Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Indonesia's Hybrid Theme Parks

Maintaining amusement, constructing dominant beliefs

The emergence of the growing Asian middle classes has seen an increase in theme parks. Indonesia is no exception. New lifestyles marked by patterns of consumption have made the proliferating amusement venues profitable and attractive as recreation goals with attendance hitting 108.7 million people in 2012.

Indonesia's theme parks tend to be hybrids, combinations of themes and attractions. These can be bewildering mixtures of animal enclosures and educational exhibits with a sudden rollercoaster or water slides appearing. Some even have hotels attached like the big Western models.

These hybrid parks are common in Indonesia and across Southeast Asia. The Singapore Zoo for example, includes a Kidsworld amusement park within the zoo.

These impressive modern parks have endless variety; Park Jatim 1 in Batu East Java, is a museum/ zoo/ theme park/ amusement park. Park Jatim 2, also in Batu, is an educational museum/ waterpark/ theme park. Another Batu offering, the Eco Park, is a museum/ bird zoo/ amusement park. Even the famous Taman Safari near to Surabaya combines attractions as a zoo safari/ theme park/ amusement park.

Many of the designs seen in Indonesia are partly modelled on European or western styles, which are not immune to expressions of ideology within both the architecture and exhibits, particularly in museum or educational components.

In the Indonesian context, the architecture often funnels visitors along an inescapable circuit, with usually an educational element that transfers dominant ideologies to shared public spaces.

Jawa Timur Park 1 in Batu East Java includes a science centre with pictures of the most groundbreaking scientists lining the walls. All the scientists between the years 781- 1288 are Muslim, with several more included in the lead-up to the 20th century.

Apart from framing science's earliest and ongoing achievements profoundly within the domain of Islam, and obscuring the problem that science conflicts with religion in fundamental areas like evolution, the act of recognizing historical figures outside of a western sphere of consciousness and narrating the triumphs of an exemplary Islamic past is not unsurprising . Their merits, however, are.

Abu Uthman ibn Bahr al Kinami al Fuqaimi in CE781-869 was "The first Muslim scientist who coined the theory of evolution, the foundation stone of the science of zoology, and the biologist first to note changes in bird life through migration".

It is hard not to see a rivalry between western and eastern thought being ingrained in visiting children and students with the following scientific and historical fact that another Muslim scientist in the 13th century- 1213-1288- was the first to discover the human circulatory system "far before Harvey in 1628".

In the cultural area, where the diversity of Indonesia is represented through still life displays defined vis-a-vis regional identities, Indonesian ethnic groups with dazzling traditional costumes and impressive artefacts stand in contrast to Papuans who are nearly naked and squatting by primitive huts and fires.

Indonesian theme parks predominantly cater to domestic visitors and tourists, and just as the west represents its multiculturalism and other political ideologies, Indonesian parks are also predisposed to transfer dominant cultural and political subjectivities via educational exhibits and attractions.

School curricula and textbooks can be heavy on ideology such as nationalism or dominant religious views, similarly impressed upon educational areas of theme parks where typically Indonesian subjectivities come through.

Bizarrely, the Eco Park in Batu, which across other eco-themed exhibits cultivates respect for life and interest in the protection of the environment, has a jungle safari adventure that consists of riding a jeep through a jungle with pop-up animal and hunter statues. Laser guns are connected to targets on the pop-ups and points are awarded for killing the hunters, who cry out and fall down dead.

Considering that shooting animals, even fake ones, is off limits by eco-park standards, the excitement of hunting is replicated justifiably: by hunting the hunters. However, the pronouncement that illegal poaching is punishable by death is as disturbing as is the encouragement to participate.

Such exaggerated, hyper-real situations reflect and distort real life, yet the idea can be applied to the broader idea of law and justice in society; that violence is legitimate if employed in the service of a principled idea and carried out by those vested with the power to wield it.

The recruitment of violence in the service of fun is presumably preparation for the ideologies behind a punitive penal system. The four and five year olds present accepted it simply and enthusiastically: "We can kill the baddies that kill the animals?"

Perhaps the most prominently ideological theme park is "Taman Mini Indonesia Indah" in Jakarta. Taman Mini is symbolic of nation-building during the time of Suharto.

It idealizes Pancasila and ‘unity in diversity' by displaying replicas of all 27 provinces in Indonesia (26 now without Timor Leste).

However, it is only a rural narrative told here, one that captures the vision of a regionally diverse sovereign nation. Chinese culture is absent, as are depictions of urban dwellers like the 10 million living in Jakarta in the 1970s at a time of rapidly rising urbanization.

Taman Mini was not without initial controversy. At a cost of US$26 million in 1971 the project triggered small student demonstrations. Three hundred residents claimed they were forced to move and to sell their land at half the market value.

Michael Hitchcock, director of the International institute for culture, tourism and development at London Metropolitan University, described Taman Mini as contributing to the "folklorization" of Indonesian culture, a key aspect of nation building projects to unify and codify "Indonesia".

The symbolic import of Taman Mini was not lost on Indonesians.

"With hindsight it would appear significant that the first major open protest against New Order rule should concern a cultural village theme park".

Hitchcock said New Order propaganda involved an articulate rhetoric of culture in which appeals were made to traditional values and customary behavior. Indeed, the vision of rural life and ethnic diversity is romantically expressed with neat and tidy traditional dwellings and elaborate traditional costumes. Moreover ethnic identities are construed as regional identities—kebudayaan daerah - keeping the specter of the nation close at hand by containing differences within a territorial scope.

Similarly, differences between ethnic groups today are emphasised culturally rather than politically, obscuring assertions of economic and political claims under the constructivism of nationalism.

Theme parks are not always benign educational playgrounds, but also vehicles for dominant interpretations, even inventions, of history and tradition, and the transference of dominant ideologies into public spheres of learning and recreation.

Once entrapped within the entrance gates, visitors are often herded forward with no early escape or shortcut to preferred rides or attractions. Like a conveyor belt in a factory, visitors' routes are organized; they are guided through exhibits and rides, exposed to norm-engendering educational forces that stamp, shape, and affirm.

Exhausted visitors are ejected at the exit, reeling from activity overload, Disneyesque verisimilitude and the unconscious realization that reality is slightly inferior to reproduction which seems to carry the greater truth value. Indonesian hybrid theme parks are an absorbing mash up of fantasy. Asia Sentinel

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