Silver, dancing light penetrates the dark, thick night air. We’ve all had dinner. We’ve all had our second shower, according to both custom and necessity. I sit on a plush rug. Not far away, sounds of night – a miasma of insects buzzing, food cart hawkers, motorcycle traffic, the beep of bajaj – filter into the living room from a section of the house that isn’t roofed. I don’t specifically remember, but there might have been Teh Botol. There probably was Teh Botol. In my memory it’s a weeknight, maybe a Tuesday. I’m happy that there is something my host-brother, Uyi (far left, above), and I can share.
Why, it’s Kung-Fu, of course. One night a week, one of the couple television channels that Jakartans had access to in 1995 would play a Kung-Fu movie. I suspect the movies were produced in Hong Kong, but I’m not sure. What I can say, is that these movies were filmed in Mandarin, dubbed into English, then carried Indonesian subtitles. Aside from the obviously utilitarian feature of helping to teach me the language, I found these films fascinating and beautiful.
My favorites were the ones set in a deeply mythologized Chinese past. If you’ve seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you’ve seen the Hard Rock Cafe version. These films we watched were the Somers Bay Cafe version. They were low budget productions: chintzy sets, gaudy and over-the-top costuming, uninspiring plots, terrible dialog (which, in fairness, could have been a problem of translation). But the thing which made them incredible was the fight-scene choreography.
Pretty much any life situation could land in an all-out Kung-Fu fight. Taking a walk by moonlight with the pretty village magistrate’s daughter? Better get out your Kung-Fu. Fight scenes were long and involved. There were many considerations to take into account. How many villains are there? Is the main villain attacking or has he sent less-experienced lackeys? What style of Kung-Fu does the hero have? The villain? Which style is stronger? Strength alone doesn’t guarantee victory. Which style is more ancient, more honorable, reflective of highest virtue?
My absolute favorite was a movie where at one point the hero is trapped in an ancient cave. He knows a respectable style of Kung-Fu, but has been bested by the villain, whose style is seemingly unbeatable. The cave appears to be his last resting place, but no! Inside the cave are ancient and wise stone tablets that allow a person who is true of heart and spirit and who already knows a style of Kung-Fu to learn an unfailingly powerful style in only a few minutes of study. The hero, of course, learns the style, escapes the cave, bests the villain using these new/old techniques and saves the day.
I don’t know why this memory is so compelling for me. I tell the story of it any chance I get, and this plot line appears in the Crimson Hen tales coming down the pipeline. But all I have of it is a memory – a twenty-five year old memory. I have spent hours Googling what I know of the plot, but I haven’t got enough to make a successful search. It’s essentially a discrete thing which is unGoogleable.
Over tea with an excellent friend the other day we got to talking about this kind of tangible object. He told a story of a long lost pop music CD he brought back from Italy as a teenager. He can describe in vivid detail the album art, but nothing useful enough for a Google search. I’m sorry for the fact that our memories remain stuck in the ether, but I am also so glad these memories exist. They bring a kind of pastel, washed-out color to the world that can’t exist online.
In the movie, “While We’re Young,” Ben Stiller’s character pulls out his phone after the group can’t identify an unimportant fact and says, “oh, hey, I’ll look that up.” Adam Driver’s character – who is playing the part of the hip young up-and-comer – stops him, saying, “no, that’s too easy, let’s just choose to not know.” It’s a kind of hearkening to a simpler, apparently cooler time when no one really knew anything. But, there’s a difference between choosing not to Google something and coming across something that can’t be.
It struck me later that this is yet another way our lives are different now. Of course, unless you’re Taylor Swift or Elon Musk, we all live most of our lives in an ineffable, non-searchable mode. That’s not what I’m talking about. The Kung-Fu movie in my memory is a thing which should be searchable, but for whatever reason, isn’t. In the not-so-distant past, every new definable consumable was a found object, either the product of amazing serendipity or the careful curation of sources – like dictionaries. My mother would jump up from the dinner table, finger in the air with an audible “ah-ha”, and race to the dictionary when a word came up for which there was difference of opinion as to its correct definition. My brother would come home from college and we’d compare notes: what, if any, music had you found through whatever random late-night college radio program you might have listened to, or zine you’d stumbled across at Rockin’ Rudy’s back when it was just a record shop?
It wasn’t necessarily the internet that ended this way of being. MTV did a fair enough job of beaming whatever was new and hip straight into our suburban homes. Just one episode of 120 minutes with Matt Pinfield and you’d heard enough contemporary music trivia to fill a very large hole. But where MTV was a preprogrammed fountain of culture, the internet is really the ultimate democratized searchable bringer of all things.
And, of course, I wouldn’t change that. I really like being able to use Google Earth to find street-level pictures of the house where I spent a formative year of exchange in Jakarta as a teenager. But it’s nice to think that like Harry Tuttle, the renegade heating engineer in the surreal dream movie Brazil, there are objects of our memories that defy search algorithms. It’s a small thing – a little humanizing, snow globe of memory that is part of the fabric of me that I cherish.