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Kretek. The Culture and Heritage of Indonesia’s Clove Cigarettes, Mark Hanusz

Jakarta, Equinox Publishing, 2000, 203 p.
Bernard Sellato
p. 152-153
Référence(s) :

Mark Hanusz, Kretek. The Culture and Heritage of Indonesia’s Clove Cigarettes, Jakarta, Equinox Publishing, 2000, 203 p.

Texte intégral

1“Carried on the warm breezes of a sultry tropic night, the scent of kretek – Indonesia’s indigenous clove cigarette – is the aromatic soul of a nation, the fragrant embodiment of all things Indo-nesian.” It certainly took a dedicated kretek smoker – in other words, a true addict – to research and write this book. It should probably take another to review it. In any event, the foreword’s author, novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, is definitely one.

2The smell of kretek is the smell of Indonesia. Landing at Kemayoran Airport in Jakarta in the early 1970s, emerging half asleep from the airplane and walking slowly across the tarmac to the arrival hall, one knew right away that this was not Colombo, or Bangkok, or Singapore. Non-Indonesians like it, or they don’t. A foreign tourist, waiting in line at the National Museum ticket booth, jumped aside in horror as the person behind him lit a kretek. “Geez, it stinks. What is it?” To which the other, unfazed, replied in good English: “Stink? Then, you must be in the wrong country, mate.” Kretek smell pervades the town and country, smoothly but insidiously, more so than does the smell of the durian fruit, more restricted in space and time yet more intense. But the traditional Indonesian olfactory world is shrinking, as smells are increasingly confined. New, air-conditioned airports no longer permit this exhilarating feeling of “being back.” And durian is banned to the outdoors.

3This book, which looks like a coffee-table book but is definitely more ambitious, sets out “to explore the social and historical significance of the Indonesian kretek…” It achieves more than just that. It is also, and perhaps principally, an in-depth, if not strictly academic, study of one of the major economic phenomena of twentieth-century Indonesia. Although it is constructed in a rather impressionistic fashion, it offers a great deal of facts and figures, as well as a profusion of anecdotal information.

4Clove is “the reason for which the West conquered the world,” said Agoes Salim. Originally only found on a set of five tiny islands of the Moluccas, clove was already known to the Chinese and Egyptians around the beginning of the Christian era. In the fifteenth century, along with nutmeg and pepper, it triggered Western countries’ vigorous interest in the archipelago, with the usual ensuing chain of war, conquest, and colonization. Although the Portuguese were first to strike a deal with the Sultan of Ternate (1513), it was the Dutch East India Company that, after a fierce and protracted struggle with its rivals, managed to wrest, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, a worldwide monopoly on the clove market – only to be superseded by Zanzibar around 1800.

5Tobacco, introduced into the region at the beginning of the seventeenth century, very soon carved its niche into Java’s social habits. It was an instant hit, much like a number of edible plants introduced from the New World – e.g., cassava, chilli peppers, peanut, pumpkin, papaya, guava. So much have those plants become part of the local setting that most Indonesians simply ignore that they are not indigenous. Tobacco smoking began competing with betel chewing, principally among Javanese upper-class men. Cigarettes were rolled individually from homegrown tobacco. Soon after the first commercial tobacco plan-tations were established in Sumatra, i.e., 1850, the first commercially produced cigarettes appeared, with tobacco wrapped in cornhusks.

6Kretek cigarettes – with clove mixed with tobacco – were first manufactured c. 1880 in Kudus, Central Java, as a cure for sore throats and asthma. Why kretek became so hugely popular so rapidly remains somewhat unclear. Likewise, it is not known for sure who came up first with the third ingredient of kretek, the “sauce,” a mixture of flavoring ranging from chocolate and licorice to banana, strawberry, and… rum!

7In any event, by 1925, Bal Tiga, a kretek manufacturer in Kudus, combining modern production techniques with aggressive promo-tional policies, was one of the largest indigenous businesses in the Dutch East Indies, with 15,000 employees. By then, clove consumption had by far exceeded production, and eighty percent of the clove used in kretek had to be imported from Zanzibar. So important was the kretek market that the Dutch decided to tax it and introduced in 1932 the banderol, an excise sticker, still found on today’s kretek packs.

8The powerful kretek business, due largely to the initiative of Chinese-Indonesian entrepreneurs, suffered severely from the Japanese occupation. Bal Tiga, for one, never recovered. Curiously, however, the business appears to have suffered little from the 1965-66 turmoil.

9In the 1970s, Indonesia launched a large program promoting small-holder clove cultivation, to the effect that by 1990 it produced (and consumed) two thirds of the world’s supply of cloves. Also in the 1970s, the introduction of cigarette-rolling machines gave kretek, now lagging behind “white” cigarettes, a new impetus and, by the end of the century, two thirds of all kretek produced are machine made. And it was only in the 1970s that kretek became popular beyond Java, following Transmigration programs, to reach the most remote corners of the archipelago in the 1980s.

10Today, there are some six hundred independent kretek manufacturers, and kretek is second only to petroleum and natural gas in terms of national revenue. Chapter 3 (“The Kings of Kretek”) offers a brief history of a half-dozen kretek companies, from tiny Goenoeng & Klapa – still producing only hand-rolled cigarettes – to giant Gudang Garam, one of the world’s top ten largest cigarette manufacturers.

11A sourpuss may complain of a certain degree of Java-centrism in the book – kretek is Javanese, and not all of Indonesia is quite so hooked on kretek; or note some weakness in the author’s argument on the social and cultural role of kretek (Chapter 4, “The Culture of Kretek”) – smoking (or drinking, or any addictive substance consumption) has social and cultural meaning everywhere; or question the assumption that “kretek comes without ideology or prejudice” – kretek may well be viewed as part and parcel of the Javanese hegemony; or react to the politically incorrect (and revisionist?) statement “Clearly, smoking kretek is a heavenly pursuit.” As for the last point, the present reviewer may stress the relevant fact that, in interior Kalimantan, kretek are part of offerings to spirits as well as of the goods left at a grave for the soul’s last passage. Heavenly, indeed.

12The book includes a list of kretek companies in Java, glossary, bibliography, and index. It is well designed and makes very pleasant reading, though it could have benefited from better proofreading – there are typos and the style at times is, say, unusual. Nevertheless, with its rich and high-quality iconography, blending archive documents and new photographs, and its rather laid-back, reader-friendly, yet well-researched text, it constitutes a most welcome study of an important historical phenomenon, and a useful one to anyone interested in Indonesian society, past and present.

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Bernard Sellato, « Kretek. The Culture and Heritage of Indonesia’s Clove Cigarettes, Mark Hanusz »Moussons, 4 | 2001, 152-153.

Référence électronique

Bernard Sellato, « Kretek. The Culture and Heritage of Indonesia’s Clove Cigarettes, Mark Hanusz »Moussons [En ligne], 4 | 2001, mis en ligne le 11 juin 2018, consulté le 14 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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