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Wednesday, May 26, 2004

North Korea Final Part (8): The Yalu Bridge Leads To The Future

Day 8: The Yalu Bridge Leads To The Future

Day of farewell.  At the Pyongyang Train Station, Mr Roh and Ms Park sent us off.  After confirming for the last time that we could not get hold of their Great Leader badges (for they were specially issued to individuals by the state and properly accounted for), Mr Roh became our model of the day.  All of us zoomed in on the tiny badge with our cameras.

Onto the Chinese carriages, tagged onto a North Korean locomotive and meant-for-locals carriages that were barred to us, plus a few Russian carriages from Vladivostok.  The train limped through the wretched-looking countryside, taking 5 hours to cover 120km.  We passed farmers ploughed the fields with oxen, red flags flapping in the wind, towns of rusty factories and unpainted concrete, and railway stations whose only hint of colour were the portraits of the two leaders. 

We must have passed through the small town of Ryongchon, where a train accident a few days later led to a major disaster which killed untold hundreds.  I have no idea exactly which stop it was but it could well be the one where I was stopped from snapping a picture for the first time on this journey. 

A cargo train full of coal and timber was travelling parallel to our stationary train, with people holding on tight to the rooftop of the carriages, not unlike a typical railway scene in India and Bangladesh.  I clicked away with my camera, but a soldier on the station platform shouted, strangely, in Russian, “Nyet, foto!”  A Chinese passenger standing near shouted in Chinese, “Ta suo bu ke pai zao!” “He says, no photo!”

I kept my camera.  Fortunately, nothing more happened.  The soldier didn’t jump onto the train for an arrest, which could well be the case five years ago.  The country is changing, though hardly fast enough.

A large city soon came into sight.  This was Sinuiju, the capital of North Phyongan Province which lies on Yalu river facing the Chinese city of Dandong.  This was also the site of the Sinuiju Special Economic Zone, which failed to take off after the Chinese arrested the dodgy Dutch-Chinese tycoon, Yang Bin. 

Yang Bin was appointed by Kim Jong Il to be the Chief Executive of what was supposed to become the North Korean equivalent of Shenzhen (the booming Chinese city on the border with Hong Kong).  The Chinese had accused Yang Bin of dodging taxes, although some observers said the move was taken to punish Kim Jong Il for disobedience to his Chinese overlords, while some suspected that it was a favour granted to the Americans who were anxious to see Kim Jong Il’s experiment fail.

Sinuiju has long been exposed to the rapid economic reforms of China.  Chinese businessmen and day tourists come here often, leaving capitalist influences dreaded and rejected in the rest of North Korea.  As the train rolled across the city’s tracks, casual glances revealed many small shops, kiosks and hawkers which might indicate the budding emergence of private enterprise in this country. 

Even then, this was a pathetically run-down city, whose only saving grace was the gigantic statue of Kim Il Sung, with arms pointing south towards Pyongyang.  We endured an incredible three hours of passport examination and customs at the railway station.  Here, we dealt with a few rather rude, stiff-looking customs officials, who were the only fat people we had seen on the trip, that is, not counting the portraits of our two best friends that we saw everywhere in this country.  Obviously, we have learned who made the most money in North Korea. 

The train moved again, and there it is, the splendid Yalu River that divides China and North Korea.  On the North Korean side are the decaying, rundown facades and high-rise slums of the Stalinist state.  On the Chinese side, nothing but the skylines of Dandong’s dazzling glass towers and massive shopping malls and hotels, all-recent monuments and evidence of China’s new commercialism and economic superpower status in Asia. 

Dandong may be among the poorest of China’s medium-sized cities but compared to any of North Korea’s cities including Pyongyang, it is the brave new world, a first worldish place next to a miserable wreck of propaganda and lies.  Even the Chinese customs service we would encounter later, communist by name, was polite and efficient, and had the entry cards filled for us.

The kilometre-wide Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge was a link between two economic systems.  We saw the stumps of the old Yalu Bridge on the North Korean side of the river, mere remnants of the bridge destroyed by American bombers in 1950, as well as the standing intact “half-bridge” over the Chinese half of the river. 

Given the entrenched rule of the Kim’s in DPRK, it is inconceivable that the country will be ruled by anyone other than him, at least in the next decade or so.  However, the country is bankrupt, starved of support from old allies. 

Kim Jong Il, for all the misadventures, is not a frog in the well.  In fact, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who has met Mr Kim, said that he was rational, very well informed and "was not delusional".

The winds of capitalism and market economics have triumphed everywhere.  Kim Jong Il had seen what happened in China and elsewhere, and there are signs that reforms are gradually undertaken to save the regime.  Whilst this is unlikely to lead to a new democratic North Korea in the short term, my bet is that Kim Jong Il would adopt the Chinese model of gradual economic reforms coupled with existing iron-armed rule. 

Kim Jong Il’s private kingdom, funded by a mixture of nuclear extortions and perhaps South Korean and Chinese investments in the coming years, could harness the nation’s low-cost but highly educated workforce to turn itself into one of the largest chaebols of all Korea’s.

Ultimately, Kim Jong Il might consider tweaking the stretched arm of his father’s statue, either northwards to Dandong, or slightly to the southeast, towards that state they currently denounced as the “American puppet government in Seoul”.  Perhaps then will North Korea be on track to become a worker’s paradise.


 


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Tuesday, May 18, 2004

North Korea Part 6: The Weirdest Flower Show On Earth

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Day 6: The Weirdest Flower Show On Earth

 

Day of the Sun.  Loud band music started early on this important day of the DPRK calendar.  It’s the birthday of Kim Il Sung and a public holiday.  The riverside was full of families on outings, rowing boats and simple merrymaking.  We visited the Taedong Gate, an ancient gate that once guarded the city of Pyongyang.  Nearby, a school was celebrating the birthday of Kim Il Sung by presenting top students with prizes. 

 

We dropped by Kim Il Sung Square – this is the heart of Pyongyang where all the grand military parades take place – 75,000 sq m of concrete slabs surrounded by immense buildings such as the Grand People’s Study House, the Korean Central History Museum with its Socialist-classical columns, Korean Art Galley and various ministries.  All that form part of a fengshui-like symmetry with the Juche Tower, Monument of Kim Il Sung and other monstrous monuments and concrete mammoth of Pyongyang’s megalomaniac city planners. 

 

The visit to the Korean Central History Museum has to be my favourite alternative history lesson ever.  It was interesting comparing the North Korean version of history with that of the rest of the world:

 

a)      Korea is the cradle of mankind.  They claimed that ancient skulls of million of years old had been found in Korea which proved that Korea was where man began, and the peninsula had been ethnically Korean since the beginning of time.

b)      Tangun was a real person who founded the first Korean state.  They hadn’t tried to explain how he was descended from the gods as well as a bear-woman.  North Korea also claimed that they found the skeletal remains of Tangun near Pyongyang and had carbon-tested to prove that those remains were 5000 years old.  International historians and scientists, however, had cast doubts on the North Korean findings, especially on the methodology used.

c)      Korea under the Koryo Dynasty was the only country in Asia that defeated the Mongols.  According to South Korean, Japanese and Chinese sources, Korea was repeatedly occupied and devastated by the Mongols, who used it as a launching ground to attack Japan.  Japan was one of the few countries never conquered by the Mongols.

d)      Kim Il Sung defeated the Japanese during WWII and liberated Korea.  Nothing mentioned about the atomic bomb and role of the Americans and Russians fighting the Japanese and Germans.

e)      The US invaded North Korea and the North Koreans, under Kim Il Sung, defeated the Americans.  Little mentioned about Chinese involvement or Soviet aid.

 

The museum guide made references to the great deeds of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il from time to time – they were responsible for all the good deeds, liberating the country, reconstructing the country and even for the preservation of historical relics. 

 

She pointed to some gold Buddhas found near Mt Kumgang, “Under the guidance of the Dear Leader, these golden relics were preserved and now presented to the world in this museum.” 

 

I was touched.  I wondered what they would have done to the golden Buddhas if the Dear Leader had not given special instructions – perhaps some zealous functionaries would have melted them down to make golden statues of our two great friends?

 

I shouldn’t complain.  In this wonderful depository of Korean historical artefacts, I realised how foolish I had believing the lies imperialists and evil capitalists wanted me to believe all my life.  Maybe I should repent by setting up a Juche study group in Singapore, and spending my vacations teaching Juche ideas to Thai farmers and Indonesian sea gypsies.

 

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Lunch was on Pyongyang Boat Number 1 (what a crime, how dare they not name it after the Great Leader or Dear Leader!), which cruised along the Taedong River while we had wonderful bugogi (Korean BBQ) and got our face smelled just like what we ate.  The river was full of pleasure craft and the riverbank crowded with families out on picnics and strolls.  Crew of Pyongyang TV waved wildly on the riverbank, shouting greetings and filmed us waving back.  I could imagine this TV news commentary, “Visitors from afar celebrating the Day of the Sun on a cruise on Taedong River”.

 

Then off to the Arch of Triumph of Pyongyang, sixty meters tall – the North Koreans would point out to you that it is exactly one meter taller than the Parisian version.  It was built in 1982 to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday and to commemorate his “victorious liberation of Korea from Japanese occupation”.  Inscribed on different sides of the arch were “1925” and “1945”, representing the year Kim Il Sung left home to fight the Japanese and the year he returned to Pyongyang as a victor. 

 

About a hundred meter away is the enormous Kim Il Sung (you are right again!) Stadium, with capacity of 100,000 people.  Nearby is a huge wall mural depicting the arrival of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang on 14 October 1945. 

 

According to DPRK official accounts, the citizens of Pyongyang welcomed Kim Il Sung on this spot where he gave a speech about the Revolution and plans to reunify Korea.  The murals also depicted banner written in Hanja (which is basically Korean written in Chinese script, with the same meaning) “Long Live General Kim Il Sung!” and “Long Live Liberation of the Motherland!”

 

Everyone was elated to see this bright young man who had spent twenty years of his youth fighting for the liberation of his country.  Kim Il Sung’s grandparents hugged him and cried, asking, “Why did you return alone?  Where were your parents, uncles and cousins?  All dead? Why didn’t you return with them?”  Sob, sob…just try imagining a North Korean tearjerker. Once again, DPRK official history highlights the sacrifices of the Kim clan in liberating the country.

 

South Korean accounts, however, claimed that when Kim Il Sung appeared at the venue, the gathering crowds were shocked that the great guerrilla hero the Soviets (who took over the northern half of Korea from the Japanese) had told them about was but a confused young men.  Sensing that this was a Soviet lie, they booed when Kim Il Sung began to address the crowd.  Kim Il Sung had to leave the area quickly, protected by his Soviet bodyguards.   Which version of the story would you pick?

 

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Another gem of wisdom from KCNA.  In this one, the Old Man dead for a decade even received awards from Ecuador and Peru.  Can anyone from these two countries confirm the accuracy of this report?

 

April Holidays Widely Commemorated Abroad

 

Pyongyang, May 13 (KCNA) -- Functions took place in over 100 countries to commemorate the Day of the Sun and celebrate the 11th anniversary of Kim Jong Il's election as chairman of the National Defence Commission of the DPRK and the 72nd anniversary of the heroic Korean People's Army this year. Kim Jong Il received gifts from the president of Pakistan, the Chiclayo Branch of the Peruvian-Korean Institute of Culture and Friendship, the honorary director of the Voluntad Publishing House of Ecuador, Juche idea study organizations and public figures of different countries. He was also presented with floral baskets by the Guinean president, the Political Bureau of the Party for Unity and Progress of Guinea, the Palestinian president, the prime minister of Thailand, the first vice-president of the Council of Ministers who is the minister of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba and other state and party leaders, government ministers and figures from all walks of life of many countries.


President Kim Il Sung was awarded certificates of honorary citizenship by the government of Canar Province of Ecuador and Magdalena del Mar District of Lima City, Peru.

Kim Jong Il was also presented with certificates of honorary citizenship by Rafael Lara Grajales City of Puebla Province, Mexico, and Magdalena del Mar District of Lima City, Peru.


Commemoration and celebration functions marking the April holidays were held at least on 1,000 occasions under the sponsorship of over 2,000 political parties, organizations and institutions in more than 100 countries.

The functions were held in more than 20 forms such as meetings, national seminars, "cultural evenings to commemorate the Day of the Sun", the opening ceremonies of the week of Korean culture, art performances, sports contests, book and photo exhibitions, film shows and lectures.

Over 600 media of 130 or more countries featured the commemoration and celebration events more than 2,500 times.

Upwards of 380 newspapers of over 90 countries dedicated articles to the events with portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and over 100 TVs of 50 odd countries made special telecasts of films recording the revolutionary activities of the peerlessly great men.

At least 100 radios of over 70 countries aired brief histories of revolutionary activities of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and articles on the indomitable might of the KPA and the revolutionary paeans "Song of General Kim Il Sung" and "Song of General Kim Jong Il" and other Korean songs.

 

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Every April, Pyongyang plays host to the International Kimilsungia Festival, which must be one of the largest flower shows in the world by visitor number.  Held at the modern, grandiose Kimilsungia-Kimjonglia Exhibition Hall, this must be the only flower show in the world devoted to only two flowers – none other than the Kimilsungia and Kimjonglia, flowers named after the Great Leader and Dear Leader. 

 

We arrived at the venue to find the whole area crowded with disciplined Korean families and groups of workers – men in formal suits and ladies in flowing traditional gowns, walking in file to the exhibition hall.  As tourists, we were given priority entry and were greeted by an enormous full-wall painting of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il with the crater lake of Mt Paektu in the background.  Hundreds of pots of blooming Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia in front of the painting, turning the whole area into a symphony of pink and red. 

 

Hundreds of people – families, co-workers and friends queued patiently for their chance to have their photos taken in front of the painting, and more people streaming into the building, once the ushers cleared the earlier group.  It was an incredible sight, with loud piped military marching and patriotic music.  Definitely a pseudo-religious ritual of pompous proportions.  Although we were now used to unreserved display of piety for the Kim’s on this 6th day of our tour, what appeared in front of us was nonetheless spectacular.

 

I asked the exhibition guide how many visitors there were.  “800,000 people attended the last exhibition held here 2 months ago, during the birthday of the Dear Leader Comrade Kim Jong Il – the 8th Kimjonglia Festival.  We expect the number to exceed a million this time, during this 8th Kimilsungia Festival.”

 

Wow!  This must be the weirdest and most attended flower show in the world!

 

We were quickly brought into a few rooms where there was a display on the history and background of the two flowers.  The pink Kimilsungia is a species of orchid, first bred by an Indonesian botanist, and presented by Sukarno to Kim Il Sung in 1965 when the latter visited Indonesia.  It was named after Kim Il Sung, a gesture which North Korea’s KCNA called “a symbol of the great love and genuine admiration the people of Indonesia have for the Great Leader”. 

 

Before long, this tropical orchid became the symbol of the regime and over 250 greenhouses have since been built for the growing of this tropical hybrid all over this country of harsh winter.  Despite the shortage of electricity, the greenhouses of Kimilsungia are always well taken of.  During the famine and energy crisis of the late 1990’s, KCNA carried reports about how patriotic citizens asked the state energy bureaus to shut down their home heating systems during winter so that there is enough electric power for the glories of Kimilsungia. 

 

How can there be a flower for the father without one for the son?  The Dear Leader’s cause was answered by a Japanese botanist in 1988.  The Kimjonglia is a variety of the South American begonia.  Huge and red, some critics say the Dear Leader need flowers larger than his father’s to make up for his father greater stature in history.  Whatever it was, Kimjonglia took off in a big way too, with huge Kimjonglia festivals every year as well.

 

Into the exhibition proper.  Numerous provincial and municipal authorities, military units, factories and even foreign embassies have sponsored displays of the two flowers.  A typical display comprised a wall-sized panel with either one or both of the Kim’s, either in formal suit, in military uniform, on a running horse, with children, with workers/farmers/soldiers, with people of all colours from around the world, or Mt Paektu/Kim Il Sung’s birthplace/Chollima horse in the background.  And in front of the panels, countless pots of Kimilsungia and Kimjonglia.  They even have prizes for the best exhibits! 

 

The whole exhibition centre, probably the size of a few football fields, was jammed with massive crowds.  What a nice family or office outing opportunity!  Great music such as the Song of General Kim Il Sung and the Song of General Kim Jong Il.  Lots of (or rather many of two kinds) beautiful flowers, not to mention an excellent venue for people-watching.  All the hunks and babes of Pyongyang are here for the flowers…ops… I mean for the admiration of the exquisite Kimilsungia and Kimjonglia.

 

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Night time – the grand finale of Kim Il Sung’s birthday celebrations.  We went to the big square named after the God himself, to watch the celebrations from a grand stand full of foreign diplomats, tourists, military brass of the Korean People’s Army in their full uniform splendour and the well-dressed, well-fed elite of DPRK society (the “New North Koreans”?) in expensive, almost bourgeoisie-looking outfit. 

 

What a breathtaking sight!  On the enormous square was a huge colourful platform with a symphony orchestra and numerous singers, surrounded by a hundred thousand Korean dancers, in a kaleidoscope of amazingly colourful traditional costumes.  Balloons released into the skies, huge banners everywhere on the dazzling square overlooked by the oddly solemn portraits of Kim Il Sung, Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.  An exuberant sight which only became eerie when one realised they were celebrating the birthday of a man dead for a decade and yet still the “eternal president” of the country.

 

Before long, beautiful Korean girls rushed up the viewing platform to get the foreign guests onto the square.  And so we went, dancing with the people of Pyongyang.  A dozen Sikh dancers from India, complete with turbans and flowing Punjabi robes, ran around the splendid square in a line, waving wildly the flag of DPRK.  Yes, these were the people who appeared in the local papers today, raising the Book of Juche, in total admiration.

 

That night, Pyongyang suffered no power shortage.  All the buildings were brightly lit, and I presume, the lifts and taps worked as well.

 


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Funny MTV on George W. Bush

I found this website: - an amazing music video on the most hated man on Earth, George W. Bush:
 
It's really funny!
 
 


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Sunday, May 16, 2004

Troy & Iliad

"... For in confronting the cruel clouds of war, we gave away our years of lovely youth." [Simonides, c. 556-468 BC]
 
Watched the movie Troy yesterday.  Fantastic!  One should note that the movie is based on the ancient Greek epic poem, Iliad, which is a 24 volume epic.  Another great epic, Odyssey, follows the adventures of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, after the defeat of Troy.
 
There are many crucial differences between the movie and Iliad, which written by the blind poet, Homer, more than 2000 years ago.  The deliberations of the Gods, who were crucial in every part of Iliad were absent in Troy.  In Troy, Paris, as well as the baby son of Hector, survived the sack of Troy, and Menelaus, king of Sparta, was killed by Hector early in the siege of Troy.  In Iliad, Paris was killed midway in the story and the baby son of Hector was thrown off the walls of Troy.  Menelaus wasn't killed by Hector but instead died after the sack of Troy. Helen, after her death by hanging, went to the underworld and married, guess who, Achilles!
 
Anyway, I have here a summary of Iliad from http://www.iit.edu/~agunsal/truva/truva/truva1.html  For those of you who want the massive original, http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~joelja/iliad.html  A wonderful site on the Trojan wars: http://homepage.mac.com/cparada/GML/TrojanWar.html
 
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The tale of Troy is told by Homer with the Iliad and the Odyssey. Homer was drawing on a vast cycle of stories about Trojan War. The Iliad includes a few weeks in the tenth year of the war.

According to Greek sources, Troy stood near the Dardanelles. There was no dispute about its location in the story were al familiar: the Dardanelles, the islands of Imbros, Samothrace and little Tenedos, Mount Ida to the south east, the plain and the river Scamander. It was an ancient city an its inhabitants were known as Teucrians or Dardanians but also as Trojans or Ilians which got this name from eponymous hereos, Tros and his uncle Ilus, the inventors of the city. In other source mentioned that Troy and Ilius were two seperate places but Homer insists on using these two names for Troy. there was no explanation about that.

The most famous tale in Homer epic about Trojan War and wodden horse. On the mainland of Greece in this time , the most powerful king was Agamemnon. His residance was at Mycenae. At this time, the inhibitants of Greece called themselves as Arhaians, Danaans, or Argiues not Greeks or Hellenes. Agamemnon had married Clytemnestra, dauther of Tyndareus of Sparta and sister to Helen. Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world. she had married with Agamemnon's brother Menelaos who became king in Lakonia. Two brothers had a great power in southern Greece.

On the other hand, in Troy Laomedon was the king of Ilios, the son of Ilus who ha given his name to Troy. Laemedon tried to cheat the gods of their rewards. He would not give up the immortal snow - white horses sent by Herakles (Hercules). But Herakles sailed to the Troad (Troy), attacked, and captured the city. leomedon and his sons were killed except the youngest, Podarces, survided. Podarces was released and took a new name, Priam as a young king of Troy and the city restored again.

Priam ruled over Troy successfully three generation. he had fifty sons and twelve dauthers. his eldes son was the great worrior Hector. And his one of the sons, Paris, was the important instrument in the Troy History.

The famous myth tells , Eris -strife- had thrown down a golden apple 'for the fairest' at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, and Zeus, king of gods, couldn't bring himself to adjudicate in the nesuing dispute between his queen, Hera, Athena (goddess of wishdom), and Aphrodite (goddess of love). The goddesses were led to the Trojan Mount Ida where Priam's most beautiful son Paris was living. Hera offered him lordship of all Asia; Athena, victory in war and wisdom beyond any other man; Aphrodite, the most beatiful woman in the world, helen of Sparta and as usual men being men, stories being stories, Paris gave the apple to her (Helen).

The tale is simple and quite realistic. Paris goes to Sparta to give the apple to Helen. Menelous, husband of Helen gives a feast for him. Whenever Menelous left from there to see the king of Knossos, Helen and Paris run away and sailed to Troy. But there is some controdiction in this part, some source says that Paris carried of Helen by force and plundered elsewhere in the Aegean sea before returning to Troy.

When Menelous heard what happened, he begged his brother Agamemnon to take revange. The king sends envoys to Troy to demand Helen's restitution but envoys come back with empty hands. Then Menelous collects an army. In the story, great hereos were Archilles, Odysseus (Ulysses) and Ajax. At Aulis, the army seers read the signs that Troy woul fall in the tenth year of the war. Then Menelous army sailed to Asia Minor and in error attacked Teuthrania in Mysia opposite of Lesbos, but they had mistaken according to Trojan territory and the army were beaten at the mouth of the Caicus river and driven back to their ship by Telephus, king of Mysia and ally of Troy.

The Greeks assembled again at Aulis but they were windbound and unable to sail. Wings, hunger, evil harbourage, crzing men, routing ships and cables stoped the Greek army, because Agamemnon had offended Artemis and his most beatiful douther had to be sacrificed to change the fortune.

After sacrification of Iphigenia, the army reached first Lesbos, then Tenedos which is an island that is visible from Troy. The islands were plundered. At the end, Greek army was at the bay of Troy. The Trojans also had allies from several places in Asia Minor and Thrace. The war took 10 tears. in the tenth year of the war, the Greeks stoped raiding Asia Minor and attacked Troy. In a part of Homer's Iliad, hector falls in a single combat with Archilles, the best Greek warrior, the figth was finished with the death of hector and Archilles' friend Patroclus. Archilles sacrificed twelve noble Trojan captives over hector's Funeral pyre. after death of Trojan ally memnon in battle at the Scaeon gate, Paris strikes Archilles in his heel (the famous 'Archilles heel' comes from here) ,the only place where Archilles was vulnerable. And the greatest of all Greek hereos was burned and his ashes burried on a headland overlooking the Helespond. Ajax commited suicide with the silver-studded sword whish had been given to him by Hector as a mark of respect. Somehow Priam's son Paris killed by Philoktetes, but the Trojans stil refused to give Helen up.

A wooden horse was built to gain acces to the city as a plan. well armed men among them Odysseus of Ithaca and Menelous himself hidden in it. The horse was left as a thank to Athena and the Greeks burned their camps and sailed as if they had given up. Trojan found the horse and the ashes of the camp and pulled the horse into the city. 'It was midnight', says a fragment from the epic known as the little Iliad, 'and full moon was raising'. The soldiers jumped down from horse and opened the gates by killing the sentries. the Greeks entered the city and killed all Trojans where ever they found them. After the Greek massacre, none of the male sex was left in the city. Neoptolemus killed old Priam on the threshold of his royal house. the male children of Trojam hereos were slaughtered. hector's little boy was thrown from the walls. Meneleos determined to kill Helen but in front of her beuty, he gave up to kill her. After the Greeks, plundered and burned Troy was left.

But this victory brought only more suffering to the Greeks. They were split up by storms and lost their ways to return. Aagamemnon, the king of Greeks was killed by his wife. Philoktetos was expelled from Thessaly by rebels.

 


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Monday, May 10, 2004

Bintan Island, Indonesia: About Cakes And Gods Across Historic Waterways

Bintan Island, Indonesia: About Cakes And Gods Across Historic Waterways


Straits of Singapore, 1404. A Chinese fleet of three hundred and seventeen huge ships, many of which have nine masts and manned by as many as 500 men, crossed this narrow body of water between the island of Singapore at the tip of the Asian continent and the Indonesian island of Bintan on the southern side. The largest ship was over 440 feet long and 186 feet wide, capable of carrying 1000 men. Led by Admiral Zhenghe, China’s great Muslim sailor, this was at that time the greatest fleet the world had ever seen. Zhenghe would lead many more expeditions of this scale fifty years before Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, in boats merely one quarter the size of the Chinese ships.

The Treasure Boats, as the fleet was called, were on a grand mission across the trading routes of Maritime Asia, through Southeast Asia, Indian subcontinent, Middle East and eventually to what is today Somalia. Everywhere they went, they traded extensively, exchanged gifts with local rulers, spread news of the might of the new Chinese emperor, occasionally interfered in local politics though never setting up any colonies nor military outposts like later European invaders would.

Some historians believe that Zhenghe’s real mission was to look for Emperor’s Yongle’s missing brother and rightful owner of the throne, which was usurped by Yongle. Whatever the case, this sparked off the first organised exchange between China and Southeast Asia, a sweet-and-sour affair which persisted till today.

To the north is the island of Singapore, site of the recently abandoned kingdom of Temasek, whose ruler was murdered a few years before by a refugee prince from the Indonesian island of Sumatra named Parameswara. Parameswara, chased out of his kingdom by enemies, was given refuge in Temasek where he soon killed his benefactor to make himself ruler. The overlord of Temasek, Siam (today Thailand), sent a fleet to punish Parameswara for his treacherous deeds.

Parameswara escaped northwards to Melaka in what is today Malaysia where he founded a new kingdom. The Chinese fleet of Zhenghe was to be grandly received by Parameswara in Melaka which marked off the beginning of a Chinese-Malay alliance which enhanced the status of Melaka as an international trading port and its growing stature as a new maritime empire in Southeast Asia.

South of the straits is the island of Bintan, then a sleepy island of mangroves and fishing villages of water gypsies, soon to be home of immigrant fishermen and traders from Fujian, China, who followed in big numbers following Zhenghe’s fleet. Much later, after the capture of Melaka by the Portuguese and the subsequent eviction of Parameswara’s descendants from Johor where they had for some time set up a rival regime, the small island of Pulau Penyengat off Bintan became the capital of the Johor-Riau Empire and centre of the Malay world.

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One Saturday morning, I hopped onto a catamaran in Singapore heading for Tanjung Pinang, capital of Bintan. It’s a 2 hours’ boat ride across the Straits of Singapore to what is now a weekend leisure hangout for Singaporeans. The Straits is one of the busiest waterways in the world – I saw ships across the horizon in this crowded body of water the narrowest stretch of which is only 25km. 50,000 ships, equivalent to more than half of the global merchant fleet tonnage, passes through here in one year, together with most of the petroleum tankers of Japan and China – about 10.3 million barrels per day – second only to the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance of the Persian Gulf.

The Straits of Singapore and the neighbouring Philip Channel are dangerous waterways. Piracy has long been a scourge in Southeast Asia but the 1997 financial crisis in the region has led to immense poverty and political instability in Indonesia, which aggravated piracy. The post September 11 world has led the problem to a new dimension – the possibility of terror attack in the Straits that may block passage in this strategic waterway so vital to the world’s second and third largest economies, that of Japan and China.

More sobering issues aside, I looked across those misty green hills on the islands to the south. I wonder where exactly was Long Yamen – The Dragon’s Tooth Strait – the steep cliffside landmark long reported in ancient Chinese maritime chronicles. Historical records say that the Mongol court once sent emissaries here in search of elephants. Some say Long Yamen was located at Keppel Straits in Singapore while other historians argue that it was on Lingga Island in Riau, Indonesia. Whatever it is, the notion of elephant hunting in either Singapore or Riau sounds somewhat amusing if not downright comical today.

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“Mister! Mister, listen to me!” the Indonesian touts swarmed us the moment we walked out of the jetty complex. Offering anything from “beachside” hotel accommodation in inland locations to deep fried fish chips, the aggressiveness and persistence of these touts were a sudden reminder that we were no longer in First World Singapore but now visitors to a vast country with fifty times the population but only one-eighth the GDP per capita.

We did the standard thing – avoid eye contact for it might implied interest and pushed our way through the crowds, saying no, no and no. One of the more persistent ones refused to give up and followed us across the car park onto the open streets of Tanjung Pinang. Let’s call him Irritating Ali.

“Hey friend, stop, stop, listen to me. I’m a local here. Tell me where you want to stay. I can recommend cheap hotels at good rates. Try the Hotel Tanjung Pinang on the beachside…”

I’m always wary of such offers. Of course, the cheap rates would be supplemented with his own commission. “Thank you. We know where we are going.��������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������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Bintan Island, Indonesia: About Cakes And Gods Across Historic Waterways

Bintan Island, Indonesia: About Cakes And Gods Across Historic Waterways


Straits of Singapore, 1404. A Chinese fleet of three hundred and seventeen huge ships, many of which have nine masts and manned by as many as 500 men, crossed this narrow body of water between the island of Singapore at the tip of the Asian continent and the Indonesian island of Bintan on the southern side. The largest ship was over 440 feet long and 186 feet wide, capable of carrying 1000 men. Led by Admiral Zhenghe, China’s great Muslim sailor, this was at that time the greatest fleet the world had ever seen. Zhenghe would lead many more expeditions of this scale fifty years before Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, in boats merely one quarter the size of the Chinese ships.

The Treasure Boats, as the fleet was called, were on a grand mission across the trading routes of Maritime Asia, through Southeast Asia, Indian subcontinent, Middle East and eventually to what is today Somalia. Everywhere they went, they traded extensively, exchanged gifts with local rulers, spread news of the might of the new Chinese emperor, occasionally interfered in local politics though never setting up any colonies nor military outposts like later European invaders would.

Some historians believe that Zhenghe’s real mission was to look for Emperor’s Yongle’s missing brother and rightful owner of the throne, which was usurped by Yongle. Whatever the case, this sparked off the first organised exchange between China and Southeast Asia, a sweet-and-sour affair which persisted till today.

To the north is the island of Singapore, site of the recently abandoned kingdom of Temasek, whose ruler was murdered a few years before by a refugee prince from the Indonesian island of Sumatra named Parameswara. Parameswara, chased out of his kingdom by enemies, was given refuge in Temasek where he soon killed his benefactor to make himself ruler. The overlord of Temasek, Siam (today Thailand), sent a fleet to punish Parameswara for his treacherous deeds.

Parameswara escaped northwards to Melaka in what is today Malaysia where he founded a new kingdom. The Chinese fleet of Zhenghe was to be grandly received by Parameswara in Melaka which marked off the beginning of a Chinese-Malay alliance which enhanced the status of Melaka as an international trading port and its growing stature as a new maritime empire in Southeast Asia.

South of the straits is the island of Bintan, then a sleepy island of mangroves and fishing villages of water gypsies, soon to be home of immigrant fishermen and traders from Fujian, China, who followed in big numbers following Zhenghe’s fleet. Much later, after the capture of Melaka by the Portuguese and the subsequent eviction of Parameswara’s descendants from Johor where they had for some time set up a rival regime, the small island of Pulau Penyengat off Bintan became the capital of the Johor-Riau Empire and centre of the Malay world.

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One Saturday morning, I hopped onto a catamaran in Singapore heading for Tanjung Pinang, capital of Bintan. It’s a 2 hours’ boat ride across the Straits of Singapore to what is now a weekend leisure hangout for Singaporeans. The Straits is one of the busiest waterways in the world – I saw ships across the horizon in this crowded body of water the narrowest stretch of which is only 25km. 50,000 ships, equivalent to more than half of the global merchant fleet tonnage, passes through here in one year, together with most of the petroleum tankers of Japan and China – about 10.3 million barrels per day – second only to the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance of the Persian Gulf.

The Straits of Singapore and the neighbouring Philip Channel are dangerous waterways. Piracy has long been a scourge in Southeast Asia but the 1997 financial crisis in the region has led to immense poverty and political instability in Indonesia, which aggravated piracy. The post September 11 world has led the problem to a new dimension – the possibility of terror attack in the Straits that may block passage in this strategic waterway so vital to the world’s second and third largest economies, that of Japan and China.

More sobering issues aside, I looked across those misty green hills on the islands to the south. I wonder where exactly was Long Yamen – The Dragon’s Tooth Strait – the steep cliffside landmark long reported in ancient Chinese maritime chronicles. Historical records say that the Mongol court once sent emissaries here in search of elephants. Some say Long Yamen was located at Keppel Straits in Singapore while other historians argue that it was on Lingga Island in Riau, Indonesia. Whatever it is, the notion of elephant hunting in either Singapore or Riau sounds somewhat amusing if not downright comical today.

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“Mister! Mister, listen to me!” the Indonesian touts swarmed us the moment we walked out of the jetty complex. Offering anything from “beachside” hotel accommodation in inland locations to deep fried fish chips, the aggressiveness and persistence of these touts were a sudden reminder that we were no longer in First World Singapore but now visitors to a vast country with fifty times the population but only one-eighth the GDP per capita.

We did the standard thing – avoid eye contact for it might implied interest and pushed our way through the crowds, saying no, no and no. One of the more persistent ones refused to give up and followed us across the car park onto the open streets of Tanjung Pinang. Let’s call him Irritating Ali.

“Hey friend, stop, stop, listen to me. I’m a local here. Tell me where you want to stay. I can recommend cheap hotels at good rates. Try the Hotel Tanjung Pinang on the beachside…”

I’m always wary of such offers. Of course, the cheap rates would be supplemented with his own commission. “Thank you. We know where we are going. Good Bye.” We were to discover later on a stroll that this so-called beachside hotel was just a run-down 1960’s building nowhere near any beach, that is, if you consider some sea-side corrugated shacks next to huge timber-floats to be funky seaside architecture. Fortunately we had not taken any of these offers.

Not getting any responses, Irritating Ali changed its tactic. “Come’on, friend. This is my island. You don’t know the situation here. It is not safe for you. Let me bring you to some safe places. And are you Singaporeans”

An offer turned veiled threats. I have had enough of this nonsense on my many travels. My fellow citizens have probably also been too easily intimidated by such rascals while in Bintan. If I had said yes, Irritating Ali would think I was an easy prey and intensify his efforts.

“Please go away! We want to be alone.” And we walked further and further away from the jetty. But Irritating Ali would not give up. Why should he when there was little he could do to make a living here? He’s better off taking a punt with tourists than to do nothing at home the whole day.

Official unemployment in this country is 43 million out of a population of 200 million. Indonesia’s workforce increases by 2.5 million a year but the 4% economic growth last year would only provide jobs for 1.2 million people. Worse, the economic prospects of Indonesia are still uncertain.

With increased labour union militancy and NGO rights agitation, political instability and corruption, Indonesia has become an unattractive place to do business. Why produce your jeans in Indonesia when you can produce them in China with higher productivity, zero interference from unions and labour rights activists, and unfriendly and ultra-corrupt local officials? MNCs are pulling out in droves when they are needed most.

We walked into a ramshackle restaurant, mostly in the hope of shaking off Irritating Ali although we were slightly hungry as well. To our surprise, Irritating Ali walked in too. We had an overpriced lunch – yet another of our many complaints about Bintan – while Irritating Ali had a beer and most calmly asked the restaurant’s Chinese owner to inform us that US$1 would persuade him to abandon his quest. This was most annoying! Why do we have to pay him for doing nothing?

And so we devised a plan – I would walk out of the restaurant leaving Vernon to deal with him, and find a hotel as soon as possible. As I stood and walked away, Irritating Ali stared with us with a puzzled look. The skies started to drizzle and Irritating Ali stayed where he was. He must have concluded that I would not go far and decided to try his luck with Vernon instead.

I checked out two hotels 20 meters away. Didn’t really like the places but was a little tired and on the verge of accepting the offer from one of them. At this moment, Irritating Ali appeared suddenly at the hotel doorway –speaking loudly in Indonesian to the hotel reception lady. Oh idiot! That’s the standard way bums and touts worldwide attempt to get a “commission” for claiming credit for the customer, and any commission paid this way would be translated into a higher price for the customer. Irritated, I opened my umbrella, and walked out of the hotel, into the rain, now pouring madly. I gave him a nasty stare, “Don’t follow me! I am very angry with you.”

This time round, Irritating Ali did not follow. He might have realized that wasn’t going to lead to anything and it wasn’t worth getting wet for the effort.

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Tanjung Pinang is a sleepy small town. It’s full of narrow, dirty potholed streets and zillions of motor-bikes that looked anxious to mow you down any moment. Most buildings weren’t very tall apart from a few worn-out looking hotels and government buildings built with very poor notion of modern aesthetics. Along the waterfront were ugly shacks with corrugated aluminum rooftops and huge metal spikes and poles lying everywhere. The whole place looked dirty, messy and simply evil.

We walked on the streets, looking around for the pier for boats to Pulau Penyengat. Along the way, we asked for directions from the local Chinese, many of whom were able to speak Mandarin. As in many other parts of Indonesia, the local Chinese run the local retail scene. The Chinese owners guard the cash till while their Indonesian employees man the goods. This is a typical scene across these islands.

The Chinese have been in Indonesia for more than a thousand years and there were already established Chinese trading communities as well as farming and fishing settlements when Admiral Zhenghe arrived in these islands in the 15th century. Although they account only for 3% of the population, it was often said reported that they own a large portion of the wealth of this country – with some estimates as high as 70%. Such generalizing analysis, so commonly reported that most people deem them as fact, have unfortunately led to bad stereotypes that aggravate ethnic relations in the country.

Through emphasis on education and hard work, as well as leveraging on their mercantile heritage, the Chinese of Indonesia have on the whole built successful commercial network and prospered over the centuries despite political persecution and discrimination.

However, many academic studies have revealed that only a small number of Chinese-Indonesians can truly be described as wealthy. The rest includes not only a Chinese middle class in Indonesian cities; but also those who are small shop-owners in poverty-stricken remote villages selling essential provisions, or poor Hokkien and Hakka miners, farmers and fishermen in the outer islands of the archipelago.

To the Chinese shop-owners of Sulawesi, as well as Chinese farmers and miners of West Kalimantan, the glittering world of Jakarta’s shopping malls and tales of luxury shopping holidays to Singapore or Hong Kong are but lifestyle of the rich and famous. Yet, it is the scandalous fables of the Jakarta’s Chinese billionaires that feed a long tradition of racial antagonism.

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If Tanjung Pinang was an irredeemable pot of dirt and chaos, historic Pulau Penyengat was a pristine island of order and peace. This was the birthplace of modern Malay culture and language. It was here that the Johor royal family, descendants of the Melaka sultans, eventually fled after the Portuguese capture of Melaka. They had set up base in what is today the southern Malaysian state of Johor to continue their fight against the Portuguese but in 1512, their capital, Johor Lama, was destroyed by the Portuguese fleet. They fled here where they set up court and a prosperous trading centre which drew traders from all over the islands of Indonesia, as well as Siam, India and China.

This new capital of what became known as the Johor-Riau Sultanate became wealthy. Through the interaction with traders from all over the archipelago, they developed a vibrant language and culture. The Malay language, indigenous to these islands, soon became the lingua franca of trade for the region. It was from these origins that pasar Malay, or market Malay, evolved into the modern national languages of Malaysia (Bahasa Malaysia) and Indonesia (Bahasa Indonesia). Even today, the people of Riau claim that their Malay tongue is the purest and most original of the entire archipelago.

How things have changed! The British and Dutch divided this region into a meshwork of colonies and protectorates. The Johor-Riau sultanate itself was split apart after a series of civil wars and rebellions, especially with the arrival of Bugis traders and warriors from the island of Sulawesi, eastern Indonesia. Singapore became a British colony and Johor and territories of the Malay Peninsula became British-protected sultanates. The islands south of the Straits of Singapore, including Bintan, became Dutch. Trade was diverted away to new centers of trade, in Singapore and Batavia, capital of the old Dutch East Indian Empire. (Batavia is now better known as Jakarta, capital of Indonesia.) Bintan and Penyengat fell into obscurity, remembered only by historians and visited by Singaporeans looking for a quiet weekend break.

Today Penyengat is a green island of quaint neat houses and vegetable gardens, dotted by ruins of palaces and tombs of forgotten sultans. We walked around this 2.5km by 0.75km island. No touts, no shops, no traffic. What was once a vibrant cosmopolitan trading city, centre of Islamic scholarship and capital of a maritime empire is today a sleepy village.

Friendly boys on the football pitch waving to us. Smiling girls walking around on their weekend best, in colourful traditional tudang and robes, going to a wedding. An elderly Malay man reading the Quran on the steps of the Royal Mosque, with strange green-yellow minarets rising from the building like pseudo-fantasy spires. We walked to the other side of the island, where a party was taking place, with extra-loud beats of hip-hop and Caribbean rap. Afro pop meets Nasi Padang. Depending on your viewpoint, this could either be a wonder, or a horror of, globalization in the 21st century.

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I bought a huge kueh lapis at a supermarket. The kueh lapis is a common cake not only in Indonesia but also Singapore and Malaysia. It was first made by the Peranakan people of Batavia. The Peranakans are a people of mixed Chinese and Malay origins, who picked up cake-baking from the Dutch colonizers and then created this cake that has become a favourite of the archipelago.

Kueh lapis means cake of multiple layers. The Chinese sometimes call it qianchenggao, meaning the cake of a thousand layers. As the name implies, it comprises of layers of beaten butter and eggs, plus some dosage of vanilla, condensed milk and granulated sugar and only a bit of flour.

The making of a kueh lapis is a long, painstaking process. Each thin layer of golden richness is lovingly mixed and battered, evenly spread across the previous baked layer and then the whole thing baked in the oven. The process is repeated, until the top layer is baked. The end result is a wonderful cake whose multiple layers give somewhat different taste although they are all made from the same ingredients.

The peoples and cultures of Indonesia are somewhat akin to a kueh lapis. The first peoples of the archipelago were lesser known tribes related to the Australian Aborigines, who were quickly followed by the Malay-Polynesian peoples who came over from Yunnan, southern China. These sailors went further many of them settling in the faraway isles of the Pacific, today forming the natives of Hawaii, Tahiti and Easter Island. The Indian sailors trade with the peoples of the Archipelago, converting many, whose Hindu kingdoms gave the world the exuberant temples of Prambanan, Java, and the exotic dances of Bali. Then came Buddhism whose followers built the monumental Borobodur. Islam came, followed by Chinese settlers and European colonizers.

Each of these visitors or settlers brought their own culture which ended up as a component of this multiple layered admixture that is Indonesia. And yet, none of the new-comers wiped out the earlier one. Like a kueh lapis, each layer of new cultural influence sometimes merged with the earlier layer, but quite often, they created a new layer on top of the older one. And the successive baking process turns each layer into something slightly different from before, like the many cultures of Indonesia undergoing a common historical experience and yet emerging different from what it used to be and also remaining different from each other. The observer needs only to peel each layer and savour the amazing diversity that is Indonesia. When you next visit Southeast Asia, look out for the kueh lapis.

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We had dinner at a huge, half-empty seafood restaurant. To start with, the menu was dubious. No price was stated but we made verbal enquiries. Not for the first time, Bintan had proved to be an expensive place. Prices were quoted in Singapore Dollars and two of us spent the equivalent of US$25 altogether for some vegetables, fried rice and prawns that was mediocre and meager at best. For that kind of quality, we would spend less in Singapore, a country where the cost of living was much higher.

There were a few local officials having dinner there as well, and I bet they were charged local prices. I had a similar experience on a visit to the nearby island of Batam. That’s why the Riau Islands has attracted so few tourists from nearby Singapore. The lack of transparency and desire to cheat the most from the tourist leaves a bitter after-taste. Not again, many would say. Not only does one gets harassed by touts and conmen, there’s simply no value-for-money in Bintan.

Malaysia, which is also next door to Singapore, is our real weekend paradise. Restaurants abound, providing good food with reasonable prices, and most importantly, tourists feel good when the prices are clearly stated and they pay the same amount as the local. Therefore, Malaysia attracts many more tourists and its citizens prosper from tourist spending and gainful employment. Unfortunately, Indonesia doesn’t understand that and continues its slide down the economic ladder.

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The next morning, we took a boat to Senggarang, a fishing village of wooden and congregated aluminum sheets on stilts. This is the biggest Chinese village on Bintan. Most of the Chinese moved here in the 1740s and 1750s from Fujian, southern China. Many of them were invited by the then Bugis ruler of Bintan to develop gambier plantations on Bintan.

Like most Chinese villages in Malaysia and Singapore, Senggarang is dotted with Chinese shrines and temples, some of which is devoted to the deity Tuabehgong. The worship of Tuabehgong is a unique phenomenon in Singapore, Malaysia and parts of Indonesia. He is the combination of the southern Chinese deity, Tudigong (God of the Land) and pre-Islamic Malay deities.

The early Chinese migrants to these islands, apart from bringing their religious beliefs, also acquired new ones, and merged them together. The Malay people may appear to be staunchly Islamic today but many had only converted to Islam between 15th and 18th centuries, which coincided with the arrival of the Chinese settlers. In this region, the early Chinese settlers encountered the Malay people who at that time were flirting not only with Islam but also a variety of Hindu gods and local animist beliefs.

The Chinese, being a polytheistic people, probably decided that the only way to guarantee safety and prosperity in a foreign land is to do as the Romans do – adopt local deities as their own, and hence the imaginative combination of the Tudigong, supposedly the god in charged of all day-to-day earthy matters, and local Malay deities. The Tuabehgong is today one of the most commonly worshipped deities among Chinese in these regions, and a unique example of the marriage of religions.

One of the most well visited temples in Seranggang is a rather small temple built into the gigantic roots of a banyan tree more than one hundred years old. Legends say an old man once lived here and after his death, a sacred banyan tree grew around it. People who pray here had their wishes granted and hence the beginning of a cult around the banyan-tree temple, which attracted devotees from Malaysia and Singapore as well. Here I saw gifts of furniture and urns carved with the names of their Singapore donors. I stuffed S$5 into the donation box and made a prayer. Let’s see if I win the lottery in the next year.

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The skies were merciless in their intermittent rain. Once again we were drenched as we walked to the ferry terminal. Perhaps this was a twisted blessing of sorts, as it kept away the touts. The border customs were easy enough and we didn’t encounter any of the corrupt Indonesian border officials that we have heard so much about. The catamaran ride itself wasn’t easy, for the seas were extremely choppy. At times, I felt as though the boat would overturn, or I would throw up.

The ride was somewhat analogous to the Indonesia of today – a land of constant instability and uncertainty. The stepping down of the dictator Suharto has not led to improved standard of living or peaceful political development. Instead, the leaders of so-called newly democratic Indonesia have become more corrupt than the old regime, and the country sailed from one political crisis to another.

Economic development has taken a back seat, and many foreign investors are leaving. Nobody wants to operate in an environment where lowly skilled workers, with the encouragement of strike-happy trade unionists and NGOs staffed by feather-headed agitators from rich countries, demand for wages that make them totally uncompetitive. All these make Indonesia, a country with enormous economic potential, no different from countries like Argentina or Congo, where potential seemed to remain mere potential for a long, long time.

It is often easy for the rest of the world to forget Indonesia for the country speaks with a soft voice and hardly make any impact on the global economy. But it is a nation with 200 million people, the most populous Islamic country in the world and one that straddles across some of the most vital waterways of the world. And for that reason, we’d better hope that Indonesia the boat would reach its destination safely and peacefully.