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The Big Read « Java « Monkey Business: 'Topeng Monyet', or the Masked Monkeys of Jakarta

There is no room for sentimentality in Jakarta...

IT'S RAW MORNING IN A SINKING Jakarta slum. A muddy, sloping walkway separates lines of shanty houses made of brick or wooden planks and topped with corrugated iron. Thin, almost clear sunlight - unusual for the third-most polluted megacity in the world - lights up working girls teetering on spattered high heels as they return home from their nightly business. The occasional banci ('banshee', or ladyboy) sashays past with an extra swing of the hips as the group of young monkey-handlers look on with tired disinterest.

None of the monkey boys are more than twenty years old; most weigh in at about fourteen or fifteen. Two of the boys argue over a pile of wooden toys while another lets his grey macaque check his hair for fleas. A ten-year-old arrives on the edge of the gang and sets down two bulky boxes suspended by a bamboo stick.

He arches his shoulder in pain.

- "Fuck me. That was heavy."

His older partner pokes the monkey inside one of the boxes while the younger boy opens the other box to reveal a cassette recorder and speaker sitting on top of a car battery. He touches two wires together and flicks a switch before the slum's walkway is drowned with extra-loud, tangy, Bollywood-style Dangdut music.

Syarifudin, 14, comes to sit with us: he can't stop talking. He's got a scar running across his left cheek ('a monkey claw') and looks like he's on speed.

- "I like it in Japan," he says with an unrelenting grin. "Tokyo's where it's at… I like the cars, smart, loads of silver cars there, filled with chicks, just try and take me away from there…"

Syarifudin's been playing the streets since he was nine, shining shoes and sniffing glue from under his T-shirt until he ended up working for the monkey boss. Like all of the boys, he and his busker-friend Sito, 16, rent a monkey and props from the boss for Rp.30,000 (£2) a day. From dawn to dusk they hope to make enough to eat, smoke and buy the odd plastic bag of arak that they sip through a straw when they're feeling flush. The older Sito interrupts his friend's frantic monologue to tell us that he wanted to be a policeman when he was young, but he just doesn't have the grades.

Most of the boys are lucky to have passed primary school.

The boss appears in the doorway of a house from across the leaking street: the monkey teams, in pairs and threes, trickle down to the road where the first of the morning's monster buses surface through the gathering smog to take them to the four corners of this hectic, industrial-strength Gotham.

There are plenty of stomping grounds to choose from: middle-class Pasar Minggu in the south of the tough megacity, or the central leafy avenues and fake Roman mansions of military Menteng where the old generals live. Then there are the Chinese-Indonesians in the west, while the port of Tanjung Priok - notorious for its close-knit gangland culture - hangs like a deadweight in the north of the capital.

But today it's the quiet, carefully swept gangs - alleyways - of working-class East Jakarta. The monkey boss insists that he accompany me as I tag along with a trio of boys and Lilis, their usual 2-year-old female macaque. The boss brings with him - pirate-like, on his shoulders - two more monkeys that are dressed in Evel Knievel costumes. The monkeys look like urban rock-and-roll casualties.

- "I dyed this one's hair blonde," the boss points to the smaller of the monkeys, "so that he looks more like a bule ('boo-lay', or white man)."

I ask Sawal, the boss, how he trains his monkeys to perform the stunts. The boss replies:

- "I hit them with a large stick until they do what I ask."

Old men sit smoking on their doorsteps while girls in long, dark-blue skirts and white headscarves amble and laugh their way to school. A toddler shuffles past wearing her mother's outsized shoes in a thick-aired, other-worldly Jakarta dream. The monkey boys pick their pitch and set the heavy wooden boxes down on the hot pavement.

Instead of the car-battery-driven cassette recorder, they've opted for a more traditional approach: cow-skin drums that the shy 18-year-old Udin thumps on rhythmically while Samin, 17, taps out a flowing, melodic, Eastern tune on the gamelan at his feet. Rohim, 19, controls Lilis with shouted commands while he yanks on her chain to encourage her various stunts.

Lilis, a two-year-old masked monkey, performs for the crowd in Jakarta, Indonesia

Lilis, a two-year-old masked monkey, performs for the crowd in Jakarta, Java, Indonesia.
© 2017 Ubud High.

First, the young Lilis sits on a tiny wooden chair and pretends to do her make-up in the mirror - 'like the Dutch ladies when they were here' explains the boss. Next she takes to a wooden bicycle and parades in front of the children who have gathered at the sound of the music; and finally a stint as an Indonesian soldier of the 1945-49 Revolution, sniping at Dutch soldiers until she's blown up by a Dutch bomb. Only once is the peace broken, when one of the pair dressed as Evel Knievel takes a swipe at a passing mother on a 'bike: long periods of captivity and harsh beatings mean that temperaments can swing from cutely calm to fiercely aggressive in one sweep of the paw.

The grey long-tailed macaques - caught by hunters in the retreating, once-lush jungles of West Java - are known to carry rabies into the densely populated megacity. Similarly, simian T-cell infection - believed to be the primate ancestor to the human version of the virus that causes T-cell leukemia in people - and the potentially fatal herpes B virus, have both tested positive in the performing monkeys of Jakarta.

It's not surprising when some city residents shut their doors or become uncharacteristically impolite when topeng monyet - literally, masked monkeys - threaten to come their way. Despite being a Jakartan tradition once played out with dogs and snakes and originating from the masked human dances of Cirebon, not everyone is happy with the exploitative status quo of the game. For Sawal, the boss, it's a money-spinner. For Udin, Samin and Rohim, topeng monyet is a necessary way of life in a city well-known to its citizens for its asphalt-hardness.

There is no room for sentimentality in Jakarta.

Nine hours of walking brings us full-circle back to the slum. The Evel Knievel twins in their surreal, his-and-hers stars-and-stripes cloaks have also had their shot at the limelight during the afternoon: cheered by some, stones thrown by others. I want to photograph the hut where the monkey boys sleep - 18 to a four-by-five metre room courtesy of Sawal - but the boys don't think their boss would like it.

Udin politely takes me aside as night falls and the mosquitoes begin to bite.

- "You're always welcome here during the day. But at night, be careful. There are a lot of things in the slum you don't want to know about."

He's right: not everybody was made for the monkey business in starless Jakarta.

A monkey-handler and his performing grey macaque collect money after a street performance in Jakarta, Indonesia

A monkey-handler and his performing grey macaque collect money after a street performance in Jakarta, Java, Indonesia.
© 2017 Ubud High.

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