During Ramadan the pace of life on the islands of Indonesia slows down with workers going home early for dinner, self-reflection, and prayers. But in Jakarta it can be difficult to notice that anything has changed. The ‘Big Durian’ burns with a frantic energy, this city of millions clogged with rivers of cars and competing bikes and swarms of bajaj fleeing the urban crush at the north of the city for its outskirts. Under the grey smog guards in immaculate uniforms watch as the commuter trains donated by the Japanese clank past to Bogor and Bekasi, while locomotives at Gambir station scream past miles and miles of rice-paddy fields for Bandung and Surabaya. Workers toil underground to complete a massive mass rapid transit system that will finally bring the city into the modern age, while skyscrapers are in the process of filling the skyline. It is polluted, corrupt, and filthy-at the same time it is bold, proud, and determined.
Jakarta is yet another brash Asian city, competing to be cosmopolitan and sophisticated. But it is fighting against nature. Earthquakes wrack the country periodically. And experts predict that Jakarta will sink into the sea-it was built on marshlands and sea levels are rising faster than ever before. Crippling floods are already common, swamping low-lying areas like the Pluit district. But for now the city continues to burn with a manic energy.
I was not very interested in the proud new buildings-I wanted to see the colonial remnants of the city once known as Batavia when it was the capital of the Dutch East Indies. For centuries the Dutch had asserted control of the network of islands that constituted Nusantara, the Malay Archipelago, fighting for prominence against the Portuguese, British, and Spaniards, while the bitterly divided local rulers slowly fell. Batavia itself had been carved out of the swamps, tens of thousands of slaves and labourers under VOC Governor General Coen constructing the canals and walls of the city following its capture from the English. Fortress Batavia had withstood a massive siege from the Sultan Agung’s massive forces, and weathered epidemics and insurrections that routinely killed its colonial inhabitants, and from there the Dutch had steadily built an empire that stretched from the northern tip of Sumatera all the way to Papua and the glaciers of Irian.
We first ventured into Glodok, Jakarta’s Chinatown, where the majority of the Chinese had lived at one point. They had initially lived in the confines of Batavia, but following riots and their subsequent massacre, the Chinese were condemned to living outside the city walls in 1741. It was just one of the many battles, riots, and demonstrations of violence that would wrack the city periodically over the centuries. Glodok’s warren of streets teemed with familiar sights-seafood for sale on metal trays by the tiled roadside, tacky red lanterns fluttering in the breeze as shoppers squeezed their way through the narrow alleyways, stinking of desiccating vegetables and meat. Everyone spoke Indonesian there, even the old women in flower-print blouses, looking as if they would be right at home in the old parts of Hong Kong or Macau. In the years following President Soekarno’s ousting by the strongman Suharto, various decrees were passed and the new generation of Chinese was to speak only Indonesian, and names were to be changed with immediate effect. The Liems became Salims, and the Loeks became Loekmans. Roots were forgotten and remained unspoken, and I knew several people who were unsure of exactly who they were, their lineage muddled up in history.
much changed from the day we first met at the studios, on the sound-stages
where fake snow billowed like a northeastern storm, the director in his leather
jacket pointing and gesturing for the funeral sequence to be more elaborate,
the cameramen with their machines clumsily wiping down the lenses. We were both
among the mourners, so alike that we could have been sisters, and you later
told me that it was like the night you caught the late train to Shanghai while
the soldiers with guns encroached on the borders, while for me I had left the
oppressive mansion and the stink of opium in Soochow in anger, the both of us
ready to begin new lives in a fluctuating city. The studios were dream
factories, manufacturing films bound for the theatres where hundreds of clerks
and office-girls thronged the halls, awaiting yet another distraction from the
chaos of the streets.
was never really an actress; it was just one of those things I had to do to
earn a living in those first few bitter years in Shanghai, but what I wanted
was to tell my own grand stories, like how Ts’ao Hsueh-Ch’in had turned his
life into art even when dying penniless in Peking. I remember when you asked me
why I wrote during the long intermissions between sequences shot in replicas of
the Empress Dowager’s throne room, and how your eyes misted over when I told
you how badly I wanted to escape being just another faceless courtesan in the
wings. I wanted to write a story about fleeting love and youth. But of course
nobody cared what I had to say, to them I was just another actress with
incomprehensible dreams. That was why I eventually left the stage, retreating alone
to a rented room on Rue Pichon where I painstakingly wrote out lines of
characters for books that nobody would read.
was when we started to drift apart, wasn’t it, after we relocated to different
neighborhoods when we once shared an apartment off Soochow Creek, kept awake by
the sound of laughter from the bar girls in the motorcars on their way to the
Bund? We saw less of each other over the years, but what I wanted was to tell
you that I cared so much about you, that it was so painful trying to hide what
I felt that it was a physical pain in my chest that never went away while you
continued to burn brighter and faster, your affairs as widespread as the
posters that I saw on the walls with you and a succession of handsome men
staring longingly at each other.
you there is no longer any order in my life, all I feel is a pervasive
loneliness. Soon I will put down my pen, the warm water in the sink awaiting
me, while the noise in the apartment has died down, even the wireless reporters
reading out the news from the wars taking their sleep for the night, the
manuscripts that I have written remaining unpublished in a box while the last
of my savings finally run out. Half of heaven is forever missing, and even if I
live beyond tonight, I can spend my life never finding closure.
Ah Beng's Wedding (Originally published in KL Noir: Blue)
There is a lot about Malaysia
that I can tell you, you know. Have you seen those advertisements before?
Cuti-cuti Malaysia! Then they will show you a lot of pictures, you know those
ones where there are smiling Malay men in their kampungs playing musical
instruments and everything is all green? Ha! Not true. Those places don’t exist
anymore. You go outside and you see nothing but oil-palms. Just oil-palms, all
up and down the North-South Highway. If got kampungs the people are all poor
and like boss says, they depend on government to give them free food and electricity.
I know this because when I was young I was born there. I grew up among all
those trees and then my relatives moved out of the estates. They wanted to find
work in the city. But the furthest that most of them went was Teluk Anson. But my mother and father didn’t want to go. We
stayed in this kampung, in a shophouse. It was very old and you can see
swallows nests on the ceiling. My father, he collect the birds nest and sell
it. In your country you got drink birds nest? Here we drink a lot. He bought another
shophouse and let swallows build their nests inside. But soon, business very
bad. So he go and borrow money from loan sharks. That is where all the trouble