Book review: Travelogue Bugis Nights exoticises South-east Asia with little insight

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Bugis Nights

By Chris Stowers Travel memoir/Earnshaw Books/Paperback/208 pages/$29.97/Amazon SG (amzn.to/3ZjssQx)2 stars

If you thought the age of Western travelogues exploring South-east Asia’s islands was confined to the literary output of the 19th century, think again.

Chris Stowers’ Bugis Nights is subtitled “the true story of an extraordinary voyage”. It tells of this young English backpacker’s adventures in the 1980s sailing the Kurnia Ilahi – the name of a traditional Bugis perahu or sailing boat – from Maumere on Indonesia’s Flores Island through the Java Sea to Singapore.

Interspersed throughout this adventurous tale on the high seas is a romantic thread, set in Tibet, with love interest Claudia at its core.

Stowers the Englishman writes: “It’s impossible to deny being descendants of a restless island tribe. The curious and the haunted amongst us have always gravitated like rivers to the sea, drawn by the gently warming haze beyond the horizon.”

He goes on to name the likes of naturalist Charles Darwin and novelist Rudyard Kipling as examples of this restlessness, and it is clear he places his adventures in the same tradition of these inveterate explorers.

It is a beautiful metaphor Stowers has set up – and much of the writing in the book is in this ornate vein. But there is a lack of self-consciousness as he does not reckon with the complicated fact that these were men of Britain’s imperial century.

Can a travelogue written today styled after these men avoid the trappings of exoticisation?

Alas, like many of the writers he considers predecessors, the author casts a strong if romanticised descriptive mist and never quite lifts the fog of the foreign.

On his journey, readers encounter abstruse phrases from a Chinese horoscope handbook, the unfamiliar gender systems of the Bugis people mapped onto modern sexual identities, and other curiosities of the archipelago.

Consider this description of a teenage bus conductor in Indonesi...

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