The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


HAVE FAITH IN TOURISM © Duncan Graham 2006

There’s a monument missing from the coastal Kenjeran Panorama Ria Keluarga (also known as Ken Park) recreation centre on the east side of Surabaya, location for the annual Moon Festival.

There’s religious statuary aplenty – a cementery if you like - and all of it recent. More are planned, including a full size replica of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing’s Forbidden City. But there’s nothing to commemorate the man who allowed them to be built and displayed – or the man with the money behind the project.

During the New Order government of General Suharto there were heavy restrictions on the Chinese and their culture. These included the use of Chinese languages in print and public discourse, and performances of events like the lion dance.

Indonesia’s fourth president, Abdurrahman Wahid scrapped the controls, and adult Chinese who remember the past seem forever grateful.

“I think we all respect Gus Dur (the former president’s popular name) and what he did,” said Surabayan businessman and low-profile philanthropist Soetiadji Yudho.

“Without him there would be no traditional Chinese activities in public. We could not have done anything. Now we feel free and happy.”

Soetiadji and his colleagues have wasted no time in making amends.

They’ve used their capital and new found liberties to go on a religious building spree in the East Java capital, with a massive four-faced Brahma under a 36 metre high gold-colored dome as the latest edition.

It takes some time for a Western visitor with a limited understanding of Eastern religions to work it all out. For there are four faiths celebrating their presence on the same site - Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and Taoism.

Size apparently matters. The four-faced statue is supposed to be the biggest Brahma in Indonesia, and only slightly smaller than a similar one in Thailand. There’s another in central Denpasar.

It’s widely regarded as a Buddha by the locals and is a Buddhist deity. However according to Soetiadji the statue represents Brahma, the Hindu creator god (also known as Dewa Catur Muka – the Four-faced God.)

The faces reflect mercy, magnanimity, fairness and meditation, while the multiple hands hold holy books, beads, water vessels and other artefacts.

Earlier erections nearby include a vaulting 20 metre high statue of the Goddess of Mercy, Kwan Im Po Sat flanked by two daughters and four men on the level below. These are above a couple of dragons, apparently fighting for a magic jewel ball. Soetiadji said these images were part of Taoism.

Although set high above the seashore, all the figures have their backs to the ocean. In most Western traditions, seashore statues look to the horizon for lands to conquer or invaders to repel.

“The goddess has come from another dimension and is looking inland to bring blessings to people and make the world peaceful,” said Soetiadji. “It doesn’t matter whether you think her beautiful or not – that’s not important. The message is to lead a happy life and be open, honest and truthful.”

The central temple is more conventional with several Buddhas, many burning candles and grandfather clocks. The atmosphere is relaxed with men and women mingling freely, burning incense and praying, indifferent to onlookers.

The place is mercifully free of beggars and touts, and the people who show you around don’t expect a tip. All religions (and presumably those with no religion) seem to be welcome.

There are no plaques at Ken Park naming Soetiadji as the benefactor, and staff are told not to mention his name. He’s a stocky friendly man with a large central city hotel, another being built, a jewellery factory and other enterprises. Despite these assets he’s not a big note guy.

He declined to say how much he’d spent at Ken Park or to have his photo taken for The Jakarta Post. He said it was enough for the public to know his philosophy.

“My father built a small temple about 30 years ago when such things were still allowed,” he said. “I’m a Buddhist and I put up the new temple in his memory. Then Kwan Im Po Sat, and later the Four Faced Brahma.

“Religion is in my heart. It’s personal. I respect your beliefs, please respect mine. Don’t ask me details of the meanings of the statues – I just know how to build!

“If people come and pray and get lucky, then I’m happy. Maybe some of that joy and luck will reflect on me. But I don’t know.

“Why did I do it? Because I like big projects! Surabaya is my hometown and I have the land. I didn’t do it to attract tourists though many now visit. That’s a secondary concern.

“This is my way of life. I feel happy doing this, and I hope visitors get happiness. That’s my private philosophy. Now you know what’s in my deepest heart.”

The Chinese corner is the only section of the 100 hectare park which deserves a visit – and don’t take the word of a jaded journalist for this observation. When the East Java Tourism News website writes of the park’s ‘filthy, dirty or untidy image’ then it’s clear changes need to be made.

Soetiadji says renovation plans are in place and include a seafood restaurant, a science education centre and a riding school. Watch this space.

The park looks as though maintenance wasn’t included as an ongoing budget item when first designed and built on reclaimed land. There are wide streets, but hazards lurk in the sunken paving. Someone’s idea of murals are peeling Disney characters. Statues of various animals are suffering in the last stages of concrete cancer.

The views to sea are better at night when the heat is less and only the bobbing lights of passing boats can be seen while you dine at one of the scores of food stalls. By day the advertised ‘beach’ can be more accurately described as a mud flat. If the floatation characteristics of black plastic bags fascinates, then this is the spot to be.

Please don’t be deterred by these criticisms, made only in the interests of balance. (And maybe because the car’s suspension took a beating during a drive around the complex.)

Go after sunset, particularly during the Moon Festival next Friday (the 15th day in the 8th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, year 2557) and enjoy the celebrations, including lion dances and martial arts displays.

Have a romantic evening, for this is what the Moon Festival is about, along with family reunions. Make your own sense of the religious imagery. It’s all benign.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 3 October 06)

1 comment:

SiamPhile said...

Nice Blog, Duncan.
Moon Festival is also known as Mid-Autumn Festival. I wonder how you got the Chinese calendar year as 2557. Chinese year should be more than 5000 years. The Buddhist year is only 2548.