Zoom, zoom, zoom…


Things going well as I march into my final weeks in Makassar. If all goes according to plan, this could possibly be the last missive you receive from me because I’ll be home in no time at all (Nov. 7)!

The focus of the film has shifted in the past couple of weeks. I’ve stopped following Fajar, the 12-year-old, and started focusing more on the love lives of adult waria. How does a transgender individual find true love in a society that puts a lot of emphasis on family and religion? There’s Martina, the shy hotel maid who goes to church on Sunday but searches for love at night on Sudirman Street, the prostitute hangout. Then there’s Mami Ria, the older waria who has settled for being the second wife of a police officer. And then there’s my newest subject, Ari. Ari is what you’d call “an ex-waria.” Born into a conservative Islamic family, Ari was forced to marry a woman. Now she has two kids, dresses like a man, and shaves her head. Every night though, much to her wife’s dismay, she sneaks away to chat with other waria at a local night cafe.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned about the waria, it’s that they love contests. So, in hot pursuit of a film soundtrack, I held a waria singing contest last week. 8 beautiful contestants sang various dangdut songs (popular Arabic/Indian sounding music). Tiara, my guide, even got some trophies made for the winners that read, “Dangdut Audition, Documentary Film, Kathy Huang.” It was surreal. Over 50 waria gathered together at a local cafe to watch the event. I was supposed to help pick the winner, but after the three other judges (2 waria and 1 gay man) showed me their intense judging rubric, I knew better than to interfere. It was amazing how much fun the waria had. Even days afterwards they were still discussing who won and who should have won.

I've never received a trophy this size before!

Look at the size of these beauties!

The winners of the dangdut competition!

The winners of the dangdut contest

Table of our illustrious judges

Our illustrious judges

In terms of production, things have gotten easier now that Ramadan has finished and people are back to their regular schedules. I’m now working full time with Tiara and Aldy. I’ve shown them both how to handle a camera and boompole. They’re incredibly fun to work with.

The one downside to staying longer in Indonesia than expected is that I’m running into musim hujan (the rainy season). Not only are there now unpredictable downpours, everyone has also gotten sick from the change in weather. I myself got a bit of a cough, which translated itself (thanks to my habitual eye-rubbing) into pink eye. I’m not discouraged though. I bought some mighty powerful antibiotic eyedrops at the local pharmacy (sans prescription!). After 4 months in Indonesia, two respiratory infections and one case of conjunctivitis aren’t bad.

news-articleHere’s a funny story: I finally made it into Indonesian news. Fajar, Makassar’s primary newspaper, printed a photo of me in their Saturday issue. In it, I was filming Al-Markaz, the largest mosque in town. The caption below the photo read: “A Japanese tourist takes pictures of Ramadan.”

Oh, and incidentally, whoever said you couldn’t gain weight in sweltering climates was wrong. Dead wrong. It’s been a slow and steady process, but yes– the Makassar diet has finally done me in. All the coto (a soup concoction made from cow innards), mie titi (insanely tasty dry noodles that put you to sleep right afterwards), and kacang telur (peanuts dipped in sugary egg batter, whole bags of which must be finished in one sitting) have gotten to me. I met a waria the other night whom I had filmed during my earliest days in Makassar. I asked her if she remembered me and she replied, “Yes, but you were thinner then.” She motioned toward my cheeks. It was all I could do to hold back a cry of anguish. Tiara has also noticed my weight gain. When I demanded to know why she hadn’t told me earlier, she replied, “Because I wanted you to be fat like me.” Then she inflated her cheeks like a chipmunk and sang, “Fat girl, fat girl…”

The waria can be so cruel.

Makassar Is Hot.

Yes. I ate this flat-headed fish and it tasted very good.

Yes. I ate this flat-headed fish and it tasted very good.

Life continues on in Makassar as usual– hot, hot, hot. This is no Bali, to be sure. Despite being a port city (the gateway to Indonesia’s East!), Makassar has no soothing zephyrs or scenic beaches. Only lots of crowded fishing markets and industrial docks. Tourists don’t make their way here often, so I tend to get singled out right away. Little kids at the port follow me around calling me, “Mister, Mister” (the term used for all foreigners).

And yet, despite all the smutz in the air and lack of urban planning, I’ve got to say that Makassar has become one of my favorite places in Indonesia. It’s got more personality than a city like Jakarta, which could easily be mistaken for any other metropolis in Asia with its bad traffic and ginormous shopping malls.  The fresh fish in Makassar can’t be beaten. And the people here are extremely friendly and funny. Unlike the soft-spoken, gentle Balinese and Javanese who can talk circles around you, the people of Makassar just flat out speak their mind, often at loud volumes. Kind of like New Yorkers.

Production is going well. I’ve located two subjects so far. One’s a 12-year-old waria (transvestite) named Fajar who’s every bit a girl, except for the fact that she spits all the time and swears like a sailor. She’s dropped out of school because one too many boys kept giving her bloody noses and now spends most of her time with Aldy, a 14-year-old boy she has a crush on. The other subject is Mami Ria, a handsome older waria who owns a successful salon. She’s a devout Muslim who’s been on the Hajj. She also happens to be married to a police officer– who already has another wife (a woman)! It’s your classic case of polygamy– almost.

12-year-old Fajar

12-year-old Fajar

Fajar (right) done up with her friends

Fajar (left) done up with her friends

There’s been one major oversight in my planning for the film.  I decided to do most of my shooting around Ramadan, the Islamic fasting month. Consequently, lots of waria have skipped town to go visit their home villages. The hundred+ mosques in town broadcast constant calls to prayer over the loudspeaker, making interviewing subjects an interesting challenge. And my crew members can’t eat or drink during the daylight hours, not even when the murderously hot sun starts beating down at 10am.  I have several photos of Tiara, my translator, and Aan, my sound recordist, stretched out at different locations sleeping peacefully. Asking them to start the day at 8am is a stretch, especially since they don’t go to bed until 5am (when people traditionally gather to eat before the sun comes up).

I have to say that I really like being in a predominately Muslim culture though. Watching how people come together over Ramadan, for example, is simply incredible. There’s so much team spirit and camaraderie over fasting, I almost considered doing it myself. Almost.

6am. Idul Fitri day. The entire city of Makassar pours out into the streets to pray and celebrate the end of Ramadan!

6am. Idul Fitri. The city of Makassar pours out into the streets to pray and celebrate the end of Ramadan!

The only hitch is that being unfamiliar with Islamic culture, I tend to commit certain social gaffes. The other day, I tried to put a mike on Mami Ria before heading out to the mosque. As I lifted up her shirt to hook on the wireless transmitter, my assistant Aan cried out, “Don’t touch her! She’s already a he!” Because Mami Ria had already washed and put on the religious garb of a man, she was not supposed to have any physical contact with women. Mami Ria gave me a mournful look, but as we didn’t have time for her to wash again, we loaded into the car. It was a mortifying moment.

It’s been an educational trip, to say the least. In a lot of ways, I feel like I’m going through my second round of film school. Makassar has perhaps the most challenging lighting and sound recording situations I’ve ever experienced. Dark rooms, pulsing fluorescent lights, high population density homes and neighborhoods…. I’ve had to learn to just go with the flow. My Indonesian is passable, but I’ve given up trying to decipher the “campuran” (“mix”) of languages people speak in Makassar (Indonesia, Makassar, Bugis), not to mention the specific languages the waria speak (Bahasa Gau, Wandu). And I’ve learned that trying to apply my usual work ethic and demands is just downright impractical. Waiting for subjects who are hours late or for power blackouts to end are just part of the course in Makassar.  Two of the favorite things that Tiara loves to say to me when she sees me start to twitch are “Sabar, Kathy” (“Patience, Kathy”) and “Santai, ya” (“Relax for a bit”). By this point, I just nod gamely and settle down with another bottle of sweet tea.

Indonesia Raya!

I’ve reached Indonesia safely! My stomach is healthy and my spirits are high. I’m safely ensconced in Yogyakarta studying Bahasa Indonesia with 5 excellent tutors. They’re all excited about my project about the waria (one actually admitted to me that he had once spurned the love of a waria and regretted it!) and are designing lessons that deal with beauty salons, weddings, and AIDS.

Mami Vinolea (right) with Bunda Yetty, 2 elders in the Yogya waria community

Mami Vinolea (right) with Bunda Yetty. Waria elders.

The other day, I even got to interview the leader of the waria in Yogyakarta, Mami Vin. She’s had a pretty rough life. She went from being a prostitute to caretaker of street kids to respected Executive Director of a non-profit. All this without the support of  her family, who disowned her until they saw her being interviewed on television and decided to take her back in.

I’ve got nearly 6 hours of class a day, but I try to get out when I can. I had my first becak (rickshaw) experience the other day. Though I vastly overpaid (too many zeros to contend with when you’re dealing in rupiahs!), I was grinning from cheek to cheek. People are incredibly friendly here. Meet someone at an art gallery and they’ll begin a regular email correspondence with you. If you’re introduced to a friend of a friend of a friend, they’ll gladly offer to take you for a tour of Yogya on their motorbike.

The man himself

His Dignity the Sultan

Don't hate.

Don't hate.

A group of philosophy students from UGM (Indonesia’s largest university) have been showing me around the area. The other day, they took me to the Sultan’s Palace in Solo. We were staring at a portrait of the sultan himself (see below) when one of my new friends said, “Isn’t that the sultan?” and pointed to someone who looked like a Japanese tourist leisurely strolling about. I thought they were trying to pull my leg, until I asked a guard and he nodded nonchalantly. Of course, I had to go in for the kill. I’m from L.A. We love celebrities!

The quest to speak better Bahasa Indonesia continues. I thought I’d share some of my funnier moments. When I was first picked up at the airport, my driver asked me if I knew of Gong Li. I said, “Tentu saja. Dia binatang terkenal.” (which translates roughly to “Of course. She’s a famous animal.”) Earlier this week, I tried to order coconut milk but ordered a “kepala muda” instead (a “young head”). Then, during my interview with the waria, they asked me where I was from. I said, “Orang tua saya dari Taiwan, tetapi saya melahirkan di Amerika.” (“My parents are from Taiwan, but I gave birth in America”). Whoops.