Monday, March 30, 2009

The Red Banana

Perhaps you have heard of the "black tulip" or "Queen of the Night"

However, it is a horticulturist dream to grow a "black rose" or even a “black hibiscus”.

And when it comes to fruits, perhaps you have heard of the red durian.

And how about red banana?

Banana is indigenous to Southeast Asia and there are many species and varieties of banana in the region. Banana trees have been introduced to a great number of tropical and subtropical climates. The main edible banana group in Sarawak (and most part of Southeast Asia) belongs to the species Musa acuminata or the hybrids between Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. Wild Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana are with seeds and thus not really edible. But numerous selections of this species led to seedless cultivars that have been propagated vegetatively for centuries. Those banana I have often encountered growing wild in the secondary forest of Sarawak including on roadsides is Musa acuminata and is by itself with many varieties. However, hybridization between Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana has created dozens more of banana varieties, including the red banana.

Red banana or Jamaican banana is a variety of banana with a pretty red, pink or purple skin. Its flesh is smooth and sweet, often tinted of pink or orange. The red bananas are grown commercially in Central America for export.

Grown more slowly than their yellow counterparts, the red banana plant takes 10 months to fruit and six months to mature with fruit taking a further five days to ripen. The banana tree can grow as high as 6 metres. The bananas develop on the foral stem following the appearance of clusters of flowers.

Red bananas are surprisingly popular and available the year round at specialty markets in western countries. In North America, the first bananas to appear on the market in Toronto (in the 1870s and 1880s) were red bananas. In February 2006, Marks and Spencers introduced red bananas to UK supermarkets to be followed by the supermarket Morrisons in 2008. The red bananas is said to be sweeter than the yellow banana.

In western countries, they are most frequently eaten whole raw or chopped and added to desserts or fruit salads. They can also be baked, fried or toasted and is delicious in pied, cakes and fritters.. Red bananas are one of the varieties commonly used for store-bought dried bananas. The red banana goes well with dairy products; It can be added to yogurt, ice cream, sherbets or milk shakes. That reminds me of "Jelly Pisang" - the signature dessert of the canteen at the Rejang Park Traffic Garden once upon a time.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Bengawan Solo (Solo River)

Bengawan Solo
(Bengawan being an old Javanese word for river)
by Gesang Martohartono

Bengawan Solo, riwayat mu ini
Sedari dulu, jadi perhatian insani
Music kemarau, tak berapa airmu
Di musim hujan air meluap sampai jauh

Mata airmu dari Solo,
Terkurung gunung seribu
Air mengalir sampai jauh
Akhirnya kelaut

Itu perahu, riwayatnya dulu
Kaum pedagang selalu
Naik itu perahu

Solo, the Mighty River
(English translation)
by Gesang Martohartono

The mighty river Solo, your legend this,
From ancient times, you captivated people,
In seasons dry, your water is low,
In rainy seasons, the water overflows into the horizon.

The spring of Solo
Locked in thousands of mountains.
Its water flows into the distance,
At last to the sea.

That boat, legend of the past,
of traders, always going
by that boat.

"I had dreamt since my childhood about writing a song of praise for the immortal Solo River,"

Gesang Martohartono (in an interview at his hometown, Solo).

Bengawan Solo (or the Solo River) is a famous Indonesian song about the longest river in Java which flows through central and eastern Java. It rises on the slope of the volcanic Mount Lawu (10,712 feet [3,265 m]) and the southern limestone range (Sewu Mountains). From there it flows in a northerly direction, through the Sewu Mountains. Along its course it is joined by several tributaries. Some of these, such as the Madiun and Brantas rivers are substantial rivers themselves. The river makes an easterly turn through East Java. In the dry season much of the riverbed is dry.

The river flows through the Solo Valley which is the site where Java Man was first discovered. Java Man is the name given to fossils discovered in 1891 on the banks of the Solo River. Its discoverer, Eugène Dubois, gave it the scientific name Pithecanthropus erectus, a name derived from Greek and Latin roots meaning upright ape-man.

Written in 1940 by Gesang Martohartono at the age of 23, then a young, destitute and untrained musician. Although he could not read or write musical notation, he composed "Bengawan Solo" on a bamboo flute. His father owned a factory that produced batik fabric, but it went bankrupt after Gesang finished elementary school. He grew up in the gutter and became a singer of "kerongcong" -- popular Indonesian music originating from Portuguese songs. Keroncong music is a classical music in Java. When listening to the Keroncong music, one's heart will feel calm and peaceful.

It soon became well-known and liked among the local Javanese community. At first he sang it at local wedding parties and other social gatherings in his hometown of Solo (now known as Surakarta). Two local radio stations then broadcast the song, marking the beginning of its nationwide popularity. And the rest, as they say, is history.

It is strongly associated with the period of war occupation and the society of the times. Later, the Japanese, who occupied the country during World War II, brought the song with them to Japan after returning from the war. There, and also in the rest of Asia and later worldwide, the song became very famous.

The tune became a big hit in the Chinese society after a Malaysian singer sang it in Mandarin (Chinese) in 1957. Since then many Chinese singers made their own versions and now the song is one of the best known Chinese oldies.

The folk song-like melody has been etched in the minds of countless Indonesians, former Japanese soldiers, and even Dutch civilian ex-detainees regardless of their age and background.

Today, a statue of Gesang Martohartono erected in a park in Surakarta (Solo) in 1991 overlooks the gently flowing Bengawan Solo, or Solo River. At 92, Gesang still sometimes sings "Bengawan Solo" in public when he is asked to do so.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A man for all seasons

In the mid-1970's, if you heard that the Prime Minister of Thailand was having supper with the son of a royal prince, the country's best known novelist, a pioneering journalist, a Hollywood actor, and a trained classical dancer, you might well have assumed that M. R. Kukrit Pramoj was dining alone.

Few Asians of modern times have excelled in as many fields as Kukrit. He has the advantage, of course, of being born into minor royalty, which provided him with the advantages of a good general education and training in khon (Thai classical dance). As a teenager, he was sent to England for further education and ended up with a degree from Oxford in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. On his return to Thailand he joined the civil service and later moved into banking and teaching.

In 1945, Kukrit entered politics and was elected to parliament where he rose to the rank of deputy minister three years later. In parliament he spoke out against an increase in MP salaries and resigned when the measure was passed.

Thai politics' loss was Thai literature's gain, however. In 1950 Kukrit founded the Siam Rath newspaper and rapidly became famous for the wide range and elegant style of his writing.

Several of his best-known works were originally serialised in Siam Rath, including a "capitalist version" of the Chinese Classic The Romance of the Three Kingdom, in which he mercilessly satirised Thailand's military dictator.

In Phai Daeng (Red Bamboo), Kukrit adapted Giovanni Guareschi's comic classic of the cold war, The little World of Don Camillo, about an Italian village where the wisdom of the local priest generally prevails over the ideology the communist mayor. In the Thai version the priest has become a Buddhist monk, but the message is the same: if we look in our hearts, we have more in common than the "ism" that divide us. As in his acclaimed short story collection Lai Chiwit (Many lives), Kukrit celebrated the simplicity and "natural justice" of a Thai way of life already beginning to disappear in the 1950's, and a source of great popular nostalgia today.

Kukrit's literary masterpiece was probably Si Phaen Din (Four Reigns), a popular novel of a woman who, along with her children, has to adapt to the many changes occurring in the turbulent first half of the 20th century. He called upon his own familiarity with the royal court to provide fascinating insights into Thai society at the very highest level.

At the same time, Kukrit continued to produce regular essays on political and social topics, one of which resulted in his arrest for libelling the American ambassador. Ironically, a few years later he was flown to Hollywood to appear in the movie "The Ugly American" as Prime Minister of the mythical Asian country of Sarkhan who has to confront an American ambassador played by Marlon Brandon. In both life and film, he comported himself in the face of foreign power with dignity.

But it was only after the democratic revolution of 1973, which unseated another military dictator, that Kukrit came to play prime minister in real life. A few years earlier he had become a senator, he had then helped draft the new constitution and had been chosen as speaker of the house. But in the infant democracy it was difficult for any party to sustain a majority; so when the government of M.R. Seni Pramoj, his brother failed in early 1975, Kukrit rose a last to the top of the political tree.

As prime minister he established the Tambon Council Fund for rural development, made the first visit of a Thai head of government to the People's Republic of China, and negotiated the withdrawal of American troops from Thailand at the end of the Vietnam War. But after just 400 days his coalition collapsed and Kukrit fell from power, replaced by his brother again. A few months later there was a right-wing coup and democracy disappeared from Thailand for another decade.

From there until his death in 1995, Kukrit continued "sniping from the sideline" at various governments, calling upon them to live up to traditional Thai ideals and democratic values. In 1987 he so strongly criticised the organisation of the internal security command which he suggested would create a military "politburo or praesidium", that 250 Thai rangers stormed his house. The public outcry over this blatant abuse of power was an important step on the slow road to the restoration of democracy in Thailand.

But in the end, Kukrit will not be remembered primarily as politician, nor even as merely a literary figure. He represented the "vital centre" of modern Thai life, trying to combine the best of the past and the present, of Asia and the West. A prince committed to democracy, an anti-communist who attacked military dictators, an Oxford graduate who helped revitalised traditional Thai dance, eloquent in several languages, dignified both on and off the screen, Kukrit was indeed Thailand's man for all seasons.