Holland’s Indos Celebrate Roots
Sie Yoe Lien
Halfway around the world from Indonesia, you can enjoy a sumptuous plate of nasi uduk and sip es cendol while taking in the melancholic sounds of a keroncong band. Tese tastes, sights and sounds come to life once a year in the Dutch city of The Hague during the annual Tong Tong Fair.
For many members of the Netherlands’ Indo community — persons with mixed- Indonesian ancestry — the event, more popularly known as the Pasar Malam Besar (Grand Evening Fair), is a chance to celebrate their Indonesian heritage.
“Many Indos have a sort of unofficial agreement: ‘see you at the Pasar Malam,’ ” said Paul Isaak, whose Eurasian father was born in the Central Java town of Klaten. “It’s a very important event for them to maintain social contacts and reminisce about the past.”
The Pasar Malam Besar, held during the last two weeks ofMay, is housed in giant white tents filling 20,000 square meters of The Hague’s biggest plaza, Malieveld. The festival features cultural performances and lectures, a market filled with wares ranging from trinkets and batik to fresh durian, and, naturally, an overabundance of Indonesian food.
“In a nutshell, the Tong Tong Fair is a meeting between East and West, in the form of culture, food and trade,” said Florine Koning, a historian and spokesperson for the fair.
The first Pasar Malam was held in The Hague in 1959, initiated by a group of Indos who were sent back to the Netherlands following the end of Dutch rule in Indonesia.
Under colonial rule, legal status in Indonesia was based on ethnicity, with the Europeans on top of the heirarchy, the Chinese, Arabs and others of Asian or Middle Eastern descent in the middle, followed by the indigenous Indonesians. While many Indos were officially classified as Europeans, others were identified with the archipelago’s natives.
“Indos are a true mix of Asia and Europe. We sort of lived between the classes, and formed our own culture. We feel both Eastern and Western, but mostly we are our own people,” Koning explained.
When hundreds of thousands of Indos emigrated to the Netherlands after World War II, people there knew very little about them. “Some didn’t even know that we spoke fluent Dutch,” Koning said.
In the 1950s, Indo writer and intellectual Tjalie Robinson set up a group to organize events to celebrate Indo culture and make it wider known in the Netherlands.
“The group had no money, so the idea of a Pasar Malam was hatched to raise funds,” Koning said.
The first Pasar Malam, was held at the city zoo for three days and attracted some 3,000 visitors. “It was an instant success. People were thronging to get in,” Koning said.
Since then the Pasar Malam has blossomed into a two-week event with as many as 133,000 visitors. The festival is now one of the largest annual fairs in the Netherlands. The event has attracted prominent officials, including Queen Beatrix who opened the Pasar Malam for its 50th anniversary in 2008.
Over the years, the festival has grown much closer to its Indonesian roots. “In the earlier years, the fair was more Western, with stands one might see in boardwalks or fairgrounds, such as cotton candy and shooting hoops,” Koning said.
“Many people now forget that the relationship between the Dutch and Indonesian states only started normalizing in the late 1960s. Aside from that, overseas travel only became affordable in the 1970s.”
In 1973, the fair’s first Indonesian performer, Balinese dancer Djoni Ginsir, was invited to Pasar Malam. The event has since introduced more Indonesian culture and now showcases rock groups such as Slank, along with traditional dance troupes from across the archipelago.
The event also features theater as well as literary and historical discussions. This year the fair will host 400 performances, workshops and discussions in five theaters. Among the highlights are a photo essay exhibition, “First Generation Show: We Still Remember Everything,” a wayang (shadow puppet) performance from West Java and gamelan ensembles .
The stalls offer a variety of Indonesian textiles, crafts and snacks, including fresh mango juice and coconut cakes. And in the most-packed pavilion in the fair, the food court, there is sate, countless varieties of noodle and rice dishes, and tables filled with Padang delicacies.
In one room elderly Indos are singing along to “Bengawan Solo,” a keroncong classic by Gesang Martohartono about Java’s longest river. Watching them one can easily imagine an era long gone, but which is clearly still fresh in the memories of the graying audience.
Paul Isaak, 53, is among the youngest in the audience. “I know these tempo doeloe [old times] songs from my father,” he said.
Reflecting on what might happen to Indo culture once his father’s generation has passed on, he said: “Actually, apart from the songs and the food, my father told us very little about his Indonesian past.”
Isaak said he was still left with many questions of what his father’s generation experienced in Indonesia.
“Many Indos of that generation, including him, were traumatized. They were interned in camps during the Japanese occupation in Indonesia, then forced to leave their birth country and felt misunderstood in Holland,” Isaak said.
But even for the next generation, Isaak’s children, the emotional ties to their Indonesian heritage are still palpable. He said his daughter was 8 years old when he first brought her to Pasar Malam. He said that when she got there she told him, “I feel like I’m among family.”
According to Koning, worries that the Indo culture might fade away are unfounded because even third-generation Indos, many now in their 20s, are very aware of their heritage, though without the emotional traumas of their elders. “They are proud of being Indo,” he said.
Dylayna Awondatu, 20, said Pasar Malam had become an annual family ritual.
“I’ve been going here every year, since as far as I can recall. There were times when I was younger that I found it boring, but now I really like it,” she said.
Her eyes widened when asked whether she could see herself in the future taking her own children to the festival.
“I’ve never thought about that, but the answer is probably yes,” she said.
Tong Tong Fair For more information, go to www.tongtongfair.nl and www.tongtongfestival.nl