HOS Cigarette Labels


SYNOPSIS:  The story of the House of Sampoerna.  How I missed the one thing worth doing in Surabaya.  About my first train experience from Surabaya to Probolinggo.   Meeting some fellow travelers. 

Surabaya is not exactly a tourist destination but the Lonely Planet recommends one promising thing:  A free city tour organized by the House of Sampoerna.  I admit that the neighborhood I arrived in last night scared me a bit.  I needed some safe place to acclimate and get started.  This sounded just right. 

The tour leaves three times a day.  It was anyone’s guess when.  At the hotel I convinced one of the hotel boys to give me a lift on his motorbike. That is not hard.  Any young man with a motorbiked in Indonesia will jump at the opportunity to make a bit of extra money.  Too bad for me, the city tour had left right at the opening hour and the next one was not until the afternoon.  What a stupid schedule!  I was quite angry at myself for not being at the door first thing in the morning.

OK, the House of Sampoerna then.  Wow, what a discovery!  It is the dream of anyone poor and the dream of any immigrant the world over:  to make it rich!  Liem Seeng Tee (LST) most likely still inspires every peddler in town.  And Indonesia is the place of more peddlers than you know what to do with.  LST was left without a father early in life and had to start to support the family.  By rolling around a simple wooden stall selling a bit of this and that, he managed to save up enough to purchase a bicycle that allowed him to expand his business.  The bicycle among other things is on display at the museum.  He soon decided to supplement his income by hand-rolling kretek cigarettes, a unique blend of tobacco and cloves, at his home, and the rest is history. 

In 1913 he started an official cigarette company, in 1932 he was able to purchase a large compound built by the Dutch originally as an orphanage.  That compound is still in business making kretek cigarettes today, even though, since 2009 it is operated under the management of the Philip Morris company. Hardly anyone knows or cares, as Philip Morris neither changed the name or the image of the company.  All I could get out of the staff here was that the business was sold for “personal, family reasons”.  To date it is the largest cigarette manufacturer in Indonesia and the longest in business.

LST seems to have had a few interesting ideas.  First, he felt that the owner of a company should live on company grounds to be closely connected to production.  To this day (!) he does live in a building that was expanded into a villa from one of the orphanage homes to the left of the central building.  A twin building to the right was built and given to his son early on, so he could raise his family next to the company and prepare for take-over.  That building has been converted into an art gallery promoting young and upcoming contemporary Indonesian artists, a fancy Art Deco cafe and a Visitor Center administering free city tours (the one I missed).

LST converted the central granite auditorium, sporting an impressive classical facade, into a theater with all kinds of modern gadgets (revolving stage, etc) on which performances were held open to the public.  According to the labels at the museum, Charlie Chaplin performed here.  Since 2003, it is the company history museum and gift shop.  Interestingly, no cigarettes are sold here.  For that and coming full circle, I had to go to the street vendors and peddlers in town.  🙂  I could not leave without a souvenir of kreteks.  The coolest thing about the cigarette pack I bought is a disgusting picture (one of several available) of the effects of smoking.  There is not just a simple warning about smoking.  No, you are confronted with pictures of lung or throat cancer depicting the most disgusting black deteriorated tissue, faces in distress, skulls and the like.  Yuk!  But instead of the intended effect — I was told that these pictures became collector items among the youth.  With more than 80% of the Indonesian population smoking (a figure obtained from a non-reliable source), there seems to be no effect of these warnings. 

More recently, LST put money and effort into developing and training a rescue team that stands by during natural disasters and will come to the aid of people and animals alike. 

The guy had a vision!

The most impressive if disturbing part of the visit though was a full-length observation glass wall at the upper floor allowing a look into one of six production halls.  About 500 workers — all women — were hand-rolling and cutting cigarettes to the tune of soft pop music, at the speed of 325+ per hour.  325 is the norm at which they receive their salary (what that was, I could not find out — it seems to be a company secret).  If they roll more, there is extra money to be made.

I was mesmerized by the rhythmic, non-stop click- and clacking sounds of the small machines and the robot-like body movements; of heads bopping and fingers going up and down a rolling device at lightening speed.  500 humanoids.  Were they still humans when they were done with their 8-hour shifts?  Could they relax after a day of this?  What about a month, a year, a lifetime?

Once in while the whole room broke out into a cheer — was there a number displayed somewhere counting the progress of the day?   Perhaps, every 5000 or so cigarettes, there was a brief vocal acknowledgement?  And once in a while a man talked to the women.  Was he cheering them on giving them motivational support, or just telling them the news of the day?

Why only women, I asked?  Well, this job is too hard for men, I was told.  Men do not have the patience for this kind of work and cannot sit still for 8 hours. However, men are working in the loading docks and in the shipping department. 

Since it was Saturday, work stopped at 11 AM.  The volume of the music was cranked up to uncomfortable levels to signal the end of the day.  All of the yellow-shirted women started to fuss and finished their tasks.  A few red-shirts had been walking around collecting finished products and providing new bins.  They also seemed in charge of small problems here and there.  Everyone started to chat and leave.  Soon, silence fell over the room even though the clicker-clacker was still in my ears.  What about theirs?

Photography was strictly forbidden, but there was only one attendant at the gift shop and when she was busy I positioned myself between two displays of textiles and took one picture of the workshop.  I am sure most people sneak a picture with their cell phones.  But it takes more doing with my large, conspicuous camera.

Six such workrooms are part of this compound.  3000 women are employed here.  But there are other production facilities in other parts of Indonesia — those are machine-rolled cigarettes with filters.  The ones here have no filter.  Even though I missed my tour I was glad I did not waste the day.  In fact, this was quite a memorable experience.

It was time now to get a taxi to head to the train station and depart for Mount Bromo.  I had scheduled this trip via Surabaya for the old-town experience and the opportunity to check out the trains. 

The long-distant Gunung Station was a clean, modern, and efficient facility.  Tickets are not cheap by Indonesian standards, but affordable.  A 2-hour ride cost me $10.  Air-conditioned and somewhat dated trains mainly feature one type of car.  Four to six people face each other on two benches.  There is a first-class option that has all seats facing in one direction with slightly nicer seats; not worth the extra money.  This is not like Egypt where the second and third class trains are literally death traps that fall apart from doors to windows and special trains are run that allow foreigners on it…  The overall standard of travel here is comfortable, with assigned seats, food vendors and reasonably clean, if traditional toilets.  Windows are covered with a dark sun-protective film which makes photography impossible.  But, I am back in Java and the scenery is similar to Yogyakarta: rice fields, trees, rolling hills, flat lands, villages. 

I had been warned by the Lonely Planet and once again by the customer-service office in Surabaya that Probolinggo was a trap of tourist scams and a haven for pickpockets and other small crime.  I arrived with three other foreign travelers and we decided to move on together — strength in numbers.

Since we got there after 4 PM, the public bus option to connect us with 4-wheelers to go up the mountain was gone.  And the scams started as promised.  For a small shuttle bus we paid about 4 times the going rate, and got dropped off at a travel agent who could arrange a variety of options to head up to Cemara Lawang, near Mount Bromo.  Of course, these agents and the shuttle drivers are already in cahoots, but so be it. 

I had tried to make hotel reservations but never heard back from anyone.  That was just as well.  The man at the travel agency offered me a package of transport, hotel and jeep that sounded reasonable.  That means, it was what I had calculated to pay and a bit less.  That also means that surely there were other options  that could be cheaper but I was in no mood to bargain or look further it had gotten dark by now.

After waiting for 2 more hours — we were not sure for what or for whom — we were driven up the mountain in the dark.  I was let out at a comfortable-looking hotel-restaurant compound.  I was OK with that.  The three backpackers were holding out for better and drove on.  I did not see them again.  I hope they found what they were looking for. 

I did not waste any more time but headed to bed.  It will be an early, early morning tomorrow to get going for sunrise at Mount Bromo.

Good night. 

3 comments so far

Add Your Comment
  1. Such an interesting story of rags to riches and then about the cigarettes being rolled by hand.

  2. Always interesting to see what the division of labor is in various countries, in various industries…what is valued and what is “throw away” labor.

  3. Very interesting, especially about the cigarette factory.
    Thank you for the new picture format!!! It is so much more pleasurable and convenient to view your pictures, now!