Stumble Into Indonesia's Unseen Places
Submitted by viravira on 14 March 2013 • Destination
If there was a dilemma about writing our experience in traveling Indonesia, that would be writing about the House of Sampoerna in Surabaya. Sampoerna is a huge company that produces and sells cigarette as its core business. We are not smokers and don’t encourage anyone to smoke, but we are also curious cats who want to see and experience many great things. We heard about the House of Sampoerna being one of the few well-maintained museums in Indonesia, so we went to see it in our weekend in Surabaya. And damn it, we have to admit that the rumors were true.
Mumun & a kind stranger in front of a mural in the museum’s neighborhood that depicts the cigarette rollers at work.
Located in the old, northern part of Surabaya, House of Sampoerna consisted of a museum, a café, a gallery and a souvenir shop. From the 2nd floor of the building, which was part gallery and part souvenir shop, visitors can watch the rolling of cigarettes through a glass window, which is the main attraction that people come in there for. The building used to be an orphanage in which Liem Seeng Tee, the Sampoerna founder, grew up.
The first thing you’d notice once entering the museum is the strong smell of tobacco and clove. It was spicy and inviting. We were greeted by a staff named Muty, a fair-skinned girl in her 20s who needed not much make-up to make her look pretty in spite of the braces. She, like the rest of the museum staff, was dressed in black shirt and pants, and later guided us through the museum and gallery. Muty explained things in Indonesian for us, but she and some of the staff could guide you in English as well.
“This is the replica of Mr. Liem’s first warung,” Muty showed us this small kiosk made of mostly bamboo with jars of candies and spices. “The kiosk was the foundation stone of Mr. Liem’s future giant cigarette company, the PT HM Sampoerna Tbk. He diligently tended the small business with his wife while creating the ‘recipe’ of the clove cigarette that later on became their main commodity with the brand Dji Sam Soe.”
The whole museum basically showed you the zero-to-hero story of Liem Seeng Tee, a Chinese immigrant, and his clove cigarette company that started in East Java, which was sold to Philip Morris International not too long ago. The museum displays raw cloves, old grinding machines, vintage matches designs, etc, walled by paintings of people smoking and photos of Liem family.
I find the museum to be well designed and maintained. It’s got many details that make up the – I suppose – original ambience, like the thatched roof of the small warung and the candies sold in the jars. There’s a corner where we could get interactive with the display, which is a typical Indonesian kiosk where you could usually buy cigarettes. The whole experience made me forget about the danger of cigarettes for a while. For all you know, it could be their way of provoking visitors to smoke through subliminal messages..! *evil smirk*
Their products include Dji Sam Soe and its variations, as well as other brands such as A Mild, the leading brand that claims to be mildly harmful cigarettes targeted mostly to urban youth and those who mildly concern about their own health. (I heard the government is banning the ‘mild’ naming of a cigarette product because such thing doesn’t really exist).
As for the cigarette itself, our friends say it’s heavy. It takes about an hour to go through and your cheeks disappear in the process. Our foreign friends say it’s kinda like weed, having a dizzy feel afterwards.
The cigarettes are manually rolled by the hands of thousands of women. “Why don’t they use machines instead?” I asked Muty. She said, “Each cigarette isn’t rolled in to perfect cylinders. It’s tighter towards the mouth area and tobacco filling has to be distributed correctly within the cigarette. Machines can’t do this.” Ah, I see.
Mumun had a glimpse of the process as I couldn’t make it in time. And here’s her take on the experience:
To see is to believe. ‘Kretek’ cigarette rolling has a nation wide (and probably international) reputation for being super fast. I was not a doubter but I didn’t prepare myself to see such a lighting speed robotic motion from such mortals. The watching zone is on the second level of the museum, watching over one part of the factory behind glass. I placed my hands on these see through walls and I pressed on it as it contained my fascination to what I saw.
My eyes just couldn’t keep up with their hands filling, trimming, and packing at least 4,000 cigarettes per day. They fidget, twitch, move, or sit still as rocks just to keep up with the fast pace achieving their minimum target. At some point, I was disturbed by the fact that their excess movements might manifest as a disease, but the other guide within the watching area assured me it’s just their mechanism to stay fast. The museum had about 6 workers sitting up at the watching area so you could see how they roll up close. It was amazing!
But the best part, I have to say, was the stretching time. At 10 am, the women must stop and stretch, lead by their supervisor. Accompanied by their in house radio, they move and have a good time. I occasionally waved and mouthed a few simple questions, but they only waved back and shrugged having no idea what I just said. I then felt annoyed watching over them as if I was superior to them in any way, so I decided to join their stretch and dance a bit for their entertainment. From what I saw, I know they liked my thumb-in-the-air move. I know, I’m good. LOL!
Damn the government for passing a law that visitors can’t take pictures of them. Now it seems like a whole hoax. But I’d really advise anyone to go see these talented women. They are awe-to-the-some!
The cigarette rolling is done from Monday to Friday 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. and on Saturday 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. only.
If you happen to miss the cigarette rolling schedule, you can watch the video of it on a display tool near the glass window. You can play the video in normal speed or in lower speed to see the process in details. Man, do these women have the fastest fingers or what!
No, grammar nazis, that wasn’t a grammar mistake. The café is named A, derived from one of Sampoerna’s major products, A Mild. It’s got an eclectic interior design, combining art deco and modern design with a collection of vintage artworks and A Mild’s youthful semi-rebel spirited print ads.
We chose the soupy dishes with steamed rice out of many Asian and Western delights in the menu. They were yummy and the service was alright. If I’m not mistaken, you’re not allowed to smoke in the café (nor in the museum). That’s interesting, knowing that the whole establishment was built upon the success of cigarette product itself. I guess you don’t always have to approve what you’re selling, huh? *evil smirk*
I personally have a certain interest in Dji Sam Soe and other cigarettes founded in Java because of my study long ago. We were told to make a paper on ‘design and metaphysics’ (that was a weird task even in Art & Design study). After some consultations with other lecturers, I decided to do the paper on cigarette package design.
One of the lecturers, Pak Priyanto Sunarto, a seasoned designer and illustrator, collected a whole lot of dismantled cigarette packages kept in file albums. He lent me the albums and hinted me some reading material references on cigarette packages.
From my research, mind you I wasn’t an avid Internet user at that time, I found out that the old cigarette brands and packages had a lot to do with metaphysics, which in the old Javanese and Chinese belief was much translated into mystical things. Future owners of businesses, perhaps non-exclusive to cigarette products, would hike up Mount Kawi and other mountains that were believed to be sacred and would bestow upon them divine inspiration.
I also found out from the research that the number 9 in the Chinese belief is considered to be the highest number, denoting perfection. That is why SAMPOERNA consisted of 9 letters, aside from the fact that the word means perfection (written in old Indonesian spelling way). The cigarette brand DJI SAM SOE consisted of 9 letters, which in Chinese means 234; 2+3+4 = 9. Look at the stars forming an arch above the type logo. How many are they?
Exactly. Awesome, huh?!
So is there a connection between the metaphysical naming method with the success of the company? Depends on what you believe in 😉
Address: Taman Sampoerna 6, Surabaya 60163, Indonesia Contacts: Ph. +62 31 353-9000, Fax. +62 31 353-9009, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org