Culture goes missing

by: Janice Tai

AFTER reading about the month-long Jakarta Fair — held each year around this time to celebrate the city’s anniversary — I was glad I finally made it there last weekend.

The fair is a vibrant and colourful gathering of stalls, performances, music and food. The fairgrounds are huge, overwhelming even. Think five times the size of Singapore Expo.

Some 2,500 companies and government bodies are taking part this year. There are 13 exhibition “zones”, parking space for 9,000 cars and 25,000 motorcycles and 600 toilets.

The fair’s organizer is gunning for 3.5 million visitors this year, and hoping that total transactions top last year’s by 20 per cent, to hit Rp 3 trillion (S$462 million).

The exhibition zones are organized according to theme and that helps much in navigating, although there is much oddball merchandise that does not really belong.

For example, you would find grandfather clocks and jewellery among a section purportedly devoted to furniture. Or fish food and air filters next to a section selling Batik clothes. Honey among the souvenirs and handicrafts. Fishing tools distinctively out of place with the handbags. You get the idea.
Somehow, that reminded me uncannily of the city – chaotic, but only for the uninitiated. The locals seem to find order among the chaos, going by the way they breeze through it all.

That was what made the fair interesting for me. You never knew what was around the next corner and I could browse through a cross section of products from various industries.

Heck, I thought, you can even buy a motorbike, rent a property, book a tour or change some of your Singapore dollars into rupiah. If the heat is getting to you, a massage in an air-conditioned room is just a few steps away.

However, I was hoping to soak up some culture and I came away disappointed.

It felt like traditional culture was being used as a gimmick to lure the unwitting tourist to part with his dollar — with cultural symbols commodified into mass-produced handicrafts and souvenirs.

The only interesting and authentic products to me were pletok beer (a betawi drink that does not contain alcohol, despite its name) and dodol (a traditional sweet) from West Jakarta.

I was hoping to hear some dangdut (popular Indonesian music with Arab, Indian and rock influences) music but had to settle for concerts featuring Indonesian singers and music groups.

There was also a beauty pageant to search for the next “Ms Jakarta Fair” with organizers claiming that the winner would be an icon to “preserve Indonesian heritage”.

I was puzzled as to how that would work, since all the girls had to do were to answer questions on fashion and beauty and strut the catwalk.

Consumerism was the order of the day. Everyone was just busy hunting down for bargains.

One of the few cultural elements of the fair — a barongsai (Chinese lion dance) performance — attracted a weak crowd which soon dispersed.

I was told that while there was a lot more culture in the fairs in the 1960s and 1980s, the event seemed to have turned into a sales and business exhibition — with major consumer brands, and automotive and home appliance manufacturers.

As I left the fair — clutching my bag of Batik dresses, at 50 per cent off, no less — to head back into the traffic gridlock, it felt like the Jakarta fair, though interesting, had apparently lost its cultural soul.



About indonesianurbanfamily

We are a young, Indonesian urban family who are exposed to many things in our lives. This is what we see, hear, think, feel and desire.
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