PARIS, SURABAYA Duncan Graham © 2005
It’s a concept that at first looks a little, well… to be polite, misplaced.
A French Springtime in Surabaya? Loving couples promenading down avenues of budding blossom flanked by the majestic reminders of the Napoleonic Era; the chill of winter banished by a shimmering sun rising over the City of Romance?
Come off it – this is the industrial hub of East Java, the rumbling, gear-grinding, smoking second city of Indonesia, the megalopolis of Mammon. The sun is seldom seen through the covering cloud. Spring? The city is either damp or dry, forever hot, never dormant.
But none of this dissuades Herve Mascarau, the new director of the French Cultural Centre, for one moment. That might suggest the man is a fresh-faced newcomer to the archipelago and like the old Dutch colonialists determined to stamp the ethos of Europe on the tropics, whatever the cost.
But M Mascarau is not wet behind the ears. He knows Indonesia (see sidebar) and is well aware of the differences between his homeland and his posting. One may be the centre of culture the other the crucible of commerce, but in his view that’s no reason why the two can’t cohabit.
This week (w/starting Sunday 24 April) M Mascarau announced the French Spring Festival of Surabaya, a celebration of music, dance, cinema and the visual arts spread over two months and climaxing with a gala dinner to celebrate the French National Day.
Officially this falls on 14 July as every student of revolutions knows. But that’s midweek, not a good day out for the industrious folk of Surabaya. So the event has been shunted back to 9 July, which proves that although often tagged as inflexible at home the French are forever pragmatic abroad.
“For many years French cultural centres in Asia have been running festivals known as ‘French Spring in Asia’ offering a strong contemporary image of the artistic creativity of France,” Mr Mascarau said.
“Now we’re including Surabaya in the circuit which has previously involved Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Seoul, Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta.
“It means that costs can be shared and high class artists invited.”
They include the dance program Giap Than by Regine Chopinot, a show that “approaches with grace the freedoms and constraints which develop in the relations of seduction.” This was originally created for last year’s Festival of Hue in Vietnam.
The Franco-German jazz quartet Watson-Lauer will perform on May 11 and three days later the multi-talented Sergent Garcia will entertain crowds with its eclectic repertoire from Rock to Reggae.
Crowds? That’s certain because these performances will not be restricted to exclusive venues. Surabaya lacks a concert hall so many shows will be staged at places like Balai Pemuda a popular central city forecourt and small hall, making shows accessible to most.
Other events - like an exhibition of drawings called Women of Indonesia by Morocco artist Titouan Lamazou -will be shown at the French Cultural Centre, a magnificent 90-year-old mansion built for a Chinese sugar baron and splendidly preserved.
This will also be the venue for The World of the Orchid exhibition, a celebration of a flower that many Europeans see as the symbol of Indonesian exoticism. The films will be shown in mainstream cinemas in Surabaya and Malang.
“I want to work with local festivals and local people,” said M Mascarau. “I’ve met the governor and the mayor and successfully sought their cooperation. This means many resources can be shared.”
The French Cultural Centre (known locally as CCCL – Centre Culturel et de Cooperation Linguistique de Surabaya) opened in 1967. It has become the lively heart of European culture in East Java. But this is not an ex-pats hideaway; most participants are Indonesian.
The British Council has closed and the Australians have no official presence, despite being the country next door. The Germans’ Goethe Institute is a shadow. The once mighty Dutch are best represented by a small library run by volunteers and the Americans are behind bars. Literally, for their consulate is a fearsome fortress and the location of choice for many demonstrations.
By contrast CCCL is well-advertised and wide open. Despite its grand past, formidable title and splendid ambience, the place is accessible to all. The French may think themselves superior in Europe but they certainly don’t in Surabaya.
No guards tickle your car’s underbelly with mirrors as you drive into the forecourt; no closed circuit cameras monitor your movements. Over-zealous satpam won’t demand your credentials, even if you look like a Jakarta poet.
The library has almost 5,000 books and is one of the best in Surabaya. A little café overlooks lush lawns where open-air events are held in the dry season. French television TV5brings the latest Gallic spin on events, or you can watch DVDs on a big screen.
It’s this welcoming atmosphere which may well be responsible for the centre’s popular French classes. Last year more than 2,000 studied the language despite the French having no historical or cultural links with Indonesia.
“We have 153 cultural centres around the world and four in Java – Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya and Yogya,” said M Mascarau. “In France culture is a national concern and is given significant government support. We are very proud of our language and art and we believe this can be the foundation for international friendship.
“Of course trade may follow, but unlike many other foreign missions this is not our prime concern.”
FIRST OF THREE LIFETIMES
Herve Mascarau’s first job after graduation from the University of Nice was in Yogyakarta where he taught French at the Gajah Mada University. That was in 1975 when the Central Java city had only a handful of people proficient in any European language other than Dutch.
M Mascarau was 25 and ready for national service once he’d graduated after studying Latin and Greek. However the French government allowed potential conscripts to serve their time as volunteers in non-military postings abroad.
So with his wife Christine – also a teacher – the couple set about learning Indonesian language and culture with serious intent.
“It had to be,” he said, “otherwise we would not have survived. We were pushed into the deep end. Whatever we wanted had to be asked in Indonesian. Very few spoke French.”
When his national service obligations ended M Mascarau was offered a substantial job with the French Government. The couple stayed for six years in Yogya before being posted to Morocco. Their careers then took them to Singapore, Morocco again, Paris, New York, Holland, Paris again and now Surabaya with a four-year contract.
Mme Mascarau is establishing a postgraduate program in French in Bandung which she visits regularly from Surabaya. The couple live in a snug cottage at the rear of CCCL where M Mascarau is also the French Consul.
There are only around 30 French nationals in East Java registered with the Consulate. However big French businesses like the Carrefour shopping centres and the Accor hotel group (which is expanding in Surabaya) are well-represented and regular supporters of CCCL’s activities.
“I love this country, the people are really delightful,” M Mascarau said. “The culture here is so rich and diverse it would take three lifetimes to understand and appreciate the complexities.
“I spent the first few months back here just observing and listening, getting the flavor of East Java.
“People often say Indonesian is easy. That’s wrong – there are no easy languages. All have their subtleties and different thought processes. To really speak a foreign tongue properly requires enormous effort and understanding.”
So why bother to learn French? It may be fine as a language for loving but is hardly the tongue of trade.
“If you want to buy something in the world, then of course you need English,” said M Mascarau somewhat sardonically. “But if you want to sell then you need to know French. Who wants to spend all their time speaking English and eating McDonalds? In 53 countries in the world French is the official language. It is, of course, the language of taste.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 30 April 05)