Regional Survey

Regional Survey Jogjakarta, Penang, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Chiang Dao: a diary of food, art, and lanterns Fahmi Fadzil In November 2005, nearly 70 arts practitioners from around the Asian region assembled in Kuala Lumpur. They were here for the Asian Youth Artsmall (AYA) programme: more than a week’s worth of workshops, analysis, theory, reflexivity — and, above all else, camaraderie. AYA, organised by Five Arts Centre for Arts Network Asia, aimed to bring together practitioners, who use the visual and performing arts to work with young people in their communities, in the hopes that such a coming-together would inspire new networks and relationships: a sharing of stories and strategies — as well as to concentrate the documentation and development of the works of these (mostly) young practitioners.

But AYA did more than that. By physically convening a workshop in Kuala Lumpur, it also afforded a space for practitioners to identify kindred spirits, and in doing so, chart out possible paths into the future.

This is one such story.

The “Jalan-Jalan, Makan-Makan” Expedition

June 2006: Malaysians (especially the adventurous Gan Siong King) from the AYA organising team begin to plan for a trip to visit our friends in Indonesia and Thailand at the end of the year, with the intention to cycle to and in these places, and eat as much good, local food as possible — and to hang out with friends, of course.

After some deliberation and consideration (and much to our relief), the cycling portion was abandoned so that we can actually try to have a good, relaxing time (working full-time in the arts is no fun and games).

December 20th, 2006: A contingent of nine Malaysians depart for Jogjakarta, via Solo. While in Solo, our first meal was wonderful Solo fare: nasi pecel, and after a brief walk in the neighbourhood, satay kambing muda! Our bellies temporarily sated, we undertook an hour-long train- and taxi-ride to arrive at our first stop: the KUNCI Cultural Studies Centre, a tight operation within a three-story office / production house / library / humble abode on the outskirts of downtown Jogjakarta.

Among other things, KUNCI is a cultural studies organization that surveys the impact of popular culture on youth and young people, as well as dissecting contemporary happenings and events (such as the recent spate of anti-pornography protests in Indonesia, and what it actually means for Indonesians young and old).

Most of their thoughts and writings are compiled in an online magazine, as well as various publications and academic journals. KUNCI sees the importance of implementing theory to practice, and this is often conveyed in their community arts projects in the surrounding kampungs, with partners such as Anak Wayang Indonesia (AWI). KUNCI’s programming manager (the happy-go-lucky Antariksa) is also AWI’s director (as resources and networks are shared easily — or are available only sparingly).

KUNCI’s director and our good host, Nuraini Juliastuti (or Nuning), immediately threw us into the thick of things: a 10-minute bus ride away was the site of Pak Pong (the Pesta Anak Kampong), a week-long free arts program conducted by AWI with the children of Kampong Juminahan. Among the reveries were painting workshops (and an exhibition of the participants’ works) and a Wayang Suket-making workshop (where Wayang puppets were crafted from dried field grass, called suket) — all in the space of a small, tented badminton court between kampong houses.

(That was when we were reminded of the inescapable, immediate past: the May 2006, 5.9 Richter scale earthquake that struck Jogja. Bantul, one of the hardest hit areas, was only a few kilometers away from where KUNCI operated. In fact, AWI’s Bantul office was completely leveled, leaving them to operate out of Juminahan, in a 3-room house next to the badminton court. (KUNCl’s office also bore the mark of the quake, with cracks snaking up the wall of its living room / library)

Not long after the initial chaos of the quake, we in Malaysia received a list of things they needed help with — and, along with other friends, we sent a little bit of money. This was eventually used to buy a tent — the same tent used at the Pak Pong.)

Badminton and Young Dalangs

After imbibing some sense of AWI’s work within the Juminahan community, we were taken to Kedai Kebun: a combination of art gallery, meeting space, and restaurant -­ with a badminton court on the first floor to boot. We visited twice: the first night, to see an art exhibition; and the next, to defend the honour of our country on the badminton court — we lost horrendously, mostly because we just weren’t ready. Can you imagine, some of us hadn’t touched a badminton racket since finishing SPM (and some of us got done with that stage of our lives sooner than the rest of the group, too!), so it’s not surprising to see the Indonesians defeating us with such ease.

Of course, some of us knew the slaughter that was to come, and decided to just take pictures instead (I’m not naming names).

Apparently this community of Jogjakartan artists play on a weekly basis. It was amazing — yet not impossible, this being Indonesia — that such functional juxtapositions (consumption, art appreciation, sweat) could take place in one compound.

In many ways, the Indonesian leg of our expedition reminded us of how close some forms of art can be to the pulse of a community, like Pak Pong — and how, in some instances, the community could itself embody the performance. Could this troupe of badminton-crazy arts practitioners be one such embodiment?

We witnessed a few performances in a school field in Kaliurang — a spit’s distance to the ever volatile Gunung Merapi — at the Festival Anak Dusun: from a marching band, walking on stilts; to a highly interactive and evolved form of Wayang Suket by the masterful dalang Slamet Gundono. All of these reflected the spaces that art can create in order to sustain its continuity and its community.

On our last night in Jogja, and after six packed days together (where we also visited Borobudur, as is customary for foreigners), a few of us unrelentingly went to the final night of Pak Pong. We witnessed a 14-year-old dalang whose name I unfortunately cannot immediately recall perform an episode of Wayang Purwa — a lakon entitled “Semar Bangun Kahyangan” (or “Semar Raises the Heavens”); where Semar, the eldest and most revered of the panakawan (or caretakers), helps a family in distress, and in leaving the heavens, causes quite an uproar amongst the gods — completely on his own, without any musical accompaniment. We learnt that this was the first time he was performing in public, and he was justifiably nervous in his officious-looking jacket.

Despite initial discomforts at performing for his audience — which caused him to read most bits straight from the pakem (a book containing Wayang episodes, or lakon) -­ he discovered that his improvised, light-hearted style brought the 40-odd audiences of young and old closer in, and quickly capitalized on this strength. An hour later, this young dalang had re-presented the stories and symbols already so close to the Javanese consciousness — and, at the same time, situated himself in a lineage of Javanese dalangs. He had much room in which to grow.

Penang Diversions

December 25th, 2006: From Jogjakarta, we flew back to KL via Solo. Our party went separate ways, to later join back in Penang before flying to Bangkok.

Gan, Myra Mahyuddin, and I took a night train to Penang, where we rediscovered the important work being done there: opening up areas of history and heritage to the young of Penang. Once the rest of the party had turned up in Penang, we met up with Janet Pillai, the Chairperson of Arts Ed, which runs the youth arts and heritage program Anak-anak Kota, over late night supper and Hokkien songs (provided serendipitously by inebriated uncles at a coffee shop).

You’d think that people who work in the arts, when they meet, would talk about the arts, right? No la, not always. At least not when we’re on holiday. Most of the talk was just plain catching up on what shenanigans people were up to.

In our short three-day stay, we managed a guided heritage tour of downtown Georgetown. We learned about the historical significance of the Kuan Yin temple, the Masjid Kapitan Keling, and St George’s Church, among other places. We got to go to Balik Pulau, which aptly is on the other side of the island, where another round of heritage work was taking place with the youth there. Oh, and we also visited the rather bleak (and for some in our party, depressing) Pesta Pulau Pinang fairgrounds, littered as it was with rides that looked like they were from a early-1990s carnival; anachronistic, derelict, and dangerous — just the way some Malaysians liked it, I suppose.

Books in Bangkok

December 28th, 2006: We touched down at the new Bangkok International Airport and witnessed its huge, glittering Christmas tree, touted to be the largest in Southeast Asia, if not farther. A little over an hour later, we found ourselves at the home office / rehearsal studio / storage space of Makhampom, a 26-year-old theatre and community arts group, nestled in the middle-class suburbs of Bangkok — and only 5 minutes away from that shopper’s paradise, Jatujak.

After receiving a tour of various malls in the city by Guay and Rong of Makhampom — and listening to them explain the various scandalous connections some of these malls have with much-loathed ex-premier Thaksin — we arrived at TKP, or Thailand Knowledge Park, a fancy, hi-tech and easily accessible library in the Central World mall, also thanks to Mr Shinawatra.

One could do little but admire the overall youthful design of the TKP space, though -­ and how there were more than a few people enjoying the books and other reading materials that it made available to the community. Being in that fancy yet functional library, I felt that I could not but lament on our own situation in Kuala Lumpur, and hoped that this was one aspect of Thai society we could import, apart from their delicious tom yam and invigorating Thai massage.

Guay and Rong also took us to visit Thammasat University, where we saw sculptures remembering the Massacre of October 6th, 1976, where 46 students were killed in Thammasat and in Sanam Luang (a nearby large, open field) by extreme-right-wing paramilitary forces. The Massacre, a crackdown on leftist elements, occurred when students from numerous universities throughout Bangkok protested the return of a certain, notorious Thai Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachom. We were reminded of how much the Thais had been afflicted by such conflagrations throughout their modern history, and how they have continued to remain resilient.

The Bangkok bombings would occur in three days.

New Year’s

December 30th, 2006: Partaking as much of Bangkok as we did, it was time to move on. Getting to Chiang Mai, via train, would be a 14-hour journey. At the station, we were greeted by Tip, from Wandering Moon, a nearly all-female shadow puppetry troupe, who took us back to their rehearsal studio and office.

(As you can tell by now, throughout our entire journey we were the beneficiaries of much kindness from our hosts, who allowed us to rest our weary selves in their offices and studios — much to our pockets’ relief!)

With Wandering Moon, we discovered the little shops of Chiang Mai, the Chiang Mai reservoir, and their wonderful weekend bazaar. It was in Chiang Mai, too, that we learned about the bombings in Bangkok on New Year’s Eve. With much trepidation we went on, not certain what to make of these events.

It was only as we walked along the length of the bazaar, cautious of suspicious­looking fellows, that we spotted lit lanterns floating up and above us, far away. Waah! We learnt from Tip that it was a tradition, in these parts, to light such lanterns with thoughts of well wishes, welcoming the New Year with good cheer — and these symbolic acts of hope continued, despite the devilries. We couldn’t find a lantern to buy, but Tip and Rong promised that they would help find some for us by the time we got to Chiang Dao. Tourists, mah.

The Great Outdoors

January 2nd, 2007: Guay joined us on our trip up north, to Chiang Dao. It was to be our final stop before we returned (against our wills, of course) to Kuala Lumpur.

It was here, in Chiang Dao, that we saw the immense possibilities of the vast open space — and what arts practitioners can do when given space: Makhampom, with foresight, had purchased a large tract of land in the middle of paddy field, and had built a number of houses and a performance hall — for work, a retreat, and a resting place.

It was beautiful and serene; a welcomed respite for the weary spirit. Tua — the aptly­named secretary general of Makhampom, and its most senior member — who drove us up to Chiang Dao, explained to us that these buildings can only be constructed with materials from the same region, and so the Makhampom folk opted to purchase ready­made wooden houses and transport them to the site.

Chiang Dao provided us with the opportunity to be away from civilization, as it were, and focus on ourselves. We were there during the coldest two weeks of the year; at night, we would eat food bought from the town centre over a bonfire; grilled chicken and fish, pork satay (sacrilegious, surely!), piles of sticky rice, an assortment of curries, and inebriating beverages filled our bellies to contentment. During the day, we would be shown the various temple complexes and hot springs in the area. Food was bought from the single-road town centre. In the shadow of Mount Chiang Dao, it was the perfect place to strategise for the mountains of work awaiting us in the coming year.

The Future

January 5th, 2007: Time to go. With heavy hearts, and after a lot of jalan-jalan, makan-makan, and borak-borak, we packed our bags and said our goodbyes at the Chiang Mai International airport.

What began more than two years ago as the Asian Youth Artsmall has now slowly transformed itself into a growing regional friendship between more than five groups of practitioners — and friends. Already we have made arrangements to visit each other for theatre festivals and future collaborations.

Since then, I have visited Tip for a Nang Yai (giant shadow puppet) annual blessing ceremony, began preliminary talks about Wayang festivals in Thailand and Malaysia, and have received some funding from AYA to go to Jogjakarta to learn about Wayang work that young people are involved in. Guay has come down to see Anak-Anak Kota’s “Ronggeng Merdeka”, and to further discuss possibilities of collaborations and community arts projects between Makhampom, KUNCI, ArtsEd, and Five Arts Centre. We might also bring the recently completed “Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari” to Thailand for Makhampom’s theatre festival. Discussions are pending.

These are only some of the things that have, so far, come to pass. We’re about midway through 2007, now, and we can only be certain of one thing: there is more on the way.

There is, indeed, more room to grow.

First Published: 22.06.2007 on Kakiseni

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