Posts Tagged ‘Bali’

Ubud encounters: Chauly, Godden, Wibowo explore identity

December 30, 2013

At the 2013 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Salena Godden, Agustinus Wibowo and Bernice Chauly talked about the art and science of the memoir.

All three writers spoke of their complex identities. Godden grew up in Britain with an Irish jazz musician father and Jamaican dancer mother. Chauly was born in Penang, Malaysia, to a Punjabi father and Chinese mother. Wibowo is an ethnic Chinese Indonesian who has written about his extensive travels, including lengthy stays in Afghanistan and China.

Wibowo was raised in the Chinese Buddhist tradition by his parents and taught to think of China as the ancestral homeland. In his most recent book, Titik Nol (Point Zero), he recounts a bizarre scene in his mother’s hospital room. With terminal patients, Indonesian hospitals will summon the approach clergy to minister appropriate rites. However, some of Wibowo’s relatives had converted to Christianity. “My mother’s sisters and brothers tried to baptize her on her deathbed on one side. On the other side, Buddhist monks were performing their rituals.”

During the Suharto years, Chinese language teaching was banned, and Wibowo’s parents took advantage of that in front of their children. “They spoke Chinese when they didn’t want us to understand.” In response to anti-Chinese discrimination under Suharto, his parents infused Wibowo with the idea of China as their ancestral homeland, and they sent him to school there. “But when I got there, I was just a foreigner,” Wibowo recalled, and that strengthened his Indonesian identity. “I used to root for Chinese teams in badminton competitions. But in China, I rooted for Indonesia.”

In the years since Suharto’s ouster, as part of Indonesia’s refomasi legal discrimination against Chinese has ended. “My father always wanted me to take his bones back to China when he died, to bury him in his homeland. He called it returning home,” Wibowo said. “When I asked him after refomasi, he wanted to be buried here. He said, ‘My home is Indonesia.’”

Bernice Chauly said that her father’s death cut her off from her Indian side as her mother moved back to live with her family. “I had a Chinese childhood, but I yearned to be Indian.” In her teenage Malaysian national indoctrination class, she did feel sufficiently tied to each community to apologize for both the Chinese and Indians’ enumerated abuses of Malaysia’s native bumiputera.

“Memoir comes from a great void, an emptiness,” Chauly, who curates Penang’s annual George Town Literary Festival said. Her book, Growing up with Ghosts, uses six different voices to tell its story. “If I hadn’t written this book I’d be haunted by ghosts,” Chauly said. “This book saved me.”

Poet and spoken word artist Salena Godden hopes that crowd funding can save her memoir, Springfield Road. The book follows Godden growing up as the “brown girl” in her school and wondering about her absent father, who, between cruise ship band gigs, visits her for a single day.

“I was craughing when I wrote the book,” Godden said, using the term she coined for the cross between laughing and crying. “When you read it, you’ll craugh after ten lines.”

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

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Chefs without borders

November 17, 2013

Researching an Asia Times article on issues between Malaysia and Indonesia gave me an opportunity to talk food with culinary masters from each country and sample their work at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

William Wongso is a scholar of Indonesian cooking as well as an author, chef, restaurateur and founder of ACMI – Aku Cinta Masakan Indonesia (I Love Indonesian Cooking), dedicated to preserving traditional recipes and spreading the good eating.

I sampled a fish stew and vegetables from the Batak group near Lake Toba in Northern Sumatra, prepared at The Kitchen, an addition to the Ubud festival that gives cookbook authors an opportunity to showcase and share their craft. The dishes used local spices to add a fresh tang, following Wongso’s edict, “Go back to our roots.”

One of his pet peeves is the modern obsession with presentation, also known as plating. “There are two things that matter: do the right thing in cooking; and use the right ingredients,” Wongso declared. “Wherever they talk about presentation, I ask, what is the benchmark? In Indonesian food it’s nasi campur,” a lump of rice surrounded by dollops of three or more vegetable, meat, chicken or fish items.

Chef Wan, Tourism Malaysia’s food ambassador, whipped up a version of laksa, a Malaysian standard. Born Redzuawan Ismail with Malaysian, Indonesian, Chinese and Japanese ancestry, Chef Wan noted how the region’s cooking draws from the groups that have visited over the centuries on the spice and silk routes. “Food to me is about diversity of culture and my family tree,” the famous television cooking show host and cookbook author said. “I encourage people to travel and learn about each other, marry each other.”

Turning to growing of intolerance in Malaysia, Indonesia and beyond, Chef Wan said, “Just because we have a different religion doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. I hate it when people don’t use their brain. It’s only a bunch of people who don’t understand others, who think they’re better than other people, that cause trouble.”

“I have a long relationship with Chef Wan,” Wongso said. “We don’t talk about politics because politics makes enemies. Food makes friends.” To paraphrase Robert Frost, sharing good food makes good neighbors.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Ubud encounters: Pamuntjak, Lewis live dangerously in novels on 1965 turmoil

November 9, 2013

The September 1965 upheaval in Jakarta depicted in The Year of Living Dangerously was only the beginning of the story. In the three years that followed, up to 3 million people were killed and thousands more imprisoned in a purge of alleged Communists as General Suharto consolidated his power and replaced President Sukarno.

Suharto’s New Order covered up the massacres. Even 15 years after reformasi rid the nation of Suharto and began the vast archipelago’s transformation into the world’s third largest democracy, it’s a period of which few in Indonesia dare speak.

At last month’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, authors Laksmi Pamuntjak and Richard E Lewis launched novels that dare to tell the long hidden tale from remarkably different perspectives.

Pamuntjak’s The Question of Red reinterprets the pan-Asian Mahabharata legend in the context of the 1965 purge and subsequent captivity in a purpose-built political prison on remote Buru Island. “I was part of the generation that was indoctrinated to believe a certain version of history, so I felt an obligation to more about it,” Pamuntjak, born in 1971, said

“I want The Question of Red not to find out who the masterminds [of the purges] were. All the novel can do is find new ways to tell the story. I was conscious of writing through the memory of others. I knew I could never reach the depth of feeling of the people who were there in Suharto’s prison. I felt inadequate.”

Readers seem to disagree: the Indonesian version of the novel, Amba, had four printings within four months of its release last year.

“The best I could do was to try to tell the stories of people whose stories were not told through history with a big H,” Pamuntjak, who first gained international recognition for her poetry and is an accomplished translator, said.

She recounted the difficulties of portraying the suffering of others. “Your totally take on the lives of your characters, and it saps your being,” Pamuntjak, Indonesia’s entrant in last year’s Poetry Parnassus staged in conjunction with the London Olympics, said. “Like love and [other] relationships in your life, it’s equal parts love and pain. But it’s totally worth it.”

Richard Lewis didn’t have to imagine the killings of 1965. “We looked into our own graves in the backyard,” Lewis, then nine years old, the son of American missionary parents in rural Bali, recalled. “Some guy had come to our house and said he wanted to work as our gardener, He dug a big hole in our garden that we thought was for trash. We were on the list for elimination. I don’t know why we were spared.”

While Bones of the Dark Moon is a novel, “This is not fiction,” Lewis declared of his depiction of the destruction he witnessed. “As a nine year old, you don’t have the ability to comprehend those events, but it was vivid.”

He recalled a story told by a commander of the army’s elite Red Beret unit. “The officer met a boy who said, ‘Sir, you’ve killed my parents, would you please kill me?’ ‘So I took out my gun and shot him,’ the officer said.” A journalist who had been to the shore where bodies were being dumped and told Lewis’ family about watching sharks feed on them. “Many of the boys I played with just vanished.”

Bones of the Dark Moon, Lewis’ fifth novel, is written in the present time, framed within the discovery of bones in excavations for a new villa, even though it depicts events nearly half a century ago. “I knew I would write it in the present because that time is still a stain on Bali. People who were alive still have vivid memories. Wounds still linger and fester about what happened.”

Lewis, who attended university in the US but still lives in Bali, believes the wounds remain fresh due to the absence of legitimate answers about what really happened in 1965, starting with the alleged failed Communist coup that provided the pretext for the Suharto’s takeover and unleashed the wave of killing. “Was there a coup? Was it the CIA? Was it Suharto, the master dalang, [puppeteer]?”

Pamuntjak and Lewis’ books, both from Indonesian publishers, add impetus to the search for answers.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Ubud encounters: Goenawan Mohamad names, reserves judgment on Indonesia’s ‘next president’

November 4, 2013

Indonesia’s renowned author and foremost man of letters Goenawan Mohamad said he expected Joko Widodo to be the country’s next president. That’s not an uncommon sentiment, even though the Jakarta governor, commonly known as Jokowi, has yet to declare his candidacy,

Unlike many people predicting Jokowi’s election, though, Mohamad didn’t offer an endorsement. “I like Jokowi, I’m watching him,” Mohamad said, but wasn’t convinced he’d vote for him. In an Asia Times article based on a series of interviews and discussions at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, Mohamad also contends that the next president will have limited impact on Indonesia.

Mohamad praised several of Jokowi’s policies enacted during his just completed first year as governor of the nation’s capital and commercial hub. Mohamad said Jokowi and his team had done a good job of dealing with the notorious preman, thugs, who have controlled Jakarta’s Tanah Abang market and other key areas.

Mohamad drew a bright line between premanism and the rampant corruption that infects government and society at every level. “Organized crime is alarming. Premanism is small compared with organized crime behind the scenes. Maybe we are like Sicily a little bit,” Mohamad, founding editor of newsweekly Tempo, observed. “The violence in 1965 [when a million or more people were killed in a purge supposedly aimed at Communists in the wake of the military ouster of President Sukarno that brought General Suharto to power until 1998] was a horrifying example of what happens when gangsters have a free hand.”

Mohamad, dubbed the conscience of his nation, sighed, “I don’t have any answers for this.”

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Ubud encounters: Afghanistan for Afghans

October 21, 2013

Australian painter Ben Quilty and Indonesian writer Agustinus Wibowo told the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali how they each reached Afghanistan by different routes for different reasons. But following their stays, they both also reached the same conclusion: after a dozen years and thousands of casualties, it’s time for Afghanistan to solve its problems without foreign help.

Wibowo came to Afghanistan for the first time as a curious and footloose traveler. In Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, Wibowo said that since he came from Indonesia, people assumed he was Muslim. Telling them he was an ethic Chinese raised in the Buddhist tradition would either provoke suspicion or pointless debate, including attempts to convert him. “But I found the perfect answer,” Wibowo revealed. “When people asked if I was Muslim, I’d say, ‘Insy’allah’ [God willing].”

Later, Wibowo said he found an even better answer from Afghan imam. “He told me he was a member of the highest religion of all: humanity.”

Wibowo found a number of jobs in Afghanistan. For a time he was a photojournalist. “The first time I covered a bombing and I saw the bodies and blood, I couldn’t sleep for a week. But then it became routine.”

He noted that when foreign troops and aid workers first came to Afghanistan, they were welcomed. But by 2006, Afghans’ views had changed. “Billions of dollars are pumped into Afghanistan, but nothing has changed,” Wibowo said. He said there are “two worlds, Afghanis and expats,” noting,” Only 20 percent of the money poured into Afghanistan goes to locals.” The rest goes for foreigners’ salaries and benefits, along with materials from overseas. The ongoing frustration over foreign presence has led to a resurgence in support for the Taliban.

Wibowo, who has written three books about his travels in Central Asia and China, also warned, “We cannot impose first world concepts on fifth world countries.” He cited his experience as a consultant to a United Nations gender equity initiative where foreign feminists told local women in workshops that if their husbands got angry, they should question them about why they were angry. “The next day, the women came back with bruises.”

Ben Quilty went to Afghanistan in 2011 as the Australian War Memorial’s office al artist. Spending time with Australian troops, he found good people fighting a bad war. He bonded with many of the troops, and his works from Afghanistan remain on tour in Australia. He also found circumstances that fit today’s headlines.

“I went to Kabul to try to speak to the Australian embassy, and I couldn’t get in. I didn’t have the right passes. So I don’t know how Afghans are supposed to go get their papers fixed,” Quilty said, addressing Australia’s policy of turning away undocumented immigrants trying to land by ship.

“If we’re at war with a country and sending people there to try to make it safe, if that’s not a reason to take these people in, I don’t know what is.”

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Ubud encounters: Flanagan takes the bridge

October 16, 2013

The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival began in 2004 as a response to the Bali bombings of 2002. It survived the Bali bombings of 2005 that occurred a week before the second edition of the festival began.

Australian writer Richard Flanagan, perhaps best known for his novels The Sound of One Hand Clapping and The Unknown Terrorist has been a repeat visitor to the festival and a big supporter of it. The Tasmania native is also among many festival writers that have embraced Ubud. His novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, published in Australia last month, was partly written in during a stay in Bali’s hills.

During a panel discussion looking back on the first decade of the festival, an event that not just brings the world to Ubud but brings Indonesian writers to the world, Flanagan observed, “The bombs that were meant to tear people apart have created this wonderful bridge that brings people together, a bridge that grows wider and stronger every year.”

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Ubud encounters: Jalanan, Jakarta buskers rock

October 15, 2013

Fresh off its Busan International Film Festival triumph, Jalanan played to a standing room only crowd on Monday night at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

Daniel Ziv’s film portrays five tumultuous years in the life of street musicians Boni, Ho and Titi, as well as Jakarta, where Canadian-born Ziv moved in 1999. The charismatic and talented performers, mainly singing on buses, provide the documentary with its storylines and nearly all of its soundtrack and words. By the end of the movie, the three stars and Indonesia’s capital city have all undergone profound, and not always welcome, changes. The film is deeply moving and troubling, yet above all charming and supremely entertaining. You may well cry at the end – because you’re said it’s over

Jalanan (Streetside) made its world premiere in Busan on October 5 and won the Korean festival’s top documentary honor. The film is due for theatrical release early next year. Ziv and his team are seeking donations via FundRazr to help publicize the movie and fund bank accounts for the musicians. Jalanan vividly demonstrates how much difference a dollar or two makes in their tenuous situations.

Following the screening under the stars on the huge lawn of the Antonio Blanco Museum, the three star performers rocked the house, accompanied by Indonesian band Navicula. It was one of those nights that makes the Ubud festival so fabulous. For Jalanan and its team, Busan and Ubud look like just the start of their triumphs.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Ubud encounters: Uda Agus, Indonesia get social

October 13, 2013

At the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, Indonesian short story writer Uda Agus told a story to illustrate how seamlessly digital media has blended with traditional culture. (Look for more from the festival, which runs through October 15, here and at Asia Times.)

Agus, a native of West Sumatra, told about a tragic day in the village when a teenager came running to his grandmother, screaming, “Grandpa has fallen out of a tree.”

“Quick, give me your mobile phone,” the grandmother said.

“Why?”

“I want to update my status from married to widow.”

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Ubud encounters: Bernice Chauly calls foul, Angelo Suarez calls cops

October 12, 2013

On opening day at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, a panel on Southeast Asian writers featuring Malaysian writer Bernice Chauly and Philippine conceptual writer Angelo Suarez fielded a question about artistic freedom in their countries. (Look for more from the festival, which runs through October 15, here and at Asia Times.)

Chauly, who curates the George Town Literary Festival in her native Penang, said, “There’s a huge problem with censorship in Malaysia. I also work as an actress, and I was in a film that’s been stuck at the censorship board for more than a year.” The film features an angel that speaks in English, and a father with five children from five wives. “There are no fixed rules, so someone can just decide that they’re offended.”

Author of the memoir Growing up with Ghosts, Chauly added, “It’s safer to write in English if you want to be controversial.” We have become extremely sensitive about race and religion. If you’re not Muslim, you can’t use the Allah. It’s ridiculous.”

Suarez explained there’s a word in the Philippine language Tagalog, kuyog, which means to be lynched by a mob. “If someone doesn’t like your work, you will get lynched by someone in some fashion.”

Noting, “Religion is always inviting transgression,” he told about the Manila exhibition of a sculpture of Jesus with a penis in his forehead. “It’s offensive to me not because it’s a transgression, but because it’s a bad art. I think some form of aesthetic police has to be created.”

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

Air Asia Indonesia performance doesn’t fly

June 23, 2013

Air Asia founder Tony Fernandes says “Indonesia is the jewel in our crown.” If he’s serious, he’d better upgrade his royal caretakers.

I’m a longtime Air Asia flyer. I’m used to the budget carrier’s no-frills, pay-for-it-if-you-want-it approach laden with creative surcharges, and I’m resigned to its at best indifferent customer service. But my experience with Air Asia Indonesia was a shock.

First, there’s the absolutely tacky – and in many jurisdictions likely illegal – practice of requiring that each passenger pay in advance for baggage, whether they have any or not, rather than being straightforward and simply adding that mandatory charge to the base fare. While Air Asia has always dug up ways to charge for services, it’s never gone to this extreme, making customers buy something regardless of whether they want or need it. That goes against the entire Air Asia ethos.

Far worse was the experience when I tried to fly Air Asia Indonesia from Bali to a family wedding in Makassar. My wife’s youngest brother was getting married, so she and our six year old daughter both had key roles in the ceremony. En route to the airport – I’d been on assignment for Fodors.com – we got caught in Bali’s extraordinary traffic as it prepares for major international meetings later this year, and arrived at 2:40pm for a 3:30pm flight.

The employee at the desk refused to check us in, even the plane had not even arrived at the airport. And, of course, Air Asia wouldn’t consider rescheduling our flights or refunding our money. We asked him for let us talk to the supervisor; this employee claimed he was the supervisor. We asked him to let us talk to the people at the gate to see if they could help us – again, the aircraft hadn’t arrived yet, so it’s not as if boarding had already begun – and he refused. As my wife pleaded and our daughter cried, the employee seemed to delight in our predicament, rather than show any desire to help us.

We appealed to other airport personnel, including the security staff, to assist us. They recognized the absurdity of the Air Asia employee’s behavior and tried to intervene on our behalf. Again, the Air Asia employee refused to show any common sense or common decency. Instead, he became confrontational and aggressive toward us. We were in a completely ridiculous situation, but it was clear that the person who could fix it wouldn’t.

Fortunately, we found an alternative flight to Makassar with another carrier at substantial additional cost, and missed nearly all of the evening ceremonies due to the later flight time. All of this unhappiness could have been avoided if this one Air Asia Indonesia employee had chosen cooperation rather confrontation as his mode of customer service. When purchased our new tickets, we couldn’t help notice that the Air Asia ticket counter’s thick glass window had been broken; apparently we are not the carrier’s first dissatisfied customers in Bali.

Perhaps worst of all, I wrote to Air Asia about the incident via its website with full details, including the name of the employee. I got an acknowledgement that the item was received but no further response. I tried to follow up without success, then began the whole process again, and again got no reply. No one at Air Asia had the guts to stand up and say the employee followed our rules and we stand by his actions, or to apologize and say they’d try to ensure future customers didn’t face similarly suffer in situations that could be fixed so easily.

So let me now ask Tony Fernandes whether he thinks his employees took good care of Air Asia’s crown jewel in this case. I look forward to his response.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.


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