Indonesia Clove Cigarettes

Euromonitor International's Tobacco in Indonesia report offers a comprehensive guide to the size and shape of the market at a national level.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

For the Love of Cloves

By Michael Vatikiotis
Issue cover-dated June 22, 2000

KRETEK, Indonesia's ubiquitous clove cigarette, is certainly one of the more unusual topics for a coffee-table book. But the book is not about style, and it doesn't have bucolic pictures of landscapes. Kretek--the name is apparently derived from the sound made by cloves burning with tobacco--is a serious piece of research about a deeply ingrained facet of Indonesian culture.

You don't have to be a smoker, or even to like the aroma of clove cigarettes, to enjoy this book. That's because author Mark Hanusz--a former banker turned writer--has crafted a compelling story about an industry that is a pillar of the Indonesian economy. The book is also beautifully designed, finely illustrated and, for the most part, well written.

One delightful feature is the foreword by leading Indonesian author, and kretek smoker, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. In a simple story of how he took to smoking kretek, we hear about how, as a child, hunger drove him to sell and smoke the roughly wrapped clove-infused cigarettes in the local market. "Smoking was a good way to fend off hunger pains," writes Pramoedya. At 75, he maintains that no doctor has ever told him to give up his 60-year-old habit.

From here, Hanusz takes up the story of the humble kretek, a product enjoyed at all levels of Indonesian society. Invented in Java a little more than a century ago, kretek first took the form of a wad of tobacco and a sprinkling of cloves wrapped in a corn husk and tied up with a piece of red cord. We learn that the idea came to Haji Jamahri, a resident of Kudus in Java, who suffered from chest pains brought on by asthma. By adding cloves to his hand-rolled cigarettes, his symptoms ebbed and kretek was born.

Today, the industry supports an estimated 10 million people, from tobacco and clove farmers to factory workers, many of whom still roll the cigarettes by hand. Hanusz has uncovered some remarkable details; from the complexity of Indonesia's tobacco industry, to the composition of a special sauce, which can include aniseed, rum and, of all things, extract of strawberries. Most manufacturers keep their sauce recipes secret. Perhaps just as well--although mild on the throat, kretek contains no less nicotine and tar than regular "white" cigarettes.

The author also delves into the history of early manufacturers, such as the Nitisemito family. They no longer produce the "Three Balls" brand, but Hanusz relates that when he returned to Kudus with the finished book, members of the family broke down in tears. No one had ever bothered to chronicle the rise and fall of Indonesia's first commercial kretek maker.

Neither, it seems, were the current leading manufacturers very helpful in producing the book. None offered sponsorship, a fact Hanusz points out to those who would otherwise feel uncomfortable about a book dedicated to smoking. "The first reaction of a lot of people," he says, "is how much did the companies pay you--not one dime."

Nevertheless, Kretek did spark some controversy in Singapore, where it was launched in May. Health Ministry officials tried to have the book removed from shelves in local bookstores. After lobbying by the publisher, the threat was lifted. "It was the best thing--almost a banning, but not," says Hanusz, who thinks the bureaucrats were miffed that he did not secure a licence to hand-roll some kretek cigarettes he had brought over for the launch.

The fault with this book, and it's a minor one, is the way it is illustrated. It could do with a few more pictures. There are a few stunningly good ones of old kretek factories and market scenes, and evocative shots of contemporary Indonesians smoking and demonstrating the "calming effect" Pramoedya attributes to the habit.

The author also seems a bit obsessed with packaging and other details of the industry. But then, this isn't really a coffee-table book at all--it's more of an encyclopaedia.

[Kretek: The Culture and Heritage of Indonesia's Clove Cigarettes ] by Mark Hanusz, Equinox Publishing, Jakarta. $75 (HK$600).

Confessions of a Kretek Smoker
By Michael Vatikiotis

Mark Hanusz had a promising career as a banker before he came to Indonesia and saw the country dissolve into chaos after the economic crisis of 1997. His employer offered him a transfer a year later, but instead he abandoned banking and opted to write the story of kretek.

"All I really wanted to do was tell a story about Indonesia when the country really needed it," says the 29-year-old American from Toledo, Ohio.

The biggest challenge he faced was scepticism. Family and friends thought he was mad; photographers questioned whether he could ever get the book published.

Travelling as far as the Netherlands to source historical photographs, he also visited some 60 kretek factories and collected 800 packets of the clove-infused cigarettes. For Hanusz, researching the history of kretek was not just a scholarly pursuit; it was his passion. "I don't know if I could have written the book if I didn't smoke," he admits.

Despite the hint of eccentricity surrounding the topic, Hanusz builds a convincing case that the subject matter is important. He points out that when a kretek manufacturer in East Java recently shut its workers out of the factory because of a labour dispute, the government forced the company to reopen for business. Not only were the workers not getting paid, but the whole town depended on the kretek factory for its livelihood.

Bolstered by the book's enthusiastic reception in Singapore, Hanusz is already planning his next tome: on the glass painting of central Java.