Saturday, October 11, 2003

Proof of Life

Proof of Life

What happened in your life on this day a year ago? I'll ask an easier one: What did you do last Saturday? For some, it is impossible to answer the first. But most would have some recollection of what they did last weekend, though with a little bit of difficulty, sometimes.

All good scientists, especially astronomers know this: If you did not write it down, it did not happen. Where is the "proof" that you have lived through all the experiences that you went through in your life?

People often say how fast time flies. A week goes by just like that. Why? Time seems to go faster because there is nothing to differentiate one day from another. You think back of the week that has just gone by: what is it that is different on Thursday compared to Wednesday? If everyday is not a new unique experience, then the mind does not register any crests or troughs-- the whole week is like one long flat day. That's why it flew by just like that. Time is a strange thing indeed. I wrote about how different people experience time differently in a previous blog entry.

Sometimes when we take a 3-days 2-nights tour package, we often feel at the end of the trip that so much has happened within that short span of time--which is essentially just the length of one weekend. This is because our intinerary is fully packed with activities and you associate every hour and day with a different place and experience. In the end, it feels like one long trip. That's why sometimes we say, it has been a long day.

Every day that seems mundane can be unique if we choose to make it so. Every second that ticks by is gone forever--our life is like a cigarette that is constantly burning out. Soon we will end up with just a useless stub. It is a morbid way of viewing life but it can be useful to think in this way sometimes when we are procrastinating or wasting away our time.

We can also take a more positive view: every second we are growing and learning something new. As I type these words, I am discovering truths that I myself might not have fully recognized. I am a better person now compared to a couple of minutes back when I first started writing this posting.

And I have "proof" that on this time and date, I lived, I learned and I experienced this moment of my life.

Friday, October 10, 2003

Ke Kota

Ke Kota

The usual route to Chinatown (or Kota, as it is known locally) from the Jakarta city centre is through Jalan Gadjah Mada. Gadjah Mada is a busy one way street that goes north and takes you past bustling Chinese shops and restaurants. It runs parallel to Jalan Hayam Wuruk, which channels south-going traffic in the opposite direction. In between these two roads, is a dirty canal (or drain), which some locals would erroneously call the Ciliwung river. (I wrote about the canal in a previous posting).

Jalan Hayam Wuruk is named after the famous king of the Majapahit empire based in East Java during the 14th century and Gadjah Mada was his illustrious Prime Minister. The two of them brought the Majapahit empire to the height of its glory.

These two roads remind me of Jalan Raja Laut and Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman in KL, also running towards north and south respectively. Both are long roads busy with buses and old Chinese shops. While there's the Chow Kit area at the end of Jalan Raja Laut and the beginning of Jalan TAR, here we have a similarly notorious Jalan Mangga Besar running perpendicular to Gadjah Mada and Hayam Wuruk on the northern end.

The nightspots along Hayam Wuruk and Mangga Besar are popular among men looking for "action" at night. Kota never sleeps: during the day it bustles with the typical industry of the Chinese; at night, bright neon-signs advertising a thousand and one delights adorn its main street streets and side-alleys. All along Jalan Hayam Wuruk going south, one could see a parade of ladies-of-the-night, garish under the neonlights, trying to woo customers from the passing traffic.

Passing through the street at night on a taxi, I'd like to imagine myself driven by a Travis Bickle, (De Niro in Scorcese's Taxi Driver), who would lament about the "filth" in the streets and how a rain should "wash" it all away. And ocassionally I would stare out of the window and see private investigator Jake Gittes played by Jack Nicholson lunging desperately towards a dead Faye Dunaway in the climatic scene of Roman Polanski's classic, Chinatown; and somewhere out there, a voice says: "Forget it Jake, this is Chinatown".

To me all this filth is beauty: I enjoy taking photos of the city at night--the harsh loneliness of streetlights, the haunted faces in chiaroscuro and the hint of seedy dealings in dark alleyways.

It is probably why I like Riri Riza's experimental movie, Eliana, Eliana so much. And of course, I am also a big fan of director Ridley Scott whose cityscapes and night scenes are so visually arresting (my favourites being Blade Runner, Black Rain and Alien).

Night in Jakarta is endlessly fascinating.

Mau ke mana pak?
Ke Kota.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

The Indonesian Chinese and the Malaysian Singaporean

The Indonesian Chinese and the Malaysian Singaporean

Malaysians who visit Indonesia for the first time, usually cannot differentiate the Indonesian Chinese from native Indonesians. The Chinese here seem to speak "perfect" Bahasa Indonesia, in sharp contrast with the majority of Chinese in Malaysia who still speak Malay with a distinct Chinese accent.

Well, one could say that because the Chinese here were not allowed to study their own vernacular language under the Suharto regime, they were forced to assimilate with the indigenous people. They have Indonesian names and speak Bahasa Indonesian at home. Many of younger generation have no knowledge of their mother tongue anymore.

But if you've lived in Indonesia for a while, you can easily distinguish the Chinese from the natives. My Malaysian colleagues who ocassionally come here on business trips are sometimes surprised when I tell them so-and-so in our office is actually Chinese.

It takes a while for you to be able to detect the nuances of dialect and speech. The Chinese here do have an "accent", or at least a way of speaking that's different from the Javanese, Sundanese or Betawi. (I've written about the differences between these ethnic groups in a previous posting.)

There are also other clues besides physical appearances (which also poses difficulty to the untrained eyes of Malaysian visitors). If you ask a Javanese, whether there's any difficulty in telling whether someone is Chinese or Javanese, he'll laugh at you. To them the difference is so obvious. If not in their accent or physical appearance, it is their manner of speaking, their attitude and their way of life. Sometimes you can even tell that he is a Chinese from Medan, Sumatra. Medan Chinese are "more Chinese"--usually knows how to speak Hokkien and are very good businessmen.

The other common mistake that Malaysians make here is to call a native Indonesian "Malay" ("Is he Chinese or Malay?"). Though anthropologically, Javanese, Sundanese, Betawi, Balinese and Bugis are all satu rumpun (same race group, as Indonesians like to say whenever you tell them you are from Malaysia), no Javanese will think of himself as "Malay".

They know themselves as Javanese, Sundanese, Madurese or Batak, etc. Malay refers to natives in Malaysia, Riau and parts of West Kalimantan. To call a Javanese Malay is like telling a Texan he is Caucasian or "European" ( to borrow Dr M's terminology).

Among native Indonesians on the island of Java, they even take great pains to distinguish themselves as "true" Javanese (from Central and East Java), Sundanese (from West Java) and Betawi (Jakartans). This is something that newcomers are ignorant about--they often assume that everyone who lives on the Java island, "Javanese".

Indonesians themselves also often make erroneous assumptions about their foreign visitors. For example, whenever I am introduced to a customer, they will always think I am Singaporean--this is because many of the multinationals are based in Singapore and most of the foreign executives who visit them are Singaporeans. Any foreign Chinese who speaks English is a "Singaporean". Even after I've told them many times that I am Malaysian and not Singaporean, they will still inadvertently ask me questions such as: "When are you going back to Singapore?"

Having resigned myself to being a "Malaysian Singaporean" in Jakarta, I am also peeved whenever street vendors start practising their Japanese on me, thinking I am Jepang (Japanese).

Now that I have mastered a smattering of Betawi slang, I am more successful in blending into the street crowd. Hopefully one day I can pass off, at least, as an Indonesian Malaysian.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

The Poison that is Love, the Fever that is Youth

The Poison that is Love, the Fever that is Youth

"Ketika jiwamu, merasuk ke dalam, aliran darahku dan meracuniku"

That line is the mesmerising refrain from the hit song Mistikus Cinta (The Mystique of Love) by Dewa, arguably the most popular pop group in Indonesia. The song is also my personal favourite from their Cintailah Cinta album because it represents my idea of what a "romantic" song should be--if I am even capable of conjuring such emotions these days.

Why am I bringing it up? In yesterday's entry, I mentioned in passing that the Welshman Dylan Thomas was one of my favourite poets when I was in the university. I spent many cold lonely hours reading his works in the library.

But since I started working, I haven't had the opportunity to read that much poetry. All my precious time was spent reading technical manuals, white papers, proposals and request for proposals. I have very much forgotten about the poetry of Dylan Thomas for more than a decade. That was until I heard Mistikus Cinta by Dewa last year.

Immediately, the following lines by Dylan Thomas popped into my mind again:
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

I didn't even realise that these favourite lines of mine when I was a student were still embedded inside my mind, until it was triggered and unleased by the Dewa song. Now what is the connection between the two?

In both the song and the poem, I see the same primeval forces being expressed. Art always attempts to capture the same universal archetypes and primitives. Both the song and poem marvel at the power and destructiveness of forces inherent within us: with Dewa, it is Love and with Dylan Thomas, Youth.

The imagery used by Dewa is strong with words like rasuk (possess), aliran darah (bloodstream), racun (poison); listening to the song, I would imagine Love, like a sharp syringe, jabbing into my veins, releasing poison into my system--there's an onrush of euphoric pleasure mingled with pain, only to ultimately disintegrate under the destructive power of a "poisonous" love.

In the glorious stanza by Dylan Thomas (arguably his most famous too), he likens Youth to the same vitality that "drives the flower" and "blasts the roots of trees"; a vitality that can be both creative and destructive. At the end of the stanza, he laments how his "youth is bent by the same wintry fever". The beauty of Thomas' lines, with its alliteration of 'f's, can only be fully appreciated when read aloud. One could feel the surge of energy forward, and the desolation and bleakness at the end.

You see, both the song and the poem, traces an archetypal pattern in nature: an onrush of energy that is full of promise and vigour to be followed by an inevitable collapse and dissolution, like a Gaussian pulse of energy, like the exponential charging and decay of a capacitor or the rising and falling of ocean tides.

Birth, youth, love, old age and death--that is the rhythm of the Great Impulse called Life. Within it, there are sub-impulses all rising and falling with the same pattern. Dewa's line triggered a series of such impulses within me and reverberated in my mind, building resonances within which ultimately roused the memory of Dylan Thomas' powerful verses.

And yes even after all these years, I still have the poison in my system. The same wintry fever possesses me still.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Travellers' Tales

Travellers' Tales

One of the most quoted lines in the literature is taken from Robert Frost's poem, The Road Not Taken:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

It was quoted by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society (beside the now legendary line: Oh Captain, My Captain. from Walt Whitman's tribute to Abe Lincoln) and it was even mentioned in the bestseller on financial success, Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyosaki. The lines also inspired The Road Less Traveled series of inspirational books by M. Scott Peck.

I am not that acquainted with the poems of Robert Frost myself; as a boy, I was more into works by the Romantic poets: Byron, Shelley and Wordsworth. And in university, it was the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas who was my inspiration (Is that why I am quite fond of drinking now?). But that is another story....

The reason why I brought up these inspiring lines by Robert Frost is because I often have people coming to me for advice to problems or difficult decisions they face in life. It puts me on a spot, because I personally do not think I am qualified to advice anyone on anything. I am just a fellow traveller, trying to find the best path forward.

All of us have been put on different roads in life from the moment of our birth. No two roads are the same as in no two lives are alike. Sometimes our roads do intersect. And when people come to me for advise, I can only tell them what travelling on my paticular road has been like--two travellers exchanging notes momentarily at an intersection. All I can offer are my own traveller's tales. And then we both proceed to choose our own paths ahead.

I cannot tell them which road to take because I haven't been there myself. Sometimes I am not even sure where exactly I am heading. I am no further down the road than others because we are not travelling on the same road.

But it is important to exchange notes--perhaps that's what advice is all about. I have as much to learn from other travellers as they from me. Who knows, my terrain ahead could be similar to what others have encountered before.

Whether we choose the beaten path or the one less travelled, the choice is ours and ours alone to make. But sometimes the tale of a fellow traveller makes all the difference.

Monday, October 06, 2003

Love and the Forbidden City

Love and the Forbidden City

Cities are like people--some you will grow to love deeply, others you will scarcely find anything of interest and some you downright hate. Jakarta belongs to the first category to me. I've attempted to rationalise and understand my fascination with this city in previous blog entries but still the passion I have for this ramshackle place borders on the irrational.

Well I suppose it is like falling in love: you use more of your heart than your head. Dr M said in his interview with The Star that when one is in love, one can perform all sorts of gymnastics. I suppose I can also indulge in verbal gymnastics and come up with many excuses and reasons as to why I fancy Jakarta. But hey, this is love--it needs no further explanation.

People perceive Jakarta as being a dangerous place. To me it is no more dangerous than any other Third World city in Asia. But then again, what is love without an element of danger?

Now, can one fall in love with more than one person at the same time? Is there another place that evokes the same kind of passion in me? Is there another city that I wouldn't mind living and working in besides Jakarta?

First, let me tackle those that I certainly have no affection for: Hong Kong is one. I like the food but I will never ever work there. Singapore is soulless but it is still better than Hong Kong. And I did spend 4 years of my life in Singapore without too many complaints--mostly because it is so near Malaysia and I could go back as often as I wished. And no, I'm not attracted to Bangkok either--the favourite of many bule/farang/angmoh/Mat Salleh/gweilo expatriates, for obvious reasons.

The other city besides Jakarta that fascinates me is Beijing. But unfortunately my chances of working there is very slim because of my poor (or non-existent) command of Mandarin. Well, maybe I could try and learn it like how I learnt (and am still learning) the Indonesian slang. But somehow I always find Mandarin tough, even though I think it is a beautiful language, especially when spoken with a Beijing accent. It is one of the reasons why I am quite fond of movies by Chinese director, Zhang Yimou.

I've only made brief visits to Beijing on business trips. The first time I landed there, my heart beat faster. It was love at first sight. The air itself seems to be suffused with history: every street corner seems to have a tale to tell and the people have the hardened look of having endured a thousand and one sufferings. On the way to my hotel from the airport, passing through dusty roads and old buildings, I would imagine Ryuichi Sakamoto's score from the Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Emperor playing in the background. (Who was it who sang: "Walk my way...and a thousand violins begin to play..."?)

Because I went there on business trips, I never actually had the opportunity to really visit some of the popular tourist attractions. No, I haven't even visited the Great Wall of China--which requires a day trip outside the city. Beijing today has all the amenities of any modern capital city in the world but it also has something else: a soul. And one falls in love not with physical appearances, but with the intangibilities of the soul.

People who have gone to China on tour packages probably have seen more of the country than me. For example, I have never been successful in visiting the Forbidden City. It is easy to go there--there are in fact two subway stations right beneath it: Tiananmen East and Tiananmen West. But because I am always tied up with meetings and presentations during office hours, I have never been able to make it there before closing time--which is five in the evening.

A couple of times I tried to rush there after work, only to find the gates closed. I am reminded of a scene from The Last Emperor, where the young Emperor Pu Yi, exasperated at not being allowed to step outside the walls of the Forbidden City since his birth, attempted to walk out of the place through its main entrance--only to have the huge doors shut on him by frantic palace guards and eunuchs.

He couldn't go out, I can't get in.

I'm not sure when or if I'll ever get a chance to visit Beijing and the Forbidden City again. But I do realise in life, some loves will have to go unrequited.

Sunday, October 05, 2003

The Two 'R's

The Two 'R's

When Jules Verne was a struggling writer, he met Alexandre Dumas who gave him a piece of advice:
"One must write, write and write, everyday at a fixed time. Doesn't matter that the stuff you produce is not of good quality or that you can hardly produce anything at all. If you do so consistently, soon you will find ideas pouring out from your pen"

The actual quote were not in those exact words--I'm quoting from memory (and this was something I read when I was a 14 year old schoolboy), but I believe it is close. It has stuck in my mind ever since.

To me this is the best piece of advice one could give to any writer. I am not a writer but writing is an essential part of what I do as an IT professional. Writing, surprisingly is not recognized as an essential skill one needs in any kind of job. We admire people who speak well (especially in meetings). But the strange thing is that there are many people who speak well but can't produce a simple one-pager writeup.

Executives go for public-speaking courses. Some do go for business writing courses--but that is usually because they think their command of the language is deficient, not because they recognize writing as an important skill.

Reading and writing were among the first skills that we we taught when we were toddlers. We assume that we do both well, but we don't. And it will be quite strange indeed if we do not bother to practise and perfect them anymore.