Jakarta’s Magnificent Reprise
The last time the Asian Games were hosted here in Jakarta, exactly 56 years ago, it left an indelible mark on the cityscape. A slew of landmarks and infrastructure developments owe their creation to the event: these include the iconic Welcome Monument (as shown in the photo above) and the Hotel Indonesia next door, which was the first modern five-star hotel in the nascent country and the official lodgings for dignitaries and sports leaders back in 1962.
The roads running north and south from the Welcome Monument were widened to become present-day Jalan Thamrin and Jalan Sudirman; then-president Sukarno also inaugurated the cloverleaf Semanggi Interchange where Sudirman met the brand-new arterial road of Jalan Gatot Subroto. Driving around downtown Jakarta all these years later seems unthinkable without the presence of these major junctions and thoroughfares.
Broadcasting the 1962 Asian Games to the world necessitated the creation of TVRI – Indonesia’s first television station – whereas the lack of a suitable venue called for the construction of an ambitious sports complex with the 110,000-seater Gelora Bung Karno Stadium at its heart. In the end, a total of 1,460 athletes from 17 countries congregated on the Indonesian capital for two weeks of competition. Today that figure has grown seven times to roughly 11,300, representing 45 nations and territories, and the Asian Games is now the second-largest multisport event in the world (superseded only by the Olympics). Recently remodeled Gelora Bung Karno Stadium has reprised its role as a main venue, hosting not just the athletics events but also the opening and closing ceremonies.
Bama and I happened to be out of town during the much-awaited opening ceremony last weekend, but we did watch the entire show thanks to the HD TV in our hotel room. From start to finish it was a rousing spectacle that Indonesians can be exceptionally proud of. Taking a leaf from the action-packed arrival of Queen Elizabeth II at the 2012 London Olympics, President Joko Widodo’s entrance played up his down-to-earth personality, with several motorcycle stunts to weave through Jakarta’s notorious traffic jams and reach the stadium on time.
Even more jaw-dropping was the traditional Acehnese welcome dance, the ratoh jaroe, done on a scale never previously seen. While it is usually performed by dancers lined up in a single row, this time 1,500 high schoolers were recruited to make moving patterns in white, red, orange, and purple, culminating in a representation of the Indonesian flag. Bama, who has long dreamed of how Indonesia might begin a large-scale event like the Asian Games, was visibly teary-eyed when we saw the ratoh jaroe unfold on TV. “It’s just like what I imagined, but even bigger and better.”
As opening ceremonies go, this was as much a showcase of Indonesia’s artistic talent as its mind-boggling cultural diversity. And in an increasingly polarized political climate, the show is also a testament to what can be achieved when people are willing to look beyond race and religion to work together toward a common purpose. The 2.5-hour extravaganza was meticulously put together by a dream team under the direction of the immensely talented Wishnutama Kusubandio, who founded one of Indonesia’s most creative TV stations in 2013.
At the center of it all was an enormous set weighing 600 tons planted with real trees and shrubs; a functioning waterfall and a 26-meter-high miniature volcano pointed to the tropical beauty of Indonesia and its position on the Pacific Ring of Fire. Against this backdrop, hundreds of performers took on a dizzying number of traditional dances drawn from all across the archipelago, choreographed to regional folk songs sung by a lineup of prominent local artists.
There were nods to co-host Palembang with a rendition of the South Sumatran number “Gending Sriwijaya” by the Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Joey Alexander, who is only 15 years old. Then there were stalwarts like Anggun, a homegrown rock star who made five albums and established her own record company by the age of 20. Her international breakthrough came in 1998 with the hit song “Snow on the Sahara” and its namesake studio album, which made history as the best-selling one by an Asian artist outside Asia. I will let the following 10-minute video speak for itself, but if you have more time to spare, this hour-long clip from the ceremony is well worth watching. ◊