The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, November 03, 2006



There are ethical issues involved when writing about the extra-curricular activities of cigarette companies.

While not directly promoting cancer sticks, any mention of the manufacturer must rack the product name one tiny notch higher. No responsible journalist faced with the mountain of medical evidence would want to encourage any gullible person to commit long-term suicide.

But in this case the company discourages smokers rather well itself.

According to information in the Bentoel Museum in Malang, East Java, the company’s founder Ong Hok Liong died in 1967 from chronic liver disease. Doctors say this is a particularly nasty way to die.

While working (and he seldom stopped) Ong forever had a fag in his mouth. Such was his addiction to nicotine that he couldn’t stop even when the searing pain in his throat became unbearable.

To ease the agony he took regular swigs of arak, the powerful rice alcohol – but the benefits lasted no more than 30 minutes. The baccy and the booze – a double whammy.

With a case history like that, who needs a government health warning?

The Bentoel Museum is an outstanding example of the East Java way of neglecting tourism. It’s a most worthwhile attraction but gets little or no mention in the travel brochures.

So no wonder that according to the guest book, which museum manager Sujarkasih presses visitors to sign, only one person looked in during September and just two in August.

The museum was opened in 1994 in a rebuilt version of the building used by Ong to work and live. The original was just a bit closer to Jalan Wiro Margo, and it was expected that the road would be widened. It hasn’t, but the result is that the museum is now set at the same address in a pleasant little park complete with gardens and lots of parking space.

The demolition and rebuilding doesn’t seem to have damaged the ambience. The place still feels like a 19th century Dutch home with ample space and cool ceramics, a house to lounge in and watch others work.

Though that certainly wasn’t Ong’s style. He set a cracking pace and was in the factory by 4 am and still at it come nightfall. His philosophy was: ‘Remain humble, work hard and don’t stop, even when you’re successful.’ Or even when you’re desperately ill.

That financial success didn’t come easily and clearly depended much on the material and physical support of his wife Liem Kiem Nio, by all accounts a tough lady and mother of seven.

It was her jewellery that was sold to raise capital for Ong’s ventures. When she wasn’t nurturing the nippers she was stirring the sauces to make the smokes.

For in the cigarette business flavor is everything. Ong’s formula came from mixing Havana flavoring syrup, Cavendish bananas and alcohol with the cloves, which were then added to the tobacco.

As it’s located in the most crowded and chaotic business area in Malang the museum is welcome just as a sanctuary. But it’s much more than that.

Tobacco tourism seems to be a peculiar Indonesian phenomenon. In other countries health authorities have damned the evil weed. Governments have imposed heavy taxes, making a smoke a luxury only the affluent can afford.

Advertising is out, so many companies have taken to sponsoring sport and music shows. There’s no altruism – such events always feature the brand name. In Indonesia we have ads and the promotions - plus museums.

Sampoerna does it better than Bentoel with a smart café in Surabaya and an opportunity to watch cigarettes being hand-rolled by nimble-fingered young women. This is a stylish tourist attraction. Bentoel isn’t in that league, but it was first and is now much in need of a makeover.

Ong’s story is fascinating. He came across success in a strange way, after trying a variety of brand names, including Kendang, Klabang, Lampu, Turki and Djerut Manis. All failed.

A great believer in spiritualism when he wasn’t gambling, Ong was a regular visitor to Gunung Kawi, the mystic mountain outside Malang. Here he meditated seeking success. One day – or so it’s said – he saw, or dreamed he saw, a man selling edible bamboo roots called bentoel.

The other names were stubbed out and Bentoel was lit. The company eventually became the fifth largest manufacturer in Indonesia.

The bamboo root became the company’s grotesque logo; it looks like a heart sliced out of a cadaver during a post mortem – it’s certainly another impactful health warning.

There’s another sobering tale in this story – particularly for businesses committed to upgrading equipment. Ong clearly thought he was doing the right thing when he was ahead of the rest in the 1960s by installing cigarette-manufacturing machines. These boosted production to 1,600 million sticks a year.

Then in 1978 the government forced cigarette companies to make hand rolled smokes; Ong’s gear had been bought with foreign currency loans and he almost went bust. The government reversed the law in 1986, but by then the company was gasping to survive.

There are many other intriguing yarns. One involves the manufacture of klobot. These repulsive objects look like something that should be flushed away, not sucked. They use dried cornhusks instead of paper – an Ong speciality, now seldom seen except in hillside hamlets.

Another tale has Ong fleeing to the mountains when the Japanese came, and later employing guerrillas in the fight for Independence against the Dutch.

Last decade Bentoel was sold to the Rajawali Group and the Ong family is no longer involved. One daughter still lives in Malang. She’s 91 and reluctant to discuss the past.

So the only record is in the museum. It’s supposed to be open from 9 am to 4 pm, but the staff sometimes vanish. Catch it before the displays fade altogether, or because some bean counter in a distant office thinks the place should be shut because it draws no interest.

The problem is that the museum is hiding its light under a bushel. A cigarette company not promoting itself? Unbelievable – but in Malang, true.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 3 November 06)


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