Playing with the Past

Critics say it’s just a fad but some young upper middle-class Indonesians are rediscovering forgotten histories, writes Yatun Sastramidjaja.
Young Indonesians, particularly those of the urban middle class, are often criticised for being indifferent to their history, spending all their time in malls and being more interested in western pop culture than local heritage. However, recently new communities have emerged that seek to raise historical awareness and appreciation among their peers by showing them that history is interesting, cool and fun. These groups of young “history and heritage lovers,” as they call themselves, have created a remarkable trend which has spread to many cities in Indonesia. Now, history is the new hip in urban youth culture and heritage sites are the new place-to-be.

This trend has taken root especially in Jakarta, closely followed by Bandung, because of their high density of historical sites and museums. These young people are not drawn to just any museum. They are keen to explore those that focus on the colonial past, not those established by the New Order state in support of the official version of national history. For many of Jakarta’s clued-up youth, the proper place for dating is no longer McDonalds but the National Museum, which was founded by the Dutch to house ethnographic and archaeological collections from across the archipelago.

Likewise, their favourite hang-outs alternate between the up-market Pondok Indah Mall in south Jakarta and the rundown colonial district of Kota Tua (Old Town) in the poverty-stricken north of the city. These sites of the colonial past used to be seen as grim places to avoid. But these days, throngs of young people regularly go there to rediscover forgotten histories – and have great fun while they’re at it.

It is no coincidence that this trend emerged in the era of Reformasi, a time when the official version of national history is being contested. Growing attention to suppressed histories in leading media such as Tempo has made people aware of the gaps in history as it is taught in schools or through other official channels, yet this has not led to any official historical revision. History is still associated with the state and the more the state version is proven to be flawed, the more people distrust official programmes to raise historical awareness. No one understands this better than the young people, mostly university students, who have founded their own history communities.

Among the first and most popular of these is Sahabat Museum (Friends of the Museum), which better known as Batmus, like the action figure Batman, or so members joke. It was founded in 2002 by a Dutch Literature student at the University of Indonesia, as a way of doing what he liked to do best: exploring the city’s forgotten histories and spreading his passion among “mall-addicted” friends. Previously, he had assisted in the organisation of an official heritage trail in Kota Tua, run by the Jakarta History Museum, but left as he felt that it was “too government-style.” He then decided to organise his own heritage trails, called Plesiran Tempo Doeloe (Old Days Fun Trip), punning on the Dutch word for fun (plezier) and playing up the irony of the term tempo doeloe (good old days) as the key phrase of Dutch-Indies colonial nostalgia.

Why can’t I do archival research and play football games on my Play Station, why can’t I love history and spend time in malls? Just because I’m not a nerd doesn’t mean that I don’t take this seriously. I’m on a mission to build something for the future here. Sure we play, but we also want to make a difference.
– Young organiser of historical tours

 The principle of learning though fun is also the foundation of another popular group, the Indonesian History Community (KHI), which was founded in 2003 by a history student at the Jakarta National University. He too had been involved in the heritage trail of the Jakarta History Museum and similarly felt that a different approach was needed to reach the younger generations. KHI organises heritage trails and other historical events that are at once “recreational, educational and entertaining,” so as to create an atmosphere where history sticks to the heart. Their intent is to build cultural and historical awareness with the objective to foster critical minds. But the main attraction is fun.

This mixture is most clearly reflected in KHI’s night events in Kota Tua. In 2009 they hosted the world’s first museum sleepover in the Mandiri Bank Museum. This year they organised a midnight trail from the Maritime Museum, via the Ciliwung River, to the colonial warehouse district where they spent the night watching movies that painted a critical picture of the colonial era from a Dutch point of view. The advertisement said, “Wuah, what a cool event!” But the thrill is eventually meant to trigger discussion.

Batmus and KHI have around 3,000 members each, registered on mailing lists and social networking sites, and their events attract as many as 500 participants. Following their success, similar groups have been set up in Jakarta and other cities, with names like Komunitas Jelajah Budaya (Cultural Exploration Community), Klub Tempo Doeloe or Mooi Bandoeng de Indische Plezier Compagnie (Beautiful Bandung the Indies Fun Company, in Dutch). Each has its own style and attracts its own, though often overlapping, following. But they all play up a sense of youthful enthusiasm and open-mindedness in their interactions with history and heritage, along with a do-it-yourself approach.

Colonial play

In a typical youth-style Kota Tua trail, participants first gather in a vacant historical building, where they receive a badge and a “tempo doeloe” meal inspired by the Indies’ rijstafel (rice table). The consumption of traditional food is an important part of the event, reflecting a broader revival of traditional cuisine, which is replacing western fast-food as the favourite cuisine of the middle classes. While enjoying this meal in a relaxed atmosphere, often seated on the floor, they watch an old film or documentary with footage of colonial street scenes, for example, with commentary by a guest expert or community member.

Then they head out onto the streets. This is a groundbreaking phenomenon in itself, considering that the upper middle classes are conditioned to avoid the streets as much as possible and move through the city in the safety and comfort of air-conditioned cars. But as true history lovers these middle class adventurers are willing to brave the streets.

Most importantly, they listen to stories, ask questions and discuss historical occurrences at buildings, street corners, bridges or any other location along the way. In addition to guest experts and organisers, local residents or shop keepers tell their stories, giving personal insights into the past and passing on local knowledge which the participants could never learn from school or in books or on the internet. Young people are eager to learn alternative histories based on real experiences, and both experts and local residents tell them with such enthusiasm that the stories become part of the fun.

The most eye-catching part of the fun is their play with colonial costumes. Onlookers should not be surprised to stand eye to eye with a “Dutch Mynheer” dressed in an impeccable white suit and hat or his lady dressed in an 18th century ball gown, a “Dutch soldier” bearing a rifle or trumpet horn, a “Javanese princess” dressed in royal batik, or a miserable coolie or slave dressed only in a loincloth and wearing chains.

This role-play serves a serious purpose, bringing the colonial past to life in a way that grates with the totalising claims of official national history. Official categories of identity are turned upside down by blurring the boundaries between “our” Indonesian past and “their” Dutch-colonial past, as participants re-imagine a crucial part of Indonesia’s history that the state had purposely made unimaginable. The New Order cast the colonial period in overly simplistic terms of joint suffering and oppression, as a prelude to the great story of National Struggle. But the role-play demonstrates that the colonial era was more complex (and interesting) than that.

This youthful trend has gained the support of some open-minded senior experts – such as the journalist Alwi Shahab, who has written extensively about colonial Jakarta and now regularly joins the fun trips as the invited story-teller – but most professional historians have kept themselves aloof. Critics, including some members of conventional history and heritage societies, say it’s just a fad for a bunch of rich kids playing a lifestyle game that makes a farce out of history. How can such frivolity convey seriousness about the past? What they fail to see is that a sense of fun is also imbued with a more serious purpose.

Many of the organisers are university students or recent graduates – some are part-time lecturers – who spend weeks or months in archives preparing for an event. They rummage through old newspapers and manuscripts, mulling over different perspectives and sharing thoughts with experts. This way, they equip themselves with fascinating off-the-record stories to share with participants, typically in an informal manner that belies the hard work that goes into this. And yes, they like to play. As one organiser exclaimed when I confronted him with the criticism: “Why can’t I do archival research and play football games on my Play Station, why can’t I love history and spend time in malls? Just because I’m not a nerd doesn’t mean that I don’t take this seriously. I’m on a mission to build something for the future here. Sure we play, but we also want to make a difference.”

The communities tend to reject a formal organisation structure, but they do have both a formal vision and awareness that official policies have deprived people of their history and culture, which they intend to reclaim. Their seriousness is also illustrated in the fact that many groups engage in some form of social action. For example, during last year’s fasting month KHI organised a heritage trail for some 100 street children in Jakarta, leading through the Arabic district and old mosques in Kota Tua.

The aim was not just to educate the children or simply entertain (and afterwards feed) them, but also to give them a sense of being included in the atmosphere of Ramadhan. There have also been projects to clean up waste in Kota Tua, as well as efforts to ensure that local vendors can profit from the growing stream of visitors.

This eclectic approach has proven its worth. The communities continue to grow, and their trails have also become popular with foreign tourists and expatriates looking for an insider experience off the beaten track, as well as with parents infected by their children’s enthusiasm. Their success has not gone by unnoticed by the lifestyle industry either. Starbucks and Coca Cola have sponsored some communities and their founders have appeared in popular media such as MTV Indonesia, Cosmopolitan Radio and youth magazines, in addition to leading newspapers.

Ironically, the success of the youth history communities may also become their biggest threat. The question is how long they can remain idealistic and resist lucrative offers from corporate sponsors looking to enhance their image in the competitive youth culture market, or from upper class women looking for a credible guide to escort them in now fashionable historical districts. Should they succumb to such offers, their rediscovery of forgotten histories could indeed be reduced to lifestyle games. But if they can resist, they really could make a difference.

This article first appeared in the online magazine Inside Indonesia.

Yatun Sastramidjaja ( is an anthropologist and teaches Indonesian History at the Erasmus University Rotterdam. She has done research on globalisation and heritage in Indonesia, the Indonesian student movement and youth cultures.

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