Charlie and the Cheineken Factory
In 1998, I was working in the Perth CBD for a large engineering company who had an alliance contract with a major oil and gas company. I had been there for about two years when I was visited by one of my mentors, and friends, who was a highly experienced and senior engineer. He said to me:
'Mark, you are wasting your time here and need to get overseas experience. Brunei or Houston. Let me know tomorrow.'
I went home and told Karen about the conversation. I had been talking about working abroad for some time so she wasn't surprised, even though we now had a three-year-old girl and a six-month-old baby boy in our family.
'Where is Brunei?'
'I've no idea,' I replied, and went to get the atlas.
(for my younger readers: an atlas is a book of maps of the world, kind of like Google Earth but on paper. and heavier to lift.)
We discovered Brunei was part of Borneo, an island country east of Singapore, and about a five hour flight from Perth. Houston on the other hand was nearly a day of air travel to reach.
So, Brunei it was.
It all happened quickly. We sold our house and our car, then bid farewell to our family and friends, and climbed aboard a Royal Brunei Boeing 767 to Bandar Seri Begawan.
We were met at the Brunei airport by a driver holding up my name. He didn't speak English; at least as far as I could tell, because he didn't speak at all. And we didn't speak Malay.
The airport was like a green-house, but without the plants. It was humid and claustrophobic. The kids were hot, hungry and thirsty. And there was a dense scent in the air I would soon come to recognise as tropical Asia.
Getting through customs was stressful. Not speaking the language, knowing I currently had only a temporary working visa, and being my first time overseas, didn't help. I tried to stay as calm as I could but I was freaking out. What the hell was I thinking coming here with my young family?
It was an hours drive to Kuala Belait (literally, "where the Belait River meets the sea"). I sat up front with the driver, Karen and the kids in the rear, as we drove the highway, past mosques and jungles, to the hotel we would be housed in for the first two weeks. It was up to us to find accommodation after that.
The hotel we were staying in was next to the river, it's water a deep brown, carrying sediment washed from slopes where great swathes of trees had been felled inland.
The receptionist at the hotel also didn't speak English. And the room service menu was a list of unrecognisable dishes and ingredients. Nasi Lemak. Ayam Percik. Mee Goreng. Somehow we managed to order some plain rice.
The next day was a public holiday in Brunei but I had been provided with a rental car (an early 90s Nissan Sunny, which wasn't) so I drove this to where my new workplace was located.
It was not what I expected.
Komplek Harapan was a U-shaped complex, three stories high, the ground floor was occupied by a car dealership, a noodle shop, and an upholsterer. The first floor held a computer shop and an insurance agency. The third floor, part of, was where I would be working. It was accessible through an internal stairwell which was all I could see when I stood at the aluminium-framed glass entry door to the office.
I didn't tell Karen till much later, after we had settled in, but I was having something of an 'oh, fuck' moment right then.
When went in the next day I found the engineering office actually occupyied several individual upstairs shops, connected to one another by a hole cut in the wall, and fitted with every imaginable size, shape, and colour of furniture - from the 1980s and earlier - none of it matching. At a future point, I would help the general manager take broken computers and keyboards from a cupboard and place them on some of the empty desks, so i t would look like we had more staff than we did for a client visit.
After I had been introduced to everyone, I sought out one of the expat Australians and asked him how I could buy beer. I figured, being Australian, he would know. He did.
'Call Charlie,' he said, handing me a slip of paper with a phone number. 'We haven't used him yet. The last bloke was arrested.'
Brunei is not part of Malaysia. Brunei is an absolute monarchy, ruled by a Sultan, and is a Sharia country. The sale and public consumption of alcohol is banned. Non-Muslims are permitted to bring in a small quantity of drink for their own consumption. Brunei is "dry".
I took the note, having another 'oh, fuck' moment, and returned to my desk.
That night, I called Charlie and, after struggling initially with explaining to him what I wanted, managed to order ten cartons of beer, each costing fifty dollars. I didn't need ten cases of course, but I was petrified at the idea of doing this on a regular basis and so went with a bulk purchase.
Charlie arrived, after dark, in a yellow Datsun 120Y, and backed into my driveway. In the boot, individually wrapped in black plastic garbage bags, were the cartons. We got them into the kitchen quickly and he left. I opened them. They were all Heineken.
I didn't know when I had called him that I could have chosen a brand of beer. I also didn't know when I opened the first beer that just one Heineken was going to be enough to give me a cranking headache.
After testing, and retesting, the beer, all for the same result, I eventually sold eight of the cartons to new friends and rang Charlie for some Sinagporean Tiger beers. They were much better.
Brunei turned out to be an awesome experience for our family. I learned a great deal from one of the best mechanical engineers in the industry, we made some good friends, and had a lot of laughs. And we got to experience sitting on the porch of a 1970s bungalow after a tropical storm while our kids splish-splashed in the flooded simpang allweyway.
Heineken though would come back to haunt me when I later worked in China. The same additives, whatever was used in the beer supplied to Singapore and Brunei, was also used there. I would get instant hangovers again when I gave the brand one last go, and dubbing it Cheineken, before moving onto the flat, tasteless, but intra-cranially tolerable, local brew called Tsing Tao.