.

Low temperatures were the norm as we traveled further south, usually under 10C during the day and under 5C after dark– with a few nights under zero including one particularly stormy night in Queenstown when it hit -4 C and the heater at our rented lakeside townhouse went bust. We mostly just bulked up and soldiered on— wine tour in Central Otago under the rain, chilly boat cruise to chase Milford Sound waterfalls where the captain offered me his steering seat for a moment, and the windy horseback-riding in the idyllic Glenorchy where, I’m pleased to report, my ride Pressley was one of the 150 horses handpicked for Lord of the Ring. To ride a horse that has battled orcs in the valley that was the set of Isengard was definitely worth the stiff neck I suffered that evening.

It’s hard to fit a 2-week trip into a column, let alone pick a favorite, but as far as memories are concerned, glacier hiking and stargazing made the most. The helicopter ride to the mountain was nice, but the real adventure began when we landed at 0 C and started to explore Franz Josef Glacier for over an hour. Maneuvering in mandatory Goretex over-clothing, crampons and ski pole was a challenge on its own when beyond hiking straight up you must hike sideways on narrow patches, slide on your bum through curved corners and get on all four underneath glaciers so blue for they don’t get sun exposure year-round. I never liked hiking, but the very unique experience made me want to hike glaciers again.

The stargazing took place on another mountaintop near Lake Tekapo. I was drowned inside the mandatory Arctic-expedition-grade down-jackets that must’ve weighed 2 kgs as we stayed on the outdoor deck for one hour, listening to our astronomy guides. What turned out to be -7 C that night was worth the 90% sky clarity that enabled us to see countless stars with naked eye, not to mention Saturn, Jupiter, and Jupiter’s three moons under telescopes.

The land is beautiful, the people are friendly and helpful, the culture is colorful—it was heartwarming to see not only the indigenous Maoris were represented in many walks of life beyond the rugby’s haka, but that global migrant faces were tending to us along the way. I spent too much money this time on lamb, venison, Bluff oysters, wine and merino-possum, yet without a doubt there’ll be a second time.

Ka kite ano au i a koutou, New Zealand.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/07/22/urban-chat-kiwi-winter-wonderland.html

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

The Business of Making Memories

I noticed something when a friend traveled with her daughter recently. She noted “making memories” as she posted their travel pictures on social media. I thought that was sweet, and smart.

Any grown-up with even the most boring life has some kind of memories, mostly were made along the way. But to intentionally make memories when your children are still in the early phase of filling up their memory capacity is another level of awareness. In the age of 24/7 news cycle where things get distributed, hashed, rehashed and cast aside at neck-breaking speed, leaving scant memory in sight, consciously making memories is almost a Zen-like awareness of the age we’re in.

Last week’s Eid, more than any other major holiday in Indonesia, is basically the ultimate family reunion for most Indonesians. For the Muslims it’s the holy day following a monthlong religious meditation, for the non-Muslims it’s the chance for family outing since the weeklong break shut down pretty much anything in this country. For most families, I suppose, it’s the prime time for memory recording.

A college friend of mine, though having been born and raised in Jakarta, has spent her Eids since childhood at her parents’ hometown in East Java. Her parents would load the family into their SUV for a road trip days prior to Lebaran. When I asked her what her best memory was, she said it wasn’t from the visiting around relatives in her parents’ hometown that she saw for only a week annually, but from the long hours spent in the car, between siblings and suitcases, as they trudged along the jammed inter-city highways.

Being in Ramadhan there were no snacks to consume, and being in pre-smartphone days there were no gadgets for distraction, so they were forced to choose between their father’s outdated music selections on car stereo or having conversations. Snappy repartees were bound to happen once everyone was too hungry or tired, but so were hearty laughs. The first Eid homecoming trip after her mother passed was the hardest for them since they missed her turning around from the front seat to yell “Don’t make me come there!” whenever they got too boisterous.

The funny thing is, in the past several years my fun memories of Lebaran were made after the 2-3 day craziness of hosting family gathering, visiting around and putting my parents’ house back in order. To me, those rituals, however nice, almost seemed like a routine and mandatory. To me, the real Lebaran break would start after all the aforementioned rituals, spent unglamorously being couch potato in front of the TV with Dad. And every year, as I looked back, it always had something to do with sports. Some football league championship in some years, the Wimbledon last year, and American Ninja Warrior reality show this year—the latter which, as I delightfully discovered, can be more of a nail biter.

Each stage calls for upper-body strength, mid-section flexibility, leg reach, mental agility, or all of the above. Rock climbers could slip off doorknob-sized hooks, gymnasts might fail trampoline, and tall contestants could leap farther while losing on low-hanging challenges. Every second counts for record and stamina—the longer you hang the more burned out your muscles for the next obstacle. So strenuous the game that on-site viewers and competitors get sucked into the intensity, and so do viewers at home like me and Dad.

There was something strangely addictive, and bonding, of being completely sedentary while watching someone else fighting with all they might. We see unseeded champions made, and celebrated giants fall. No wonder Roman elites invented gladiator game; it certainly is an excellent pacifier. Whatever disagreements I might’ve had with Dad were gone as we watched sports, even as we were supporting different teams or athletes. After sleeping off her post-Lebaran fatigue Mom, an avid sport spectator herself, usually would join, and for those few days, before reality kicked in, those would be our family’s most peaceful days. No arguments, no misunderstandings, no pent-up disappointments—just us munching on random cookie leftovers and rooting for strangers on TV. I’m not sure what it says about us as a family, but I know that those days make my most cherished Eid memories.

Yet, just like my old college pal with East Javan roots, our best Eid memories aren’t consciously made, unlike the 2-week road trip my friend took up to implant memories into her young daughter’s mind. Spontaneity is a wonderful thing, and serendipity often makes the best experience, but I begin to think that consciously making memories should be on modern families competing with hurriedly-circling world out there. When I have a nuclear family of my own I will do that, and in the meantime I can start with the perennial 3-ring circus of life that my parents and I share.

What about your memories? Are there made by chance, or choice? Would you care to consciously make memories, or would they be too much of a utopia and a sign that I had too much downtime to contemplate?

Either way, Eid Mubarak, everyone.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/07/08/urban-chat-the-business-making-memories.html

Posted in City Life, Entertainment, Sports, UrbanChat | Leave a comment

The Milestones of a Lawyer and a Designer

The word milestone is, by definition, a marker of distance—length of the road traveled. On literal roads milestones are measured the same way, yet on life journey the distances and how they are marked vary greatly.

Although, sometimes, a couple of people celebrate theirs on the same week.

Recently seasoned fashion designer Biyan threw his annual fashion show. A longstanding entry penciled in Jakarta’s society swans’ scheduler, which pre-invitation is distributed a couple of months ahead to ensure attendance of everyone who’s anyone. When the soiree finally unfurls, the traffic surrounding the chosen 5-star hotel will be almost chaotic, as perfectly-coiffed invitees bedecked in Biyan’s latest gowns trade air-kisses and pose for the mandatory backdrop picture before show and continue their merriment at the post-show delectable banquet.

Past his 30th career anniversary, Biyan’s gorgeous creations started winning many hearts in the 1990s, and for over a decade now have gained sizable devotees, ladies usually occupying the first a few rows during his annual show. I believe this is where Biyan’s direction now comfortably lies on—as illustrated in his latest show. The recognizable A-line silhouettes were ubiquitous, the renowned embroideries were prevalent, and the usual exquisite fabrics made up the entire collection. Aside from culottes and palazzos that are departure from Biyan’s signature pencil pants and a play with patchwork, the collection remained on the familiar ground.

For someone who still lovingly keeps my Biyan sheath dresses circa 1990s, I was actually looking forward for Biyan to journey into new terrains. I believe there is still a lot that Biyan Wanaatmadja as a designer not only could tap into, but also could afford to risk for, that wouldn’t necessarily cost him the current clientele yet very possibly welcoming a completely new demography, in a way that is perhaps best illustrated by Karl Lagerfeld’s bold move to issue Chanel Boy handbag a few years back. If Biyan were to do this, I can only imagine the genuine excitement and bated breath awaiting the collection when the label hits its 40th anniversary in the next few years. That’d be a serious milestone to celebrate.

A different kind of milestone was celebrated on the same week as Biyan’s aforementioned show, which was the 87th birthday of Kartini Muljadi, one of Indonesia’s first and most renowned female lawyers. Specializing in corporate law, her roster clients are so vast that almost every multinational company I’ve ever worked for during my corporate career retained her legal firm’s service.

Most octogenarians might prefer to lounge around at home with their grandkids, but the visibly healthy Kartini Muljadi instead published a book and threw an exhibition of her prized batik collection. So removed from the career she’s built and is popularly known for, I was quite surprised not only to learn how an avid batik collector she evidently has been, but also how well-rounded the collection is. Many people boast to possess a great batik collection, but Kartini’s is a league of its own.

Historically dating back to Dutch and Japanese colonial times, flowery buketan and Jawa Hokokai motifs are just small examples of the precious antique motifs in her collection. The fact that beyond foreign occupation forces there were also foreign merchants and migrants passing through or settling in this archipelago is shown by a number of antique batiks bearing motifs of Chinese dragons and Confucian altars.

The selected batiks displayed during the book launch were already enviable, yet the treasure trove could be discovered in the book. Written with the help of a couple heritage fabric experts from Museum Tekstil and University of Indonesia, it does a good job of explaining batik making and detailing meaning and importance of each of the batiks. For someone keen on learning history and culture, the 198-page coffee table book makes quite a rewarding read, as I discovered this past week. For someone wanting to appreciate batik, the pictures alone are true eye-candy.

As the nation has been consumed by escalating sectarian sentiments in recent years, books like this can serve as eye-opener for the young generation of how foreign elements have long and almost seamlessly been acculturated into the colorful fabrics, literal or metaphorical, that make up Indonesian heritage. I’ve met Betawi teenagers who didn’t know of the thick Chinese blood running through their veins, or Sumatran millennials who’ve forgotten about Indian cultures in the cuisine or henna manicure sported by traditional brides. Kartini Muljadi told audience that the book would be distributed to several universities, but these days, to the young generation, digital copy is the best bet. Having this book accessible to public would be a milestone that would keep on giving. Especially when, as she and her team hinted, more books might be coming as her heritage fabric collections aren’t limited to batiks, but also comprised of handwoven tenuns as well.

Two people. Two milestones feted. Depending on how they proceed next with it, it just might be a legacy to continue living in the next age and time. We shall see.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/06/17/urban-chat-the-milestones-of-a-lawyer-and-a-designer.html

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Art: The Soulfood of Yogyakarta

Bandung, Ubud and Yogyakarta are some of the places in Indonesia where I never failed to feel at home. There is a welcoming sense, a grounding force, a rhythm that make things work in comforting pattern. At the risk of sounding New Age-y, I’d say because these places have a soul I just respond to.

For Yogyakarta, that soul is art. From the classics displayed and performed in the old Javanese palaces to the contemporary arts that breathe fresh air out of countless galleries across the city and into its countryside.

The famed contemporary art fair Artjog turned 10 this year, taking place in the 2-storey, all white, unassuming, old building that is Jogja National Museum (JNM). The month-long Artjog is also the centerpiece of a much larger Jogja ArtWeeks 2017, where art galleries competing to put best collection out. And just like the Artjog I saw and wrote here a few years ago, the hordes of critics, curators, collectors, gallerists and art aficionados flocked to Yogyakarta this time around.

The perennial clash between development and nature was the running theme I immediately picked up from the installations curated for Artjog. Since ‘tree-hugging artists’ is a long-running cliché, with pleasure I report that what I saw were far from cliché.

I loved how Hestu A. Nugroho, a.k.a. Setu Legi, created a roomful of site-specific installation to depict the hypocrisy of pledges to preserve environment often touted by Government-backed developments. The most memorable side of the murals smartly illustrated traffic-jammed flyovers circling into an eco-park next to public space traded off for dubious “green investment” projects, while the king sitting majestically nearby and saying none. Cheeky, brave—considering the Sultan of Yogyakarta also holds executive power over the province–, and pointed. Looking at the statistics of hotel development in the province, the mighty Sultan would better heed this particular note.

Aliansyah Caniago turned wood from a pencil factory’s waste by a lake in West Java into a gritty wall installation. The preppy pink and green finishes he chose almost blurred the toll borne by the local ecosystem, until you inched closer to observe the texture.

Bamboos hard-pressed by gleaming steels were perhaps the least subtle metaphor, yet I liked how the bamboos were intermingled like the convoluted human minds constantly wrangling each other—losing the ‘ultimate battle’ against the machines due to inner-fighting– so kudos to Joko Dwi Avianto for that encapsulation.

Can’t humans progress without pushing nature to digress? A project initiated by Angki Purbandono, in collaboration with actor Nicholas Saputra, managed to cast a light on the villagers of North Sumatra’s Tangkahan, living on the outskirts of a national park no less, gradually shifting from illegal loggers to elephant caretakers in a community-run eco-park. The villagers feel no more need to commit illegal logging to earn a living, while the elephants don’t feel the urge to stomp over the village to defend their turf. The win-win solution does sound almost utopic, until you watch the multimedia to see the struggling process and the feasibility of such approach to be replicated elsewhere. I immediately thought of West Papua’s Kaimana I wrote about in last column, where its almost unadulterated beauty and mostly impoverished population might benefit from this model in the coming years when tourists started descending upon their land.

Another side of development affecting nature is, naturally, on human resources. Communication technology in the last decade has leapt considerably, decreasing distance among people and supplying stage for ego. Thanks to social media, everyone can be a celebrity these days and holding on to it for more than 15 minutes, while status is a currency hotter than Bitcoin. Agus Suwage’s “Anatomy of Desire” and Farhan Siki’s “Unquenchable Sense of Deficiency” beautifully dissected the social phenomenon, yet it was Oky Rey Montha’s installation of shameless toilet selfie that just cracked me up. I personally know people who’s not above taking bathroom selfie, without the slightest inkling towards the too-much-information notion or the consideration that other people might just be bored off by their visage already. If only I could replicate that installation and sent it around. Sigh.

Suppose you’re touring Yogyakarta, I keenly suggest gallery-hopping. Sangkring Art Place in Bantul boasts some of the sharpest social messages like Hari Budiono’s slap over the country’s current racism undertone, Gusmen Heriadi’s imagined human perceptions, and Hono Sun’s sarcastic illustration of public discussion done in friendly manner. Not to be outdone by them is Erizal As’ bold strokes titled “Identity Politics”, part of the Bakaba6 exhibition by Sakato Art Community in Jogja Gallery near the Palace, that showed how power legitimized any kind of façade one could adopt to grab or retain it. If you’re lucky enough to have more than a weekend like I did a couple of weeks ago, there are more great galleries you can visit. Even as you roam around the small walkways, or have a cocktail by some royal-mansion-turned-hotel, you’re bound to catch a valuable artwork or two, even in the form of a street graffiti.

Yogyakarta is nothing without its hearty food like gudeg, many tourism websites would say. But to be more precise, Yogyakarta would be nothing without art that’s so ingrained in their home-born artists and gluing their highly-connected communities, the soulfood that nourishes you long after the gudeg has been digested. For that, Yogyakarta, I always heart ya.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/06/03/urban-chat-art-the-soul-food-of-yogyakarta.html

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Drama, Panorama and Kaimana

Senja di Kaimana by Alfian is a classic oldie many Indonesians know. The melodious song tells of a girl’s smile and the breathtaking sunset over Kaimana, now part of West Papua province. As I wrote here a while back my friends and I would travel to Kaimana in May. We did. 

Did we get to see the legendary sunset? Well.

Before even leaving the drama had started. We booked flights in February when Wings Air was the only choice from Ambon. The airline delayed our flight to Kaimana by a day only three days before departure, so we scrambled to secure a seat with Garuda Indonesia, which Ambon-Kaimana line had just become available in recent weeks. Barely done with that, Wings Air again notified us of a 2-day delay for our flight back to Ambon. After some collective cussing in the WhatsApp group, we decided to cancel our entire flights with Wings Air, asked for refund, and bought new tickets with Garuda.

Downpour welcomed us during overnight transit in Ambon and first days in the city of Kaimana. The Jakarta-Ambon flight suffered such turbulence the next passenger’s hot tea was spilled on my jeans, I lost an earring on the 1st day of snorkeling, and I scratched my vintage leather bag when I ran away from feisty fishermen’s dogs as we were sunset-hunting on the coast of Kaimana. So much drama, and yet no panorama.

Things started looking up after we left the capital of Kaimana regency to the offshore islands. Ermun Island is small, yet its beach curved 90 degrees it practically has two beach strips, each with tranquil turquoise waterfront and white powder sand that opens up to the famed Triton Bay. We spent a midmorning downtime watching flying fish, a school of fish dancing so close to the beach for not having developed fear over humans, and local father-son tribesmen hunting fish with long spears.

Mai-mai Island has a small wooden pier to reach its tree-lined white beach dotted heavily with purplish shells it was hard to walk without stepping on one that afternoon we stopped for a picnic lunch.

The Waikala islet boasts a couple of small pink beaches, just like over Komodo islands in East Nusa Tenggara. We were brought into the smaller yet pinker one, where nearby underwater would’ve been as beautiful for snorkeling had it not been for the strong current that day.

Deramai is a sizable yet relatively unexplored island populated by Koiwai, one of the few Muslim tribes in Papua. We stayed in a tiny fishermen’s wharf at a small, door-less, wooden stilt-house owned by a villager named Rudy, sharing the bare necessity lodging with five Japanese fishing enthusiasts, while his female relatives cooked for us. Rudy works with a natural conservation NGO while the tour coordinator Jafar is an anthropologist who works for the regency’s tourism department, and they strived to provide good services for visitors, but in general the infrastructures are at minimum on the islands, despite multiple constructions going around by the mainland and Jokowi’s multiple visits to Papua. Except for the fish, most foodstuffs we consumed had to be brought in by speedboats. The government-built inns in Mai-mai and Ermun were left unattended, even after the villas at Ermun were turned over to the community following public pressure. My friends ended up donating the inflatable mattresses and life jackets they toted from Jakarta.

It was the natural beauty around Deramai Island that paid off for all the drama throughout, including enduring the makeshift toilet by our lodging. There are so many picturesque sides, each boasts its own jewel– the shallow turquoise water where sea turtles call home, the secluded strip off a forest where the white sand is so soft you sink ankle-deep as you walk, or the long cove that provides the postcard-perfect sunset we’ve been after. Even the wharf we stayed in welcomed us with a long rainbow at sundown and a shimmering full moon the first day we arrived. The fish dishes were fresh, including sashimi of Napoleon fish the Japs were gracious to share and an 8-kg red snapper that was the catch of the day just before we departed.

While in Kaimana most people only visited Triton Bay or raved about the primitive cave drawings found off Marsi village, and I do marvel at the unique beauty of Triton Bay’s lush atolls—a denser version of Vietnam’s Halong Bay, one may say—and the mystique of the ancient cave drawings by the ancestors of the Marais tribe, yet the wonders lie on the islands scattered 1-2 hours off the city port. The colors are vivid, the natural forces are not tepid, and the panorama is solid. And if you take into account how genuine the smiles and kindness offered by the locals amid their simple circumstances, including by the Buton-hailed boatman or the Javanese woman teaching at the Christian school in Lobo village for 17 years, your sense of how colorful Indonesia is just gets more complete.

Do come to Kaimana. Bring your curiosity, chat up the locals, bring books for the village kids as my friends did, snorkel with manta ray and whale sharks if you’re very lucky, and perhaps there’ll be richer drama sung soon beyond sunsets over Kaimana. Papua, tanah air beta.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/05/20/urban-chat-drama-panorama-and-kaimana.html                                                                                                                             

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Old Nusantara in New Singapore

One of the reasons many Indonesians love to come to Singapore is to enjoy newer, better, often more advanced things. Things like underground subway, fully-automated system of whatnots, or tropical gardens hanging up in the sky.

I do, too, in addition to things that may seem less technically profound to most Indonesians seeking first world experiences in Singapore—walking around until my back almost breaks, and pay visits to museums.

Museums in Singapore are far more engaging and enjoyable than Jakarta’s best ones. They’re not dusty, let alone dowdy. When they display past treasures, they find a way to present them through modern eyes, to make a narrative relevant to the urban population and, often, even the millennial generation.

Much to my delight last week, some of the treasures highlighted bore traces to the old Nusantara—one lot dating back to 1,200 years ago.

Let’s talk about the Nyonya Needlework in the Peranakan Museum. Opened several years ago in a colonial building to honor Singapore’s multi-heritage, the permanent collection does a good job in casting light on Chinese, Indian, and Malay ethnics, proportionately more on Chinese that make up most of its citizens. Occasionally they hold temporary exhibitions such as the Nyonya Needlework that by the time it ends this June will have been almost a year.

The term “Nyonya” was first used to describe ladies of Peranakan, the subculture formed by Chinese diaspora mixing with the Malays around the Malacca Straits for centuries. Nusantara, then called Dutch East Indies, was already a large home for the Peranakan. Almost half of the dozens of showcased embroideries originated in various parts of Nusantara, some dated back to the 19th century.

There were household fineries such as bedpost draperies, wall hangings, dish covers and partitions. I also saw plenty of personal items such as slippers, money purses or vanity kit. One item stood out in particular; a women’s belt embroidered with the name Kweeng Soen, two Dutch flags and the year 1912. If we consulted the history books, that was the year after two major events—the fall of 4000-year Imperial China, and the Dutch colonial government stipulating that Chinese descendants born in Dutch East Indies were granted colonial citizenships. 34 years before a country named Indonesia rose from the colony and proclaimed independence, the Chinese diaspora born in its islands was recognized as a citizen. Kweeng Soen, rest her soul, had chosen to be a part of Nusantara.

History books also taught us that just because the Dutch stipulated so it didn’t mean it went along smoothly with the intended subjects. Even a decade into independence many Chinese diaspora still wrestled with the ancestral ties that in 1955 the Indonesian government asked them to choose. To their credit many of them did choose Indonesia then, and to our infantile foolishness 62 years later many Melayu Indonesians still view the grandkids of the Chinese diaspora who chose to stay as foreigners.

Maybe, if more Indonesians, Melayu and Chinese alike, venture out of Orchard shopping arcades or Universal Studios to visit Singapore museums we’ll come to appreciate our shared history and heritage better. It’s sad to note that both times I went to the Peranakan Museum for special exhibitions (there was one on antique Nyonya jewelry a few years ago), while many pieces originated in Nusantara they are now owned by foreign museums or private collectors. Where is the participation of Chinese Indonesian communities in these?

The same sentiments I couldn’t help feeling with the shipwreck exhibition in Asian Civilisation Museum. In 9th century a trading ship hailing from Abbasid Caliphate (now Iraq), on its way home after trading with the Tang Dynasty in China, sank near Belitung island. The fully-loaded shipwreck wasn’t discovered until 1998 by local Belitung divers, and in 2005 the Singapore government acquired it through the generous donation of the Estate of Khoo Teck Puat. Both the Singaporean government and people managing estate of wealthy people such as the late Mr Khoo quickly understood the importance of that ship to show how in 9th century Singapore was already a recognizable international port. Out of nearly 70,000 ceramics discovered almost intact in its cargo a handful bore Arabic letters, while 57,000 of them were kilns recognizably made at Changsa in Hunan Province.

Indonesia could’ve made the same claim. Looking from the detour it took from China to Middle East, the ship could’ve well been on its way for stopovers at Sriwijaya Kingdom in Palembang or even some northern ports of Java. A panel explained that in that time long-distanced trade ships only employed minimum native seamen, relying much on foreign crew working between ports in exchange for a passage. It was highly possible that many of the shipmates by the time of sinking were Chinese laborers catching a ride to Nusantara. The Changsa potteries alone have been discovered at archaeological sites in Java, and I bet there are still numerous ancient ships lying on Indonesian seabed. Now, I ask, where are the Indonesian government and Chinese Indonesian tycoons in excavating these treasures and put them as historical museum exhibitions for all Indonesians to learn from?

Perhaps one day we’ll grow up and learn. Perhaps one day we’ll be a better nation. Singapore museums to the rescue, until then. Sigh.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/05/06/urban-chat-old-nusantara-new-singapore.html

 

 

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