Saturday, August 02, 2003

The Prettiest Town in the East

It is Saturday and I'm surfing from the Internet cafe. I try to blog on slightly "lighter" topics on weekends: things I'm going to do, movies I'm planning to watch and even what I am going to eat.

I have a wedding dinner to attend tonight: My colleague Edwin is getting married to Debby, a pretty girl from Manado. But I'm a bit disappointed that it is not going to be a colourful Javanese wedding (Edwin is Javanese) but a Western one instead. I expect to see all my colleagues there tonight.

Manado, like Bandung is well-known for her pretty girls. The women are mostly Catholic, fair-skinned and friendly. The frequent night-clubbers will tell you that Manado girls also make the best striptease dancers.

I myself have never set foot on Manado before, even though I have been to Makassar in Sulawesi -- Manado is located on the northern tip of the Sulawesi island. The great biologist Alfred Russel Wallace wrote in his seminal work, The Malay Archipelago, that Manado is "the prettiest town in the East".

My Indonesian friends tell me otherwise. They say Manado is a very dirty place today. But I am still keen to visit it anyhow before I leave Indonesia (if I do leave Indonesia). The resort of Bunaken near Manado is a very popular diving site.

Alfred Russel Wallace discovered the theory of evolution independently of Charles Darwin at almost exactly the same time. Though Darwin did acknowledge Wallace's contribution, history has given more recognition to Darwin, probably because Wallace was a low-profile and shy person who preferred to spend his time collecting animal specimens in the remote tropical rain forests of South East Asia.

As this is a weekend entry, I'll save the story of Alfred Russel Wallace for some future weekday posting. As for today, I plan to relax, eat my favourite soto sulung later and enjoy myself at Edwin's wedding dinner. I'm sure he will be feeling like he is marrying the "prettiest girl in the East" tonight.

Friday, August 01, 2003

Child on a Pavement

Yesterday, after having my dinner at Jalan Sabang, I decided to walk over to the Hero supermarket at Sarinah to buy my weekly supply of apples. Crossing the busy Sabang-Wahid Hasyim junction, I weaved my way past buzzing bajajs and Kopaja buses packed with sweaty bodies, all the time trying hard not to breathe too much of that heady mixture of fumes, satay and kretek.

I had to carefully watch my steps too as I trudged on the uneven pavement, almost playing hopscotch with the broken brick tiles and spittle that littered the way. Squeezing through the throng of pedestrians and pedlars, I was stopped short, right on my path, by a child, lying peacefully asleep on the pavement.

She could not have been more than two years old -- I could tell it was a girl because of the delicate, almost angelic features on her face -- and she was wrapped in a dirty shawl, lying there all alone, oblivious of the faceless mass that ebbed and flowed along busy Jalan Wahid Hasyim.

Female beggars, often with suckling babies, are a common sight everywhere in Jakarta. I see them all the time along Jalan Wahid Hasyim, arms out-stretched with plastic containers hoping to catch a few drops of generosity from passers-by.

But right here at my feet was a child so innocently beautiful, as if dropped from heaven -- an infant Moses swept down the river of humanity -- with a tenderness on her face that could warm the coldest of hearts, wrapped in her own oasis of bliss. I instantly felt like holding her in my arms. Where was her mother? Could she even be an abandoned child?

As I stood there wondering, there were also a few other concerned people milling around the child. Her beggar mother must have gone off for a while to ease herself behind some alley corner (another common sight here in Jakarta), everyone thought. It was also the first conclusion that came into my mind.

As there were already people tending to her, I proceeded to the supermarket to shop for my groceries and made a mental note to come back immediately after. When I returned to the same spot some ten minutes later, to my relief, I saw that her mother was back -- the child still sleeping quietly beside her.

I remember reading reports about beggars and the organized syndicates behind them: Some of the syndicates even rent out babies and children to the beggars, to help elicit more sympathy from the public. The sight of maimed, limbless beggars is a common one across many Third World countries. It is also one that is always heartbreaking.

One feels a tinge of guilt whenever one brushes away another annoying dirty-looking street beggar pestering for money -- especially when he or she shows signs of deformity, sickness or injury. But there are so many of them -- what could one do?

As I observed the figure of the child and her forlorn-looking mother -- the Madonna and Child of the slums -- I recalled a scene from Christopher's Koch's book, The Year of Living Dangerously, set in the turbulent Jakarta of 1960s: The character Billy Kwan, a photographer (played by Linda Hunt in the movie version) and Australian correspondent Guy Hamilton (played by a dashing Mel Gibson) were debating whether one should give money to the beggars.

Hamilton dismissed it as useless, for it would just be a drop in the ocean. The philosophical Kwan disagreed: one must do whatever one can within one's immediate surrounding -- contribute one's light to the sum of light -- and not worry about the larger picture.

As I emptied all the coins in my pocket - 100s and 500s - into the mother's plastic cup, I quietly hoped that Billy Kwan was right.

I wanted to believe that those minuscule drops of mine into that ocean of poverty would in some insignificant way contribute a tiny ray of light - no matter how faint -- into the dark life facing this cherub of a child: A child with a future yet to be discovered; a child sleeping blissful and contented that Thursday evening, on the sun-baked pavement of Jalan Wahid Hasyim.

Thursday, July 31, 2003

Of Creativity & Thinking "Out-of-the-Box"

I am intrigued whenever I hear people say in meetings that there is a need to think "out-of-the-box". This expression has become such a cliche in the corporate world that everytime someone uses it, I begin to suspect that his or her thinking could already be "boxed in" by certain preconceived notions about creativity.

I'm not exactly sure how this particular expression originated but I am reminded of a pyschology puzzle where the subject is asked to connect all the dots arranged within a rectangular matrix with a single continuous line -- without lifting the pen or pencil. Because these dots are within an invisible rectangle, most people tend to draw within the area designated by the dots, and finding the task of connecting the dots with a single continuous line impossible.

The rules never said that we cannot venture beyond the rectangle of dots: and the only possible solution is one that requires a line zigzagging its way out of the self-imposed boundary suggested by the dots. Hence thinking "out-of-the-box" is an indication of "creativity" or being able to venture beyond the ordinary modes of thinking.

Creativity is a strange thing. Writers and artist sometimes believe that their ideas are somehow divinely inspired -- the Muses being the daughters of Zeus -- because often the act of creation is one that cannot be invoked with consistency and certainty. Some believe it is an almost mystical gift that only certain "creative" people possess. ("I see dead people").

There are also many gurus out there who make a fortune teaching corporations how to be creative. Edward De Bono is the most notable one. He believes that creativity is something that can be learned and there are specific tools and techniques that can be used by anyone to generate creative ideas. His lateral thinking is already a part of our corporate creativity lexicon. He is also the one who made executives all over the world put on their "Six Thinking Hats".

I have personally read many of De Bono's books and found them quite insightful, although he is very repetitive. His first book, The Mechanism of Mind is probably his best. De Bono not only expounds his thoughts very logically, he also exhibits his own personal creativity by accompanying his text with many diagrams -- a wonderful array of hand-drawn boxes, bubbles, arrows and spermatozoal shapes -- to illustrates his many concepts. To me this is the most interesting feature of his books.

I am not sure if one can successfully learn creativity from a book. It is also arrogant of us to believe that only certain privileged people are capable of being creative. We all have a right to be creative. The proof of creativity is in its execution. All the creativity in the world is worthless if brilliant ideas cannot be translated into action. The artist paints, the writer writes and the engineer builds.

To create means to bring something that has not existed before into being. The ability to create something out of nothing -- as opposed to copying or modifying -- is what matters.

Creativity, in the final analysis is, simply, the successful act of creation.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The Immortal Soul of Solo

Almost everyone in Malaysia and perhaps even Singapore is familiar with the Indonesian tune, Bengawan Solo. It was very popular in this region during the post-WW II period. With its breezy feel and nature-inspired lyrics, it evokes the nostalgic spirit of a bygone era - those heady and hopeful days of new-found independence and the promise of lasting peace among nations. Bengawan Solo is arguably the most popular keroncong tune of all time.

But who composed Bengawan Solo (literally, The River Solo)? Even many of my younger Indonesian friends do not know the answer. But if you peruse the keroncong section of any music store in Jakarta today, you will be greeted by CD after CD with covers bearing the picture of an old man with full lips and toothless grin: Album Mas Keroncong Gesang, Campursari Gesang and Asti Dewi Christiana, Gesang: Sebelum Aku Mati.....the list goes on.

Read the contents at the back of these CDs, you will find Bengawan Solo listed on most of them, and in small prints: "diciptakan oleh Gesang".

That was how I got to know Gesang early last year: while browsing at the CD store in Sarinah, Thamrin on a quiet Saturday morning. I've since then become quite a fan. His is the voice of a gentle old man crooning his grandchild to sleep with soft lullabies -- a guttural voice that evokes a certain rustic charm and blends beautifully with the slow soothing rhythms of the keroncong.

I took the trouble to do some research about Gesang through the Internet: He was born Sutardi, in a family of five brothers and sisters in Solo (Surakarta) on October 1st, 1917. He got his first break in his music career as a vocalist in a local cultural club.

Bengawan Solo was apparent composed by Gesang in 1940 while he was daydreaming beside the river Solo. The tune became a hit in the region and even found listeners as far as China; it helped to popularize Indonesian keroncong music throughout the world. For his contributions to Indonesian music, Gesang was rewarded with a house in Palur by the Central Java government.

Gesang has since performed in places as far as Shanghai, North Korea and Japan. Apart from Bengawan Solo, he has also composed other popular keroncong tunes now considered classics, like Saputangan and Jembatan Merah. Gesang - 86 years of age this year - still lives a quiet life in Palur, pursuing the favourite Javanese pastime of rearing singing birds.

These days whenever I get sick of listening to yet another bad rendition of Michael Learns to Rock from my friends at the karaoke, I'd grab the mike and take my revenge by crooning Gesang's Jembatan Merah or Saputangan. Well, they asked for it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

The Sacred Art of Writing Longhand

I admit to being old-fashioned: besides updating my blog daily, I also keep a handwritten journal. I have been jotting down my thoughts on diaries ever since I was a 13 year old teenager, destroying lots of trees in the process.

Even though it is an excruciatingly slow process, there are certain unique pleasures in writing longhand: The languid caress of a fountain pen on a sheet of crisp-clean paper, the luxuriant flow of ink slowly infusing life to words as they form magically under the rhythmic stroke of my wrist; to me it is a ritual steeped in deep mystical significance -- it is an act of meditation in itself.

A handwritten piece conveys a lot more than its printed version: words written by hand is at once a visual sketch and an exposition of once's thoughts. Everyone's handwriting is not surprisingly, unique. Handwritten words carry within their whorls and waves a frozen snapshot of the dynamic energies at work in the act of creation.

Writing is thinking in motion. Many of us write to clarify our thoughts and to be able to see things in a more objective manner. Writing, especially writing in longhand, can also be a cathartic experience: The drudgery of pushing one's pen over page after page of paper can leave one spent but surprisingly contented -- one feels like a spritually ecstatic Odissi dancer at the end of a flawless performance.

Modern word processors and web publishing tools have made the physical labour of writing easier and has enabled us to communicate our thoughts and ideas more efficiently. I have written a lot more using computers than I could ever write in longhand. But I will never cease to write my personal journal the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper. It is the sacred signature of my existence.

Monday, July 28, 2003

The Mutinous Mind

The small band of mutinous soldiers who seized the Glorietta Complex in Manila yesterday got me thinking again about the psychological impulse behind the act of mutiny.

I must confess to a certain fascination with this subject of mutiny: What is it that prompts someone to garner enough courage mixed with recklessness to take on the authority of an entire military and social system of which he or she is part of? What is it that triggers and tips of the mental balance of a mutineer to commit such a monumental act of defiance?

There is a point where the mutineer feels that enough is enough and he decides to cross over, never to return. The mutineer is often doomed from the start as he takes on a battle he cannot possibly win. There's something deeply primal about such an act: It is amok with a touch of finesse.

Mutinies have occurred frequently throughout history but the most famous and romanticized one of all is the one that happened on board the English ship, The Bounty in 1789. The Bounty was commanded by a Lieutenant William Bligh who was sent to Tahiti to collect breadfruit plants and to ship them to Jamaica where they will be planted as staple food for the slaves. My interest about this mutiny started more than fifteen years ago after I watched Roger Donaldson's 1984 film version of it: The Bounty. I subsequently read everything I could on the subject.

A bit of digression first. The movie, The Bounty is a forgotten gem; you can hardly find it in VCD or DVD stores today, even though it has been shown more than once on Malaysian TV (the copy I have is a VHS recording which I still keep until today). It has so many Oscar winners on its cast: imagine Anthony Hopkins as William Bligh and a young Mel Gibson as ship officer Fletcher Christian who ultimately led the mutiny on the ship. There are also Best Actor winners Daniel Day-Lewis and Liam Neeson as members of the Bounty's crew. Even the great Lawrence Olivier and Edward Fox had minor roles in the movie.

While there have been many screen versions of this famous mutiny before (five in total, one starring Marlon Brando as a very flamboyant Fletcher Christian), this 1984 production is the most historically accurate one and captures the psychological tension between William Bligh (Hopkins) and Fletcher Christian (Gibson) leading to the mutiny very well. This is also helped by a powerful electronic score by Vangelis. OK, end of digression.

Sailors working on board British ships during the 18th century when Britannia ruled the waves, were subjected to very harsh working and living conditions. To command a ship across vast stormy seas with the threat of hunger, thirst and scurvy lurking around the corner requires strict discipline. Captains run their ships with an iron fist: Small offences were often punished with lashing and the punishment for mutiny was death by hanging.

Imagine the sailors of the Bounty, after months of being cooped up on a ship landing on the golden palm-fringed shores of Tahiti, to be greeted by bare-breasted island beauties who were willing to offer sexual favours in return for pieces of iron nails from the ship. The Tahiti then is the Holy Grail sought by many backpackers today - an island completely cut off from civilisation - a paradise of sun, sky, sea with ultra-friendly native women.

After the breadfruit plants had been collected, the captain, William Bligh had a tough time gathering all his crew again to resume his voyage via the perilious Cape Horn to the Caribbean. Yanked away from their lovers and the sensual lives they led on Tahiti, the sailors grew extremely restless and resent being subjected to the brutal and regimented life within the dingy confines of the ship. Mutiny became an inevitability.

Fletcher Christian (portrayed poignantly by Mel Gibson in the climatic sequence from the movie), unable to stand the loneliness and the harsh discipline on board the ship anymore seized command of the Bounty and set his friend Bligh - who had trusted him all this while - adrift on a small open boat together with 18 crew and officials still loyal to the captain. Fletcher Christian sailed back to Tahiti leaving Bligh drifting at sea off the cannibal infested island of Tonga with little food and water.

What followed then became the stuff of legends. Fletcher Christian led the gang of mutineers back to Tahiti to be reunited with their women. But knowing that the British ships would be hunting for them, they decided to sail on together with their women and finally settled down on a little known island called Pitcairn Island, cutting all ties with their families and friends back in England forever. Their descendants are still living there today.

William Bligh, with hardly any navigational aids was able to steer his boat 3,600 miles to the Portuguese port of Cupang in Timor after sailing on his boat for seven weeks, his crew barely surviving thirst, hunger and dehydration. He was exonerated by the Navy for his conduct in the whole affair and was even commended for his masterful seamanship during the months of being adrift on the boat. He managed to publish his log detailing his experiences on the voyage which became the equivalent of our best-seller during his time.

The story of Fletcher Christian and William Bligh is in a way is the archetypal battle between the heart and the head. Fletcher Christian, romantic and rebellious, chose to pursue Rosseau's ideal of the Noble Savage whilst William Bligh epitomizes level-headedness, reason, responsibility and social obligation.

These are two opposing strains of impulses that are constantly lurking in the depths of our psyche. It is something we have to grapple with at different points in our lives. And everyday, I go to work with the dialogue of mutiny between Fletcher Christian and William Bligh still being played over and over again in my mind.

Sunday, July 27, 2003

An Afternoon with the Terminatrix

I managed to catch Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines at the 21 Cineplex at Grand Wijaya Center yesterday. I am fond of trying out different cineplexes for different movies (not that they are any different, except for the price). However I have so far avoided the more trendy Plaza Senayan and Planet Hollywood cineplexes, preferring the anonymity and grubbiness of the lower middleclass theatres such as TIM, Atrium and Wijaya Center.

I had enjoyed James Cameron's first Terminator: it was like a well-made B-grade sci-fi noir with lots of fun and originality. T2 was a bit of a bore to me because it was more fun watching Arnie as the bad-guy Terminator instead of the cliched robot-with-a-heart, one-liner spewing, crowd-pleasing mime act of T2. Expecting more of the same, I wasn't exactly looking forward to T3 with great enthusiasm.

Luckily T3 has an interesting twist - there's a female Terminator - the T-X or affectionately nicknamed, Terminatrix. We have the statuesque Kristanna Loken as the killer cyborg with all the morphing abilities of Robert Patrick's T-1000 plus more. T-X proves more than a challenge to the obseleted T-800 Terminator played by Swarzenegger; to me she stole the entire show.

Director Jonathan Mostow tried hard to impress with big explosions and even bigger car chases but high-octane stunts have become such a big bore from Hollywood productions these days. In the age of CGI, everything is possible and nothing impresses us anymore.

Yawning over those parts, I quietly cheered everytime Loken's T-X appeared: Her ice-cool Nordic features, steely glare, sexy strut and inflatable boobs certainly helped. She literally have the killer looks and certainly deserved more than the #3 ranking that she got on the Maxim's 2003 Hot 100 List.

I'm not surprised to find out that in the current online poll that's being run by The Star's Entertainment section, Loken's Terminatrix is neck-to-neck with Arnie as everyone's favourite Terminator model, beating Robert Patrick's forgettable T-1000.

I wouldn't even bother to comment about the plot of T3, which didn't really rise above the mundane and as expected left enough materials for umpteenth sequels and probably even a TV series. Claire Danes as John Connor's (Nick Stahl) love interest was a nice addition to the cast though.

I certainly hope Kristanna Loken will make a comeback (though unlikely) in future sequels. I think she even deserves a spin-off of her own ala The Scorpion King. On that lazy Saturday afternoon at Kebayoran Baru, The Terminatrix certainly made my day.