IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 25 | Regions | Southeast Asia

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Kretek:

The culture and heritage of Indonesia's clove cigarettes

There are many deceptive aspects to this fine book by first-time author Mark Hanusz. On the one hand, the decorative cover and over-sized dimensions suggest 'Kretek: The Culture and Heritage of Indonesia's Clove Cigarettes' to be a 'coffee table' book; however, this belies its thoughtful content, which offers much greater substance than that normally associated with this genre. It was obviously more than a labour of love that involved research trips from the far reaches of Java to archives, museums, and libraries in the Netherlands. Its visual content is a skilfully woven skein of contemporary photos accompanied by reproductions of indigenous art, advertising, and graphics.

* By CHRISTOPHER LINGLE

I hasten to add that, despite its focus on the clove cigarette industry of Indonesia, anti-smoking activists should have little to complain about. For the author of this artfully crafted book is no stooge for the tobacco industry, nor is he a promoter of this much disparaged vice. In all events, an examination of kretek cigarettes and the kretek industry require a more circumspect treatment than the sweeping condemnation dealt out these days to anything containing tobacco. Critics who would rebuke this narrative on the 'evil weed' betray their ignorance of and insensitivity to the deep cultural roots of this distinctive product. Similarly, it is no small matter that the industry provides employment for thousands of workers who would otherwise have no job prospects. Hand-rolling kreteks for the commercial market is a vitally important cottage industry for many people in remote rural areas because of its low start-up costs and its labour-intensive production. For better or for worse, it was the one industry that actually kept up employment during the worst of the crisis, as a good smoke apparently became a substitute for other, more expensive recreational activities.

The more open-minded, careful reader will be taken on a pleasant journey through time and space to explore the inextricable link between kretek cigarettes and various aspects of Indonesian life. The historical itinerary begins with the attraction of Western traders to the Spice Islands, where cloves became an alluring object of imperialistic ambitions. The scholarly text and exquisite photos evoke the scent of the clove-spiced cigarettes that undoubtedly form a lingering sensory memory for visitors to any portion of the vast Indonesian archipelago. An intriguing aspect of the book is the discussion of the spice-laden sauces that companies use to give distinctive flavors and aromas to their brands. Their recipes for these pungent pottages are guarded as jealously as is the formula for Coca-Cola, and many have been around for longer.

In all events, the merits of Mr Hanusz's effort are evidenced by the support of an icon of Indonesian literature, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who wrote the foreword and also attended launches of the book in Jakarta and Singapore. Mr Pramoedya, widely known as the 'conscience of Indonesia', whose books were banned and who was imprisoned under the Suharto regime, is a leading nominee for the forthcoming Nobel Prize in Literature.

This is not merely a book for tobacco aficionados. It is a worthy celebration of Indonesian culture. Anyone interested in Indonesia can gain from the thoughtful insights offered. *

- Hanusz, Mark. Kretek: The Culture and Heritage of Indonesia's Clove Cigarettes, Singapore: Equinox Publishing (Asia) Pte. Ltd. (2000), pp. 203 + xix
ISBN 979 95898 00.


Dr Christopher Lingle is Global Strategist for eConoLytics and author of The Rise and Decline of the Asian Century.

E-mail: CLINGLE@eConoLytics.com.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 25 | Regions | Southeast Asia