report by Titania Veda
On June 19, 18-year-old Chen Wen Hao, from Jiansu province, became visitor No. 2,000,000 to the Indonesia pavilion at the World Expo Shanghai China 2010.
While the number of visitors was a good sign for the Indonesian delegation, the reasons for their visit may be a different matter altogether. In an expo where one can expect to queue for 8 to 10 hours, Chen came through Indonesia’s pavilion gates for one simple and practical reason: “The queue was short and it took me only 10 minutes to get inside,” he said when interviewed by the media.
“This is perhaps the best moment to join a world expo because it is after Reformasi and we are doing well economically,” said Widharma Raya Dipodiputro, the Indonesia pavilion director. “The country’s openness and transparency can also be seen through the architecture,” he added.
Surprisingly, the Indonesia pavilion’s efficient queues, along with its architecture, have been its biggest draw. Visitors to the pavilion, which covers 2,400 square meters over four floors, use 700 meters of ramps. Designed by Budi Lim, an architect renowned for his green vision, the structure was created out of wood and bamboo. Unlike other pavilions, such as those for Germany, Malaysia and Australia, Indonesia chose to focus more on nature and traditional culture instead of modernity.
Expo organizers are expecting around 70 million guests in total — mostly Chinese — to visit the pavilions of 192 participating countries and 50 international organizations. On average, the Indonesia pavilion welcomes 50,000 to 60,000 visitors on a daily basis. With such high foot traffic, Trade Minister Mari Elka Pangestu is optimistic that the pavilion will be able to meet its target of 4.5 million visitors by the time the expo ends in October.
Only a small percentage of visitors to the pavilion are from countries other than China, such as South Korea, Japan and European nations. The majority of visitors are Chinese, usually in their 30s, from small towns and outer provinces.
The Indonesia pavilion organizers, aware that most Chinese are more familiar with Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, tried to factor this into the pavilion’s design. An immense wall-to-ceiling map of Indonesia’s geographical location in relation to Shanghai is the first thing that visitors see.
Then there is also the issue of China’s image-driven, fast-paced culture. Visitors hardly glance at the English and Mandarin descriptions of the exhibits, choosing to snap photos of their object of interest as they walk past. Therefore, the open-air design and ramps that allow for a constant flow of people to move at a steady pace past the cultural displays suit the Chinese visitors well.
By adapting the pavilion to local Chinese culture, the government and other sponsors of the Indonesian exhibition were also able to cut costs. “Instead of bringing local artisans to demonstrate how our handicrafts are made, we decided to show photographs and videos,” said Pratito Soeharyo, deputy pavilion director.
Chinese-related attractions at the pavilion have proven particularly popular with visitors. As this year also marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Indonesia and China, the pavilion strategically displays customs, traditions, historical figures and parts of Indonesian culture with a Chinese influence, such as traditional shadow puppets.
One such attraction is the statue of Admiral , or Cheng Ho, a bedug (large barrel-shaped drum) by his side, whose larger-than-life stone statue welcomes visitors to the pavilion’s City Zone. Cheng was a devout Muslim and legendary Chinese maritime explorer who visited Indonesia in 1405. He helped develop Islam in Indonesia by establishing Chinese-Muslim communities in different regions. Cheng also introduced the bedug, originally from India and China, and which is still currently used in Indonesian mosques for the call to prayer.
Another popular attraction is the traditional dance performances. The creative director of performing arts for the Indonesia pavilion, Restu Imansari Kusumaningrum, worked with local governments and arts communities from at least 17 different provinces to create the dance program. “The biggest challenge for me in creating the program was the diversity of the Indonesian performing arts because they’re all so different. Every province has its own challenges, beauty and capacity,” Restu said.
Also a crowd pleaser is the resin-made replica of the Borobudur Temple, a popular spot for visitors to pose for photographs. Visitors also get the chance to help save the Komodo dragon by signing their names with a calligraphy paintbrush on an electronic whiteboard.
Yang, a 36-year-old from WuXi, a coastal city in Jiangsu, found the Indonesian exhibits impressive. “I saw that there was a lot of Chinese influence in the culture and was surprised to see that,” she said.
Not everyone was similarly dazzled, however. Visiting Indonesian entrepreneur Gandhi Priambodho, who is based in Beijing, felt that more ethnic Chinese-Indonesian objects should have been included in the pavilion. “Why didn’t they include more Chinese-related items, such as photos of the ethnic Chinese or portraits of Chinese-Muslims in Indonesia? The Chinese here are curious about what’s happening with the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia.” Gandhi said.
The pavilion also has a glaring weakness: There are no travel brochures or travel agents on standby for those who are exploring the possibility of a visit to Indonesia. The pavilion’s business center bears the brunt of the travel inquiries. “People who approach us don’t ask for business information. They’re mainly tourists asking if we’re a travel agency and if we can organize travel packages to Indonesia for them,” said Adit, a representative of Bank Artha Graha.
China’s infamous bureaucracy has also proven to be a hindrance for the Indonesia pavilion organizers. At the Alun Alun gift shop, visitors are tempted by the rows of Kopiko coffee candy, ABC chili sauce and Indomie noodles that line the shelves. But a large sign clearly states in English and Mandarin: “Temporary, Not for Sale.” Organizers were unable to obtain the necessary permits to sell food.
Warung Enak!, the pavilion’s restaurant offering traditional Indonesian cuisine, was unable to bring in kecap manis (sweet soy sauce). Chefs had to make do with local Chinese ingredients to create Indonesian staples such as nasi goreng and mie goreng.
“They are very strict about what you can bring into the country,” Pratito said. “This country is very modern, but it’s still bureau-crazy.”
But the not-so-authentic taste of the Indonesian dishes has not deterred visitors from flocking to Warung Enak!, which is selling an average of 700 plates of nasi goreng per day.
Alun Alun is also doing brisk sales. According to Karina, a Shanghai resident who works as a cashier at the shop, Alun Alun pulls in around 5,000 to 10,000 Chinese yuan ($735 to $1,500) a day in sales. The more popular items are the wayang puppets, as well as trinkets such as pins of the Indonesian flag, keychains and T-shirts.
The government hopes to bring in Rp 1 trillion ($111 million) in future trade and investments from the exhibition. The government and its partners spent Rp 90 billion to construct the pavilion.
According to Pratito, the pavilion serves three purposes — trade, tourism and investment. “With trade, we want to increase our current trade value by introducing Indonesia to the world. We hope the pavilion will pique the curiosity of the Chinese about Indonesia and encourage them to go there. And as for investment, we want to convince investors here to invest in Indonesia,” he said.
But if that is the pavilion’s purpose, Indonesia may have its work cut out for it. There are still many misconceptions about the country that need to be addressed. One such comment came from German Stephan Miller. “I’ve been to Malaysia before, so I sort of know the culture. It’s similar, isn’t it?” he said.
And although most of the Chinese tourists visiting the pavilion are not up to date with what is happening in Indonesia, those in Beijing are, according to Gandhi.
“Beijing residents are more concerned with the news and they don’t have a good perception of Indonesia due to the events of ’66 and ’98,” he said, referring to the mass killings of people suspected to be linked to the now-defunct Indonesia Communist Party (PKI) in 1965-66 and the violence of May 1998 targeting ethnic Chinese citizens.
Aside from the perception of Indonesia as a place where natural disasters and terrorist bombings abound, there is also the assumption that Indonesians are still primitive. “We have a rich culture, but the Chinese still think we are as traditional as the items on display and the dance performances. It’s hard to explain to them we’re not like that” said Amalia Pratiwi, an Indonesian sales promotion girl.
But the pavilion has proven effective in introducing Indonesia to some visitors, giving them a fresh perspective on the archipelago. Prior to her visit, Yang only knew that Indonesia is located near the equator and has diverse flora and fauna. She left the pavilion more informed. “Before, I thought Indonesia was just a small country, but now, I see that it’s huge with a lot of special things to offer,” Yang said.