Max De Bruijn’s ‘Expats’ – A Book Review

Those two days lost a while back, thanks to the failure of our ISP to fix a ‘fibre optic problem,’ gave me time to read books galore, including that book ‘Expats’ by Max De Bruijn, which inexplicably ‘scandalised’ the Dutch Ambassador for its account of how foreigners in Jakarta behave.


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  • I’d have to say I was somewhat disappointed – not that I doubt the veracity of De Bruijn’s fictionalized version of the life-style he was witness to, but because there’s little to scandalise anyone, least of all those of us who live in this never-boring city.


He seems to have baled out just before I came here, hence my inability to recognise some of the hang-outs he mentions affectionately – the Jimbani? Chequers?

  • sportsmans bar jakarta
  • But others are still there, here, rather, the Jaya Pub, albeit just moved location recently, and the Sportsmans, closed and then re-opened this past twelve-month.

insert- I’m told by people who hang about posh Kemang there is a Jimbani down there somewhere- I rarely venture into that area ( Bule John LIVED there!) so when I did go down, last month, I asked  around, and was told Jimbani is still in existence, though nobody knew of Chequers!  Any info, readers?

Other watering-holes, like Oscar’s, were still going when I came here.


oscar cap I didn’t get the T-shirt, but I’ve got the cap still!


But then some geezer renovated the rickety old den and people stopped using it.

The Club gets a mention, the nick-name of the nefarious Bali Hai, down Blok M, scene of some of my adventures, now disappeared, its site occupied by the Losari 2, a pretty respectable hotel, so far as I know.


  • Hotel Losari 2 Losari 2, where once The Club stood
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  • And although the Tambora Hotel is long gone, before my time, I have certainly heard enough stories of its delights. Its alleged ruins were once pointed out to me, visible on the left as your bus enters the Blok M Terminal.

Some of the actual events he mentions, local news stories, occurred after I came here, so maybe he lingered longer, or else just read about them back in Holland – who could forget the horrific case of the lady who had her hand cut off by some preman to steal her diamond rings.

De Gruijn only says she was Chinese, but I’m pretty sure the Jakarta Post back then (1999?) reported she was a Taiwanese tourist, and it happened near Taman Anggrek.

  • It shocked me, still so new that I was wary of that posh mall for some time, though I actually only used it now and then, for Hartz Chicken Buffet, an all-you-can-eat resto which once had branches all over town, now rarely found, though I saw one such in Kelapa Gading recently.

Like those clusters of men who hung around, hunkered down, in the mall car-parks. Raised to beware of  purposeless loiterers in public places, I’d pass by them hurriedly, expecting an outlaw attack!

It took months before reality dawned – they were drivers! Most well-off Jakartans are too idle to drive their own cars, so whilst they shop, their chauffeurs are left to hang about in or near the parking areas.

My apologies to the poor fellows of whom I thought badly!  

However, my main problem with the book is not the author’s fault, nor mine – it’s simply that his sort of expat can be summed up by his description of Bule John’s home and those of his friends – his own driver, security guard AND no less than THREE maids.

Talk about life-styles of the rich and famous!

The business community, though it has lots of nice individuals within it, is another world, thanks to the huge salaries and allowances they get to live here. Although they do, most of them, seem to work quite hard, their sumptuous existence shields them from reality to a large extent, and they often tend to mingle only with their own.


grand-hyatt-jakarta Jakarta Hyatt   V  Local warteg warteg

Those of us whose social life, mostly, involves inter-action with Indonesians outwith the commercial elite, and who don’t dine, like De Bruijn, or his ‘hero,’, in the Hyatt, but in wartegs where you get a good meal for under two bucks, can certainly claim a better insight into local thoughts and feelings than the ‘expats’ he writes about.

Having said that, he does do a good job on a certain type of expat women and their philanthropic activities.

I have very little to do with them, my admitted prejudice exacerbated by a recent experience trying to help an Indonesian whose foreign husband died not long ago. He left her largely unprovided for, but the response of certain organised ‘benevolent’ ladies was that they don’t help individual cases!

So as long as it’s some kind of community project, they can swan along to and crow over, great, but if a widow and kids go hungry, tough.



De Bruijn writes well, and can be vastly amusing, as when he records the Dutchmen sprawled paralytic drunk on the lawn of the ambassadorial premises after celebrating their annual Queen’s Day.

Amazing bunch, the Dutch! Last month, we had a birthday party for our Queen, Eizabeth II, but even I got home safely, nobody spotted out cold! 

And I empathised with some of his character’s aversions, for instance to the movements of pedestrians here, who shuffle along at a snail’s pace instead of briskly striding out like normal folk do. My general MPH is that of a man within sight of a bar which he knows is closing in two minutes!

But the work remains that of an outsider looking in, which is no longer how I can feel about Indonesia. It is fiction of course – satire, the author would insist, probably.

But his Bule John’s pursuit of some blonde Hollander woman, with whom he’s obsessed, bears no relation to general reality. As anyone who has lived here, more than a few months, will surely testify, Indonesian women are amazingly attractive, and lots of fun.

That’s another reason I dislike Bule John, who has a local girl-friend, and a child by her, to whom he just says cheerio when he does a runner during the time of troubles known as Krismon, the economic crisis/collapse of 1998.

Sure he’s left them well-provided for, but to walk away, quite coolly, as Jakarta is burning?

Horrid detachment, engendered by that cosseted existence which Bule John somewhere describes as ‘a decent bule life-style.

YUK, again.

On the plus side, reading this book has triggered the urge to write another book myself, from a very different sort of ‘expat’ point of view.


Maybe a sequel to the last one!