Blok M update, October 2004

Status report

The summer break is now well and truly over. The regulars have returned from their hols and settled back into their old routines - including of course dear old Blok M. The bars report good business, and things are looking lively as the month kicks off. The Reveller has a few vintage nights in My Bar, which does seem to be mopping up more and more of the late night trade, and swings well into the early hours.

But as Ramadan looms on the horizon the girls' attendance starts to become rather patchy, many of them deciding to decamp to their kampongs. They've had slim pickings over the last month or so - September in particular was a very lean month, the Reveller's informants tell him - so they're cutting their losses. One memorable evening in late October D's Place has no feminine company downstairs other than the bar staff and a couple of the old girls.

The start of the fasting month is a bit of an anticlimax. There's been the usual sabre rattling by politicians out to grab the headlines and religious groups striving to impress the faithful, but nothing out of the ordinary. However, the month is about to take a decidedly nasty turn, as the Reveller reports in his next article.

The night of the Neanderthals

It's just after ten on a regular Friday night in late October, and the Reveller is enjoying a beer and a chat with a bunch of friends in Top Gun. The Ramadan curfew is set for one in the morning, so the pace is relaxed and leisurely. In line with all the bars on the street Top Gun is scrupulous in its observance of the city ordinances, and the regulars know and respect both the letter of the law and local sensitivities.

But suddenly, without warning, there's a palpable frisson as girls whisk past their table and head for the sanctuary of the kitchen entrance and the ladies' loo. Turning his head, the Reveller sees two hulking shapes shambling menacingly into the bar - heavily-built figures who look for all the world like the results of a eugenics experiment that's gone horribly wrong. Picture a cross between the Incredible Hulk and an extra from Gorillas in the Mist, and you've got some notion of their appearance.

The attire is generic. They sport the scuffed dark shoes, slack blue jeans and baggy black jackets that are the uniform of thuggery everywhere. Their features, too, are cast from the same mould - irregular square jaws, pouchy cheeks, coarse sallow pockmarked skin and glazed little porcine eyes. These are the Neanderthals of officialdom, the mindless and brutal enforcers of every petty dictator since the dawn of time.

More arrive. Now there are four in the bar. Yet for all their menace, there's one little touch of pure farce - they each awkwardly tote a kludgy walkie-talkie, which is obviously not switched on and probably doesn't work anyway. Yes, the fashion accessory that's de rigeur for today's well-dressed thug.

To their obvious dismay, this crude attempt to intimidate the good folk in Top Gun fails miserably. The guys look them up and down, eyeball them, shrug their shoulders then return to their beers and conversation as though nothing's happened. The girls are a bit subdued, but not frightened once they realise it's not a police raid to check on their KTPs [ID cards]. Even more intriguing is the fact that no-one knows whether they're police or members of the FPI [Islamic Defenders Front].

As they slink out the Reveller follows them into the street to see what's happening. And what a peculiar site greets his gaze! Outside My Bar there's half a dozen or so very high ranking police officers. They look uncomfortable and clearly feel out of place - as they say rather vulgarly in the Reveller's native Yorkshire, like spare pricks at a wedding. The top honcho, an austere mustachioed ramrod of a figure easily distinguishable by the multiple braids of scrambled egg on his cap, stands stock still while two immaculately uniformed adjutants stride self-importantly hither and thither to give orders and get information from the groups of regular policemen strung out the length of the street.

The Reveller quickly notices that the big cheese pays particular deference to one individual - a small shadowy figure who stands out of view behind the police top brass. He also notices that this éminence grise is not a policeman, but a civilian. He's a sparse figure of a man, small and wiry, graying and in his fifties. His face is thin and angular, with high cheekbones and sunken cheeks. The thin lips are set in a permanent rictus; the eyes have the unblinking glaze of the fanatic. This character, too, has his adjutants - two scrawny youths whose uniform is loose open-necked shirts that flap about as they slink hither and thither at their master's behest. They look for all the world like fashion-conscious scarecrows.

In the distant shadows, too far away for the Reveller to make out any detail, motorbikes are clustered down towards Oscars - deliberately being kept out of sight - and there's a huddle of shadowy figures next to them. One of the scarecrows casts an occasional furtive glance down the street towards them.

The police top brass, the civilian and his cohorts plus clusters of bemused onlookers make a weird shadowy tableau in the ochreous light cast by the sodium street lamps. It reminds the Reveller of a Javanese shadow puppet play; and he wonders, as he looks on, who the puppet-master is, and who are the real animators of this unsavoury incident.

Then there's a flurry of shadowy movement in the My Bar doorway, followed by three of the police top brass and the civilian marching into the bar. The remaining officers outside in the street squirm even more uncomfortably, and a very senior woman police officer shuffles awkwardly.

Now there's one great advantage of being a Brit abroad, which is that you can play the idiot and get away with murder. As long as you make exaggeratedly clumsy movements and speak in a loud drawling voice, nobody takes you seriously. So rushing in where angels might more prudently fear to tread, the Reveller strides across the street, pauses, looks the top brass up and down as though he's carrying out an inspection of the troops, and marches into My Bar braying loudly "I say, jolly bad show this, what the devil's going on then, eh?" in his best Bertie Wooster imitation. And everybody ignores him.

The scene in My Bar is grotesque. The staff are cowering in the cashier's nook, except for one sullen lad behind the bar. The police boss is standing grim-faced, arms folded and silent in front of the bar, accompanied by his indispensable adjutants and a couple of the senior officers who've followed the Reveller into the bar. The civilian and his lackeys are clearly calling the shots, and there's another civvy with a dinky little digital camera taking pictures of the bar. The little guy issues instructions to one of the police bigwigs who in turn orders the barman to take out bottles of liquor and line them up on the bar top. Now not only has the My Bar management put all the bottles in locked cupboards behind the bar, they've even lined the glass doors with paper so the bottles can't be seen. Further instructions are given, and the senior woman police officer officiously packs the bottles into a cardboard carton that's been placed on the bar, all the while being snapped by the civvy with the camera.

As soon as this fiasco is over there's a muttered conversation between the police and the civilian guy, who strides imperiously out into the street with that stiff pomposity little men in authority adopt to make themselves feel bigger - leaving the police in the bar looking exceedingly discomfited. The Reveller follows, and sees him take up a position outside Sportsmans. Walking into Sportsmans the Reveller is promptly asked to leave - not by the police or the civilians, but one of the bar managers. Politely ignoring the request the Reveller stands by the pool table and watches the pure farce of Sportsmans being shut down by the police. Now as Blok M regulars know, if there's one 'legit' operation on Jalan Pelatehan, it's Sportsmans. Girls aren't allowed in unaccompanied, it's a genuine restaurant-with-bar, and not a flag-of-convenience restaurant tacked on to a bar or disco - and it's fully observing the Ramadan laws, down to covering up the wall-hanging beer advertisements so they can't cause offence.

The last act in this sad charade is the police departing as fast as their dignity will allow them in their assorted cars, buses and paddy wagons. In the meantime the motorbikes have gone and the little man and his cohorts have vanished like wraiths in the night. Strolling back down the street towards Top Gun, the Reveller finds the metal shutter drawn down over the door. Now there's one sure way to open any locked bar door in Blok M, and that is to utter the Magic Words "I haven't paid my bar bill yet!".  Up goes the shutter in a trice, and the Reveller returns to his table for a well-earned double tequila.

As he relates the events to his mates the Reveller reflects on the unanswered questions of the night. Who were the black-jacketed thugs? Why such massive police force? Why so many top brass? Why pick on My Bar for the big event? Why close down Sportsmans? Why leave Top Gun open? Who is the mysterious midget civilian? Why do the police kowtow to him? Who are the mysterious motor cycle gang lurking down the street?

Paying the bill in Top Gun, the Reveller and his friend drive down to D's Place in Kemang to see what's been happening there. The place is still open, but the staff are jittery as word of the Pelatehan incident has already reached them. After a quick pint the Reveller departs just before the shutters are rolled down, and heads homewards for a well-earned sleep.

As an epilogue to this incident, a gang of FPI thugs storm and ransack the Star Deli pub in Kemang later that night. The place is shut - locked, barred and bolted - yet the FPI claim it's open, and that their members are incensed by the site of bottles of beer on tables. But this story has a fitting, if not a happy, ending. The infuriated local inhabitants band together in the street and trash cars and bikes belonging to the FPI, then send the thugs packing. The police arrive well after the incident only to he hooted and booed by the locals as cowardly incompetents who knew damn' well what was going to happen, and by their tardiness appear to sanction it.

A date with the Calendar Girls

The social highlight of the month on Jalan Pelatehan is without doubt the grand finale of the My Bar Sexiest Calendar Girl competition. The culmination of a run of monthly events, this is a lavish and glitzy affair with the full paraphernalia of photographers, VIPs and Blok M regulars in attendance. You can see the Reveller's pictures of the event in a commemorative photo album - click here for the link.

The evening starts out fairly quietly and builds up momentum slowly. Quite a few of the guys have been drinking elsewhere on the Blok and roll up well primed for the main event. A lot of the girls are there to cheer and support their friends who are competitors, making for a lively and good-natured atmosphere. It's events like this that provide something the Blok needs - a bit of spice, a touch of glamour, a sense of occasion.

The Reveller's only niggle about this otherwise splendid event is that it drags on too long. It's a mid-week evening, so he and a few of the other guys who have to start work early the following morning leave before the end.

Epilogue

What an eventful month! To round it off we might mention that the FPI shenanigans neatly backfire on them. After the events of that infamous Friday night the police declare that law and order will be upheld at all costs, and reaffirm the right of those entertainment places with government-issued licenses to operate unmolested during Ramadan. The Reveller's many Muslim friends and acquaintances express sorrow and outrage that a group calling itself the Defenders of Islam should defile everything it purports to stand for by its cynical and brutal disregard for the law, elected authority, and the truth.