Catch a red taxi to downtown Dili

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 October, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 October, 2001, 12:00am

IN BETWEEN the burned-out shells of former shops and homes, on a dusty, near-empty street in central Dili, was an amazing sight. Bright red, sparkling clean with engine purring - it was a Hong Kong taxi.

The incongruity of the red car, still carrying the Hong Kong licence plates and plaque allowing for five passengers, cannot be overstated. The Hong Kong cab could not have looked more out of place.

But the story of how it and seven of its 'compatriots' come to be plying the streets of Dili and the scenic coastal roads out of town, offers just one aspect of a multi-faceted Chinese resurgence in East Timor.

Other aspects include the plethora of restaurants and hotels set up to service United Nations workers, prospective foreign investors and the occasional deluge of election observers or journalist 'hack-packs'; the supermarkets offering practical items for the new frontier such as screwdriver sets and ice boxes; and the bay-front electronic stores. Almost all of these business are backed by Chinese money of various kinds. And almost all of the thriving small- and medium-sized businesses can be traced back to Chinese investors or management.

'You've got to hand it to the Chinese spirit for commerce in strange places,' said one international staff member of the UN Transitional Administration for East Timor (Untaet). 'This place is barely functioning in any truly commercial sense and most people keen on coming here take one or two looks around and give up. Yet here we have thriving competition between Chinese business people from around the world.'

A Dili-based diplomat agreed, adding the competition was not only commercial. One glance at the extensive renovation work underway on a bungalow near the sea in Dili's embassy district suggests that Beijing is taking Dili seriously too.

Scheduled to open this week to coincide with China's National Day holiday, the spacious new Chinese Embassy is the front office for an aid effort intended to back up China's support of UN intervention in East Timor with practical assistance where it matters.

This includes the provision of 55 civilian police from China, including the first three Chinese policewomen ever sent abroad to represent their country. It also includes cash donations to East Timorese refugees still held in Indonesian West Timor and East Java. And it includes 67 containers of agricultural machinery such as tractors; 72 containers of fishing equipment including 300 Yamaha boat engines, fishing nets and fridges; 15 containers carrying 100,000 nylon mosquito nets and a 30 million yuan (about HK$28 million) donation to help East Timor's first independent government build its own Foreign Ministry building.

At the same time, Taiwan is contributing through international donor programmes, also in the area of fisheries development, and UN sources suggested the competition for influence between Taiwan and China was as intense in East Timor as anywhere else.

The new East Timorese Government has already announced its 'one China' policy, not least because of China's pivotal support on the UN Security Council in 1999, when Indonesian-backed mobs were systematically destroying much of the territory.

But ties to Taiwan could not be ignored, the UN source said, given the personal friendships between figures such as East Timor's acting foreign minister Jose Ramos Horta and Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian, forged during the long years of Ramos Horta's diplomacy through the UN before the 1999 independence ballot secured his country's future.

But such high politics have little to do with the frontier urges of Chinese business people visible on almost every street corner.

When UN staffers take a break from their prefabricated Kobi-hut offices parked in the dust of central Dili, they drink cappuccino at the City Cafe which is the highly successful enterprise of Ted Lai. Just nearby is the Tropical Hotel and restaurant, run by Tony Lay, on the site of what used to be a main office of the militia run by notorious Jakarta-backed militiaman Eurico Guterres.

Tony Lay was born in East Timor and like many in the local Chinese community fled to Australia via Portugal when Indonesia invaded East Timor in December 1975. He came back to Dili in December last year, but was not bringing his wife and children to Dili until the political situation after the August 30 elections and the gradual wind-down of the Untaet presence was resolved.

'It's easy to do business here because I am a local Chinese,' said Tony Lay. 'Only a few of us have come back so far. The majority of businesses here now are from Singapore and Indonesian Chinese. We locals aren't sure about the Indonesian Chinese, some of the locals are not very happy to lose job possibilities to Indonesians.'

Other Chinese entrepreneurs across town agreed that there were cleavages within the Chinese community in Dili, based on the complex history of East Timor. The original Chinese of East Timor are those with family roots traceable back several generations on East Timorese soil, with intermarriage a common theme.

Businesses such as the Toko Lay Hardware Store dating from 1959 is an example of a business where an extended family has survived every major rupture from Portuguese colonialism, through Indonesian invasion and occupation, and then Indonesian destruction, until the current rebuilding phase under UN supervision.

The Toko Lay was damaged in the violence of September 1999, with burn marks still visible on its frontage and in the godown behind. Here are stacked goods such as generators made in China, rice from Vietnam, endless variations of nuts, bolts and plumbing parts and more. Business had improved, said Charles Tan, 30-year-old shop manager from another branch of the Lay clan.

'We can't be angry at the destruction of our property. Everyone suffered at that time, not only me. It is very sad to see the full extent of the damage everywhere,' he said. As soon as his new house is finished, his wife and children will return from their temporary home in Surabaya, a centre of Chinese business in Indonesia's East Java.

Mr Tan doesn't see a problem with the arrival of Chinese money from outside East Timor. At this early stage in East Timor's renaissance, he said there was room for everyone.

Close to his store is the far more recently built Landmark Supermarket, backed by Singaporean investors. Along the bay is the Ocean View Seafood Restaurant and Guest House, also built with Chinese money.

On the waterfront is a shop selling mobile phones run by a Chinese Christian, a refugee from the communal and religious war in Indonesia's Maluku Islands. 'I came here a year ago,' said the Moluccan Chinese, who chose not to give his name. His immigration status is unclear, but his produce is in big demand, so: 'Never mind!'

A couple of streets further inland is the old, brightly painted Chinese temple, still intact behind high walls. One custodian there said the temple was not burned or destroyed by departing Indonesian mobs in 1999, it was only looted of furniture and crockery. 'The Chinese have not yet come back in big numbers, some are still scared, still waiting,' the custodian said.

Into this melee of ambitious plans and motley achievements, lurches the Hong Kong taxi. Against the Dili backdrop of heat and dust, where transport is hard to get hold of and flagging down a car near impossible, the Hong Kong taxi takes on a new allure. What might in Hong Kong be a mere workhorse taken for granted on a busy day, is in Dili almost an elegant apparition.

Accosting one of the red cab's customers to ask where they came from, brings the curious to the My Field Hotel, located between the main town of Dili and the airport. Entering its portals is like stepping into a Kowloon business - except the environment is one of palm trees and sea breezes.

Workmen are still working on a building behind the main one-storey hotel and an empty lot next door is earmarked for further development. The My Field Restaurant serves Cantonese food, and the waiters appear Cantonese, as does the opera on the television, the framed wall hangings and the brandy bottles behind the bar.

On the tarmac outside stand eight Hong Kong taxis and three new buses brought in from Shanghai. Chinese workmen are cleaning the cabs, one Hong Kong mechanic is there to cope with the taxis, and almost all the hotel guests are ethnic Chinese.

They are prospective investors who see well beyond the winding down of the UN presence here over the next few months. Even as economists warn darkly of East Timor's life and death struggle to survive before oil and gas revenues kick in within four or five years, these entrepreneurial explorers are an unexpected reminder of home.

'This is a new country, a new venture, so we like to do business here,' said Li Wai-keung, director of Lionkit International Ltd, a shipping and transportation company which hails from Tsuen Wan. Mr Li said an initial investment of $5 million was enough to get going, with another $2 million for running costs.

Mr Li is used to setting up in new places, after arriving in Hong Kong from China in 1962. He said his goal was to beat the competition provided by some 'comfort' taxi cabs imported from Singapore which were in bad condition and anything but comfortable. 'We are here to offer better service.'

Vaudine England is the Post's Jakarta correspondent ([email protected])