Saturday, January 17, 2004

Reflections on a Forgotten City

Reflections on a Forgotten City

Last night I had dinner at Toko Oen, an old crumbling colonial building along Jalan Pemuda in Semarang. Inside, on its wood-paneled walls, hung old photos recalling grander times. It is a miracle that the place was still surviving: only the older Chinese middleclass families now gathered here for the occassional family celebration. That night some of them were obviously in a celebratory mood, seizing the mike from the singer and crooning passionate hits of bygone years.

I enjoyed the atmosphere there, nostalgic with its fading traces of colonial past--the ornate lamps, the slow-rotating celing fans and the rusting piano in the corner. I nursed my Bintang beer slowly and took the opportunity to rest my tired limbs that were aching from a whole day of wandering in the streets of Semarang.

Despite being an important port city on the north coast of Central Java, Semarang felt like a forgotten city. Its colonial heritage--the areas around the old city near the Tawang railway station--looked destitute and neglected, its canals stagnant and choked with foul-smelling refuse. The street population seemed to consist only of sweaty and swarthy labourers, carting goods, pedalling becaks and hawking petty goods in the streets. The rich middleclass huddled in the comforts of the hills in the south.

Simpang Lima, which is the new center of Semarang is but a monotony of malls: Ciputra, Ramayana and Matahari. But the people seem to prefer the kitsch consumerism of malls than the decaying monuments of the past. Despite its apparent bustle, Simpang Lima is just a tiresome distraction--the real soul of Semarang lies elsewhere, perhaps lost forever.

If Semarang still has a soul, it is borne by the labouring classes. This morning as I was having my brunch at the Warung Makan Barokah behind Pasar Johar, I observed the becak riders outside who were taking a respite from their morning exertions. A small piece of greasy cake and a glass of tea at the roadside warung is what most of them seemed to have for their afternoon meal. I had seen these roadside warungs in Solo, Jogja and now Semarang, with is selection of cakes and tiny packets of rice (laced with tiny bits of salty tempe or sambal). Now I knew who their consumers were. I felt slightly guilty at the gluttony of my nasi gudeg brunch.

But my appetite was voracious all the way back to Jakarta over the six-hour train journey. I had two meals on the train itself in between listening to my keroncong cassette and reading Colin Thubron. I arrived in Jakarta still longing for another bite.

As the bajaj swooped me past familiar Jalan Sabang back to my hotel, the bright lights of Jakarta seemed like such stark contrast to the bleakness of Semarang: for the first time, Jakarta felt like it was full of promise and hope. It is perhaps this promise and hope that lured many people from forgotten towns all over Indonesia to Jakarta--swelling its population to over 10 million--in search of a better life. I was happy to be back in Jakarta.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Icon of the Chinese Diaspora

Icon of the Chinese Diaspora

When I was in Yogjakarta last week, I went into an eating shop and saw eight calendars hanging on its walls. Immediately I knew the owner was Chinese. Only the Chinese have this obsessive preoccupation with dates and figures.

In Semarang, I had my lunch at a Chinese restaurant and saw 17 wall calendars hanging there! Even temples were not spared: I saw calendars with huge numerals at the Sam Poh Kong temple. This temple was built in honour of the great 15th century Chinese mariner, Zheng He (or better known in Malaysia as Admiral Cheng Ho) who made seven voyages to Java island.

This Muslim eunuch is greatly revered in Malacca where a similar temple stands in his honour. Zheng He's fleet even went as far as Madagascar and the Middle East. There are even theories that suggest Zheng He reached as far as America and should be credited as its discoverer instead of Columbus. Zheng He's voyages marked that great era when the Chinese ruled the waves and trade flourished between the Chinese, Arabs and the peoples of Nusantara.

The Sam Poh Kong temple in Semarang looked better maintained than the one in Malacca. Expansion and renovation works were going on feverishly, no doubt fueled by the enormous wealth of the local Chinese community. Giant red candles and joss-sticks cast a garish air to the place. The main altar was almost hidden inside a dark cave-like hall; there amidst the paraphernalia of worship, stood the images of Admiral Zheng He--silent icons of the Chinese diaspora.

The stamp of the Chinese people is everywhere in Semarang. I explored the narrow alleys near Pasar Johar and saw the fruits of their industry: trading shops, toko mas (goldsmiths) and toko obat (Chinese pharmacies). Peer into any one of these shops, you'd see the familiar sight of a towkay or towkay-soh, poring stern-faced over the account books or flipping the ever-present calendar on the wall: Nothing concerns the pragmatic Chinese more than the bottom line and a secure future. That is the secret of their success.

I also took the trouble to visit Semarang's harbour, Tanjung Mas as I am very fond of ships. (Of course Didi Kempot's song, Tanjung Mas Ninggal Janji was also a contributing factor). As I stood there watching the bustle of goods being loaded and unloaded, I secretly wished that someday I'd be able to come to Semarang through the sea, landing in Tanjung Mas--perhaps feeling a bit of the thrill that Admiral Zheng He experienced when he first set foot here more than six hundred years ago.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Sojourn to Semarang

Sojourn to Semarang

My education of Java would not be complete if I do not visit Semarang, so I took the Argo Bromo Anggerek this morning to the capital of Central Java. It was also the only suitable train journey that I could take given my time limitation this week. I plan to be back in Jakarta on Saturday.

It is usually a five-and-a-half hour journey by Argo Bromo Anggerek train to Semarang. The train goes all the way to Surabaya--Pekalongan and Semarang are the only two stops along the way. Today the train started on time at 9.20am and arrived an hour late: 3.50pm. Still there was sufficient time for me upon arrival to wander around the old city of Semarang and find a suitable Internet cafe.

Usually no tourist would visit Semarang as there's nothing much of interest here. Bali, Lombok, Lake Toba and Yogjakarta are the popular destinations for tourists. But Semarang is an important commercial port on the north coast of Central Java; it is also among the most Chinese cities in Indonesia. I have many Indonesian Chinese friends who come from Semarang. I am also told there are many old Dutch buildings here.

That was excuse enough for me to take the train journey to Semarang. The train ride itself was worth taking on its own. The stretch from Pekalongan to Semarang was especially picturesque: there the rail-tracks hugged the coastline and one could see through one's window, waves crashing into the rocks below. Elsewhere scenes of rice, corn and onion fields, felicitous under the noon-day sun, stretched out into the distance.

The train sliced through a few rivers on its approach to the sea where murky brown flows merged with the clear salt water of the sea. Seaside villagers waved to the passing train and when the train reached Semarang, I wished I could take the ride all the way to Surabaya.

But I have been to Surabaya a few of times before--Semarang is the remaining big city on Java island that I haven't visited. Upon arrival at the station, I took a becak (in Solo, most of the becaks are painted red but here they go for light blue) ride to a hotel on the edge of the old city of Semarang.

The new center of Semarang is in Simpang Lima, further south. Semarang doesn't have the Javanese charm of Solo or Yogjakarta but I am determined to penetrate its essence. There's much to do tomorrow and I intend to make the most of my brief sojourn to Semarang.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Jakarta Taxi Blues

Jakarta Taxi Blues

First-time visitors to Jakarta are often advised to take the Bluebird or the higher-end Silverbird executive taxis. They are considered safe. Taxis have been my main form transport here since I started visiting Jakarta in the mid-nineties. I must say, the service provided by the Bluebird cabs is nothing short of excellent: the drivers are always polite and conscientious; they never fail to use the meter and the taxis are very well maintained. They put the cab service in KL to shame.

In KL, you always have to ask the taxi driver whether he is willing to take you to your destination before entering the cab. You are at their mercy. This is especially bad during the rush-hour: It is a common sight in KL to see frustrated passengers jutting their heads into taxi after taxi, almost pleading the driver to take them to their destination. Our taxi service is still wallowing below Third World standards. Thank God we have the Putra, Star and monorail train services now.

There are bad cab drivers in Jakarta too. I have even encountered "drivers" who barely knew how to drive! I remember one having problems releasing the clutch, and dragged me all the way to my destination in first gear. If you stumble out late at night from nightspots such as Tanamur or JJ's and get into one of the cabs waiting outside, a usual 5K rupiah ride will cost you 50K instead. If it is raining, a short hop to the next building will sometimes cost you 10K rupiah.

For newcomers, communication could be a problem too. The taxi driver will never understand what you mean by "meter" (it's called argo). They will smile when you say "pusing" ("turn" in Malay)--to Indonesians that usually means "headache" (putar or belok is the right word).

You also have to learn to pronounce acronyms the Indonesian way: WTC is "way-tay-say", BCA is "bay-chay-ah". Most places with Western names are pronounced phonetically: Summit becomes "Soo-meet", Stadium becomes "Stah-di-ee-um" and Atrium, "Ah-tree-ium". Luckily Jakarta does not have a Renaissance Hotel.

I enjoy chatting with taxi drivers: they often come from different parts of the archipelago--a cab ride becomes a geography lesson for me. It is also a challenge for me to understand their thick provincial accents, but it is fun. I very rarely meet an unfriendly one.

The rarest sight though in Jakarta is a Chinese taxi driver. I spent years here asking my Indonesian friends if there's such a thing as a Chinese cab-driver in Jakarta. No one has encountered one before. Not in Jakarta, maybe in Pontianak, they'd say. Jakarta Chinese are supposed to be "rich".

This is not exactly true. I have encountered at least one Chinese Bluebird taxi driver before. It was during Lebaran when many of the drivers were back in their kampungs. I took the rare opportunity to grill the driver and asked him if Chinese taxi drivers were indeed that rare. He said, they are some Chinese drivers in Bluebird, but they are a small minority.

He seemed a bit uneasy when I asked him why he chose to become a taxi driver. I suddenly realised that it could be insensitive of me to do so: it was like I was questioning why he as a Chinese was so "useless", though that wasn't what I meant. It was just plain innocent curiosity on my part. I quickly changed the subject to the traffic instead.

Another pribumi (native) taxi driver I encountered used to be a bajaj driver; he told me how happy he was when he was accepted by the taxi company to be a driver--he even held a small celebration with his family and friends.

A taxi driver in Jakarta will usually pretend not to have small change. So I always make sure I have enough 1K, 5K and 10K notes in my wallet. My rides usually cost me not more than 10K. Good luck to you if you only have 50K notes!

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Meme Generator

Meme Generator

I haven't had much time lately to do any maintenance on my blog. I think it is badly in need of a facelift. I have written so many entries and they are now buried somewhere in the archives; I wish I could classify and provide easier links to them. I myself sometimes have to use the search engine to dig out an earlier entry. The current website design is not scalable at all. But any changes will have to wait, as I have more urgent things in the in-tray of my mind.

Will I ever run out of subjects to blog? I hope not. Like what I've mentioned many times before (and I am lazy to find links to those past entries), blogging is like a daily prayer. I commit to blog everyday and I try to keep that commitment.

I know that when I'm finally back in KL, blogging will be a tougher thing to do. Life in KL is "noisier". Here in Jakarta, I feel blissful in my isolation. The mind expands, soars and dances in the exalted realms of the intellect. KL life is all action and exhaustion; time to think is minimal. Life slips by easily--which is what I seriously want to avoid. This brings me back to the whole point of blogging--it helps me arrest that slip. I try to reevaluate my life everyday and "reset" my mind. So blogging daily--though it will be much more difficult for me to do--is even more essential when I'm back in KL.

There are many subjects that I want to blog about but have not started to do so because I feel that at my present state of mind, I am not able to do them justice. And for the past few weeks, I have been blogging from Internet cafes, making the task even more challenging as I have to use my surfing time as efficiently as possible to minimize cost. At such times, you start appreciating the "free" internet connection that you get in the office.

Being able to blog daily gives me a sense of satisfaction: my day, no matter how mundane, did not disappear without a trace--I have my thoughts deposited in cyberspace to proof it. The significance of those thoughts is magnified when someone else reads them and voila, the virus has spread. A thought once introduced into the world, cannot be undone. Some reaction has occured in your mind the moment you read these words--the state of your mind has been altered forever.We are all meme generators, constantly infecting one another.

The memes or mind viruses that I am spewing out now are the results of a lifetime of infections from so many different people (both living and dead). They have mutated, recombined and synthesized into unrecognizable forms. For as long as I live, I will be a spreader of memes. When my mortal body is no longer around, perhaps my blog will continue to do so?

Monday, January 12, 2004

Endless Exams

Endless Exams

I can understand the anxiety of my students when they keep asking me about the topics that will be covered in their final exam. No one likes exams. I never liked it when I was a student. Why should our knowledge on a subject be measured by how well we perform in the sterile environment of the examination hall during that nerve-wracking two or three hours?

It was worst for us during our time in the university--there were hardly any coursework or assignments which would contribute to our total marks: our entire year's performance was determined by that one examination at the end of every year. During the exam period, we alternated between feeling suicidal and fearing for our sanity.

But thinking back, those stressful experiences of our youth in facing examinations were good character-building exercises. Life in a way is filled with examinations: An important job interview, is like an exam; so is a presentation in front of a tough audience; or a difficult situation that requires our immediate action. We are judged by how we perform on that very instant and occassion.

It may not be fair to us, but life is like that. We are often not given a second chance. During those monumental moments of decision and action, we have to dive deep into our store of experience and knowledge and react instantly. We are not given time to deliberate, analyze, evade or counter-question.

Exams may not be a good test of one's knowledge of a subject, but it is a good test of one's character. Knowledge can be acquired by anyone who is willing to persevere, but strength of character stems from one's inner core: It is shaped by one's upbringing, one's life's experiences and one's religious beliefs. We build character by taking challenges head-on, by plunging ourselves deep into the drama of life. Sometimes we falter, sometimes we excel but we always emerge a better person. Our character is strenghtened in the process.

We might think we are finally free from exams when we graduated from university. Far from it. One inevitably finds that life is, but an endless series of examinations.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Journeys to Nowhere

Journeys to Nowhere

I haven't stop working since I came back from my trip. My holiday to Central Java was a rejuvenating one but the amount of work that I had put off now comes back to haunt me. Now I'm not sure if I can embark on a similar trip again this coming week.

Sometimes just making a trip to nowhere is great fun. I remember once taking the Express Timuran train from Singapore all the way to the last stop: Tumpat in Kelantan, near the Thai border. I wanted to see both ends of the line.

The Malaysian railway line originating from Tanjung Pagar in Singapore splits into two at Gemas to avoid the Main Range. Senandung Malam takes you to the busy towns on the West Coast of Peninsula Malaysia all the way to KL while Express Timuran, also known as the "jungle train" takes up to the less accesible small towns on the east side.

The Timuran Express starts its daily journey from Singapore at 10.20pm and arrives in Tumpat at around 10am. I took it on a Friday night after work. I slept well on the train and woke up early to have a good mee goreng breakfast in the buffet coach at 5.00am. For some reason, my appetite is usually good whenever I go on train journeys.

It was an enjoyable night ride--the train snaked its way through dense rain forests; at certain points the foliage crept so close to the tracks that one could even stretch out a hand and touch them.

There is no train station at Kota Bahru; passengers going there normally alight at the Wakaf Baru station. But I went all the way to Tumpat and from there I took a bus to Kota Bahru. I liked Kota Bahru--it is a quiet and charming town with good hawker food. The air was so fresh and the sea at Pantai Cahaya Bulan (formerly Pantai Cinta Berahi) strikingly blue. Spent a happy weekend there. I took the return journey back to Singapore from Tumpat on Sunday night, arriving in time on Monday morning for my weekly conference call with my Australian boss.

It was a weekend well-spent. I wish I could make more trips like that. I've been checking PT Kereta Api's timetables a lot lately...