October 7, I shared about Aladin and Tan Sin Hwat in Sinema Transtopia, Berlin, Germany. The screening program is part of the Wandering Salon, the first film festival from and about Southeast Asian diaspora organized by unthaitled and Soy Division Berlin. I would like to thank the six curators of Wandering Salon: Sarnt Utamachote, Rosalia Namsai Engchuan, Gugi Gumilang, Lisabona Rahman, Hai Nam Nguyen and Phuong Phan; unthaitled, and soydivision Berlin, as well as for Sinema Transtopia team. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to give a short lecture on the importance of Aladin by Tan Sing Hwat and the history of Indonesian cinema, especially related to the popular performing art in pre-Independence Indonesia.
Aladin was restored by IdFilmCenter Foundation in 2017 – 2019 in Jakarta. This film is one among surviving examples of entertainment films produced in 1950s Indonesia.
Tan Sing Hwat
This is Tan Sing Hwat or Tandu Honggonegoro. He was a journalist and author of short stories in popular magazines during pre-Independence Indonesia. In the 1950s, he produced several films like Aladin (1953) and Sri Asih (1954). Why is Tan Sing Hwat rarely discussed in Indonesian film history?
The first reason is because he is a Chinese-Indonesian filmmaker. In the writing of Indonesian film history, the Chinese-Indonesian filmmakers were accused of only producing commercial films. When the writing of Indonesian film history was based on the legacy of racial systems made by the Dutch colonial government, the contribution of Chinese-Indonesian filmmakers became invisible.
The second reason is because of Tan Sing Hwat’s involvement in Serikat Pekerja Film dan Teater (Sarbufis, Film and Theater Workers Union) that was affiliated with Indonesian leftist. Sarbufis was very vocal against the domination of Hollywood films in Indonesia. In 1955, Sarbufis initiated a campaign to ban American newsreel film. In the late 1950s, Sarbufis was joining and founding the Action Committee for Boycott of Imperialist American Film. In 1963, the also banned British film imports. Following the rise of Orde Baru, Sarbufis was crushed. The union was banned in 1966. Filmmakers related to the leftist political movement were marginalized in the writing of Indonesian film history later on.
In the earliest phase of his film career, Tan Sin Hwat produced popular films that were regarded didn’t containing national consciousness. He made Sari Asih, a film about a female superhero. He also made Aladin, an adaptation of works from 1001 Nights, Aladin and the Magic Lamp. His films were different from the dominant narrative that shows the importance of national consciousness in the film.
Aladin and Indonesian Cinema
What kind of films were considered idealistic and nationalistic in the early 1950s in Indonesia?
From this slide you can see some examples of films that were hailed as films containing national consciousness. First, The Long March (Darah dan Doa) by Usmar Ismail that tells about the fate of Siliwangi soldiers who fought the Dutch soldiers and the DI/TII during the Revolutionary Wars (1945 – 1949). Darah dan Doa is hailed as the first film nasional. The second one is Enam Djam di Djogja by Usmar Ismail that tells about the General Offensive of 1 March 1949 in Yogyakarta during the Revolutionary Wars. Then, there was si Pintjang by Kotot Sukardi, a children film that emphasized nationalism and the impact of being colonized. You can see from the dialogues in the film, where the children were imposed to support the struggle of Independence during the Revolutionary Wars. Another example is Pulang directed by Basuki Effendi, a film about the hardship of ex-heiho (Japanese para-militer during the Pacific War). Fifth is Frieda by dr. Huyung (Hinatsu Eitaro or Hoe Yoeng) tells about an Dutch-Indonesian woman who should choose between becoming a Dutch spy or embracing Indonesian as her new identity. Last is Inspektur Rahman directed by Moh. Said and Nawi Ismail, a film about how to fight the separatist after Indonesian Independence.
Rather than produced film about the war in Indonesia, Tan Sing Hwat chose to make fully ornamental film, bringing the Middle East story within Southeast Asian landscape. As you already seen in the film, there was no narration about Indonesia. However, this film implying a critique toward a corrupt leader and how to fight the bad leader.
Why did Tan Sin Hwat choose to produce a film based on the 1001 Nights story?
We should look back to the brief history of fiction films in Indonesia. As you can see from this slide, from 1926 to 1936, stories in fiction film made during Dutch East Indies period were adapted from Chinese folklore like Journey to the West in Tie Pat Kai Kawin (The Marriage of Tie Pat Kai), local folklore like Lutung Kasarung in Loetoeng Kasaroeng, and popular story in Dutch East Indies like Melati van Agam and Nyai Dasima. From the end of the 1930s to the early 1940s, the story developed. The film production made an adaptation from modern play or the story from Hollywood films.
In the early 1940s, more films were adapted from 1001 Nights like Aladin dengan Lampoe Wasiat or adapted from Opera Bangsawan like Ratna Moetoe Manikam. Both belong to the film fantasy, using grande sets and costumes. This trend emerged because in the mid 1930s to 1940s, there was a migration from performing art creative workers to the film industry (see Nawi Ismail interview in my book and in Pak Misbach book; or read in Ratna Asmara). The creative workers in performing art used the system that was already developed in the popular theater troupe like Komedi Stamboel and Opera Bangsawan (nobleman opera). Usually these theater troupes have their own actor and expert in making sets and property. When the film industry used the crew, they adapted their system as well.
Unfortunately, films that were produced in 1941 and 1942 couldn’t have a proper film launch. The Japanese military already made the invasion. They closed the film studio owned by the Chinese-Indonesian producers. The film crew were forced to join the Nippon Eiga Sha, a studio that focuses on making propaganda newsreels and films. Besides film, the film crew were forced to join a theater troupe that played propaganda about Japanese victory during the Pacific War.
Tan Sin Hwat’s attempt to make a film based on the popular culture in pre-Independence Indonesia can be seen as an attempt to record the cultural heritage in Indonesia and Malay-speaking region. Aladin is an adaptation from komedi stamboel, an hybrid popular performing arts that emerged in the late 18 century in Dutch East Indies. Komedi Stamboel is like an opera, usually the play lasts for 3 – 4 years, using Malay languages. Singing and dancing became part of the show. So what we see tonight is an example of Tan Sin Hwat as a film director remembering the form and aesthetic of popular performing art shows.