What had me hooked first was the fluttering of folding fans.
They batted like eyelids, catching my attention as I entered the Culture Pavilion with their flickering movements, balanced delicately on fingertips; they swirled, dipped and soared, in fluid synchrony with their dancing wielders, looking as though they were an extension of their bodies than a separate entity.
A lone figure, standing above them all, orchestrated the choreography. Its appearance baffled me: while they were unmistakably masculine, the facial features were masked by makeup; as womanish as the attire, how this dancer manoeuvred had a distinctive feminine grace.
His name is Didik Nini Thowok, I was told. Florine remarked how privileged they, the event organisers, were that the Javanese performer, famed in his native Indonesia for his mastery in cross-gender dance forms, had agreed to perform at Tong Tong Fair – the very Eurasian festival in The Hague, Holland, where I encountered the celebrity in the flesh.
Didik Nini Thowok would take his art to the festival’s main stage the next day, but in the meantime, he was hosting a lesson on fan dancing for a lucky few.
Star-struck aside, the other intriguing aspect I’d picked out rested with Didik’s students: amidst the array, a blonde-haired dabbled in the intricate dance form alongside the non-caucasian façades – some noticeably Far Eastern, Caribbean, others ambiguities of racial blending.
And yet, there they waltzed together, harmoniously and in rhythm – as if they represented the social dynamics of The Hague, the demographics inhabiting it, who Tong Tong Fair was here to pleasure.
But for me, an outsider, I needed a little more than a snapshot of the present to understand the phenomena – the multiethnic community and the festival’s connection to Asia – I had to glimpse into Holland’s past as a colonial superpower.
Through the Dutch East India Company, Holland wielded near absolute monopoly in the Asian regions now known as Indonesia and Borneo, having established their trading strongholds in Java and Jayakarta – later Batavia before it was renamed Jakarta – by 1610s.
For over three centuries, the wealth brought in under Dutch colonial rule, including spice merchandising and sugar plantation, was transplanted to Europe and swelled the Old World coffers, funding civil engineering projects and evolving the face of The Netherlands.
The Hague, in particular, flourished; after all, the headquarters of the former Ministry of Colonies was based in the administrative heart of the Dutch domain.
Even today, the city’s architecture alludes connections with this colonial past, from commemorations down to sculptures of fruits reminding which trade funded the construction.
And along with the merchandise came the indigenous people Dutch Colonialism came into contact with. For various reasons, willingly or coerced, some journeyed from their homelands to arrive in Holland; a few even opted to stay.
What I saw in The Hague today were the offspring of ethnically intertwined fates – even though its colonial control was dismantled shortly after the Second World War, the visual legacy remains.
Stepping into the Grand Pasar – bazaar or market in Indonesian – under the vast midnight blue of the marquee ceiling, I could’ve been fooled into thinking I’d been transported to a night market. In Southeast Asia.
Aromas of incense loitered ever close to my nostrils, and exotic fruits and occasional wafts of pungent durian, as I moved nearer to juice bars and produce merchants. My eyesight hopped between stalls, from spiky berries I hadn’t seen outside Asia to bronze and porcelain effigies, mythic deities, depictions in Buddhism and Hinduism; the garbs and fabrics, either on hangers and price-tagged or worn on servers and shopkeepers, only emanated a flavour synonymous with the Asian identity.
Even when it was appearance that began breaking this character and left me confused about my ‘displacement’.
Above the wares, spelt in alphabet, the signs were unmistakably in Dutch; the Euro was a ubiquitous figure accompanying numbers. Juxtaposed, the entropy of Asian and Caucasian features was so balanced it was difficult to place numerical superiority on either group, or have it decisively indicate where I was at the time: in the Far East or the West.
Perhaps I’d go with the festival organisers’ definition of “Eurasian”. Even if I interpreted it as a surrounding so compound with its dual identities, it was entirely one of a kind.
Perhaps food might help me decipher Tong Tong Fair.
Following the arrows leading us out of the Grand Pasar, the horseshoe corridor of the Food Pavilion unfolded in the form of fast food stalls, lined along a constant flow of ambling visitors. It was buzzing, energised, even when there was only a mild cacophony of touting calls, crockery clattering and general chatter – instead, they were the electrifying vibrances of ingredients, on display counters and sieved out of deep fryers and griddles, accompanied by the scents they give out in all directions.
Peter and I narrowed them down to one booth and seated before the indoor open barbecue, where the chef pinched half a dozen skewers of raw meat and slapped them on the tempered flame, letting them hiss as the protein and marinade browned while tending to them with glazes of sweet, savoury peanut sauce.
Enough of teasing – even while I was entertained by a beer while we waited, all I could was crave for the satay.
The crowd swelled whilst we observed it from our rest stop – it was approaching lunchtime.
Curiously, the local Dutch people seemed so comfortable in an atmosphere so far removed from Europe – as though they all had grown up in Asia, emerged in its cuisines riddled with their jargons.
Or perhaps Holland’s former colonies, and their native cultures and gastronomies, were that emulsified with Dutch society for so long, that being raised acclimatised with this diet was the norm.
The food affair at Tong Tong Fair was there to educate, as much as the visitors were hunting the best of Indonesian and Eurasian flairs served in The Hague.
Back in the Grand Pasar, on the main stage, performers were enchanting their audiences with sounds and sights from the farther corner of Asia.
A singer took to the podium and sang beautifully, all whilst accompanied by an ensemble of instruments exotic to the European eye. Didik Nini Thowok, the celebrated Javanese performer I’d encountered, also captured the performing arts of his native land and opened the bottle – to the delight of viewers, awed by either a familiar or unfamiliar display.
But there were those closer to home, like a cover band composed of teenagers with mixed heritage.
Much like other certain parts of the fair, Tong Tong strived to raise awareness about the cultural significances of a multiracial society – by giving its youth a voice, and by showing them they weren’t alone.
Inside the Culture Pavilion, on board a carriage converted into an information centre, adults and children alike learned from interactive exhibits the issues of being a person with blended backgrounds: the prejudice they may face, alienation by their peers because of their skin colour – how the modern-day Dutch of various ethnicities have managed to coexist harmoniously, and what responsibility new generations must carry to sustain it.
To the naked eye, Tong Tong Fair may appear objectified by the hustle of merchandise and culinary offerings, plus with some singing and dancing thrown in; but look a little closer – witness the interaction between the visitors, exhibitors and the items on display.
With every box of incense sticks they bought, with younglings rubbing bellies of Buddha statues and probing their parents and grandparents about their significance, foreign attires taken off the shelves and worn, these were people establishing and reestablishing their connection with Asia through the objects that symbolise it, whether they had Asia in their blood or merely deeply influenced by it.
Tong Tong Fair flaunted that if its visitors couldn’t go to Asia, then allow the festival to bring Asia to them.
What did I find instead? Asia was already living amongst The Hague.