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Central Java revives Chinese “Peranakan” Heritage

Sunday March 25, 2007

Ever since 2002, when President Abdurahman Wahid, - popularly known as Gus Dur,- lifted the ban on Chinese culture and Chinese festivals in Indonesia, many communities have been activated to revive this precious heritage that had been forced to stay under wraps for three long decades. Ever since then, Chinese New Year and the Cap Goh Meh, coming 15 day after the New Year, have been celebrated with gusto in many Indonesian towns.

In Central Java, Ir. Widya Wjayanti was recently singled out as outstanding pioneer in reviving communities to become active in restoring the Chinese “Peranakan” culture – which is the blend of Chinese heritage with indigenous arts. In 2002 when she was assigned to study Chinese heritage in this province, Widya discovered cores of Chinese-Indonesian cultures that are fortunately still very much alive in Java’s coastal towns, from Cirebon in the west to Pekalongan , Semarang and Kudus and even to the harbour town of Tuban in East Java. After the conclusion of assignment, Widya pressed on to urge communities to revive their ancient heritage. Meanwhile she succeeded to revive the art of the Semarang batik motif, the art of paper umbrella making, and to modernize the original Chinese Toa Kok Tui art from the See Hoo Kiong temple to collaborate with jazz musician Bubi Chen, reports Kompas daily.

Through Widya, the Peranakan community in Semarang has succeeded to revive the Chinatown of this city, which was especially apparent through the colourful parades held during Chinese New Year this year, which was celebrated with musical performances, puppet shows, lion dances and dragon parades, and accompanied by culinary presentations that are typical to this town.

Contact between China and the Indonesian archipelago actually dates back to time immemorial, when even in the first century AD, Chinese junks sailed into these waters in search of spices, sandalwood and ivory, and Indonesian ships sailed north as far as Cambodia. Based on these exchanges and through the centuries, Chinese heritage and influences have become ingrained into many coastal cultures and is until today still very apparent in the handicrafts produced in these areas. These can be found, among others in West Sumatra, Palembang, Bangka and Bilitung, in West Kalimantan, and in particular along the entire northern coast of Java to Madura and on to Bali, where Chinese traits have blended into local cultures to form new cultural patterns, as can be seen for example in the intricately and richly gold embroidered wedding costumes, batik designs, ceramics craft , fine woodcarving of furniture items, and even in foods and desserts. 

 In 1406 Admiral Zheng He, emissary of the Emperor of China set foot on Java, at present day Semarang, where he later built the temple, known today as “Gedung Batu”.

Before this event, when the Buddhist kingdom of Crivijaya thrived in South Sumatra up to the 12th, century, Chinese scholars and pilgrims would study first in Sumatra before proceeding to India. Later, Javanese and Sumatran sultans married Chinese princesses, thus bringing Chinese cultural traits into the various Indonesian court cultures. Later again, the Dutch brought in Chinese immigrants and slaves as cheap skilled labour to work the mines and plantations. Because of this long history, today Indonesia counts large communities of Chinese who intermarried with local women, although there are also those who remained apart from Indonesian life. Indonesian Chinese also distinguish themselves by social status, ranging from the aristocracy to dockyard workers. Also ranging from those who have integrated into local communities for centuries, and those who have recently arrived from mainland China.    

 At the fall of the Sukarno regime in 1965 in the aftermath of the failed coup by the then Indonesian Communist Party - that was allegedly backed by communist China, -  the Soeharto regime banned communism and the Indonesian Communist Party. With it, all public expressions, religious, artistic or otherwise, of anything Chinese was strictly banned. As a result, many of the young Indonesian Chinese today know very little of their heritage or hardly speak Chinese at all, having been completely brought up in the Indonesian language.

And again, at the fall of President Soeharto in 1988, there was widespread persecution of Chinese by fanatical elements.  This latest event has become a traumatic experience for the Chinese and has been one of a number of deterrents for Chinese tourists to visit Indonesia.

But with Chinese New Year now officially designated as a public holiday, and ethnic Chinese allowed to be active in politics, where a number of those with Chinese blood today are Members of Parliament, the Chinese ethnic group has now been fully integrated into Indonesian political and social life.

Chinese visitors have also been granted Visa on Arrival (VoA) facility, while Chinese Festivals and arts are now openly celebrated. It is hoped that the revival of the mixed Chinese-Indonesian artistic expressions will bring the various ethnic groups closer together as Indonesian citizens.