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Fast Food Birthday Parties in Indonesia

By: Ade Tanesia

This article was originally published in Latitudes magazine, a renowned bi-monthly magazine focusing on Indonesian culture. The magazine hailing from the island of Bali previously existed in paper form and was especially known for its in-depth critical articles and beautiful photography. As a tribute to all contributors of this magazine presents a selection of articles published in the years 2001-2004.

My daughter’s third birthday is just a few weeks away. I begin to add up the expenses for everything I’ll have to supply to celebrate her birthday at school—the birthday hats, birthday cake, and balloons; the candy-filled treat bags; all the drinks, cookies and chocolates; and, perhaps most importantly, the nasi kuning (yellow rice) with fried chicken, dry tempe, eggs and vegetables to be cooked and packed into cardboard boxes. After making these calculations, I see that for a party of around twenty schoolmates, I’ll need to spend around Rp 300.000. This sum, it turns out, is more expensive than the birthday package offered by McDonald’s— the ‘McD Party’, a ‘super saver’ (super hemat) deal—that comes to only Rp 248.000 for twenty kids, including rice and chicken-based ‘happy meals’; invitation cards; birthday hats; the MC; gift toys; balloon decorations; and even a special gift for the birthday child.

The McDonald’s offer is sorely tempting in terms of efficiency. Parents need not bother preparing for the birthday party—all you have to do is show up. When I just consider the time and effort I’ll need to spend preparing for a party at school, of course I’d prefer the McDonald’s package. But when I recall Morgan Spurlock’s ‘Super Size Me’, a documentary film about obesity in American society, resulting, at least in part, from the McDonald’s-eating habits of America’s children, it makes me think twice about feeding my kid a Big Mac. Ultimately, I decide to prepare the whole party by myself. Better to feed my daughter yellow rice and dry tempe than to risk the prospect of fast food addiction. I am nagged by the worry that she may blindly follow the trend, just because some of her schoolmates’ parents are choosing McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken birthday packages. Luckily she has not been influenced so far—maybe because I don’t take her to eat in fast food restaurants, or perhaps because she doesn’t like their marketing icons, Ronald McDonald or KFC’s chicken clown.
The inconvenience of dealing with kid’s birthdays is also felt by my friend Ani, who has a four-year-old. “I usually make two parties—one at school and one at home,” she says.

This is understandable, as living in such close proximity with her neighbours demands that she maintains harmonious relations with them. “Just imagine—at home there are forty neighbours’ kids I must invite. If I don’t invite them, the parents will gossip about us. My husband once proposed we make the birthday party outside [our house] and select which children to invite. Wah, I didn’t want to do it—that would make the neighbours talk about us even more,” Ani continues.

And that is just at home. Like it or not, Ani also follows the new system at her daughter’s play-group, which allows its students to celebrate their birthdays at school. Like me, Ani inevitably faces her child’s demand to have a party at school, just like her friends do. “Whenever there’s a birthday, I start preparing a month beforehand. In fact, to avoid going to all that bother, I looked into having the party at the Kentucky Fried Chicken on Jalan Sudirman in Jogjakarta. Once I’d added it all up, though, it was very expensive. You pay around Rp 500.000 for twenty or twenty-five children, I forget how many exactly. And my daughter’s invitation list might include as many as seventy children. It could end up costing millions of rupiah! In the end, it’s better to make two birthday parties: one at school and one at home,” says Ani.


The mushrooming of fast food restaurants in Indonesia since the 1980s has captivated public interest. Fast food restaurants that trade on their cleanliness, quality, and standardized food recipes, not to mention their air-conditioned facilities, have brought unprecedented comfort to consumers. It’s no surprise that these restaurants have become the preferred lunch spots for students from elementary school through university. When I was in Junior High (SMP), around 1981, there was already an ‘American Hamburger’ joint in the Blok M district in South Jakarta, which was packed with schoolchildren at noon. In the space of only ten years, other restaurants—like Kentucky Fried Chicken, California Fried Chicken, Wendy’s and Texas Fried Chicken— quickly multiplied. 1991 marked the entrance of the biggest fast food restaurant chain in the world—McDonald’s. Fast food eateries also became popular family recreation arenas on Sundays—nearly all of them now provide play facilities for children. The lack of public spaces and parks in Indonesian cities leads parents to take their children to play in fast food restaurants that champion the ‘eat while you play’ concept. These are no longer merely places where you fill your stomach; they are status symbols that make their customers feel proud of how ‘modern’ they are.

In their country of origin, America, fast food restaurants are categorized as ‘junk-food’ restaurants, whereas in Indonesia they are icons of prestige. The early evolution of the McDonald’s restaurant in America in the 1940s followed a similar pattern. In 1948, when the McDonald brothers changed their drive-in hamburger restaurant into a self-service restaurant, based on Fordian assembly line techniques, they could afford to reduce their product prices to well below their competitors’. They made it viable for working class families to treat their children to meals in a restaurant. And that is the feeling that fast food restaurants like McDonald’s have managed to sustain in the rest of the world. Today, McDonald’s outlets are found in one hundred and forty countries on six continents, feeding some forty-six million people world-wide every day.

So, Asia has not been spared McDonaldisation. Even countries once safely behind the iron curtain, like the People’s Republic of China, have finally surrendered to the onslaught; when McDonald’s came to Beijing in 1992, thousands of people waited patiently for hours to eat in there. A recent study at a Beijing elementary school revealed that all the children recognized pictures of the McDonald’s icons. In Bangkok and Jakarta, teenagers love eating at McDonald’s because it carries such cachet.

Think of McDonald’s Sarinah— the first Indonesian branch, with its giant Ronald McDonald statue dominating the crossroads on Jalan Thamrin in front of Sarinah department store, Sukarno’s beloved icon of modernity. Since it opened in 1991, this 24-hour restaurant has served as the place to meet for Jakarta’s insomniacs—from all-night party animals to drug dealers, beggars and sex workers—as well as the usual daytime customers, like school kids, families and office workers. Since the success of its launch, the McDonald’s Indonesia chain has expanded to encompass over one hundred outlets across the country, with a staff of some eight thousand employees.

Fast food restaurants are not a passing trend; they are a fact of life for the upwardly mobile in Indonesia’s urban populations. But, for those living beyond the boundaries of the cities, they may still be a dream and for the poor, urban majority they remain an unaffordable luxury. But, the fast food restaurant industry seems never to run short of strategies for winning the loyalty of the millions of consumers who can afford their services. One key example of this is the children’s birthday party trend; the packages offered by fast food retaurants have, in the span of only a few years, become the number one choice for large numbers of Indonesian parents wanting to celebrate their children’s birthdays in style.


For Indonesians, the whole notion of children’s birthday celebrations—complete with the rituals of candle-blowing and cake-cutting—is a relatively new phenomenon, mainly confined to urban areas. Eighty-year-old Ibu Suwarti says that in the pre-independence era, this sort of thing was known only in Dutch communities, or among Indonesians and ‘indos’ (Eurasians) with close ties to Dutch culture.
“Before I got married, I lived with an older sister who was married to a Dutchman—her name was Tante Alida. My brother-in-law always celebrated their children’s birthdays, as well as their friends’. So, to be sure, this kind of party is something Indonesians adopted from Western culture,” says Ibu Suwarti.

Although she also went on to marry and have children, she didn’t celebrate her own children’s birthdays. “That would have to be paid for, wouldn’t it? When my first child was born in the 1950s, I couldn’t afford to celebrate birthdays. If people had money, ya, they could make parties like that. These parties were only really known to a small number of well-to-do people living in the cities,” she adds.
There is some truth to what Ibu Suwarti says. When I was in elementary school—in 1970’s Jakarta—I already knew about children’s birthdays with hats and cake; balloons and ice-cream; and party games like musical chairs, sing-alongs and such. But in smaller towns, birthdays like these weren’t yet popular. Twenty-two-year-old Dina, a Jogjakarta university student who spent her childhood in Gombong, Central Java, recalls that: “When I was a little girl, there was no candle-blowing, no cake-cutting. My mother didn’t make nasi kuning either, although she did sometimes cook bakmi [Chinese noodles]. I rarely attended birthday parties for my neighbours or schoolmates. The tradition of celebrating birthdays was customary in the big city, but in my hometown it didn’t really exist. It was only after Senior High School (SMA) that we started to give gifts to our friends when they had birthdays; we usually treated them to some bakso [meatball soup].”

Ulis, a thirty-four-year-old photographer from Surabaya, concurs with Dina: “I used to live in the middle of the city, in a dense area where most of the residents were in the lower economic brackets. So, in our neighbourhood it was rare to find a family that could celebrate their children’s birthdays, because they had no money. Living in an area like this, I would be embarrassed to celebrate a birthday—it would be like showing off. Usually, the tradition of marking birthdays happened only in rich or upper middle class families.”
Yuli, a twenty-year-old housemaid from Wonosari, Jogjakarta, says that there were no birthday celebrations in her village either: “We were accustomed to commemorating the days we were born on, based on the Javanese calendar, with a simple remembrance ceremony. Usually, mothers would make mongmong: white rice that was arranged on a plate. Then all around the edge of the plate, they would put urap, ‘salad’ dishes made up of bean sprouts, spinach leaves and grated coconut, along with two boiled eggs. The mongmong was then placed in the child’s room, along with drinking water. Later on, there were prayers, to ask that the child wouldn’t grow up naughty, but be smart and devoted to his or her parents. After being blessed, the mongmong was divided up among the child’s friends, while the child him or herself was not allowed to eat of it,” she explains.

Birthday celebration traditions among urban Javanese are also marked by the making of tumpengan, nasi kuning formed into conical mountain-like shapes and accompanied by a variety of side dishes of fried chicken, dry tempe, vegetables, boiled eggs and fried and shredded meat (abon). Tumpengan is also used for selamatan, or religious feasts such as selapanan (celebrations for newborn babies).

My friend Judith, a wife and mother from Jogjakarta, combined tumpengan with a McDonald’s deal to celebrate the second birthday of her daughter, Sasya. Arriving early at Sasya’s party, I saw that there were already two McDonald’s employees at the house, bringing in the party paraphernalia and a ‘happy birthday’ banner that they hung up on the wall. Once the party took off, one of the staff presented a programme of games and singing for the children, handing out small prizes when they were done. What was interesting about Sasya’s party was that right next to the Western-style cake, small tumpeng dishes are laid out. And when the party was over, the children got both McDonald’s treats and nasi kuning to take home. “I really don’t want to lose the Javanese tradition, so I keep on using nasi kuning. Meanwhile though, McDonald’s is more festive for the children, as well as practical; you can call them to come to your house,” said Judith.

McDonald’s offers delivery services to homes and schools. Their motto is: “Bisa di Rumah! Bisa di Sekolah! Bisa di Mana Saja!” (You can do it at Home! You can do it at School! You can do it Anywhere!). There are a whole range of packages for feeding twenty kids: the Super Thrifty (super hemat) package at Rp 248,000; the Silver package at Rp 298.000 or Rp 318,000; and the Gold package at Rp 366.000. McDonald’s even offers bonus enticements—for example, for parties where thirty children are invited, you get a free cake; fifty children get you free clowns to perform a ‘Grimace and Hamburglar Show’; seventy kids get you free McKids uniforms; and a hundred get you a free magic show. Parents seem to appreciate this ‘you can do it anywhere’ service, especially if they are both busy working.

This is confirmed by Bapak Sasongko, Store Manager of McDonald’s Malioboro in Jogjakarta, who says that practicality and efficiency are the key criteria for parents celebrating their children’s birthdays at McDonald’s. “The birthday packages we offer are really quite practical and their prices are also affordable. We do it all, and actually, if you cooked it yourself it would probably come out more expensive, along with wasting time and energy,” says Pak Sasongko, who has also worked as a McDonald’s store manager in Jakarta, Surabaya, Semarang and Solo.
“In fact the McDonald’s ‘Kids’ Party’ programmes, including delivery services, were developed locally by each branch of McDonald’s. We call this: ‘local store marketing’. In Indonesia, the market segment for the kids’ party program is quite large. In America, children’s birthday celebrations normally include five to ten invited guests, while here they may involve invitations for up to fifty kids, sometimes as many as one hundred. That was McDonald’s rationale for launching this programme in Indonesia,” he explains.

Their projections proved correct. Today, they get an average of between one-hundred and one-hundred and fifty birthday-package requests per month. “We began in 1993, with the opening of the McDonald’s in Jogjakarta. But the boom really took place between 1998 and 2000; there could be eight or ten parties per day. Due to popular demand, we introduced a new concept: the ‘party out’ package, to cater for birthday parties in homes or schools. Now the ‘party out’ demand is pretty high, not only from urban areas, but also from places like Bantul and Godean, and areas outside Jogja, like Klaten and Magelang. In a single month, there may be up to thirty ‘party out’ requests,” says Pak Sasongko, smiling with satisfaction at the results of his work.
Of course, the success of McDonald’s is also supported by other institutions, like the schools that permit McDonald’s-style birthday celebrations on their premises. Yulita Mulyanti, a representative of the Yogya Kids’ Play Group and TK (kindergarten), says that her school cannot dictate hard policies, like prohibiting parents from celebrating their children’s birthdays at school, or stopping them from using McDonald’s or KFC.

“We use an infiltration method—slowly building student and parent awareness. So, for example, at the TK we begin to show them that they don’t need to bring presents: that it’s enough, for example, to pray and sing without there having to be a birthday cake. Gradually, the children also become aware that birthdays needn’t always be celebrated. To me, everything depends on the parents. A child won’t perceive a birthday as an important matter if the parents don’t remind them about it,” says Yulita.

When I ask her about the dangers of ‘fast food addiction’ if schools allow birthday celebrations using the services of brand name restaurants, Yulita maintains that this too comes back to the parents: “If, in daily life, a child is not accustomed to eating at McDonald’s, I don’t think that child will ask for it. We also teach them about which foods are healthy and which ones aren’t. In any case, McDonald’s and a range of other fast food restaurants are all here—right before our eyes, which leaves us to gently teach children how to approach that reality,” explains Yulita.
She views birthday celebrations as arenas for mutual sharing and shared prayer, but emphasises the need for guidance to ensure that they don’t encourage consumerist attitudes. I think again of the spectre of obesity overwhelming American society due to the over-consumption of junk food. While many Indonesian children are wasting away from malnutrition, there is also a growing population of extremely fat children. Since corpulence in children is still widely regarded across Indonesia as a sign of health and wealth, many parents remain unaware that the excessive body weight of their children may portend disaster in days to come. That’s a very high price to pay just to meet the demands of one’s lifestyle.

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