Sunday, August 31, 2008

Lame, Set and Match

Lovers of life's ludic side and of the ennobling spirit of gladiatorial jousting that takes place in the sporting arena haven't had much to smile about in Indonesia of late. The country achieved its gold medal in the Olympics admittedly but apart from that it's been a pretty poor show.

I hardly know where to start with this week's querulous explosion of indignant fury but will take a stab at the football first. English Premier League fans, of which there are an awful lot in this country, have been left sitting with their collective thumbs up their backsides for a second season running while the murky machinations of standard Indonesian business practice grind to a familiar halt.

Last season, soccer enthusiasts were forced to change cable providers to the hapless Astro at the last minute (actually several minutes after the season had started). The Malaysia based company had acquired the exclusive rights to the EPL and held total sway over those wanting to enjoy Manchester United and Chelsea spend a combined total equivalent to the national debt of several African countries in their bid for glory. Astro also promptly removed all free English soccer broadcasts from Indonesia's terrestrial channels, depriving Indonesia's soccer loving masses of some free entertainment. This brought the country into line with England itself and its pay-per-view television regime tightly controlled by the jackbooted dictatorship of Rupert Murdoch from his secret volcano lair in the Pyrenees.

At least Astro had bought the EPL rights for two seasons though... or so everyone thought. It turns out however that Astro have now lost the broadcasting rights to a company called Aora, another Johnny come lately that no one has ever heard of before. Currently, with the season well under way, most people are still without their beloved football as Aora shambles out of the starting blocks two weeks after the gun has gone off.

Aora are offering cable subscribers a whopping 12 channels (be still my beating heart!) Four of which are dedicated to the Olympics (already finished) and a further two to ESPN and Stars Sport. This leaves a massive six channels of Oprah Winfrey for the ladies presumably. Still interested? Super. Rp.1.7 million and Aora's yours for the year. Oh, just one more thing, you have to transfer the Rp.1.7 million first and Aora promise to be round within three days with the decoder. There's one born every minute apparently.

Meanwhile, in a truly audacious twist of Kafka-esque late capitalist bureaucracy, Astro are requiring a Rp.400,000 fee for the cancellation of their service. I had to close the curtains and lie down in a darkened room for half an hour when I heard that one.

At least the Olympics were being screened by TVRI though. I could surely enjoy the Beijing games and the magnificent performances of the British team who did all of us Limeys proud this year couldn't I?

Alas TVRI's Olympic coverage proved to be some of the most inept broadcasting that I've ever witnessed on Indonesian TV (and that's saying something). TVRI apparently don't have the money to invest in an autocue as most of their presenters could be seen clearly reading from pieces of paper. One of the female presenters would even habitually follow the text with her index finger. However she fared better than some of her male colleagues who often appeared to lose their pieces of paper altogether and, on one occasion at least, could be seen scrabbling around looking for them whilst muttering, "Nggak ada Pak" (They're not here boss).

The editing and scheduling also beggared belief. The final few seconds of a crucial volleyball match were interrupted by several besuited TVRI types announcing that their channel was going digital. The TVRI top brass then strolled into the studio next door and shambled around aimlessly whilst the show's presenter proceeded to fawn all over them, seemingly forgetting that he was still live on air.

Other classic moments of televisual gold, among many, included 10 minutes of crowd shots without sound in the Velodrome, a five-minute impressionistic still life of an empty Taekwondo mat, the cutting away from Beijing icon Usain Bolt's 200 m semi-final in order to screen beach volleyball and the missing of the crucial concluding seconds of the water polo final in order to show the news (on which there was no sound for the first three minutes).

One feels sorry for Markis Kido and Hendra Setiawan who were triumphant in scoring Indonesia's only gold medal in the badminton doubles. At least someone was making an effort. Surely after beating the Chinese and their Gulag style training regime they deserved better than this?
According to the JP only 30 fans were there to meet the returning shuttlers at the airport. They were probably outnumbered by Kido and Setaiwan’s coaches and entourage. TVRI are largely responsible for this I believe. Anyhoo, I'm off to play tiddly-winks. I'll be back with another bronze medal winning tirade next week.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Carnival is Over

After the leafy, expensive restaurant lined gaiety of the Kemang festival two weeks ago, but I thought a bit of compare and contrast would be in order. So, in order to demonstrate my social mobility, I exchanged by designer label boxer shorts for moth eaten Y-fronts last weekend and headed to this year's Jalan Jaksa Festival, officially known as the Festival Seni dan Budaya 2008 (Art and Culture Festival 2008).

Ironically located uptown of the bourgeois bolthole of Kemang, Jalan Jaksa is ostensibly Jakarta's backpacker central. Backpacker numbers have dropped off in Indonesia over the past decade, this is possibly due to global perceptions of the country but also no doubt because so many young people are far too busy with their Face Book accounts these days to bung a few pairs of socks in a rucksack and head out on a global gallivant.

Jaksa is also frequented by many more permanent foreign residents of Jakarta as well of course who head to the strip (located just south of the national monument, Monas) in search of cheap booze, cheap food and even cheaper conversation.

I personally love the place and can enjoy chatting to my comrades there over a cheap Bintang without the expense, deafening sub woofers and achingly hip poseurs of the city's trendier clubs spoiling my evening. In darker moods however I tend to see Jaksa as a dangerously inflammatory mix of alcoholic whiteys, unconvincing female impersonators, female-female impersonators, dodgy local gangster types and the kind of Africans who are often arrested for illegal, "Horse," trading (if you catch my drift).

Nevertheless, the street will always hold a special place in my affections and has just recently been enlivened by some new businesses. Cocktail and Friends is a pleasant and relaxing outdoor cocktail bar, the popular KL Village serve some great Malaysian food and just round the corner on Jl. Wahid Hasyim, Melly's Bar is proving popular with both locals and expatriates alike. The future of Jaksa remains uncertain though as rumors of impending Carrefour supermarket developments and some much dreaded gentrification continue to circulate.

But what of this year's festival itself? Well, despite being considerably smaller than the recent Kemang festival in terms of scale, the energy levels seemed equally high. The street was thronging when I rocked up in my classic, orange, emphysema inducing Bajaj. A large stage had been erected and several local bands were battling it out. Some expatriate acquaintances of mine were also playing a set under the charming moniker of Bob Viagra and the Terrorists. Hmmm.

Moving right along there were plenty of small stalls selling clothes, jewellery, knick-knacks and food which served to add a bit of color to the inevitable impersonal cigarette and mobile phone network promotions. Muslim apparel was on offer for more pious Jaksa heads and there were some lovely displays of traditional costumes.

It was the rock star T-shirts that really caught my eye however. Jalan Jaksa has long housed an infamous hairdresser called Piss Salon complete with a neon lit sign planted proudly outside. The salon's owners remain seemingly unaware that they cannot spell the word, "Peace," correctly, either that or they can’t be arsed to change it. Alas this unfortunate phonetic misspelling seems to be spreading. At the festival I came across a stall selling T-shirts promoting the iconic Indonesian rock band Slank. The garments in question proudly bore the legends, "Slank Say Piss," and, "Slank Baby Piss". The latter T-shirt also featured a picture of a seemingly dry infant. Perhaps this is all deliberate though and the group are in fact moving away from their former hippie idealism and pursuing a more anarchic, "Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols," type direction.

The festival did indeed rock hard and even the street's famous bearded Cambodian parking attendant seemed to awaken from his familiar standing slumber stance.

Halfway down the strip I came across a young local guide offering tourist information and daily trips around Jakarta and Java. He implored me to give him a plug to my 10 readers. He informed me that his name was, rather implausibly, Rocky Montana although on his leaflets I found out that it was in fact, Adi Pagessa. Interesting green horns should e-mail

After a hearty local Batavian snack of Kerak Telor (perennially weird egg type thing) I dived into one of the street bars and slaked my thirst until the wee small hours. The carnival season continues next week's folks with my report on the city's Independence Day festivities. Hopefully Bob Viagra and his Terrorists will be back for another set of Crystal Gale covers then.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Smell of the Crowd, the Roar of the Greasepaint.

No Jakarta Post this Sunday as it's Independence Day. Here's something from the archives though:

The ritual humiliation of the Bule on Indonesian TV has proved to be an entertaining diversion for the local populace. I have friends who have appeared in both Sinetron soap operas and advertisements and the new show Bu. Gil. (Bule Gila or crazy Westerner) has just upped the anti by getting local expats to make complete tits of themselves being Bajaj drivers and cigarette vendors for a day.

However, the chance to get my fizog onto the big screen in a proper movie (albeit as a humble extra) was something I just couldn't pass up. The romance of celluloid was a powerful enticement to my participation in the project although not everyone felt the same way. The friends that my buddy Peter and I promised to bring to the shooting to make up the numbers, failed to materialize, and there then followed a two-hour intermission whilst some of the production crew burned down to Jalan Jaksa to pick up a few more itinerant Bules. The extra whiteys duly arrived, although some of them were clearly a bit the worse for wear after an afternoon of high living on the street of broken dreams.

The movie was called Ca Bau Kan, a period drama set in old Batavia during the Dutch colonial era, hence the need for us lilly-white thespians. The star of the film was Ferry Salim, a famous Indonesian actor who seems to be presenting just about every tacky quiz show on TV these days.

In order to confer the movie an authentic colonial ambience, some of the scenes were being shot in the lovely old Gedung Arsip building in Kota. After being made up by some charming young ladies, it was off to the wardrobe department to don some authentic 19th-century togs. I shoehorned myself into an ill fitting but extremely smart long tailed jacket and formal chemise and waited for our scene to start shooting.

There then followed the inevitable delay. The combination of all the usual technical hitches and disruptions found on a film set with Indonesian Jam Karet (rubber time) meant that we didn't get to strut our stuff until gone 9 PM. However, myself and the other extras quite enjoyed strolling around the old, colonial building in period costume as if we had been projected backwards in time. We even got to meet the leading man, Mr. Salim himself, who seemed to be an affable kind of a guy and not at all haughty or megalomaniacal. It was also fascinating to watch a movie set in action.

Eventually our time came and we were ushered onto the set. My fellow extras and I were playing the jury in a courtroom scene. Our one dramatic task was to applaud Ferry's character's speech before being silenced by the recalcitrant judge's gavel. After 4 or 5 takes it was in the can and we all gathered round one of the cameras to view the rushes.

We were each given a token Rp.250,000 for our trouble before changing back into our modern clothes and heading out into Kota's smog. It had been a memorable experience on the whole. It may not have paid as well as a Pepsodent commercial that it was certainly a more culturally rewarding brush with fame.

After all that, it was off to the cinema six months later in order to spot my five second contribution to a 90 minute movie. Ah well, even Robert De Niro had to start somewhere.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Green Streets

This week I toddled off to the Kemang Festival which was being held just around the corner from MM Towers (I’m always willing to go that extra mile for the column you understand). The Kemang Festival is a classic summer celebration of street life in the manner of other famous world city fests such as West London's iconic Notting Hill Carnival, albeit on not quite the same scale and with considerably fewer sub woofers shaking the foundations of nearby buildings.

During the festival, Jl. Kemang Raya was closed off to traffic from McDonalds all the way down to Pizza Hut a couple of kilometers down the road. Despite being book ended by these two US corporate behemoths, the festival itself was a celebration of small-scale businesses from the kind of cheap clothing that can be found in any shopping plaza at the less interesting end of the spectrum to some rather more fun handicrafts, curios and ethnic objets d'art.

I ambled down the street checking out various stalls of wickerwork knickknacks before coming across my old friend Mr John, probably the only pale face to be running his own stall. Mr John has an interesting little sideline knocking out smartly framed classic albums and their sleeves to Jakarta's rock 'n' roll cognoscenti. Interested punters should search for Vinyl obsessions on their browser and check out Mr John's lovely homepage which he assured me took him many patient hours wrestling with Dreamweaver and hundreds of cups of coffee to produce.

I rested awhile and watched a smartly dressed marching band pass by. Unfortunately, Kemang isn't nearly wide enough to accommodate a real carnival complete with floats parading down its length. A friend of mine suggested that they might be able to manage it by clearing a few stalls out of the way. They could call it, "Karnival Kemang Nusantara" or KKN for Short (Ho Ho).

Despite the narrow road and the seething multitudes I nevertheless saw five gas powered Bajaj slowly parading their way down the street. Along with specially designated rubbish bins for organic and inorganic trash, these five mean machines were a manifestation of this year's green themed festival. Alas the five vehicles that I saw probably represented the entire fleet of gas Bajaj. I very rarely seem to see these odor free green cuties around and Jakarta’s streets still seem to be dominated by the original orange three wheeled garbage incinerators. I wish the city administration would invest a little bit more money in these environmentally friendly alternatives.

I strolled on a little more and came across the music stage. At that moment a Death Metal band were bellowing obscenities and achieving the impressive 10 snare drum hits per second required of the genre. I'm not sure how green this music is as it's the sort of din that could seemingly make your lawn curl up and die.

Just next to this apocalyptic roar I spied the Westerners' enclave. Several otiose whiteys were living up to Indonesian preconceptions about us infidels and ripping into plastic beakers of ale outside the groaningly named Apaka Bar. I popped in for an hour or so; well it would be rude not to have said hello and it was damnably hot down there in Kemang.

As the evening set in a few drops of rain fell but luckily it did little to spoil what had been a day of great cheer and jollity. Jakarta is a city of much street level smiling despite the often appalling conditions of poverty that exist amid its suburban sprawl.

This city can be the stuff of nightmares and, as every horror movie buff knows, you need an element of the familiar and friendly to make a real nightmare. It has to be your best friend barbecuing cats over the stove, it has to be your mother being sliced up by hooded ninjas.

In Indonesia this element of the friendly and familiar is the Indonesian people themselves, unwaveringly nice folk: cheerful, hospitable, polite. Even the police are nice to you when they are not extorting or beating someone up. The begging kids forced onto the street by hoodlums will beam at you at the traffic lights. Poor wretches sifting through mounds of garbage looking for plastic bottles will give you a cheery, "Hello Mister."

It's an insane world alright. Readers wishing to enjoy more street level fun and squalor should pop along to the Jalan Jaksa festival which should be running today (8th and 9th of August).

Monday, August 04, 2008

Lazy Sod

I've been on holiday and have consequently been too busy tanning my arse and drinking Pina Coladas to write a column this week. Rest assured I'll be back next week with more querulous and potentially libelous material. In the mean time here is a BBC test card: