Topeng Monyet – uncovering the circus

The boy tugged viciously at the chain around the monkey’s neck. It cowered and whimpered in pain. He sniggered and exchanged amused looks with his companion. The children were no more than 10 years old.

Pictured: The monkey clutches desperately at the chain around his neck

The monkey nervously touched the chain embedded in its neck. A grotesque doll’s head covered its face, which had the eyes hollowed out. The brown eyes seemed eerily human behind the mask and seemed to look at me pleadingly.

Repulsed, I immediately looked away. My friends and I quickened our pace and walked on, but I found myself unable to resist looking back. Pity for the poor creature filled me, but I was also angry.

I had been in Jakarta for less than a week. I was on a university placement and my friends and I were on our way to class. We took the same route every day, but this was the first time I had seen Topeng Monyet – the monkey circus.

I walked past that monkey quickly as I was keen to get some distance between us.

Known as Topeng Monyet (translated as masked monkey) it is the duty of the monkey to perform common tricks and interact with a series of props, in order to entertain an audience. Whatever the theme of the show may be, the humiliation of the animal is obvious as it is forced to ride in carts, don revolting masks, beg for money or even lick the butt of a filthy cigarette that is thrown at the monkey’s feet.

Unfortunately this kind of thing is a common sight on the streets of Jakarta and while locals celebrate the hilarity of the travelling monkey circus, Westerners cannot deny that painful gut reaction.

The more time you spend on the streets of Jakarta, it is necessary for one’s sanity to become hardened to sights such as this.

Pictured: The Topeng Monyet show has many props that are used for performing

As a Westerner visiting poverty stricken places such as this, that’s all you can do when you see a sick mother on the busway bridge with her dying baby lying next to her. You walk on by and try not to let it smack you in the face too hard.

Or the man who is lying on the street in a pile of blood, not moving, and barely breathing. It knocks the wind out of you and rattles you, badly. But you have to force yourself to remain separate from these emotions that threaten your stability in this foreign place. Indonesia is not Australia after all, and it would be unfair to compare it in any way.   

Poverty is a problem – a massive problem. There is nothing one-sided when you look at the reasoning behind an issue such as animal tourism. So much needs to be taken into account.

There is a certain fascination about the Topeng Monyet in Indonesia. Upon mentioning these two words, many local Indonesians squeal in delight, possibly recalling fond memories from their youth.

It makes me wonder what it would be like for them to revisit the Topeng Monyet as an adult. Would the same wonder and excitement creep across their anticipating faces as the Topeng Monyet Monkey Circus rolls on by?

I had to find out.

I spoke to a colleague and friend, 27-year-old Rani Trisna, of Kamung, Indonesia, about her recollections of Topeng Monyet.

She remembers seeing the show as a child, maybe more than eight times.

“At the time I found it amusing, but years later, along with the education level that I have achieved and my growing emotional sensitivity, I began to realise that Topeng Monyet is a form of animal cruelty and abuse.”

Rani Trisna

That night it got me thinking. Where do the performing monkeys come from? How is the training process conducted? Is it driven by reward or punishment? Is this the only way for very poor people to earn money in Indonesia?

I wanted to know the answers to all these questions and more.

I decided to go back. The image that had haunted me for the last few weeks was proving unable to suppress. I could not dismiss it. It was time to see the Monkey Circus.

Pictured: The monkey is caged when not performing

Topeng Monyet appears rather elusive. When you are not looking for the show, they appear to be everywhere. Now I was looking for the show, it had been most difficult to find.

I had been asking everyone I could for quite some time now and every time I went somewhere, the show had finished for the day or was in a different location. After organising to leave work early that day, I had a good feeling about the journey. Many people had told me a certain place where I could find Topeng Monyet, so I was fairly confident we would get there.

After communicating where I wanted to go to my driver who spoke no English, I jumped in the taxi. I knew it would be a long journey. Heading through ghastly peak-hour traffic at not more than a crawl for more than an hour, we finally began to pick up speed. I would ask every twenty minutes or so, “Apa anda tahu di mana pergi ke?” (Do you know where you’re going), the taxi driver nodded in a response. It was a little overwhelming.  

As we were well out of the city and entering into a semi-rural area with street-side markets, I decide to ask him again. I was certain he was scamming me. Less than a minute later, he stopped abruptly, and pointed towards the dwellings.

It was hot, really hot, and sticky. I got out of the taxi carefully finding my footing on the unsteady ground. Stepping over a large hole in the pavement, I notice a man waving in my direction. Piles of rubbish littered the streets and the dust and exhaust fumes were thick and heavy in the air around me. I walked over to the man and engaged him in conversation.

“Apa di mana Topeng Monyet, bapak?” [Where is the Topeng Monyet sir] He pointed a crooked finger in the direction of a labyrinthine set of narrow streets and corridors, but remained silent.

“Terima Kasih Banyak pak,” [thank you very much sir] I answered.

Unsure of where I was and feeling a fair bit vulnerable I looked around, expectant of further disappointment. A young man appears from the alleyway and stops in front of me gesturing towards the timid monkey that was crouching at his feet. He beckons for me to follow, leading me down a labyrinth of homes and twisting alleyways for maybe ten minutes before we reach our destination.

As we walk, the young man pulls the monkey along by a chain around its neck, commonly dragging it across the ground. The monkey keeps looking back at me and struggles to keep up with his fast pace. At that moment I wanted to grab the monkey and run away, liberating the creature from further mistreatment. The monkey seemed normal enough, but I still wanted to rescue it from its obligatory duties.   

As we head through the winding streets, the air becomes more toxic and the streets, more filthy. Families poke their heads out of their homes and stare as we pass and point and laugh at the monkey who is being dragged along the cobblestones. The heat hits me in the face as my breathing becomes more of a struggle in the dense pollution.

The young man who has the monkey is named Herman. He looks about 20 and has a friendly face. He has two monkeys: the performing monkey, who I later discover is named Atung, and another in a small, filthy cage. Atung spits and growls at me viciously – he is missing tufts of fur from his back. I am suddenly realising how traumatised this creature really is.

Pictured: Herman and his performing monkey

I actually thought the people with the monkeys owned them, but the monkey business is a very clever trade. A number of monkeys are rented out to people like Herman, or children are common to acquire more money, then they may keep a small percentage of the funds; but the majority of the money goes to the owner. Very much like trade in prostitution.  

Natalie Stewart from Jakarta Animal Aid Network (JAAN) tells me quite often the monkeys are in separate cages and live alone so they cannot interact with one another. These cages or crates are only big enough for one monkey and are usually placed in a dark spot – a perfect catalyst to drive the monkeys slowly mad.

Herman was rather shifty. He didn’t speak more than a handful of English and played on that to drive a hard bargain. I pushed though to negotiate a deal as he was demanding an outrageous amount for me to see the show.

As Herman thought about my offer he clearly became far more interested in getting paid, than remembering he had Atung on a chain that was growing slack. My suspicions about the traumatised monkey were confirmed as he lunged at me ferociously, grabbing at my clothes.

Scaring me senseless, I jumped back and regaining my focus, negotiated with Herman for five or ten minutes more until I was happy with the amount. We were good to go. 

Children run past us giggling as the monkey show is being set up, some wearing not a stitch of clothing. Herman asks me if I want to have music, the locals tell me it is very good, so I agree.

I sit down on a wooden bench outside somebody’s home with a couple of locals and Herman gets Atung and his props ready. Soon there were crowds of villagers surrounding us. They had emerged from their houses for the afternoon’s entertainment. A look of joy danced across their faces as they waited with the anticipation gleaming in their eyes. The monkey circus had smiled upon them. Herman’s partner plays an eerie tune on his xylophone and the show begins. 

Gazing through a thick, hazy curtain of cigarette smoke, Atung, the young Macaque, dressed in a gold waistcoat is commanded to attention with a sharp yank of the chain. Instantly as if an invisible switch has been flicked, he springs to life as a miniature wooden chair is thrown towards him. Atung steadies the chair and sits down in it. With another yank of the chain, Herman throws him an empty baby’s bottle with a teat and the monkey sucks from the bottle, resting back in the chair.

This chain jerking concerns me. I could see the monkey getting increasingly vicious as the show progressed. He would snarl as his chain was pulled, but obey nevertheless.

“The training methods are barbaric and punishment is used as the driver. The monkeys are hung upside down with their arms bound, and they are beaten and starved.” Natalie Stewart gives me a grim picture of the training regime.

During the show, Herman kept on glancing up at me as Atung performed. A large grin stretched across his face and his eyes were gleaming, almost daring me to react. I forced a painful smile. Inside I was fuming. Like Atung, I too wore a mask.  

The theme of the show may vary from time to time but they exhibit common traits and reoccurring storylines for the monkeys to act out that appear in most shows. It is common to end the show sometimes with the fake gun prop, where the monkey shoots himself and lies dead. This barbaric act is said to freak out the children and make the tourists laugh.

Topeng Monyet could never be perceived as a one-sided issue. Indonesia has a vast difference between the levels of poverty and wealth. Many Indonesians live with poverty every day and education can be very sparse. This issue is largely about education.

“It is the responsibility of government to make sure all Indonesians get education – not only to create a better economy, but also to help people gain a sense of moral responsibility and understanding.”

Rani Trisna

There are other ways of earning money, even for the desperately poor; ways that don’t involve animal exploitation or tourism. 

One look at the trains and it gives you a clear indication of this. Anyone can become a busker really; whether this is by selling fruit, playing an instrument or singing karaoke along the train. Or even if you have no discernable talents – simply sweeping rubbish along or holding out your hand, provides other options.

“Animal Tourism everywhere should be prohibited.  No wild animal likes to do tricks for people in exchange for food,” Natalie says.

Macaque Monkeys are not a protected species in Indonesia and Macaques are commonly bought through poachers who shoot the mothers to get to their young. The performing monkeys are small as they are chronically underfed and the owners get them when they’re young and keep them small as they make them more money.

In Indonesia, the Macaque Monkeys didn’t always have this fate. The performances started in rural villages where the people who captured the monkeys taught them, trained them and commonly kept them as pets. These monkeys lived a good life and teaching tricks to them was not a heinous act.

After many years though, the monkey trade has changed. Monkeys are captured in the forests and brought to the city as the population booms and the need for poor people’s entertainment became more apparent.

Children who tend to make more money, are especially frightened of the monkeys and do not know how to care for them. They tease the animals and dominate them in the only way that they know how – by torturing them into submission.

Pictured: The monkey smokes a cigarette as part of his act

According to The Jakarta Globe, protests have exploded in recent times in Jakarta; once an issue that flew so heavily under the radar is emerging quickly in the public eye. With a country so deep in corruption such as Indonesia, Topeng Monyet is a problem that has a very small chance of being addressed. Now with a strong following of locals, tourists and westerners residing in Jakarta brandishing signs and shouting cries of protest to abolish this awful practice, perhaps sometime soon, the government will have to listen.

JAAN has been working intensively since March 2011 to seize the performing monkeys and to encourage anyone who witnesses the shows to take photos and/or footage and submit their findings to the organisation, so they can deal with the situation accordingly.

They are heavily involved in the liberation of the Macaque Monkeys. JAAN have a sanctuary in the Thousand Islands where they work with rehabilitating the monkeys that are freed or rescued. Many are disturbed psychologically and this becomes a very grueling task for their volunteers.

Much talk of imposing a ban on the monkey shows has taken place between the city and JAAN, “They are still waiting for the Jakarta administration to issue a bylaw that would prohibit Topeng Monyet performances,” activist Pramudya Harzani to The Jakarta Globe.

The performing monkey circus has a home in Indonesia and unless the government is willing to clamp down on this issue as heavily as live cattle trade, then Topeng Monyet will not be going anywhere any time soon; especially as 30-odd-million people manage to survive on about $1 a day. The times are desperate and desperate people do extreme things. 

As Atung is forced to do one degrading thing after another, he grabs at the chain around his neck, pleadingly staring at Herman. He yanks the chain and Atung obediently climbs into his cart and dons the dolls-face mask.

Words by Jacqui O’Leary

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