Indonesia Expat
Featured Observations

Fanning the Flames of Fame

It wasn’t exactly Beatlemania, but when I came to Indonesia twenty years ago, I had a taste of fame. Or perhaps it was attention.

Whatever it was, Indonesians, especially younger ones, smiled and waved at me wherever I went, called out “Hello, mister”, and inquired cheerfully “Mau ke mana?” When smartphones became popular, there were lots of requests for photos too.

Behind this fan-like behaviour is the fact that Indonesians are the friendliest people in Southeast Asia, inquisitive and sincerely interested in those from other cultures, particularly Western ones. They make you feel not just welcome but important. Like it or not, they make you feel like you stand out.

While most foreigners prefer to be left alone, there are some for whom the incessant attention at street-level is not enough, who actually crave recognition and feel compelled to make themselves more deserving of public esteem. And for artistic sorts, this is relatively easy to achieve. Here are three ways they could go about it.

The actor

A good example is American citizen Jason Daniels. This variable star of the Indonesian entertainment firmament has been appearing on screens, both big and small, for nearly twenty years, beginning with TV’s Bule Gila. He went on to host documentaries, education programs, and reality shows, and also played a range of dramatic parts.

Jason is not a method actor and doesn’t believe in taking his characters home with him. This is fortunate for his domestic companions since his roles have included a range of monsters, from a raving vampire to a lusty rapist to a Javanese genie. He’s also played an airline pilot, chaotically crashing his passenger plane. He insists it’s just a rumour that the script called for him to land it safely.

At the height of his career, Jason could justifiably have called himself “Ubiquity” Daniels, not because he starred in westerns alongside the likes of Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill, but because it was a toss-up what you’d see first whenever you went outdoors in Jakarta: a smoke-belching bajaj or Jason talking spiritedly into a movie camera while wearing his trademark glittering trilby. Be it a museum, a train station, a game show studio, or just a spot on a street corner, Jason and a film crew might well be occupying it.

Acting is not well-paid in Indonesia, and its practitioners can fall into hard times. Jason has not escaped his share of life on Skid Row, when he’s been reduced to playing Santa in Jakarta’s shopping malls, a challenging role in that it requires a large paunch in a time of great paucity.

As a bule thespian, it’s easy to get typecast. Another performer I knew was often called on to play an evil Dutch general in TV historical dramas. One morning, while shopping in his local supermarket, he was recognised by an elderly Indonesian woman, a viewer, who attacked him with her handbag among the stacks of Indomie. Fame isn’t always a good thing.

The band

Indonesia has always had a lively and original music scene (not just the wall-to-wall choreographed pop bands of other Asian countries). But few expatriate performers have attracted much notice. Unless you count The Bugils, whose line-up consisted of the late Harry Bond, Jason Daniels (yes, Jason again), and, representing the ladies, Maya Otos.

This trio of singing bules picked up a reasonable following with their fun music videos in the early 2010s. They emanated pure exuberance and a genuine fondness for Indonesian culture. Check out Hello Dangdut and Poco Pocong on YouTube to see what they were about. Their high point was an appearance on Indonesian Idol in 2012, which led to a flurry of spots on other entertainment shows and not, as a few cynics expected, calls for their deportation for crimes against music.

Regarding names, the word “bugil” is an Indonesian slang for naked, but the Bugils used it as a contraction of “bule gila” (crazy foreigner). Maya Otos is soto ayam (chicken soup) backwards. Harry Bond was channelling a license to thrill, while Jason’s surname was plucked from a famous alcoholic drink. Indonesians like wordplay and gimmicks in general.

You might also want to check out Debu (meaning dust), a group of musicians made up of American and Indonesian Muslims. Don’t expect the Rolling Stones though. It’s not only rock n’ roll and it’s certainly not Their Satanic Majesties Request. Debu are on a mission to spread love and peace to their listeners the Islamic way. This could mean their sound system includes loudspeakers that announce a call to music, and that they play five gigs a day starting at around 5am.

The vlogger

While the Bugils are long-defunct and Jason Daniels’ TV appearances have dwindled, one foreigner has achieved lasting fame. Canadian Sacha Stevenson was a pioneering YouTuber in Indonesia. After a few false starts, she found fame with a series called How to Act Indonesian, where she fondly parodied quirks of the Indonesian language and culture. Her comedic flair and her mastery of the Indonesian language saw her videos attract over one million subscribers and rack up over 120 million views.

Sacha has made a variety of YouTube shows, some of which, naturally, Jason Daniels has appeared in. Other intrepid guests have included Sacha’s own mother, who on a visit to Indonesia was filmed tackling local customs. In one episode, she ate eye-popping spicy food (My Mom Eats Indonesian food) and in another smoked lung-imploding kretek cigarettes (My Mom Smokes Indonesian Cigarettes). Personally, I was looking forward to episodes like My Mom Goes Wild in a Dangdut Music Club, or even My Mom Marries a Smooth-Talking Bapak. Alas, these episodes were never made.

Prior to her YouTube success, Sacha once rollerbladed the length of Java and then across into Bali, a journey of 1,400 km, while leaving a forest in her wake. Well, not exactly. She planted trees in cities along the way, her message being to “go green” and combat air pollution and traffic congestion. This environmental venture was called Bule on Blades. Since those early days, she has tackled subjects from politics to celebrity culture. Sadly, for her fans, at the end of 2020, she announced she would be returning to Canada.

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