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The Admiral’s Isles

21 minute read
Phil Zabriskie

Saharudin sits on his boat and smokes, waiting to get paid. it’s hot — a given, even at mid-morning in the Malaysian town of Melaka. The river is rust-colored and lifeless, speckled with an array of plastic bottles and wrappers. Other vessels float by, some impressive, but most as weather-beaten and rickety as this 9-m wooden craft. Saharudin rents it from a man in Dumai, Sumatra, not far from his home village. Next to the massive logs being unloaded across the way, his cargo of thin mangrove trees looks like a pile of matchsticks in a lumberyard.

He describes himself as Melayu Indonesia, an Indonesian of Malay descent. His hair is short and black, as is his mustache. He has milky eyes and teeth that tobacco has helped pattern like a leopard’s coat. He is shirtless and shoeless, his small belly peeking over the waistline of his faded, brown pants, his sandals resting not far from his feet. He looks a bit ragged, understandably; getting here was an ordeal. Usually it takes about 12 hours to cross the Strait of Malacca, six more in lousy weather. On this trip, however, a storm struck. To stay afloat, the crew — Saharudin, his brother and his cousin — jettisoned 200 mangroves, one-fifth of their load, which means one-fifth of their payoff. Then the 16-h.p. engine gave out. They drifted, frightened, until another boat towed them in. They were on the water for two days and two nights.

And their work still isn’t complete, not until the Chinese businessman who ordered the load shows up with their money. The crew isn’t allowed out of the harbor, Saharudin says, so he can’t walk the charming old streets of Melaka, where Buddhist temples adjoin Muslim tombs and the signs, sounds and skin tones drift from Malay to Chinese to Indian and back again within a few blocks, offering a quietly stirring rebuke to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s pet concept of a single Malay identity. From Saharudin’s perspective, Melaka is just expensive. That’s why he brings extra food and fuel.

Every month, he makes one or two trips to the city, depending on demand. In the best months, after paying the boat’s owners, the crew and Indonesia’s sticky-fingered coast guard, he takes home between $52 and $60. Often, it’s half that — or less. He naturally thinks he should make more since he takes all the risks. These boats sink. People die, especially during the extended stormy season from November to April. “But there’s nothing I can I do,” he says. “I’m only a small sea boat.” He has a wife and he has children, six of them, and he prays they don’t follow him to the sea. “Even farming would be better than this,” he says, staring out at the water to which he must return. A big ash falls from his cigarette onto his pants. He flicks most of it away and rubs in the rest with his thumb.

Before long, the buyer steers a motorbike onto the banks. Saharudin dances quickly across a thin makeshift gangplank and strides up to the Chinese man — pressed pants, a gaudy yellow and black short-sleeved button-down — who remains seated on the scooter as he reaches for his wallet.

Chinese Admiral Zheng He and his fleet sailed in these same waters more than 500 years ago. He’s the reason I’m here talking to Saharudin. Zheng He crisscrossed this region — Melaka, and then Java and Sumatra — on his epic journeys through Southeast Asia and is now immortalized in memory and monument along the way. In Melaka alone, a temple, a street and a statue bear Zheng He’s name. Saharudin is forbidden to visit all of them.

It’s a shame because Saharudin and Zheng He have a few things in common. The admiral and the captain are both seafarers and Muslims. More importantly, however, both men are travelers, which is to say their lives feature repeated encounters with the foreign. They cross, or crossed, borders and engage with the unfamiliar on a small scale — a Sumatran doing business with a Chinese Malay in Melaka, for instance — or a much larger one: a Chinese Muslim eunuch exacting tribute and enforcing the imperial order of things throughout Asia.

When Zheng He passed through these parts, the lands were carved up into kingdoms, sultanates, pirate enclaves. Fueled even then by thriving international trade, societies, religions and traditions flourished, abutting and overlapping, sometimes fluidly, sometimes violently. Today, the cultural parameters in Southeast Asia remain as expansive as ever, but they’ve been stitched roughly together into the patchwork of nationhood. Crammed inside borders, assigned a nationality, a flag, a currency and at least a theoretical political system, people living along the Zheng He trail are still defined by their interactions with the foreign: newly arrived migrant workers live next to eighth-generation neighbors; a roadside nasi goreng vendor tries to compete with multinational fast-food chains; villagers train roosters for singing competitions in the yard behind an Internet cafE; Muslims pray at mosques a short stroll away from a Christian church or a Buddhist temple or a shopping mall. The clash of peoples and cultures is why young men in Banda Aceh tote machine guns and use huge knives to scrape pro-independence decals off car doors. It’s why profanity-laced action movies blare on the Melaka-to-Dumai ferry between Malaysia and Indonesia, two Islamic countries; why a still-fiery 92-year-old Chinese teacher in Bangka hasn’t taught a class since 1965 when Suharto banned Chinese schools. It’s a constant confluence of others; even those who go nowhere — and most can’t afford to — are interacting with entities as new and foreign to their lives as those Zheng He encountered. Now, as then, people, traditions, institutions, are blending and colliding, cohering and exploding. It can be beautiful and revelatory. It can be brutal and tragic. It can be everything all at once.


Visiting Zheng He’s Indonesian ports of call isn’t exactly a scenic journey. There’s beauty, not least in the spirit of people who will without fail return a smile with a bigger smile, but most of these places don’t show up on postcards. The next leg on Sumatra is a prime example: between the dusty, trashy port town of Dumai and the city of Medan some 10 bumpy hours by car to the north, the eye catches on the bare-bones shacks with their thatched roofs and cleanly swept earthen yards, smarts through the smoke of fires that eclipse the midday sun and loses focus after miles of palm oil and rubber plantations. The only constant is a Caltex pipeline, gray and monotonous, elevated just high enough so that families have to climb either under or over it to reach their homes from the road. It’s just another reminder that the land’s riches are going somewhere else.

At night, the hazy roadside darkness is broken by a fluorescent-lit restaurant, its plastic tables and chairs idle; by an illuminated badminton court, its lines drawn in the dirt, its players immaculate in their whites; by an overturned lumber truck, its wheels still spinning. And finally, having finished a bag of snakefruit bought on the Dumai docks, I reach Medan, a typically crowded and polluted Indonesian city in a region that was the Deli Sultanate when the lofty sails of Zheng He’s fleets darkened these skies.

Tengku Lukman Sinar, born in 1933, lives in one of Medan’s leafier neighborhoods in a spacious house with a driveway and a satellite dish. He can use the honorific “tengku” because his father was a Sultan, the last Sultan of Serdang. Other descendants of Sultans dropped the tengku because their fathers, many of whom were allied with the colonizing Dutch, were jailed or murdered during the independence campaigns of the 1940s. Sinar’s father died in 1946, but of natural causes. He had allied himself with Sukarno. A wise choice, though his family was still marched out of its home at gunpoint by communist forces. Sinar hated the communists for that. “But we got our revenge,” he says a little too gleefully, when Suharto purged the communists in the 1960s following Sukarno’s overthrow, leading to the deaths of up to a million Indonesians.

Sinar himself has always been comfortable, Sultan or not. He inherited a palm oil plantation and he teaches history and ethnomusicology. His life, he says, goes from “one seminar to the next.” As a tengku, he blesses a ceremony here or there and performs the local equivalent of supermarket openings. Neighbors come to him for advice, interactions he enjoys though “it’s hard if they arrive when I’m having a siesta.” In his living room, above the couch, is a picture of his father in full regalia. He is stunning, all sashes and ribbons. Sinar, sitting in a high-backed blue chair that makes him seem even smaller than he is, has on slacks and a short-sleeved shirt.

He loves talking history. His eyes dance behind his gold-rimmed glasses — one of the few pairs of glasses I saw on this trip — as he runs through the various sultanates that existed in the 16th and 17th centuries, the various colonial dealings of the 18th and 19th and the upheavals of the 20th. Pulling out a tattered pink folder, leaning forward, he describes his ongoing campaign to regain for local Malays the right to cultivate land held by the government. Back in the sultanate days, it was called tanah ulayat, communal land, and that’s what he thinks it should be now. His group is called People in Waiting. Opening the folder, he extracts clippings that describe its progress: demonstrations, occupations, promised concessions that never materialized. He’s not saying he thinks Sultans should be reinstated (anyway, his older brother would be first in line); he wants people to be able to grow vegetables that they can sell or eat, to make some money, to send their kids to school. Sinar has no kingdom, just a neighborhood, but maybe he can be of more use out of power, trying to advocate for the poor and powerless before their frustration turns to rage.

You hear it and see it all over Indonesia. People laugh at the suggestion that the government can or will improve their lot. It’s not a happy laugh. It sounds more like resignation, a self-preserving suppression of hope. Politicians are considered corrupt until proven innocent, and if they are proven innocent, then the judge is probably corrupt. “They can change Presidents 10 times a day and my life will still be the same,” Saharudin’s brother had said. Sinar is disillusioned by the treatment of Malays in the area. In Java, grown men fight tears when they recall the day milk for their children became too expensive. In Aceh, the perception that the people are being ripped off leads to bloodshed. There’s a constant military patrol even in the provincial capital Banda Aceh, a supposedly peaceful enclave in a region defined not by its wonderful coffee or the sparkling blue water off the northern coast — almost shocking after the prevailing brown of what passes for harbors and rivers elsewhere — but by atrocities that have piled up over two decades of guerrilla warfare. Collectively, the voices make “Indonesia” seem like a contrived fantasy — seriously, 17,000 islands as one nation? — not a country.


On special occasions, Riyanto’s mother still makes his favorite meal — morning glory with lots of chili paste — just in case he comes back. When he appeared in her dream recently, he wasn’t hungry. He just said he needed his wallet, but more importantly, he told his mother that she needed to let him go. It was just like Riyanto. Always thinking of the other person.

Getting here meant flying to Surabaya in East Java and driving through traffic-clogged streets, past the children begging at stoplights, past scrap-metal yards that look like gardens of rust. The city cedes the land to rice fields and pastures that stretch on until they reach Mojokerto, a low-lying town of narrow streets, one of which is home to Katinem, Riyanto’s mother.

He died last Christmas Eve, a day on which bombs exploded in three of Mojokerto’s Christian churches, one in Riyanto’s hands. Riyanto was 25. He had been working at a tofu and tempeh plant, but he hoped to join the army, “Because if you die as a soldier protecting your country,” he told his mother two months before his death, “you have God’s blessings.” Since 1998, he had belonged to Banser, a Muslim youth group affiliated with the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), ex-President Abdurrahman Wahid’s party. It’s a kind of freelance assistance group, says Mohammad Fathoni Nawowi, the organization’s Mojokerto secretary. “Youth wing” sounds too aggressive, he says, too militant. These young people aren’t militants; they’re community activists, and they serve the whole community, Muslim or non-Muslim. “Anyone we can cooperate with,” he says. They fight fires, help maintain order at rallies or concerts and keep an eye on the neighborhood. It’s their responsibility, Nawowi says, as Muslims and as members of the kampong, or village.

Late last year, churches throughout East Java were receiving bomb threats. I met people in Indonesia who said Christians and Muslims could never live together, but in Mojokerto and elsewhere, the churches called Banser to help. Nawowi was ready because the national office in Jakarta had called ahead telling the group to be available: a threat to a church is a threat to the village. Nawowi thought it was nothing. Religious holidays always have a little menace about them; Mojokerto had always been safe.

On the night before Christmas, Riyanto was outside Eben Haezer Church, a gated, red brick building with white concrete walls on either side. Across the narrow street is a film store, in front of which is a pay phone covered by a blue shell. This is where Banser members saw an abandoned package. They told the policemen stationed nearby; he said it was a bomb and evacuated the area. Riyanto didn’t leave immediately. Instead he grabbed the package, intending to drop it into a reinforced drainage ditch on the other side of the film store. It exploded before he got there. Everyone else had run off; nobody knew if anyone had been hurt. There was only a crater in the ground near the ditch. Neighbors found Riyanto’s body. It had been propelled into the air, over the church, and came down through their roof.

Bombs exploded across Indonesia that night, destroying more than 10 churches and killing more than 15 people. No one has been arrested for the bombing at Eben Haezer. Without a culprit, without the traditional elements of a crime, it feels utterly wanton. It’s just violence.

Riyanto’s mother, Katinem, knows she was born in 1955 even if she’s not sure of the exact day. She lives now with her husband, a becak driver, and their five remaining children (a baby died in childbirth). Their house sits just off a street that runs alongside a river. It’s been renamed Relawan Riyanto, Riyanto the volunteer. The family has a silk-screening business in the back of the house, something they started with money donated by the Eben Haezer congregation, Banser and local officials after Riyanto died. When I visit, another son offers a tray with bottles of strawberry soda and straws. The house has tile floors and satiny aqua curtains on the windows. We sit on blue couches and Katinem tells me that Riyanto always helped the neighbors, that she wishes she could have afforded to send him — or any of her children — to school beyond junior high, that she hopes her other children will be good to her in her old age but that she’s wary of hoping for too much. There’s a picture of Riyanto on the far wall, a small head-shot, on the bottom of a framed condolence letter from the police, which hangs slightly askew. He’s wearing a camouflage shirt. He is square jawed and serious, wide eyed, his hair buzzed tight above his ears. “If you die with God’s blessings,” he told his mother, “hundreds of people will pray for you.” It’s a striking legacy: a Muslim who died while protecting a church, someone who bridged a divide, killed by someone murderously intent on widening it.

Indonesia is the largest Islamic country in the world, but its version, or versions, of Islam provides as much of a cultural identity as a religious one. One strain, the one practiced by much of NU, is more syncretic. It incorporates elements of Javanese mysticism, kampong social mores and other local or tribal belief systems that preceded the Prophet Muhammad’s arrival on the archipelago. Generally speaking, it’s willing to blend. Not always, of course. There are fundamentalists, and those, Christian and Muslim and other, who kill in God’s name.


The Chinese in Indonesia are merchants and they’re rich. That’s not true, of course, but it’s the assumption of many — a source of resentment that led to the pillaging of Jakarta’s Chinatown in the 1998 riots. The Chinese certainly are neither on the island of Bangka, a two-hour ferry ride north of Palembang.

On Bangka, Chinese farmers have been growing pepper and other crops for generations. Zheng He’s men passed this way, primarily to fight a Chinese pirate who had been terrorizing the strait from a Palembang stronghold. And though there were already Chinese settlements there, as well as in towns such as Tuban in Java, the Chinese on Bangka were mainly drawn by — or imported for — work as tin miners in later centuries.

The impact of the tin mines is visible in the lifeless green pools that dot the landscape. The impact of the migration is visible on a rutted, auburn-hued dirt track outside Pangkal Pinang, where Cung A Siuk lives. There are a handful of houses out here. Cung says there used to be fewer. There is no news, either. She’s never heard of the persecution of Chinese people in Java and Sumatra. John, the photographer, and I are the first white people she has ever seen, and she’s 73 years old. “If I were scared,” she says, “I would have closed the door and stayed inside.” Her words are translated from the Chinese-Indonesian hybrid she speaks into Indonesian, then into English.

Cung is fourth generation on this island. She’s a Confucianist, she says, and counts among her friends numerous Bugis and Buton people originally from Sulawesi. She lives now in the house she shared with her husband until he died a decade ago. It’s big and sturdy, all faded wood except for the stone porch. She still grows pineapples and cassavas out back; she may be old but she has to work or she feels weak. Her husband, Ji Chiu, was first generation. He came to work the tin mines, a “sold piglet,” as they were called, since they were sold by their parents with no real promise of return. She met him when she sold coconut cookies to the tin miners. They had five children, but twins died at birth.

She wants a TV to watch football and movies, but other than that she can’t think of anything she would change about her life (and her friend down the road has a TV, so she’s really all right on that score as well). Would that the lives of all migrant workers, of any generation, had such happy results. Wherever you go, you see people inventing jobs for themselves, selling bats at a roadside stand, for instance, or directing traffic for tips. On Bangka, men mine tin from the coastal seabed, employing motor-powered pumps to vacuum the sea floor onto patchwork floating trays in which they search for their prize. More often, a living wage, or the promise of one, is thought to exist elsewhere, which is why there is a constant stream of migrant workers flowing across Indonesia. Earlier, on the north coast of Java, among colorful, undulant boats sardined within a Tuban inlet, I met Lasmari, 47, who had worked for seven years in Kalimantan as a carpenter. He made decent money, but when he came home for a visit, he learned his son had died. Unwilling to leave his family again, he turned to the unpredictable fishing trade. His dark skin and curly hair dusted with salt from his last trip out to sea, holding the dried stingray tail he uses like sandpaper on the boat’s many rough edges, he tells me that the youngest of his three children is only two years old, “so it seems I will work for the rest of my life.”

Later, on the island of Madura, a short ferry ride from Surabaya — where Zheng He would have anchored his boats during his visits — I meet Ma’ruf. At 27, married at 15 to a 13-year-old girl, he still has a boyish face and a loose-limbed manner. He was born and raised on Madura but, unemployed, unmoved by the prospect of spending his life in the tobacco fields, he left for Sampit in Borneo several years ago and found work as a driver. Last February, long simmering tensions between the Madurese and the native Dayaks erupted. The Dayaks, in hand-to-hand, town-to-town combat, embarked on a rampage intent on exterminating all things Madurese. The killings began on a Sunday, Ma’ruf remembers. Houses were burned. Madurese were murdered indiscriminately, often brutally. Ma’ruf abandoned his home and his car and fled with his family to a hastily erected refugee camp. As he left, he saw his neighbor beheaded. In the camp, people were terrified and starving. One of his children was nearly attacked for a handful of rice.

Upwards of 100,000 Madurese left central Kalimantan. Ma’ruf is unemployed again, living with relatives on a wooded back road in the town of Rahayu outside Sampang. His wife and children are staying with her sister in a neighboring town. She has a recurring dream that the house is on fire and they have to get out. Ma’ruf doesn’t have the nightmares, but he hasn’t the faintest clue why it all happened. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t feel anything at all right now. I just want to keep living.”


On Friday the 13th, a thunderstorm hits Semarang in Central Java. It’s a big town, buffered by the harbor to the north and shrimp farms and rice fields to the east. Prosperous as well, at least judging by the number of international banks that have offices here. But the crowds at the Sam Po temple are thin.

The shrine, legend has it, was built by Wang Jinghong, a trusted lieutenant to Zheng He (Sam Po in these parts), who settled here following one of the journeys. It’s a sprawling structure, a series of small temples and prayer rooms laid out in a row, large enough so the roughly 200 people spread throughout the entire complex, many of them asleep, look like a small crowd. The statues by the gates are old-school Javanese guardian figures. The temple itself is straight-up Chinese; Zheng He was a Muslim, as was Wang, but this place vibes Confucian and Buddhist. Reds and yellows dominate the sharp-angled surfaces. Incense is in the air. About 20 people watch a boxing match on a small television set near where the incense is sold.

A pregnant woman wearing a red dress and silver sandals says there are usually hordes of people here the night before Friday Kliwon: the rain kept them home tonight. She’s a Muslim, who says she “came here to get blessings” for herself and her unborn child. Over there, the young guy who’s waiting to have his fortune told, is a Muslim as well. He has no problem that Zheng He was Chinese. A sacred place is a sacred place. And back there, by that gazebo-like structure, the guy with the green shirt is an avowed Javanese mystic, here because before midnight on Friday Kliwon is the best time to meditate. “Following in the path of good people can bring benefits,” he says. Zheng He is hardly universally recognized in these parts — “Zheng He? You mean the fruit seller?” a woman in Tuban said — but more than 500 years after his death in a country not his own, his life is drawing others together.

The rain was done for the night. On my last day in Indonesia, however, moments before I left for the airport, the sky grew dark and the rains came again. It didn’t last long, maybe 15 minutes. Then the clouds scattered and the sun emerged. Even with the brilliant sky, the rain continued to fall.

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