The Sampoerna Sorority and the Search for the Gudang Garam Girl
By Koh Choon Hwee
The Sampoerna Sorority began in our first semester during a boring lecture on Chaucer or something completely alien like that. All three of us had separately and independently gone for a smoke break and wound up in the same dark and discreet corner beneath the lecture theatre.
In a university campus that claimed to be a non-smoking one and propped up this farcical image with angry signs and patrolling security guards, smokers tended to forge a sense of solidarity pretty quickly. Unbeknownst to many outsiders, this eclectic circle enjoyed a mutual, unconditional trust more resilient and constant than your average friendship or romantic relationship.
Those few smoking corners, creatively named the "dungeon" or the "cave" and even, the "hole", were like vagabond shelters and through highly effective means of self-selection, automatically screened out those people who would destroy the common purpose of the community. Those who came without resources of their own would readily receive alms from others in the shelter – it was that kind of quaint, shared sense of fate redolent of medieval kampongs.
Acquaintances made in this realm escalated quickly past friendship into brother or sisterhoods, and it was in this Sufi spirit that the afore-mentioned Sampoerna Sorority came into existence. None of us actually smoked Sampoerna or kretek cigarettes – at the time I was smoking Kent lights, Sufina was smoking Next menthols and Aik Geok (a.k.a. Gokky) was smoking Marlboro reds – but the name afforded us the alliteration we needed to feel bound together, and the local flavor we needed to feel authentic. So 'Sampoerna Sorority' it was.
There are three or more versions of how the sorority came about: Sufina's, Gokky's, and mine depending on whom I'm talking to. Generally, all of us agree that we had met at that little carved out hole beneath LT 14 during a boring lecture, Gokky had forgotten her lighter and borrowed mine, and Sufina had said, "Didn't expect to be smoking with Chinese girls on my first day of school" – which, on hindsight, was a really peculiar and uncharacteristic thing for her to say. The Sufina we had come to know was blithely— almost perversely— indifferent to the "Malay situation", and anyway, from that day onwards, she was always smoking with Chinese girls (namely, Gokky and me) in school.
In the early days of the sorority, there too emerged the mystery of the Gudang Garam girl. We began to find, around campus, drawings (slash graffiti slash public art) on the walls of a tiny girl with a round head and no ears engaged in various activities. She could be riding a bicycle, talking to a cat or sitting on a toilet bowl. She had only one eye, which was a single horizontal line. The other eye was obscured by her fringe, which consisted of two diagonal lines. She had a dot for a mouth. She was always facing the front (that is, facing the viewer head-on) as she was two-dimensional. She had no side-profile. She had no nose. She had no eyebrows and no eyelashes. She had no expression. And she kept appearing on walls, benches, tables and various locales on our sprawling university campus.
She was named the Gudang Garam girl because the first time Sufina noticed the drawing slash graffiti slash public art, somebody had abandoned an empty pack of Gudang Garam cigarettes on the floor directly below her. The fact that it afforded a catchy alliteration also helped. The three of us kept an informal tab on Gudang Garam girl sightings, be it the third table from the right at the last row in classroom AS4 02-14 or the lower right corner of the wall facing the tree at the dungeon, and soon she began to take on a life of her own.
For example, soon after she and her pilot boyfriend had broken up, Gokky declared that she was done with men and would now date only girls, beginning with the Gudang Garam girl. We were sitting at the edge of the arts canteen from where we could gaze out at the sea.
Sufina said that was impossible, because the Gudang Garam girl only liked butches, and not femmes like Gokky. I suggested that perhaps the Gudang Garam girl, like Gokky, would like to break out of her dating pattern and try a femme this time. Gokky said that she was extremely open to experimenting with her sexuality and could be butch or femme, whichever was desired. Sufina shook her head and predicted that Gokky and the Gudang Garam girl would last three months tops; I bet five months. Within two months Gokky found herself dating a teaching assistant who tutored one of her classes, and so I had to treat Sufina to an avocado milkshake.
In this way, we integrated the Gudang Garam girl closely into our lives. Like traumatised children who used dolls to communicate with their therapists, we used the Gudang Garam girl as an aid, a coping mechanism to waddle through the mess of our university years.
Sometimes she was an eligible date, as in Gokky's case. Sometimes she was an invisible friend – who were you smoking with at the dungeon? Gudang Garam girl.
Sometimes she was an inspiration, a light in dark times – stop crying Sufina, think about what Gudang Garam girl would do in your situation!…What would she do? She would have a smoke and move on, of course!
Sometimes she was a time marker – when did Gokky and her pilot boyfriend break up? Mmmm, around the time when we found Gudang Garam girl near the POSB ATM.
Sometimes she was a scapegoat – fuck it I knew today would be bad day for me when I found a new Gudang Garam girl with a BLACK CAT at the bus stop. Cheebye!
The knowledge that somebody somewhere on campus was actually creating these little Gudang Garam girls and was inhabiting the same spaces obsessed us to the point of fanaticism. Who was he, or she? We all believed it had to be a 'she'. And we believed that she had to be a smoker, because all the Gudang Garam girls at the smoking corners were the prettiest and had the roundest heads. Indeed, the drawings seemed to vary according to location – the Gudang Garam girls in the classrooms generally had oval-shaped heads, and were drawn using a thinner marker, whilst those in the lecture halls tended to have eyelashes and almost square-ish heads. There were exceptions of course, and the geographical principle of artistic variation did not always apply. It was befuddling; but those at the smoking corners certainly seemed more well-proportioned.
Whenever we took a smoke break hence, we would evaluate the other silent puffers around us, sizing up their potential for being a guerilla graffiti artist. Could it be her? No, too bimbo. Could it be that one? No, too insipid-looking. Could it be purple Birks at three o'clock? No, I know her and she's a bitch. Gudang Garam girl's creator cannot be a bitch.
In our fervent quest to catch the artist in action, we attempted an overnight ambush at a particularly fertile locale – it had five Gudang Garam girls already, and was the most densely populated region in the university. It was the CBD area for Gudang Garam girls, what Bras Brasah was to books, what Changi was to aeroplanes. It was the smoking corner we called the "dungeon" – an awkward, open-air extension of a basement corridor that overlooked a terraced slope with deep and wide stormwater drains that stretched to the bottom like a clunky staircase. Gokky said one day she would wait for a storm, hop into the gushing drain with a big, round float and slide all the way down. There were too many sharp corners and right angles for it to be a smooth 'slide', but Gokky tended to overlook the sharp corners and right angles of life anyway.
It was Gokky who whimsically suggested we stake out there overnight, and as improbable the possibility of success was, Sufina and I went along with it. After all, there were five Gudang Garam girls there – she was a juggler, nurse, figure skater, soccer player and, apparently, Lee Kuan Yew. Gokky insisted on this interpretation of a Gudang Garam girl's head with a single stylised teardrop beside it and that was boxed inside a television set. Sufina just thought the drawing depicted a weather girl making an announcement for light showers over parts of Singapore.
It was one odd ambivalence to contemplate, between patriarch par excellence on one hand and quintessential bimbo stereotype on the other – a double-identity of exquisite incongruity. Ultimately, my Confucian values inclined me to side with Gokky, and majority rule prevailed in the assigning of identities to Gudang Garam girls. Sufina was not too pleased. She demanded to know which Confucian values had swayed my vote. Why, I replied, respect for authority, of course.
So the three of us staked out at the "dungeon" one Friday night, under the watchful hyphen-like eyes of our iterated graffiti friend. We set up camp on the flat, open space beside the drain, sat on newspapers, ate canned sardines, then chatted and chain smoked till the next morning. It turned out to be such an enjoyable waste of time that we decided to stake out again the following week, this time better equipped with a mosquito coil, radio, a Bunsen burner and a mess tin.
The only people we met on both nights were wandering nocturnal students and janitors. They emerged every so often from the wooded depths of our sylvan university campus, and those who came close by would smile inquiringly but wordlessly at us. One of the janitors stopped to talk to us and taught us how to roll our own cigarettes. In return we offered him a cup of milo, which he happily accepted.
Apart from the few interludes with these midnight wayfarers, we mostly huddled over our Bunsen flame and yapped away. Sufina had brought a pack of Sampoerna cigarettes, and as we chatted we would pass a stick around, like little girls sharing secrets and ice cream. The sweet smell of cloves infused our stories with a musky tenderness, and blended the night into a warm and shared memory. When the glaring, bludgeoning rays of morning eventually pierced through our drowsy, giggly communion, we reluctantly broke camp and stumbled towards the bus stop and the importuning quotidian.
All things considered, the ambushes had been failures – we didn't catch the artist in action, and in fact we had forgotten our mission and gotten distracted. We did, however, learn from the janitor who rolled cigarettes that those wall drawings had been around for a long time.
"Maybe kena retain, the student." The janitor had suggested while sipping his Milo.
A useful clue, perhaps. We had nothing else to work with, but anyway we had plenty of time to figure it out. Time was a luxury taken for granted, privileged middle-class kids that we were. In between camping, skiving and squandering our parents' money on heavily-taxed cigarettes, we also managed to make new friends – and this was, after all, what university was for. Socialise, fuck, then reproduce, and Singapore would not go the way of the Lanfang Republic.
It was Nick, our new friend, who told us about the Lanfang Republic. The legend of the Lanfang Republic. Nick's father, the Colonel, had told him that it was a Chinese state somewhere in Indonesia that disappeared because its people didn't take defence seriously. Nick thought that they had just fucked with the Indonesians and assimilated. Wikipedia thought that they didn't disappear, but had immigrated to Singapore and set up shop here. Gokky preferred Nick's explanation because it used the word 'fuck'.
Nick was a long-haired, polysexual, Teletubby-shaped Chinese male we had encountered in our philosophy class, who would, later on, have the honour of becoming the first non-female member of the Sampoerna Sorority. He was one of those feisty undergraduate intellectuals who took the principle of class participation, ran with it, and ended up practically as co-lecturer of the course. Lectures that he attended would transmogrify into debates between him and the professor, with occasional contributions by the rest of the class – we played, for the most part, the role of the audience. Certainly, the three of us formed a thoroughly enthralled audience.
After one such lecture, Sufina went up to Nick and asked if he had seen Gudang Garam Nick. Nick had no idea what she was talking about, and so followed us out for a smoke break and to check out Gudang Garam Nick. We climbed up a narrow, fire-escape stairwell that led to a small landing above the library, where the pipes and electrical rooms were located. From that vantage point one could survey the flow of people moving along the corridors, bumping into people they knew, running away from professors they had spotted (we imagined so) and, most importantly, one could spot the security guards on patrol. This was a recently discovered smoking corner which we named the "treehouse", and this was where we had discovered Gudang Garam 'Nick' – a long-haired Gudang Garam girl who was holding a book with the words "Religion And Nothingness" written on its spine.
When the three of us first came upon this drawing, Sufina instantly recognised the book in the Gudang Garam girl's hand – it was the same one she had seen Nick carrying around. This had to be a self-portrait, she told us, and long-haired Nick had to be the artist we had been looking for. Keiji Nishitani's book, Religion And Nothingness, was an obscure book that nobody else she'd asked had ever heard of; it had to be Nick.
So Sufina asked, in her bossy way, if he had drawn it.
Nick grinned guilelessly. "Yea, I did."
Wow, I thought. Sufina, too, looked like she could not believe it had been so easy.
Indeed, it wasn't – for Nick went on to ask, "So, which ones were drawn by you girls?"
"Which Tao Sa Baos did you girls draw? Or did you not draw any?"
"Wait…you call her Tao Sa Bao?"
"Well," Nick looked thoughtfully at each of us. "That's one of the original names," He drew a cigarette out of his pack and put it between his lips.
We realised then that we were the uninitiated, that we had been amateurs after all.
Talking out of one side of his mouth as he fumbled around in his pocket, Nick continued, with the blase confidence of one who knows he knows more than his interlocutors, "You can call it whatever you want really, but 'Tao Sa Bao' is one of the classical terms. Not everyone uses the classical terms though. I have a friend who calls it ham chim peng. And another who calls it munjen. Small, slitty eye, get it?" He flicked his Zippo lighter and lit up.
An hour, half a pack, and many questions later, we were enlightened. Apparently, this sexually-indeterminate cartoon figure traced its roots back to the third level toilet in the School of Computer Science, where legend has it, some stressed-out Computer Science major had covered the inner walls and door of a toilet cubicle with early sketches of said cartoon figure, accompanied by a haiku allegedly relating the story of its origins.
Apart from 'Tao Sa Bao', another early name used was 'Sang Nila Utama' because the earliest-created Tao Sa Bao by the stressed-out Computer Science major was on a boat – this was an inside geek joke, a reference to a widely-circulated post at the time comparing programming languages to different types of boats. Turing was a kayak, Java was a cargo ship, while C was a nuclear submarine; not everybody found it funny, though. It was unclear what kind of boat Tao Sa Bao was on, or which programming language the student had been working on. However, that earliest-created cartoon figure soon became popularly known as 'Sang Nila Utama', who had also once been on a boat. Thereafter, every time somebody wanted to initiate a new colony of Tao Sa Baos, they would begin by symbolically drawing a 'Sang Nila Utama' before working on the rest of the population.
The most famous of Tao Sa Bao colonies, Nick told us, were epic, huge wall-to-wall affairs. These were little kingdoms, or cities, where every citizen or subject had the Tao Sa Bao-face. For example, there was a revolution-themed colony with a Russian quarter (where a Tao Sa Bao-faced Lenin could be found), a Chinese quarter, an industrial quarter, a women's quarter and so on. The topographical details of this imaginary landscape were carefully sketched out, so that there were hill peoples, lowlanders, and even underwater dwellers. Each cartoon figure would either have its name written near it, or possess a speech bubble that would feature a self-identifying quote. Nick thought that the coolest historical figures were all identified by their quotes and not by their names. Zhou Enlai, for example, did not have his name written near him, but his speech bubble read, simply, "It is too soon to tell."
In the Faculty of Arts where the Sampoerna Sorority roamed, all we spotted were discrete Gudang Garam girls doing different things. They hardly interacted with each other; they did not exist in a Gudang Garam-tailored environment. To corroborate Nick's fantastic descriptions about a world on the other end of campus, we set off to the School of Computer Science in feverish anticipation. It was a long trek; mobility around the sprawling campus was challenged by distance and the hilly terrain, which also caused the university buildings to be constructed in awkward relation to each other and to the ground. Hence, the fifth floor in one building could be connected via a walkway to the third floor in the next building, which was built on higher ground. This also meant that there were many protruding basements, void spaces and empty walls free from easy, public view – a haven for subversive activity. Indeed, the colony Nick brought us to had been drawn on the walls of one such protruding, open-air basement that faced an odd cul-de-sac.
This Tao Sa Bao colony had no clear theme, and appeared to have sprung up spontaneously. It extended over the full wall, running over onto parts of the floor and ceiling, and was as colourful and messy as tossed confetti. Cheap, ballpoint pens had been the main medium employed, but splotches of paint also dotted the concrete canvas. Ladders, or stacks of chairs, must have been used to reach the ceiling of this mixed-media work, where a few stray Tao Sa Bao-faced personages had been drawn – I could not read their names, but Nick claimed they were Vishnu, Iniesta, and the auntie at the ayam penyet stall.
"Different manifestations of divinity," Nick explained, grinning.
Closer to the ground was the floor plan of the Science canteen; somebody (or bodies) had meticulously plotted out all the individual stalls, labeled them, and even updated them when they were replaced by new tenants. The ayam penyet stall received special attention, as evinced by the liberal smudges of gold glitter on its stall sign. Tao Sa Bao-faced science faculty professors also graced the scene, engaging in satirical, geeky speech-bubbled-conversations.
Separated by a mountain range to the north was 'Clarke Quay' (which was scrawled across what must have been the river) and a big 'X' marked the spot where "Manu, Gautam and JC puked after finals in 2005". Clubs were crossed out when they closed down, and new bars were inserted haphazardly, sometimes at the wrong location; the now-defunct jazz bar at Southbridge road remained intact on its plot, however.
Clustering the spaces in between these landmarks were numerous other Tao Sa Bao-faced characters accompanied by names I did not recognise – they probably belonged to former and current students. All of these had been drawn with different coloured pens and possessed heads of varying roundness; some were faded, some were new, some had no fringe, some had no clothes, but very – overly – detailed anatomical details.
Outside the former Mad Monk's, Gokky took out a pen to write "Gokky puked here after downing 14 beers". Sufina added, with the same pen, "And two of us held up her hair. xoxo."
"You weren't holding up her hair," I poked Sufina in the ribs. "You were too busy flirting."
"Was I?" Sufina's eyes grew round.
"Oh Sufi…" I smiled and walked away.
An ocean away, to the right-hand side, was Mumbai, and neat rows of Tao Sa Bao-faced backup dancers thrust their hips toward the Tao Sa Bao-faced Bollywood star in the spotlight, whose name was simply, 'Khan'. Upon closer inspection, I saw that 'Shah Rukh' and 'Aamir' had been repeatedly written and crossed out in the space before it; there were also signs of paint being used to cover previously written words.
"Vandalism," Nick chirped from behind. "Feuding Bollywood fans." Evidently so.
The thing that Gokky, Sufina and I could not figure out was, why were there no colonies in the Arts Faculty? We were camping overnight again when this topic came up, and Nick, newly-admitted into our sorority, was with us. Using his chopsticks to separate the noodles in the bubbling mess-tin, Nick snorted and asked if we remembered the scandal about the university staff member who had been fired for stealing office pens. We didn't.
"Well," he said, turning down the fire, "nobody knows what really really happened, but apparently those pens had been removed from office and inappropriately used for drawing more Gudang Garam girls." As a member of the Sampoerna Sorority, Nick had to adopt our name of choice for her.
"So people got scared after that?" Sufina asked. "And didn't want to draw anymore?"
"Well, that's understandable –"
"Of all things why go and gope pens ah… so cheap leh—"
"You don't know if that really happened. Or if there's something else."
"Maybe the Arts people went over to Science Fac to draw."
Nick shrugged. "Well, the Arts Fac has fewer secret spaces, and spaces that are large enough for huge colonies like in Science Fac."
"Pfft." Gokky scowled. "Nonsense. We do one here tonight, want?"
That night, we began creating our own little colony in the "dungeon". 'Sang Nila Utama' was drawn first, in respectful acknowledgment of those who had come before us. We then proceeded to represent the people we knew from our faculty. Sufina and I worked on Gudang Garam heads for our janitor friend the cigarette-roller, his other janitor friends and the aunties and uncles who worked in the canteen.
Nick drew our philosophy professor, and gave him a large speech bubble that contained a philosophical tract. Beside him was a long-haired Gudang Garam girl with an even larger speech bubble that contained a rebuttal. Gokky worked on the geographical details, scratching out wobbly sketches of a library, canteen, lecture theatres, car parks, and of course, the various smoking corners.
Later into the clove-flavoured night – Nick was smoking Sufina's kretek cigarettes – our janitor friend popped by. Squatting down beside us, he added two Gudang Garam-faced cats which frequently loitered at the motorbike parking areas. Their names were Chewy and Crunchy, he told us, and hung about to watch us for a while. Then he went off the way he had come, whistling a tune, sauntering into the night.
Creating a properly coloured and designed colony was hard work, and by the time the sky began to lighten, we had only covered a tiny area on the floor. We would have to come back to continue building our little colony; there were so many other people we needed to include and wanted to remember.
I returned home exhausted and dived straight into bed. The last scene that flashed through my mind as my head hit the pillow was of the three of them arguing about whether we should draw ourselves into the colony. My unspooling consciousness soon transformed into a skittering, jittery dream narrative. I was suspended, transfixed by the soft, pink glow of a floating jellyfish in a pitch-black nothingness. It was bobbing gently, expanding and shrinking like a fragile, pumping heart; I turned my head abruptly and began wandering down a long corridor with shimmering walls that seemed like they would dissolve upon touch. I came upon three life-sized graffiti sketches of my friends. I walked around looking for my portrait but, failing to locate it, approached some nearby students to ask if they had seen it. They turned to look at me and I saw that they had Gudang Garam faces and could not speak – their mouths were all an unhelpful single dot. They kept advancing nearer and nearer and moving backwards I tripped over something furry and fell down. Two cats pounced on top of me and shoved their Gudang Garam faces into mine and somehow I knew then that I too, had a Gudang Garam face.
There is an old photo leaning backwards sanguinely in a frame on my desk of the four of us standing in front of our mural. It was taken after we had worked on it for a few months, after numerous overnight drawing sessions carried out in the dim lighting from nearby lamps and the lighted corridors. The photo was taken in the early dawn marking the end of the last overnight session, and we were deadbeat. Holding out the camera and stretching my arm out as far as I could, we huddled together for a self-shot, grinning widely. In the photo our eyes were all hyphen-like slits.
It was fortunate that we had this one photo. For some reason we didn't think to take photos of the other huge colonies at the Science Faculty. We had taken for granted that they would always be there, though experience should have taught us otherwise.
One day, not long after we had completed our colony and others had begun adding to it, we came to campus to find some of the walls painted over with a thick, fresh coat of titanium white. As the academic year plodded through its final weeks and towards the exams, more and more walls had been painted over. Soon, even the walls at the most obscure smoking corners fell victim to the whitewashing.
The "dungeon" was now too pristine for its moniker. The nascent colony that we had painstakingly founded had been obliterated. By the time the holidays came about, my favourite Gudang Garam girl, who was fishing at a kelong near the philosophy department, had been exterminated.
The colonies in the other faculties had also met with the same fate. We had hiked to all the Tao Sa Bao sites which were located at the most inaccessible of spaces to survey the damage, and found in every instance, an immaculate wall of white, with no hint of prior civilization. The thin, fragile scrawls of a thousand cheap pens had been uniformly smothered by a fat paint roller and its viscous, industrial paint. Gazing at those clean, white walls, one felt incredibly lonely.
Back at the "treehouse", Gudang Garam Nick had also disappeared. By this time we were hardly surprised. Sufina said what creeped her out was that they knew this place existed, and had even been here.
Flicking his Zippo lighter on and off, Nick paced around. Gokky's eyes glazed over, and coughing into her fist, said she was bored and was going to go for class; she didn't want to be late. We looked at her leave, and listened as her shoes clacked into the distance below us.
Nobody spoke for a long while. Nick lit a cigarette, and the faint smell of cloves wafted towards me. Then, taking out a marker from his bag, he walked over to the wall and drew the head of a Gudang Garam girl with a stylised teardrop beside it and that was boxed inside a television set.
I looked at Nick questioningly, but he didn't seem to notice. He had drawn the wrong Tao Sa Bao, and he didn't even realise it.
Instead, he told us the Gudang Garam girls would return soon, and that even if they looked different they were still the same ones as before. Nick was being kind, but it was at that moment that I felt truly sad. They will never be the same, and trying to make them so just misses the point. Turning away, I lit up and looked down at all the people milling about the corridors, blurring into each other, dissolving into a warm and wet hooey scene.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 1 Jan 2013