REVEALED: THE SECRETS OF ARCHIPELAGO ARISAN
© Duncan Graham 2006
There are mysteries and magics everywhere in Indonesia.
Caves sweating with the musk of seers past. Lofty retreats where gurus meditate to forecast awesome events. Kris charged with paranormal powers.
And then there’s arisan. Duncan Graham sleuths in Surabaya:
As your eyes scan these lines, across the archipelago people are sitting down to a curious ritual, as Indonesian as nasi goreng.
An arisan is ‘a regular social gathering whose members contribute to and take turns at winning an aggregate sum of money.’ So says an authoritative dictionary. But that’s superficial according to sociologist Dede Oetomo.
“Arisan started in the 1960s and as far as I know was introduced by Chinese traders as a way to get business start-up capital,” he said.
“It developed under Suharto as the powers of RT and RW (neighbourhood administrative units) were consolidated, and used as a means of getting people to come together. The same thing happened with dharma wanita (an association for the wives of public servants.)
“At the time banks weren’t considered a reliable way of saving money so arisan filled the gap. In the 1980s they grew to include items like motorbikes and cars.
“They’re hugely popular. Indonesia is an arisan country.”
Dr Oetomo, a special reader in social sciences at the University of Surabaya’s postgraduate program, confessed to being a member of two arisan, one organised by his mother and aunts.
The events tend to be dominated by women. Arisan coordinators from the swish suburbs gather the cash and convert it into big-ticket goodies to add interest. Down in the kampung an arisan in central Surabaya has a 30 kg sack of sugar in the kitty.
Amassing great courage The Jakarta Post penetrated an all female arisan in a private house. The 10 participants were 40-plusses looking like 30 somethings. All graduates of Widya Mandala University in Surabaya, class of 1986. They meet every month in a different location.
Preparations started a day ahead when hostess Dian Purini Indahyani ordered an attic to architrave cleansing. As March coordinator she had to provide the premises and foot the food bill of Rp 550,000 (US $60).
Long before the first arrival the house was loud with Dian snapping orders and directions on her two colored hand phones with speakers. An endless symphony of ring tones from Bach to Boogie. Your reporter, a mere male with just one old device emitting squeaks, was already feeling inadequate.
Caterers wrapped table legs with red and gold sarongs. Well-placed potted plants masked rain stains on the walls. It wouldn’t be Indonesia without polycarbonate chairs and these came on cue.
So did the ladies in all their majesty. An arisan is also a splendid chance to make a fashion statement, to show off make-up, figure, jewellery and cars – but not husbands or other masculine trophies. These had been left elsewhere – presumably some sweatshop where they slave to support their spouses’ flutter.
Dian’s arisan addicts were nothing like the characters in the famous film of that name. (See Sidebar) Slim, smart and sophisticated they came in their dinky metrominis, green, red and blue. No funereal black Kijang’s for these mobile Mums.
Traditional Javanese circumlocution was flicked away with a swirl of skirts. Like Westerners who know the cost of time, they got straight into the talk.
After an hour of robust gossip individual names were put into a pot and a slip withdrawn. One laughing lady. The rest headed for the rice and rissoles while thumbing SMSs homewards: Sorry kids, no ice cream this month.
At one level arisan is much like a sweepstake or office draw with frills. But it’s more than a bit of yarning, a feed and the chance to take home one million rupiah (US $109). There’s a welfare component - the opportunity to share and bond, something women do rather well.
This was made clear after the formalities: A woman distressed over a personal problem was immediately comforted by her compassionate friends. Forget the cash. This is what they came for; to be fortified by lots of hugs, metaphorical and physical.
Can you imagine that happening in a room full of blokes? No wonder the women don’t want men around their arisan.
The low budget satirical comedy Arisan released in 2003 and directed by Nia Dinata, was a big hit in Jakarta and other cities. And not just because it featured a slice of modern Indonesian culture. It also touched on homosexuality, adultery and oral sex – a publicist’s dream.
The film was briefly shown in Australia during a touring festival of Indonesian cinematography leaving many viewers nonplussed.
By Western standards the so-called shocking sex scene featuring a gay kiss was a yawn. The action wasn’t that moving either. Nor was the dialogue. But it wasn’t meant for overseas showing and needs to be seen in the context of Indonesian culture post-Suharto.
It was certainly a refreshing change from the screamfests and teen traumas that have dominated local cinema.
The film centres on the lives of Jakarta’s rich and idle who preen themselves at an up-market arisan. Their tormented private lives contrast with their trendy chat and displays of wealth.
One character is an infertile designer whose husband beds other women. Another is a bit of a nymphomaniac also married to an adulterer. Their male friend is gay. In other words the standard workaday folk we all have as colleagues and neighbours.
Arisan may have done great things at the box office but it confirmed every moral crusader’s deepest suspicions about life in Sin City. If the conservatives get their anti-porn law passed Arisan will be part of the reason.
Dr Oetomo, who is also a prominent gay activist, said at the time that the film was a breakthrough – but nothing similar has followed in its wake.
Perhaps the scriptwriters are making more by scribbling their names on bits of paper and popping them in a pot.
(First published in The Jakarta Post Friday 7 April 2006)