Monday, May 28, 2007

Shaft of Hope

After last week’s spa and massage experience I thought that I would move on to the indomitable subject of erections. Specifically, I decided to pay a visit to an oft seen but seldom scaled tourist attraction, Indonesia's national monument, Monas. I was inspired by a JP story this week informing me that Last Sunday (20th) was National Awakening Day and accordingly, a flag ceremony at Monas had been planned. Unfortunately, according to the story, the ceremony was cancelled at the last minute leaving various disappointed high school students sitting disconsolately under Sukarno's concrete phallus, falling asleep on National Awakening Day. This classic RI moment has been brought to you courtesy of the Jakarta Post.

Anyhoo, I disembarked from the busway and first had to gain access to the monument's surrounding park. Several years ago, the park was scrubbed clean of hawkers, vagrants and lady-boys and a fence erected around it in a bid for respectability. It seems to have worked and the grounds are now probably the most pleasantly peaceful place in the city to walk around. However, the deer that the governor introduced into the area seemed to have vanished. Perhaps they were poached in the dead of night and turned into venison satay or alternatively are now giving rides to kids around the perimeter of some plaza food court.

I approached the base of the monumental beast with a due sense of awe and trepidation. It's certainly a grand monument and a powerful national icon. I actually find the functional, rectilinear, modernist minimalism of the whole thing quite groovy. It's the same proud, uncluttered, futurist 60s aesthetic that you see in UK polytechnic buildings or Soviet apartment blocks from the same era. On another level though, the monument also exudes a rather monolithic, autocratic, Nietzschian will-to-power vibe. The grounds around the monument's base are in the process of being very tastefully landscaped gardened. To stretch the phallus metaphor: the new gardens act as a pubic foliage, signifying Indonesia's coming-of-age as a country (or troubled adolescence perhaps).

I bought a ticket and headed into the monument compound. I climbed aboard the elevator first and headed to the top viewing deck to check out the city. The view is indeed impressive although the leaden pall of smog hanging over the capital reduces visibility to a couple of kilometres or so. The people scurry below like ants, the trains pull out of Gambir and the busway buses plough precisely along the edge of the park. It's interesting how putting hundred meters of altitude between you and Jakarta ground zero makes everything appear to work with clockwork, toytown precision. The skyscrapers tower impressively and over in the corner of the park, the huge dome of the Istiqlal mosque bulges proudly like a single Hitlerian teste (to stretch the phallus metaphor so far now that it's in danger of snapping back in my face). I wish I could have stayed up there for a few days. Sleeping bag, flask, binoculars - it would revive my Jakarta appetite for sure.

After the view I headed back down to base camp to join the school kids traipsing around the monument's museum. It's called a museum but in fact there aren't actually any relics or artifacts on display. Instead, there are about 30 or 40 Dioramas (little model tableaus) depicting Indonesian history. It's all very interesting to walk around; however, there are a few bones of contention when we come to the Suharto era. One Diorama depicts,"The foil [sic] of the bloody coup of the Indonesian Communist Party," whilst another tells of how, "On May 1st 1963 the Dutch officially transferred to sovereignty over Irian Jaya to Indonesia through the United Nations Organization after a unanimous vote." The still persecuted children of PKI members and many in Irian (West Papua), not to mention various historians would probably dispute these facts. Official history is always written by its winners though, this much should be clear to most people.

Unfortunately, almost a decade after the fall of the great Suharto, Indonesia's democratic institutions still can't countenance any substantive debate on issues such as these. Books about Marxism or those questioning the official G30S communist coup version of history are swept off shelves or confiscated. Any social democrat organization to the left of Tony Blair (lots of room for maneuver there) are automatically branded communist and attacked by the usual goon squads. Only two months ago the Urban Poor Consortium were pelted with bricks over a demonstration outrageously demanding that the government simply live up to its millennium development promises

The whole reds under the bed thing is looking a little bit tired these days. The prospect of Indonesia going communist in 2007 is about as likely as me being invited for tea at the Palace by SBY because he really digs my weekly digs at his country. I mean, come on, Russian communism collapsed 18 years ago and as for China, well communism is about the only thing that the Chinese are not interested in exporting these days. Is it communism or truly representative democracy that's really feared here? Am I a shining wit or a spoonerism? Answers on a postcard please.

And so concludes another purple faced rant... only not quite because a new section has been added to the Monas Museum. Yes! It's a high-tech computerized stand depicting the clinical integrated efficiency of Jakarta's transport system and includes a busway network map with twinkling lights. There's also an amazing 3-D computer-generated model of what the monorail will look like when it's finished, although that’s currently looking about as likely as shiny eyed Kampung Marxists leading a long march across Java.

Monday, May 21, 2007

So Spa, So Good

Tucked away in many of the city's shopping complexes and commercial estates you can find that familiar Asian motif, the spa. Some are rather misleadingly called family health centers - spas are exclusively for the dads in my experience - while others have been nominally expanded into spa and karaoke joints. It's the karaoke part of the title here that carries with it certain, perhaps not unjustified, connotations of sleaze in this country. The reality of the spa though, seems to fall somewhere between the professed temple of family health and a place of much redder recreational lighting.

Jakarta's spas are mainly full of East Asian men: Koreans, Japanese and Indonesian Chinese, all sitting around stoically in functional blue regulation trunks like some Maoist swimming team. The only women here are the ones providing the massages (sorry, I'm having trouble locating the plural of the word 'masseuse') however, this doesn't necessarily imply any funny business. The spa is a normal part of oriental culture in the same way that occidental males may join a gentlemen's club: they both provide the opportunity to relax and to make new acquaintances and business contacts.

As a Brit, I've taken to the whole experience like a duck to very hot water, even though the spa hasn't really been a part of our culture since the Romans left, over a millennia ago. The occasional pale faces like myself, who visit the city's spas from time to time, find the experience novel and relaxing in equal measure.

Last weekend, an Indonesian friend took me and another lily livered Westerner to a spa in the Kota area that I had never been to before. After a couple of hours, I was able to restore myself to rude health again after a particularly heavy Saturday night spent toasting the new branch of Bugil's that has just opened in Pondok Indah. I must have sweated out several liters of free-flow beer by the end of the session.

The use of a spa's facilities usually costs between Rp.50,000 and Rp.100,000 for the whole day and this includes everything except a massage which inevitably costs extra. I like to start in the fitness room and spend some time on the various fancy, high-tech exercise machines. There are usually weights, a treadmill, a cycling machine and that strange kind of walking up the stairs device. Last Sunday, after about half an hour's worth of building up a sweat and aimlessly pushing the space shuttle flight deck array of buttons on the machines in a vain attempt to make sense of the various calorie burn statistics and energy output readouts, it was time to get wet.

The main spa room is where the serious relaxation begins. Often tastefully decorated in mock Greco Roman frescos and blue skies and clouds painted idyllically on the ceiling, you can indulge yourself in hot and cold plunge pools as well as the usual sauna and steam rooms until your head starts to swim and your muscles start to glow. Alternating between the hot and cold pools is a favorite of mine. The body seems to reach a state of tingling temperature equilibrium after a few switches and after an hour or so you are in a Zen state of blissful relaxation.

The sauna and steam room help you to sweat out those local beer formaldehyde toxins. Personally though, I don't seem to have much of a tolerance for the high temperatures. My record in a sauna is about 3 1/2 minutes with several damp flannels draped over my face. Some of these Korean gentlemen seem to be made of asbestos however and spend simply ages sitting there, ladling water onto the hot coals with inscrutable expressions on their faces.
All towels, trunks, sandals, flannels, toiletries, drinking water and dinky little kimono dressing gowns are supplied at your average spa so there's no need to bring anything with you.

After the fitness and spa sessions, you can head up to the usually darkened ambience of the lounge room and watch what will be a huge TV screen whilst ordering a meal or a drink. Then you can decide whether to opt for the massage or not. The basic massage may cost Rp.50,000 and upwards and will be in a semipublic, partitioned cubicle (so little chance of anything fruity occurring). The massage may involve the use of mystic oils, magic balms and/or the masseuse hanging off bars attached to the ceiling and trampling all over your back. For my part, I'm not that convinced of the therapeutic benefits of such oriental spinal stampings but they seem to enable the Japanese to live to a ripe old age. No pain, no gain I guess.

Other, higher standards of massages (and karaoke of course) take place behind closed doors and it may be here that the ancient art of massage dovetails with an even older profession. In all honesty, I have never gone for the "full" treatment myself, preferring to seek out my jollies in more conventional social situations. However, various acquaintances of mine have referred rather horribly to their experiences of enjoying, "A rub and a tug," behind closed doors. Please don't ask me what on earth this delightful phrase means; the spa has already parboiled my pink skin once this week and I've no wish to land myself in even hotter water.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Only Rp.99,999

The local advertising industry has been in the news recently. A new regulation has come into force stipulating that advertising agencies should only use domestic actors, actresses, locations, etc when making their commercials.

The Indonesian advertising industry is purported to be worth some 40 trillion rupiah per year and is also apparently dominated by foreign companies, so perhaps this is fair enough. If the country succeeds in developing a domestic advertising industry then I hope that's it will be goodbye to the children of mixed Western and Indonesian marriages who advertise skin whitening products under false and racially rather dodgy pretences.

The veracity of local adverts will not, however, ultimately be addressed by this regulation. One English friend of mine, for example, who once appeared in a miraculous hair dye advert in what I thought was a rather obvious wig will just as easily be replaced by the faux follicles of an Indonesian slap head. Foreign or local actors? What does it matter; there's still a lot of hokum and snake oil out there being bought.

Apparently though, established icons, such as the Marlboro cowboy, will be exempt from the new regulation on the grounds that, "no suitable cowboy in Indonesia could replace him." I'm not so sure about that myself; the builders who recently did some work on our house perhaps have the relevant cowboy credentials necessary (and they smoked a lot to) but I'm getting off the point.

The idea of icons in advertising is a fascinating one though. Adverts are pregnant with signs, symbols and connotations and resonate with all kinds of cultural meanings in their attempts to get consumers to identify with their products. Advertising agencies raid reference systems for visual and musical signifiers. Reference systems designate shared systems of knowledge, social stereotypes and widely recognized cultural symbols that all, consciously or unconsciously, connect with the viewer.

Famous dead gay French theorist (aren't they all), Roland Barthes, famously turned his theories of semiotics (the study of signs) away from literature and applied them to cultural artifacts and adverts in his book Mythologies. With fascinating and hilarious consequences he teased out the hidden subtexts and cultural assumptions that underlie the symbolic order of our commercial world.

In one example Barthes, being French, looked at the symbolic meanings attached to wine in his country. Wine, says Barthes, is not just one drink among others in France but a ' totem' drink, equivalent to the milk of the Dutch cow or the tea ceremoniously taken by the British royal family. Wine is thus not only a drink but the foundation of a collective morality. For the French, to believe in wine is a, “Coercive collective act," and drinking it is a ritual of social integration. Substitute the word wine with the rice and we have the Indonesian equivalent. In generating these mystical meanings, cultures seek to make their own socially constructed norms seem like facts of nature.

Indonesian advertisements are ripe with such symbolism and second order meaning. Watching the endless ads (which often seem to add up to as much total time as the programs themselves) on one morning last week, all the familiar cultural signifiers were paraded across the screen ready for deconstruction.

Firstly, I was presented with a chili sauce adverts that takes place in a traditional market over a stall selling real chilies. The Pasar (market) is a common motif in Indonesian commercials and seems to symbolically encapsulate the Pribumi ‘sons of the soil’ mindset. The image presented is one of nature's bounty; a place where all of Indonesia's great fertility is focused in a social arena of reverent nationality and celebration. In reality we all know that most markets are smelly, chaotic places full of thugs who extort the traders and steal people's wallets. However the advert seems to say, "Buy our chili and buy your own little piece of the Indonesian soil dream." The real chilies in the ad further serve to link the product with Indonesian fecundity, belying the fact that the stuff more closely resembles radioactive nuclear waste ground into an orange paste and is nothing like the real thing.

Then we had a couple of drug commercials representing the pharmacological free-for-all that is the Indonesian drug market. Diarrhea medicine was codified by a man walking through a field of green tea. This natural image connotes a holistic, homoeopathic approach to medicine and seems to suggest that one's bowels will be gently purged of toxins whilst health is restored to you, ready for your next fix of street gutter satay.

The ensuing paracetamol advert took the opposite tack however, by stressing the potency of the product. A woman is trapped in a vision of hell when her car breaks down in the Jakarta rush hour. The angry pain circles radiating out from her forehead can only be subdued by the tablets in question. Personally I reckon that nothing short of a morphine drip feed or sawing your head off would actually subdue such a Jakarta traffic headache but there you go. Dirty, smelly reality intrudes into this commercial but is soon tamed by the product under discussion. The seamless utopian dreams of the advertising paradigm are soon reinstated.

Milk formula ads are always rich in symbolism in this country too. The one I saw featured all the usual flying mini globes circling the screen with the names of chemical elements stamped on them. These molecular totems serve to lend the product the deep scientific legitimacy needed to persuade the parents of six-year-olds that formula milk is vital for their children's health, despite the fact that their kids have had teeth for four years and thus can actually chew on real food.

Oh my God. The commercials seemed to stretch on and on like some surreal deodorized hyper-world. I was also presented with dandruff the size of golf balls, sanitary towels as soft as a gossamer wings and ' typical' Indonesian families chugging down various breakfast cereals and rice dishes in houses the size of the presidential Palace.

Anyway, I must sign off now, I have a strange craving for some instant noodles.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Green Revolution

This week, two new city initiatives have been hitting the headlines. Firstly, the great Jakartan transport crisis is about to be solved once and for all by the imminent arrival of commuter boats on the city's rivers. Have no fear readers, I will be donning a gas mask and enjoying the delights of one of these sewage cruises when they materialize. Last week however, I had to be content with checking out the newly opened park in Menteng. The park has been hailed, with typical Jakarta Council hubris, as the start of a re-greening revolution in the city. Whether they'll ever get round building any more parks in less affluent areas of town only time will tell.

Anyway, I hobbled up to Menteng last Sunday for a stroll around the new public space, which has been constructed on the former pitch of local soccer team Persija (who are understandably less than thrilled by the whole thing). There's been a big hullabaloo surrounding the park's opening which is indicative of just how rare an event this is. This is the first park I can remember opening in town in 10 years. Compare this with the multitude of plazas which have sprung up in that time and it's hard to say how the re-greening of Jakarta will fare against the mighty beast of commerce.

The park can be found at the top end of the Menteng strip, which for years has been a popular hangout for late-night motorists looking for a meal to eat in their cars. The hawkers have now been banished to a side road however. Yes, the fried rice and baso (meat balls) brigade may have infiltrated every single nook and cranny of this huge metropolis but if there's now a public space in which it is possible to sit without your eyes streaming from satay smoke and decaying food leftovers being dumped everywhere then,”Bravo” I say.

The park houses a multi-storey car park with spaces for 150 cars. This end of Menteng however is not connected to a busway. Once again the bigger picture evades Jakarta's leaders and the park and ride option goes begging. This is pretty much par for the course here though. Look up the word piecemeal in the dictionary and you'll find a little aerial photo of Indonesia's capital. Menteng is also just about the only area of town that already has parks in it, so maybe the district is a slightly strange choice of location from this perspective as well.

I was in a positive mood though and full of Sunday cheer as I ambled into the park after consuming a huge pizza next door. Upon entering, one is initially confronted with two vast neo-Bauhaus, hyper modernist greenhouses. They look sensational but were alas empty when I visited. They will supposedly be full of flowers soon though and to be fair, the city does plant a few good displays of blooms from time to time, although they are usually confined to the streets abutting the National Monument, Monas.

The areas around the greenhouses were absolutely jam-packed with Jakartans when I visited. The park's newness and comparative cleanliness ensured, however, that the ambience of the place remained just the right side of a Palestinian refugee camp. There is a children's playground, a large concrete play area incorporating two basketball courts, an elegant fountain and some pleasant lawns to sit on. All very commendable, although the park is still tiny in comparison with city parks in other countries.

One thing that my colleagues and I noticed immediately however, was the lack of dustbins in the place. There wasn't a single one and the rubbish was already starting to be trampled into the new grass. It's all very well accusing Indonesians of being bad litterers (which I frequently do... because they are) but if there are no rubbish bins then what do you expect?

Despite a few misgivings and a depressing lack of ducks to feed, I hope that the park survives and isn't bulldozed over in 12 months time to make way for a branch of Starbucks and a spa and brothel complex. Let's hope the government doesn’t get cold feet over their re-greening plans when they realize how much money they are losing by turning vacant plots into parks instead of selling them off to the highest bidders. Maybe the parks will even foment a revolution. I have a dream of hordes of people stumbling out of the plazas en masse and marching, blinking in the sunlight, into the peace of their nearest park. There, they will sit around on park benches discussing Marx and Chekhov, like some William Morris workers’ paradise, whilst their mobile phone atrophied brains wake up to their own common humanity. They will then march on Parliament and seize control. Er...sorry, it was labour day this week comrades and perhaps I'm getting a bit carried away. Vive le green revolution.

Simon Pitchforth