Jakarta history observer Alwi Shahab recalled the golden days of Pekan Raya Jakarta (the Jakarta Fair) when the towering ondel-ondel dolls would weave their way through the crowds on Jl. M.H. Thamrin, greeting children and youngsters.
“The old Jakarta Fair was about cultural festivities. Young people enjoyed it so much, they would spill out onto the street, buy cheap traditional food and dance along to dangdut [Indian-influenced pop] music,” he told The Jakarta Post.
He said in the 1970s, there was a time when the Fair was extended to two months due to its overwhelmingly popularity.
“There were non-stop cultural performances and boxing tournaments. All events took place in the heart of the city that belonged to the people, and it was all free,” he said.
All of this hype was set to the lilting traditional music, the melodic cacophony of keroncong (Portuguese-influenced traditional music) and dozens of performers urging passers-by to sit for a moment to watch their show.
Former Jakarta governor Ali Sadikin said in Ramadhan K.H.’s book Bang Ali: Demi Jakarta 1966-1977 (Brother Ali: For the Sake of Jakarta 1966-1977) said that more than 750,000 people thronged to Jl. Thamrin during the festival, bringing their own mats to lay along sidewalks, to see colorful lights emanating from street lamps.
Bang Ali was quoted in the book, saying: “It was the festival of and for the poor. Let them be entertained, as they can’t afford nightclubs.”
Alwi regretted the shift at the fair from the cultural focus to commercial activities.
PT Jakarta International Expo (JI Expo), the company that organizes the annual Jakarta Fair, denied the traditional aspect had been lost, saying it had worked to keep the cultural and traditional atmosphere of the event.
“We’ve kept the ondel-ondel, and barongsai [Chinese lion dance], and serve traditional foods like kerak telor [Betawi omelette] and Borobudur rice,” JI Expo managing director Budi Santoso told the Post.
However, he admitted the Fair had been geared towards becoming an industrial event, as JI Expo focused on the development of the MICE (meeting, incentive, convention, and exhibition) center.
JI Expo, which is owned by wealthy entrepreneur Siti Hartati Murdaya, has faced scrutiny from City Council, who accused the company of monopolistic practices and shady financial arrangements.
The city administration, which holds a 13.25 percent share in the company, claimed it had not received dividends from JI Expo since work began on the 44-hectare Jakarta Fair complex in Kemayoran.
“If somehow the city revoked or revised it, and if we were not allowed to organize the [Fair] anymore, we would ask the administration to return the shares,” Budi said. (tsy)