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Haunting Portraits of Indonesia’s Masked Street Monkeys

Haunting Portraits of Indonesia’s Masked Street Monkeys

WOE Media

The streets of Jakarta, capital of Indonesia, set the stage for a highly controversial animal show. Trained macaques wearing masks or various costumes march two-legged along the streets to the beat of a drum. Locally called “topeng monyet” (Monkey Mask or Monkey Show) this show has been a tradition in Indonesia for many years even as one of the country’s earliest forms of entertainment.

Topeng monyet is traditionally performed as a door-to-door circus, consisting of a trained monkey, a trainer, and a musician playing “gendang,” a small drum-like instrument. Sometimes the show is requested to be performed privately inside house yards. At the start of the show, the trainer shouts “topeng monyet!” to inform the crowd that they are ready to perform. The audience, mostly children, gather around the monkey, who performs tricks mimicking human activities such as going to the market carrying a parasol and a basket, going to school carrying books and a backpack, and going to the beach riding a bike and wearing a hat and sunglasses. At the end of the show, the monkey (usually named Sarimin) collects money from the audience using a small sack.

However, in late 2013 a controversy grew of these busking monkeys being maltreated and abused by their owners resulting to an official state ban of the performances. Jakarta’s Governor Joko Widodo issued the order which aims to improve public order, stop animal abuse, and prevent the spread of diseases carried by the monkeys. Animal rights groups have campaigned for this ban for years, exposing stories of chained monkeys hung at the neck for long periods to be trained to walk on their hind legs, owners pulling monkey’s teeth out so they won’t bite, and monkeys tortured for obedience kept in unsanitary cages.

Because of the ban, topeng monyet shows are becoming harder to find in the big cities. However, they can still be found in several touristy locations around the country.

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