SURABAYA, Indonesia – The sweet, pungent scent of cloves and tobacco hangs heavy in the air as women paste, roll and snip cigarettes, their fingers flying faster than the eye can follow as tourists observe the public face of one of Indonesia’s most successful companies.

Staring down the global trend towards demonising tobacco, Sampoerna, which was snapped up by US giant Philip Morris in March for 5.2 billion dollars, proudly showcases itself at this gleaming museum in Indonesia’s second city, Surabaya.

Pegged on the rags-to-riches tale of its founder, Chinese immigrant Liem Seeng Tee, House of Sampoerna claims it is highlighting a great Indonesian story rather than glorifying smoking to the 5,000 visitors coming here each month.

"We got so many requests from university students and others to visit our factory that we could not accommodate all of them, so we built this museum," says marketing manager Hengki Setiawan.

Using the former premises of a Dutch-era orphanage that the company bought in 1932, it opened two years ago.

"We want to share with the public the history of Sampoerna, the struggle of the owner and family to make Sampoerna a success," Hengki says.

Students crouch to earnestly scrawl notes at a replica of the first handcart opened by Liem, and stroll by the framed black-and-white photographs of the business in its early years, speaking in library-hushed tones.

A fountain gurgles in the foyer, muffled by heavy red ceiling-to-floor drapes and surrounded by tasteful Chinese furniture.

Four generations on from Liem, the company has diversified into numerous industries — but the focus here is firmly on the cigarettes.

Cabinets display everything from old printing plates for cigarette packs to a book titled "Smoking is Good For You": a title perhaps meant to provide solace to the millions of smokers in the world’s fifth largest tobacco market.

According to a 2004 Ministry of Health report, 62.2 percent of Indonesian men smoked in 2001, compared to 1.3 percent of women. More than two-thirds started before they turned 19.

Most popular are kretek, produced from a blend of tobacco and cloves and named for the sound they make when a smoker inhales on them. Liem started pre-rolling them in 1934 to produce Dji Sam Soe, still one of the country’s leading brands.

Upstairs in a display room, with a view over a factory floor where hundreds of women churn out hand-rolled cigarettes, a half-dozen workers show up close how it is done. One picks up 50 sticks in her hand without needing to count.

If a worker rolls 4,000 cigarettes per day, she earns 60,000 rupiah (about 60 dollars) per week. Sampoerna has a workforce of more than 37,000 and the company booked revenue of almost 1.0 billion dollars in 2004.

"We are here to look around and learn about the management of Sampoerna, its history," says Ayu Setiarimi, one of four tourism students from Airlangga University.

"Indirectly it’s promoting Sampoerna, but in another way our knowledge is now wider about cigarettes and how Sampoerna has grown."

None of the four women smoke.

"In Indonesia, if men see women smoke they will think that maybe that’s not a good woman smoking," Setiarini says. "The perception among Indonesians, especially guys, is like that."

Indonesia and Nepal are the only two countries in Asia that have not signed on to the UN’s 2003 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which among a slew of other measures, requires signatories to impose restrictions on tobacco advertising, sponsorship and promotion when it comes into force.

"If they put their logo there, it means promotion," Hakim Sorimuda Pohan, an MP working on tobacco control, says of the museum, which he has not visited.

He tells AFP he believes it would not be allowed if Indonesia signed on to the convention — but fears are rife that employment would drop off as a result, so he says it is unlikely to be signed anytime soon.

Museum general manager Ina Silas says that no complaints from anti-smokers or health authorities have so far been received.

"We have to prevent this, so that’s why we have policies about people being of a certain age," she says. Visitors aged under 18 must be accompanied by their parents.

A swish cafe where company logos are prominently displayed and an art gallery with changing exhibitions are other drawcards the company hopes will lure visitors, who do not pay for admission.

Sampoerna bought the premises in 1932, turning it first of all into a theatre visited by Charlie Chaplin the same year. Founding Indonesian president Sukarno also used it to make a series of speeches in 1938.

"This has really become one of the tourist destinations — in Surabaya, there are not so many places to visit," marketing manager Hengki concedes.

"We want House of Sampoerna to become the new icon of Surabaya … The kretek is very Indonesian."

Dutchman Willem Van Schendel is among the 1,000 foreigners streaming through the door each month, and he sees it as something akin to wine company museums in France.

"Of course there’s a trend in the world now to focus on the health issues, the health hazards of smoking, but for alcohol it’s the same thing and for me it’s not very different — and I’m a non-smoker," he says.

"I think it’s very well done."

Representatives from new owners Philip Morris agreed, Hengki says, so no changes are planned for now.

/ Lifestyle