In the nineteen thirties the Hungarian, Laszlo Szekely (1892-1946) returned from Medan to Budapest and wrote the novel Tropic Fever. This highly autobiographical story takes place on the east coast of Sumatra between 1908 and 1918, which was the pioneering period of Deli tobacco. The book portrays the harsh atmosphere surrounding planters lifes in the Deli area at that time. It also tells of the poor working conditions of the coolies. The journey by train from Belawan to Medan has been narrated as follows:
‘Nowhere a village, or even a house. Not even a coco palm. Only forest and swamp. Presently we saw the first campong: a couple of coco palms rose like huge paint brushes straight into the sky; among the large, crenated, light-green leaves of the papaya trees, their fruits glistened, yellowish-green and smelling like melons; the giant tattered leaves of the banana trees, shining as if lacquered, quivered in the noonday sun despite the lack of a breeze. Hidden in the dark shade were huts of palm leaves, a couple of skinny, mangy dogs, naked Malay children with fat bellies…. Then again forest, swamp, lianas, monkeys, jungle, thicket, stillness, dark pieces of water. Suddenly, as if marked out with a ruler, a huge clearing. Ditches dug in a straight line, paths, two-metre high tobacco plants in endless straight rows. As far as the eye could reach, there swayed a light-green sea of leaves. Everything one saw was carefully tended, almost exaggeratedly ordered. Among the Chinese coolies with their basket-hats was a European overseer; he waved to us with his thick, pointed stick….. Now one plantation succeeded another. The campongs were no longer in the forest, but around the plantations. One could see regular streets, natives bicycling, tinkling buggies drawn by ponies.
And all at once we drove into the station of the capital. Everywhere order and cleanliness. Pretty stone buildings, an iron viaduct, a glass-covered lobby above the platform. Native and Chinese coolies carried the baggage, Malay and Chinese travellers poured from the carriages, European railroad officials in white uniforms and red caps strutted up and down like peacocks among hens. In front of the station a large square. Smooth asphalt roads with mighty palms on both sides, pretty bungalows, lovely well-tended little gardens, strange flowers in variegated colours.’
Laszlo Szekely, Tropic Fever.