Remembering an overlooked auteur
The Jakarta Post
The deep pounding of a large drum and the tinkling of delicate brass instruments signaled the beginning of a recent performance at Toa Se Bio Temple in Jakarta’s Chinatown.
Actors who had been mingling in the audience headed for a makeshift stage, and Nonton Cap Go Meh (Watching Cap Go Meh) began.
Written in 1930 by Kwee Tek Hoay, the send-up of Chinese tradition set during festivities the 15th day after the Chinese New Year still resonated more than three quarters of a century later.
Kwee was a prolific author and journalist and the editor of numerous newspapers, and he made a name for himself in the 1920s and 30s by writing about the ever-changing world he observed around him in what was then the Dutch East Indies.
The Bogor-born man of Chinese descent wrote in his introduction to the drama being performed at the incense-filled temple, “In Nonton Cap Go Meh we wanted to try and depict one of those clashes between two groups, the old and the new, but one that is humorous because this book was published during the Chinese Lunar New Year and so our thoughts were lighter.”
Nonton Cap Go Meh centers around a married couple that rejects the custom that they should not go out together holding hands, instead going out with friends disguised as the opposite sex, to much hilarity.
Aside from Theater Bejana’s recent performance for the Jakarta Biennale and more shows planned for the future – just in time for Cap Go Meh – the light Kwee shed on the issues of his day has begun to shine anew.
Theater Bejana director Daniel H. Jacob told The Jakarta Post, “Kwee Tek Hoay is very important in Indonesian literature, because among the Chinese-Malay literati he was the most productive, with works in both prose and drama. … According to H.B. Jassin, [Kwee] was the first dramatist in Indonesia.”
In November of 2011, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono honored Kwee and eight others with the Bintang Budaya Parama Dharma award for individuals of impressive character who have made a cultural mark on the nation.
Just several months before that posthumous accolade, Gerakan Indonesia Membaca Sastra (GIMS) or the Indonesia Reads Literature Movement selected Kwee’s magnum opus Drama di Boven Digul (Drama in Boven Digul) as their first work of Indonesian literature to be read.
Aloud, that is.
Founded by novelist Ayu Utami, GIMS was started last August as a gathering for literature lovers that also benefits a cause; the readings are recorded and the DIY audio books donated to Yayasan Mitra Netra, a non-profit organization for the blind.
Their initial effort began with evening readings of Drama di Boven Digul at Kopi Tiam Oey in Central Jakarta.
When asked what inspired the choice, a little known work of over 700 pages, Ayu told the Post, “With Drama di Boven Digul, very rarely can one finish the book on one’s own.”
Ayu stressed the collective nature of GIMS and Kwee’s works fit nicely, a piece of literature people would most likely not read in the comfort of their own homes and, like much of Kwee’s work, not known outside a small circle of literature buffs.
The adventure novel spans the archipelago, beginning amid the failed communist uprising in Batavia in November of 1926, moving to a fugitive on the lam in North Sumatra and eventually to the Dutch prison colony of Boven Digul in Papua, and then deep, deep into the jungle.
Ayu said the purpose of GIMS was to foster a love of Indonesian literature, the first work they selected rather appropriately spanning the nation’s borders and penned by an author whose achievements were formerly not considered part of the corpus of Indonesian literature because of his Chinese descent.
A series published by Gramedia titled Kesastraan Melayu Tionghoa dan Kebangsaan Indonesia (Chinese-Malay Literature and Indonesian Nationhood) recognizes the contribution writers like Kwee made to Indonesian literature, with novels and poems from the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th century that offer vivid descriptions of life at the time. With 10 volumes available so far, many of Kwee’s writings have been included in the collection.
Daniel, who founded Theater Bejana in 2002, said he first became aware of Kwee’s writings when he was in a University of Indonesia performance of Bunga Roos dari Cikembang (The Rose of Cikembang). After reading Kwee’s words, Daniel’s interest was immediately sparked.
“After studying and researching [Kwee] in depth, I discovered some very interesting things and felt it was my responsibility as someone who studies Indonesian literature to recognize that Chinese-Malay literary works were marginalized in this country. Many people don’t know that writers of Chinese descent also had a major role in the literary repertoire of Indonesia,” he said.
Theater Bejana has been performing Kwee’s work for years, starting with Bunga Roos dari Cikembang in February of 2004, an adaptation of Kwee’s Pencuri (The Thief) in 2010, and Zonder Lentera (Without Light) in 2011.
Their recent performance of Nonton Cap Go Meh proceeded amid gloomy grey skies and impending rain both onstage and in Toa Se Bio’s courtyard, the “fourth wall” of theater effectively pierced by the actors in period costume as they moved through the temple’s tiny grounds. With the mélange of audience and actor came also a flurry of photography, creating an odd, fractured experience. But, the frenzy to record the performance for posterity over mere observation – all too common nowadays – is perhaps for Kwee and the kind of thinker he was all too proper.
“No change can happen in the world without struggle … Those who want change and those who want to hold on to the old norms, both sides are right and wrong in their own ways. People who want to develop too freely will race with the times, spreading seeds of confusion that not only harm themselves but others as well. But people who are too self-sure, lagging behind, they often retain a bitterness as punishment,” Kwee wrote.
This auteur’s works, once carefully typeset on printing presses, performed on Batavia’s stages and, in the case of Bunga Roos dari Cikembang, adapted into one of the earliest films ever made in the archipelago in 1931, are now enduring through other mediums – on digital records and in new publications and modern memory. Somehow Kwee’s writings have become simultaneously old and new, ever treading that fine line he so carefully advocated between tradition and modernity.
Theater Bejana will be performing Nonton Cap Go Meh from Feb. 2 to 4 at Gedung Kesenian Jakarta.
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