Saturday, October 18, 2003

Khinzir and Ayam Talk

Khinzir and Ayam Talk

An Indonesian Chinese local told me that I could find good traditional Chinese koptiams (coffee shops) at Pasar Muara Karang. Early this morning I took a taxi there.

I have been to Muara Karang before; together with Pluit, the area is a Chinese enclave and boasts of good Chinese food. I have never ventured into the market area before but the scene there is similar to any Chinese market one can find in KL--one feels like one is in Cheras. Only the ubiquitous bajajs lent an Indonesian atmosphere to the place.

I had Hongkong-style porridge at one of the coffee shops; and here I found my almost perfect cup of tea with milk. As usual, I spent some time there snapping photos of my favourite subjects: bajajs and hawkers.

At Chinese stalls in Indonesia, you often see the word "babi" (pork) being emblazoned everywhere: Sate Babi, Bubur Babi, Babi Panggang. When I first came to Jakarta, I was a bit uncomfortable when Indonesian Chinese colleagues openly used the word babi without any hesitation. In Malaysia, we have shunned the word like taboo, and have even opted for the more euphemistic Arab equivalent, "khindzir".

"Let's go and eat babi today!", some of my colleagues would suggest quite loudly during lunchtime. It shocked me even further when some of my Christian Javanese friends proclaimed their love for char siu (roast pork). Balinese who are Hindus are famous for their babi guling. And I have a Batak colleague whom I swear would even salivate if he sees a live pig. It feels so strange sometimes to go together with my Christian Javanese, Batak and Manado colleagues for Bak Kut Teh in Kota.

The other word which Indonesians use quite unabashedly is "ayam" (chicken) which-- as in Cantonese--is slang for prostitute. "There are a lot of ayams there at BATS last night"--a female colleague would say, in polite conversation, without blinking an eye. (BATS--"Bar-at-the-Shang"--is a popular hangout place for bule expatriates).

What I cannot understand is how ayam can be considered less of taboo than the word perek. Perek is an Indonesian slang--short for "perempuan eksperimen" (experimental women)--to refer to morally loose women.

Initially I had assumed that since the use of the word perek is obviously more recent than ayam (eksperimen being derived from an English word), it has less of a historical baggage and sounds more euphemistic than the rather rude-sounding ayam.

But I was wrong, perek is never uttered in polite conversation. My female colleagues were shocked when I used it. Its effect is as strong as the word "bitch". Well, I guess after two years of living in Jakarta, I still have a lot to learn. And hopefully I'll remember not to use the word babi so audaciously when I'm back in Malaysia.

Friday, October 17, 2003



Today is Friday, so let's talk about something less heavy: visiting Monas (Monumen Nasional). *yawn* What could be more boring than visiting Sukarno's National Monument?

Every local I've talked to in Jakarta have only visited the place as a pupil during schooldays. They have never stepped foot there since then. Can't blame them: I myself have not gone to our very own Tugu Peringatan Negara or Muzium Negara since I was a Darjah Satu (Standard One) pupil. We prefer to dodge pigeon droppings in foreign countries so that we can snap photos beside some obscure bronze statue.

Well, since I can still be considered a tourist in Jakarta, I did make the effort to visit Monas. I was a bit curious about this gigantic phallic symbol--an obelisk construction with a gold-tipped top shaped like a flame--which looms over Jakarta city like a sentinel, this so-called Last Erection of Sukarno.

It was indeed Sukarno's last erection--he initiated its construction in 1961 but was slowly removed from power after The Year of Living Dangerously by Suharto. Monas was only officially opened in the 70s during's Suharto's tenure.

My curiosity was also stirred by Pramoedya Ananta Toer's short story collection, Tales from DJakarta, set mostly in the 1940s and 50s. In one of the stories, "News from Kebajoran", an aging prostitute plies her trade in the same area (opposite the Merdeka palace), but it was called Fromberg Park.

None of my Indonesian friends have heard of Fromberg Park before. So I embarked on some research about Jakarta city in the 40s and 50s. I visited the National Library located on Jalan Salemba Raya, to look at old maps of Jakarta and managed to pinpoint the exact location of Fromberg Park--northeast of Medan Merdeka, the vast square where Monas is located.

I'm sure many of the schoolchildren who make field trips to Monas will have to go back and write an essay about their visit as homework: Berkunjung ke Monas. (Will they write about the prostitutes that still loiter around the area at night?)

I did an almost similar thing. I wrote about some of the interesting things I found out about Merdeka Square and other places in old Jakarta in a 3,000 word article for Jakarta Kini, published this month (can't provide links to it, as the publication is not available online). It is my personal tribute to both Pramoedya and Jakarta city.

The Megawati administration has tried to spruce up the Monas area by fencing up the square. This probably kept out the hawkers and asongans but not the prostitutes. And now they tried to turn the pavement surrounding the area into a "Walk of Fame", with foot imprints of prominent Indonesian figures embedded on its walkway tiles.

I saw President Megawati's foot imprints there on the walkway--the same walkway where during Pramoedya's time, prostitutes used to pace, offering their services for two-and-half rupiah. In many ways Jakarta hasn't changed much since those days.

And Monas, gloriously illuminated at night, stands Viagra-erect above it all--a voyeuristic witness to the sins and transgressions of this fascinating city.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

The Poetry of Spittle

The Poetry of Spittle

Careless Whisper was one of the most popular love ballads in the 80s. I remember reading in a magazine interview once that George Michael was very proud of the fact that managed to use a rather unromantic word such as "feet" in a love song. He was of course referring to the famous line from the song: "Guilty feet have got no rhythm".

When I listened to Dewa's song, Risalah Cinta from their Bintang Lima album, I was similarly impressed. It is also a very romantic love song, but Dewa used an even more unromantic word in it: "spit"-- "Sebelum kau ludahi aku, sebelum kau robek hatiku" (before you spit on me, before you tear my heart apart). Used in the context, the word does not sound out of place.

I like strong imageries like that, especially when evoked by words put in an unconventional context. Poetry is fun mainly because of sound and imagery. But a lot of people read poetry and ask for its "meaning". To me meaning is secondary. It is sound, rhythm and imagery that matters. We listen to songs because we like the emotions that they evoke, not so much for their "meaning". Poetry achieves that with the rhythm and imagery of words, stringed together by a thematic thread.

To me words do not have fixed and precise meanings. The majority of words we possess in our vocabulary are not learnt from referring to dictionaries. Dictionaries give point definitions, almost like an x-y coordinate. But words are much more than that.

Words are like electrons in the atom--we can never pinpoint their positions exactly: There's a "probability pattern"-- an area where they are most likely to be found. Scientists see an atom as having an electron "cloud".

We learn words from deducing their meanings through repeated encounters with them in many different context and situations. We narrow down their possibilities--we get a "probability pattern", a "word cloud", if you will.

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle states that the more precisely we know the position of an electron, the less we know about its velocity or momentum. Similarly, words that are defined precisely are "dead" in meaning. Their possibilities become finite.

In poetry, poets attempt to explore the edges of the word cloud--to expand the possibilities of words. If a poet veers too far away from the center of the word cloud, he could risk alienating the reader and his writing would be considered incomprehensible, or worse, he could be misunderstood. A good poet stretches and teases but never alienate the reader.

A language grows because words are fertile in meaning and possibilities. And poets are the explorers of their uncharted realms. We do not always need fancy words to convey deep thoughts or feelings. George Michael and Dewa proved that even humble ones like "feet" and "spit" are ripe with poetic possiblities.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

The Soul of an IT Architect

The Soul of an IT Architect

Writing technical papers and proposals can be a dull and tedious affair. Unfortunately I have to routinely churn these things out as part of my job. To make the task less of a turn-off, I try to inject "creativity" into it.

Sometimes you wonder why technical proposals are even necessary at all when most people don't even bother to read them. I haven't met anyone who can sit down and read more than ten pages in one sitting. Those that I normally write are typically a hundred pages long. The customers just want to see "bulk"--evidence that some kind of work has been done. That's all.

The essence of a technical proposal can sometimes be captured in one architectural diagram. You'll have to spend time explaining it in a presentation anyway. Why bother to write so much? Do like what everyone else does--cut and paste.

Though I cannot say that I love what I am doing that much, I try to see the positive aspect of it. To turn the writing of technical documents into a "creative" affair, I take it as an exercise and challenge in writing.

It is difficult to avoid cliches, especially when the subject is IT. In how many ways can you explain J2EE or storage area networks (SAN)? Technical subjects are dry and precise, unlike the Humanities. ("How do I love thee? Let me count the ways").

But I still try to explain such things in a fresh and interesting way, avoiding cliches. No one would appreciate or notice it but it is still OK with me--because I am grateful for the opportunity to workout my writing muscles. It is my own private writing gymnasium, if you will.

Knowing that not many people would bother to read obscure technical passages, sometimes I inject unconventional words into it and try to see its "poetic effect" on the overall argument. But so far I have not been successful in using the word "orgasm" yet. It remains my most elusive prize.

Programmers do something similar too: There are always hidden codes and comments in any piece of software--often humorous ones--known only to the developers themselves.

I never cut and paste from other proposals or white papers--and very rarely even from my own work. It is "plagiarism" to me. But I take great delight in being able to inject quotes from non-IT sources.

I am a big fan of Indonesia's founding father, Sukarno. In the last IT architectural recommendation paper that I wrote for my client, I was able to somehow squeeze in the following quote from the great Bung Karno, taken from his autobiography:
"The rhythm of a revolution is destruction and construction. Construction calls for the soul of an architect. And in the soul of an architect are the elements of feeling and artistry".
With President Megawati at helm, it is quite fashionable these days to sing praises of her father, Sukarno. Hmm, no wonder my recommendations were adopted whole-heartedly by my client.

I thought, well, if politicians like Sukarno can treat revolutions as something "artistic", why can't a bored IT professional have some "artistic" fun too with his proposals?

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

The Stages of a River

The Stages of a River

In high school geography, we study how a typical river has three stages: youthful (upper), mature (middle) and senile (lower). A river at the prime of its youth is turbulent and full of energy--cutting into rocks, tumbling down cliffs, gushing down valleys in great ferocity. In midlife, it slows down, meanders and loops over plains, depositing sediments that it had gathered in its youth until it finally merges with the infinite ocean, at the end of its "life".

It shouldn't come as a surprise that a river resembles the life of a person so much. To me, the analogy is more interesting if viewed in the opposite way: Working at the heart of human affairs are forces that resemble those we find in Nature--the natural impulses that drive a river to sea, the gravitational pressures that churn the cauldrons of stars and the nuclear forces that bind atomic particles together.

We are given a finite impulse of energy at birth. This energy has a natural tendency to find its resolution. We see a terrain ahead of us. This terrain is our fate, not of our own choosing. It is imposed on the river and the river has to negotiate its way to the sea.

But the river does not consciously "know" the way to the sea. It follows its natural tendencies. When we are young, we follow our desires and passions. The sharp rocks we hurl ourselves against, "correct" our paths, optimising our flow. We often rush headlong into things and only through the painful process of trial and error, do we learn the right way. So much energy is wasted in the recklessness of our youth.

When we reach middle-age, our store of energy has been half-depleted. We are wiser now because we know how to "go with the flow" and find the "right time" for things to come to fruition. The Javanese saying "Alon-alon asal kelakon" (slowly but surely) is a distillation of this very wisdom. We know how to work patiently, following the natural rhythm of the terrain, working around obstacles, depositing the rich soil of our experience along the way. We are most fruitful during this stage.

Nature abhors high energy states; they are unstable. All egoistic behaviour, selfish acts and actions that are acquisitive in nature, create states of high energy. Maintaining these high energy states requires even more energy.

High energy states are temporary; the Second Law of Thermodynamics dictates that they ultimately have to disintegrate. If we realise this, we will spend less time caring about our pride, image and position . All the wealth we accumulate are but transient. The river will ultimately dissipate all its energy and find its home--the point of lowest energy and highest stability--within the all-embracing arms of the pervasive sea.

Life is more worthwhile if we, like the river in middle and old age, irrigate farmlands and fertilize deltas. These are "selfless" acts. When the river merges with the sea, it loses its identity and finally "realises" that it is part of the universal scheme of things--the cycle of water in nature.

All of us are allocated a small amount of energy to manage within our lifetimes. How do we make use of it? The choice is up to us. One thing is for certain: we will end up at sea. So be a good river.

Monday, October 13, 2003

Emblems of a Secret Brotherhood

Emblems of a Secret Brotherhood

Only a small percentage of my reading diet consists of fiction these days. It is not that I do not like reading novels---one can actually learn quite a lot too from reading fiction--just that good novels often affect me emotionally.

Stephen King said in the introduction to his short story anthology, Skeleton Crew, that a short story is like a "kiss in the dark" while a novel is like a "love affair". I fully agree with that.

In immersing oneself in a work of fiction, one grows to love or hate its characters; characters which one lives together with over days, weeks or even months. Coming out from a good book, one feels like one has just awaken from a dream--reluctantly, at times.

When I read it a decade ago, Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being affected me deeply. It's effects are still reverberating in my mind even now. In this case, it is more than an affair--it is a marriage.

One of the characters in the novel, Tereza, (played by Juliette Binoche in the movie adaptation) was clutching the book Anna Karenina by Tolstoy when she first met the hero, Tomas (played by Daniel-Day Lewis). She, a small-town girl, hoping to escape from her dreary existence, was proud to show that she is different from the rest of the people in the town. The book that she is reading becomes a differentiating symbol "because books are emblems of a secret brotherhood" --as Kundera so eloquently put it.

We delight in knowing that someone else has also read a book that we have. It is like having a mutual friend. And we bond immediately.

I can think of so many books that have influenced me deeply throughout my life. (Each of these could be the subject of one blog entry--but I'll spare my readers the torment). I have written in a previous posting, suggesting light-heartedly, that people are more important than books--because people are like books, only better ones.

It is also true the other way round. The greatest influences in my life are not people I've known or met but books I have read. Books have a reality and existence that is as important as people.

Whenever I see an interesting new novel in the bookstore, I would hesitate and my heart would palpitate--it's almost like meeting someone you find attractive--and I wonder what kind of dangerously exciting paths will it lead me down.

These days, I often "play safe" by reading non-fiction. At least, the experience is only limited to an intellectual one. But I could be missing out a hell lot.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

The Man Who Ate His Boots

The Man Who Ate His Boots

I believe I am quite disciplined when it comes to eating. I do enjoy eating but I try not to over-indulge. It is a tough thing to do, especially when one lives in Jakarta where there is a wide choice of mouth-watering food available from the various cities and provinces in Indonesia--soto Betawi, pempek Palembang, nasi Padang, siomay Bandung, Coto Makassar, soto Ambengan, nasi gudeg Jogja, bubur ayam Cianjur, bakso Malang--going to the food court itself is a lesson in Indonesian geography.

Despite living in a gastronomic paradise, I eat the equivalent of only two meals a day. I believe in moderation and I whole-heartedly subscribe to Dr M's advice that one should stop eating when the food starts to taste good (advice which he himself got from his mother).

The other thing that gives me the willpower and inspiration to not over-indulge in food are stories of endurance and suffering of explorers that I've read. One of those books that I've enjoyed is Barrow's Boys by Fergus Fleming. It details a series of expeditions to various uncharted corners of the globe by British explorers in the 19th century. Most of the explorers had to suffer harsh weather conditions, hostile natives, sickness and most of all hunger.

One of the most remarkable tale is that of Sir John Franklin, explorer of the North Canadian coastlines and also of the Arctic. On one of his expeditions to the cold north, he ran out of food rations and had to boil scraps of leather from his boots for food! Henceforth he was known as The Man Who Ate His Boots. He survived that expedition.

Reading that I was also reminded of a cartoon I read when I was a kid by Malaysian cartoonist Lat (collected in Lots of Lat), where a teacher is shown issuing a challenge to his student, telling him that if he passes his exams, he (the teacher) will eat his own shoes. Obviously, the student proves his teacher wrong and the next box shows the student holding a bottle of ketchup to his shivering teacher: "Do you want some tomato sauce to go with your shoes sir?"

All this talk about food is making me hungry. Now, if your appetite is still intact, care to join me for lunch?