Saturday, June 14, 2003

The Siti Sensation

Ask any Indonesian to name a Malaysian singer that they know, inevitably they will say Siti Nurhaliza. As I'm typing these lines at my favourite Internet cafe, strains of Siti's Cindai float through the air. I realised during my many years of coming to Jakarta that a good conversation starter is Siti Nurhaliza. Most admire her beauty and her voice. Her most popular songs here are Aku Cinta Pada Mu and Cindai. You can request for both of these songs in karaokes here but beware, they are notoriously difficult to sing.

I introduced one of my Indonesian Chinese colleagues to Siti Nurhaliza's songs and now he is totally enamoured with her. I find him even slightly annoying these days with his Aku Cinta Pada Mu ringtone bursting out incessantly from his cellphone. I have another Indonesian Chinese colleague who has a huge collection of Siti's pictures from the Internet. It is interesting that a conservative singer such as Siti Nurhaliza could garner such a large following here in Indonesia when local divas like Kris Dayanti and sexy Dangdut grillers like Inul Daratista typically dominate the music scene.

Among the local Indonesian bands, Dewa, Sheila on 7 and Padi are probably the most popular ones. I have become quite a Dewa fan too. Most Indonesians are also familiar with Amy Search, mainly because of his song Isabella, which was quite a hit here back then. Sheila Majid is also quite well-known but Siti Nurhaliza is definitely the number one Malaysian singer here by a wide margin. Ziana Zain? Sorry, no one has heard of her before.

Friday, June 13, 2003

Rembrandt in Chiaroscuro

Was it vanity that resulted in Rembrandt's left-ear deformity? A BBC report brought forth the theory by a British surgeon that the Dutch painter's visibly enlarged earlobe in many of his self-portraits is caused by a botched ear-piercing job. Rembrandt, being the fashionable artist of his time might have attempted to have his ears pierced again after the earlier failure as an ear-ring is visible in some of his later portraits.

This intriguing explaination was given 330 years after the artist's death from careful analysis of his many self-portraits by the surgeon. Rembrandt is famous for his chiaroscuro style, where the sharp contrast of light and shadow helps to highlight key features of his subjects or heighten the drama of a scene. His lighting style is a great influence to many artists including modern film-makers. My favourite director Ridley Scott is especially fond of it.


There's a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep 'em all away from you. That's never possible.

- Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck (5 April 1916 - 12 June 2003) in To Kill a Mockingbird

Thursday, June 12, 2003

The Roots of Mutiny

A brief sojourn to Makassar brought back memories of other places I have visited before in the past. Upon landing at the airport in Makassar, I was immediately captivated by the clear blue skies. It is a small airport - one where you can alight from the plane and walk the tarmac into the terminal. I suddenly recall another similar airport, which I have almost forgotten about - Pune in India. I had made a short flight from New Delhi to Pune to visit a customer. I later found out that Pune was one of the places where Mahatma Gandhi had spent some time being imprisoned before. It is a quiet retirement place nowadays.

As I approached Makassar town center in a taxi, I am reminded of Georgetown, Penang. I had spent a year of my working live in Penang and have lots of pleasant memories of my days there. Makassar is like Penang, filled with many Chinese shops and there's a sea-front with open air eating stalls not unlike Gurney Drive. There's an old Dutch fort near the harbour called Fort Rotterdam, which is quite well-preserved. It at once reminded me of Fort Cornwallis in Georgetown. And like Penang, there's even a place called Tanjung Bunga! (spelt Tanjung Bungah in Penang).

Sitting there at the lobby lounge of Hotel Imperial Aryaduta (formerly called Sedona Hotel), and looking out at the calm blue waters with schooners and boats majestic in the sunset, I remembered Cebu, Philippines. Cebu is a resort island a short flight away from Manila and I once spent a couple of idyllic days there. Like Makassar, it has stunning azure skies with tranquil seas dotted with green small islets. That in turn triggered memories of another beautiful place in the Philippines: Subic Bay - the abandoned US naval base. I had loved the peace and isolation of the place when I visited it 7 years ago. The waters of the bay were translucent and I could see fish swimming in them. In such places, one begins to understand why the sailors mutinied on the Bounty. The allure and charm of tropical paradises with blue seas, green islands and friendly natives can be quite hypnotic and irresistable.

But there wasn't enough time for me in Makassar to contemplate a return to a life of noble savagery. I had dinner with the customers, worked on my slides and spent the next day in presentations and discussions with them. I returned to Jakarta this evening: Back to that grim, gritty and sweaty world - that fume-choked metropolis of mysteries called Jakarta.

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Mission to Makassar

I'll be hopping on a plane to Makassar on the island of Sulawesi. Formerly called Ujong Pandang, Makassar is the gateway to Eastern Indonesia, famed for its spice islands. Besides the Makassarese, Sulawesi is also hom to the Bugis, the Minahasans and the Torajans. The Bugis are reknowned as great seafarers and they have settled all over the Malay archipelago - you can find their settlements even in Selangor and Johor, Malaysia. Of course, Singaporeans would know about Bugis Street and the Bugis Junction shopping mall, the location of their settlement there.

I hope to take this one day business trip of mine to gain a better insight into the history and culture of Indonesia. I have visions of swarthy pirates, Portuguese galleons and armoured Dutch soldiers manning forts; the colour and romance of a time when spice was worth its weight in gold. Nathaniel's Nutmeg by Giles Milton is the book to read about the intrigues and adventures during the golden age of the spice trade in the Malay archipelago.

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Mulling Over Malls

I had lunch today with colleagues at the Bistro in Plaza Senayan. Plaza Senayan seems to be the most popular mall for the middleclass here. Strolling pass its many designer label stores, one cannot really tell whether one is in Jakarta or Singapore or KL for that matter. One upmarket middleclass mall looks like another.

Which got me thinking about some of the malls that I like to go to in Jakarta. I usually avoid Plaza Senayan mainly because it is too trendy - the place to see and be seen. I enjoy anonymity. Moreover, the cineplex there is expensive and crowded during the weekends.

My favourite malls in Jakarta are the lower-end ones: Pasaraya Blok M, Block M Plaza, Atrium Senen and even Roxy Mas. The people who go there are teenagers and the lower middle-class folks. One can see more of the real Jakarta here.

In Singapore, I spent a lot of time at the Junction 8 in Bishan because I lived in the area. I've also watched many movies at the cineplex there. Whenever I'm downtown, I kind of like to hang around at Raffles City Shopping Center at City Hall. Maybe it's because I used to stay at the adjacent Westin Stamford Hotel (now Swissotel, The Stamford) everytime I make a business trip to Singapore and has grown accustomed to the place. And the Times bookstore there is pretty good.

In the KL and PJ area, I still have a soft spot for some of the forgotten malls of yore, like Atria at Damansara Jaya. I used to live and work in that area and the place brings back many good memories of those days. I remember a time when the teh tarik stalls would be packed after 5.00pm and we would be having our nasi lemak or maggi mee before adjourning to the Orient Express Pub around the corner. Those were the good old days when the whole Section 22 would be jam-packed whenever there was a sale at the Parkson store there. And there was a Picadilly discotheque in the same complex that used to be the hottest place in PJ.

Nowadays, the place is a bit deserted. People like to go to newer and trendier malls like MidValley Megamall, Sunway Pyramid or Suria KLCC. Going to the mall has become a favourite pastime of the young and a typical weekend outing for families.

I pass by the oldest "mall" in Jakarta everyday - Sarinah. It is the nearest one to my hotel. The term "mall" wasn't even popularly used when Sarinah was first opened in the 60s by President Sukarno. It was the first international class departmental store (as it was called then) in Jakarta. Nowadays it is considered very old-fashioned to shop there - a place for the ibu-ibu and mbak-mbak. I like Sarinah because it has two or three floors selling traditional handicrafts and dresses and the foodcourt in the basement has quite a good variety of local food. And I'm happy that it is not "polluted" by the trendy crowd, even though Hard Rock Cafe Jakarta is situated in the same building complex.

Years from now, I know I will remember Sarinah with as much affection as I have for Atria in Damansara Jaya.

Monday, June 09, 2003

On the 54

I used to take the SBS bus to work in Singapore - hopping on the number 54 daily from Bishan to the River Valley Road, dropping off at the bus-stop in front of Liang Court. I generally avoided the rush hours, preferring to go slightly later after nine.

It was always a pleasant ride, this half-an-hour journey on the number 54. It takes you through Thomson Road, Newton Road and Scotts Road, slicing through the heart of the Orchard shopping area - past Shaw House and the Borders bookstore. Passengers included students, housewives and working people like me.

It is the trendy habit of the young in Singapore to carry with them a portable stereo Walkman whenever they commute. One can see these youngsters in MRT trains and buses, plugged into their personal auditorium, ocassionally swaying their head and tapping their feet, oblivious to the bustle of the surrounding.

It got myself into the habit of carrying a Walkman with me too when I was commuting daily on the 54. But instead of pounding my ear-drums with the latest hits from the boy band of the day, I took the opportunity to "read" by listening to my audiobooks.

Those were pleasant mornings for me, with the sun streaming in through the window and the bus gently cruising down tree-lined roads, past parks and walkways lush with greeneries; I would engross myself in an exciting narration of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina or lose myself in a sonorous rendition of W.B. Yeats' poems. Ocassionally I would doze off, missing entire chapters. But that's the advantage of audiobooks, you can always rewind and listen to them again and again without the strain and boredom of visual reading.

Listening to audiobooks helped me to catch up on the reading I had missed, especially those on the classics. Now I think back on those commuting days of mine in Singapore with fondness, especially those daily rides on the 54 - my moving university.

Mind-Blowing Smart Dusts

Be careful the next time you take a deep breath: you might inhale a computer and radio transmitter into your body. Scientists at the UC Berkeley have successfully tested sensors with embedded radio transmitters the size of a small fleck of glitter, measuring 5 cubic millimeters.

These so called "smart dusts" are designed to work with one another, so that a scoop of these tiny sensors can be dispersed in remote or environmentally harzardous locations to take readings ranging from the location of seabirds to the presence of toxic chemicals.

Interesting news about the latest technologies like this come to me through a Yahoo mailing list called the Bay Area Futurists. I have my friend Dan Best to thank for introducing me to this very interesting cyber discussion group.

Sunday, June 08, 2003

A Sunday Morning Bath in the Streets

Sunday morning in Jakarta. I walked out from my hotel at around 10.30am into Jalan Wahid Hasyim. The streets were relatively quiet after a very busy Saturday night. I saw a mother bathing her child in a pail; the child squealing from the water and soap that was being poured over her by the mother. Many of the faces that I see along this road have become quite familiar to me now: they spend almost all their time here in the streets - peddling food or cigarettes, playing chess or just loitering.

I have gotten used here in Jakarta to see people leading their everyday lives - bathing, eating and sleeping - out in the streets. But to see the mother and child in the pail under the bright Sunday sky, soap and water splashing and spilling onto the sidewalk, I sense a certain peace and joy in their lives, despite their poverty. These are Pramoedya's children. And like I've mentioned before, they are the Soul of Jakarta.