Monday, May 28, 2012

Tong-Tong Fair

I have been attending the Tong-Tong Fair (formerly known as the Pasar Malam Besar) fairly regularly since the 1990s, and have written about it (briefly) in my book The Komedie Stamboel. This is an annual celebration of Indonesian, Indo and Indies colonial culture that takes place in the Malieveld, a big field fronting the Central Station of the Hague. 

Word on the street has it that Tong-Tong has run into financial trouble as of late in large part due to declining audience figures. The Indonesian embassy now runs its own Pasar Malam (dubbed Pasar Malam Indonesia) in the same space, even using tents that closely resemble Tong-Tong's, charging lower entry rates, and with (people say) better food. 

Tong-Tong has always bordered on the kitsch. Its central tent is cluttered with vendors selling the sorts of souvenirs one buys on Kuta Beach or Jalan Malioboro. Tshotshkes, we would call such items when I was growing up. Much of the Indonesian food on sale is watered down for Dutch taste. Entertainments on offer range from the embarrassing to touchingly nostalgic to excitingly new.

The Malieveld is a pleasant 50 minute cycle ride from my base at NIAS and the proximity allowed me to visit 5 times - more than I've ever been in past years. 

The most important work of art to be presented was We Came from the East by JeckoSDANCE, which combined street dance (popping and hip hop) with Papua 'tribal' dance based on animal movements (pictured above). This was supported by a number of funding sources. The Fair's complained about visibility (low lights, a lot of floor work) and some were probably mystified by Jecko's postmodern collage aesthetic. Dancers were also uneven in quality -some of the men were very strong, while a number of the women had less energy. A workshop with local street dancers showed that Jecko's movement style is not very culture specific- non-Indonesian dancers responded quickly and ably to his choreographies. 

Harrison & Gamelan was a concert programme by Widosari, with a few compositions by American composer Lou Harrison for gamelan and sax and some standard gamelan numbers. All compositions were diligently performed, but did not inspire. I saw the first performance; the gamelan's director Elsje Plantema complained of a rushed sound check and said the second one went better. 

More interesting was the multi-media piece Douwes by the Bandung-based collective Behind the Actors. (Pictured above.) This teater play was based on a Vincent Mahieu short story about a meek husband who murders his overbearing wife and combined film animation, topeng dance, wayang golek, teater acting, keroncong and gamelan. The blend was not always convincing, but provided some food for thought. I got a chance to do a brief wayang golek workshop with the company's puppeteer (Acep) and also spoke to him at the stand run by the collective about his background and some of the choices made. (For example, why the narrator was a buta puppet, why Semar was used for the sukma of the dead wife.) I got to see the show twice, which allowed me to study its techniques - including the interactions of humans and puppets. 

Behind the Actors were designated artists in residence at the Fair, and I also saw them do a 'dangdut' show, which actually combined dangdut and keroncong. (Pictured above.)

Other shows I caught (in whole and in part) included a Pacific island dance troupe, a nostalgic cabaret concert by Anneke Gronloh (pictured above), a batik carnival with songs by the 14-year-old Diah Ayu Lestari from Solo, bits and pieces of the various Indorock bands that played in the Indorock Cafe and the Tong-Tong Podium, Balinese dance by the Dutch company Dwi Bhumi, pencak silat from Maastricht (some well choreographed moved, but ngawur gamelan playing), a concert of nostalgic colonial-era songs and Colin McPhee's Balinese piano arrangements by Duo Merpati, arrangements of some of songs of the same sort for a jazz combo called Parekata and a superb concert by the jazz quartet Boi Akih (below).

There was a lot I missed -- including a talk by Jakarta chick-lit author Ayu Utami, a reading by the great Indo author and film maker Marion Bloem and a dance group from Boven Digul. 

Quality control is definitely a problem - some of the artwork on offer was of a very high standard, other entertainments felt to me to be under-rehearsed and even amateur. Food also ranged from the barely edible to the superb. (My favourite food stand by far was a little outfit that specialised in tahu products, including excellent tahu goreng with an accompanying kecap sauce.)

But the intentions of the Tong-Tong Fair are still good, and I for one can't resist a sing-along version of Nina Bobo. The Fair still struggles in defining itself for and has trouble reaching out to the so-called derde generatie of the Indo community. Perhaps more space should be given to discussion, debate and controversy rather than presentation (and marketing) of product?

No comments: