Posted by: mel | January 31, 2012

Remembering an overlooked auteur

Jakarta Post | Deanna Ramsay, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Tue, 01/31/2012 11:12 AM

Lighting up the stage: Theater Bejana performed Kwee Tek Hoay’s Zonder Lentera (Without Light) in Jakarta on Feb. 10, 2011.  Antara/Fanny OctavianusLighting up the stage: Theater Bejana performed Kwee Tek Hoay’s Zonder Lentera (Without Light) in Jakarta on Feb. 10, 2011. Antara/Fanny OctavianusThe deep pounding of a large drum and the tinkling of delicate brass instruments signaled the beginning of a recent performance at Toa Se Bio Temple in Jakarta’s Chinatown.

Actors who had been mingling in the audience headed for a makeshift stage, and Nonton Cap Go Meh (Watching Cap Go Meh) began.

Written in 1930 by Kwee Tek Hoay, the send-up of Chinese tradition set during festivities the 15th day after the Chinese New Year still resonated more than three quarters of a century later.

Kwee was a prolific author and journalist and the editor of numerous newspapers, and he made a name for himself in the 1920s and 30s by writing about the ever-changing world he observed around him in what was then the Dutch East Indies.

The Bogor-born man of Chinese descent wrote in his introduction to the drama being performed at the incense-filled temple, “In Nonton Cap Go Meh we wanted to try and depict one of those clashes between two groups, the old and the new, but one that is humorous because this book was published during the Chinese Lunar New Year and so our thoughts were lighter.”

Nonton Cap Go Meh centers around a married couple that rejects the custom that they should not go out together holding hands, instead going out with friends disguised as the opposite sex, to much hilarity.
Aside from Theater Bejana’s recent performance for the Jakarta Biennale and more shows planned for the future – just in time for Cap Go Meh – the light Kwee shed on the issues of his day has begun to shine anew.

Theater Bejana director Daniel H. Jacob told The Jakarta Post, “Kwee Tek Hoay is very important in Indonesian literature, because among the Chinese-Malay literati he was the most productive, with works in both prose and drama. … According to H.B. Jassin, [Kwee] was the first dramatist in Indonesia.”

In November of 2011, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono honored Kwee and eight others with the Bintang Budaya Parama Dharma award for individuals of impressive character who have made a cultural mark on the nation.

Just several months before that posthumous accolade, Gerakan Indonesia Membaca Sastra (GIMS) or the Indonesia Reads Literature Movement selected Kwee’s magnum opus Drama di Boven Digul (Drama in Boven Digul) as their first work of Indonesian literature to be read.

Aloud, that is.

Founded by novelist Ayu Utami, GIMS was started last August as a gathering for literature lovers that also benefits a cause; the readings are recorded and the DIY audio books donated to Yayasan Mitra Netra, a non-profit organization for the blind.

Their initial effort began with evening readings of Drama di Boven Digul at Kopi Tiam Oey in Central Jakarta.

When asked what inspired the choice, a little known work of over 700 pages, Ayu told the Post, “With Drama di Boven Digul, very rarely can one finish the book on one’s own.”

Ayu stressed the collective nature of GIMS and Kwee’s works fit nicely, a piece of literature people would most likely not read in the comfort of their own homes and, like much of Kwee’s work, not known outside a small circle of literature buffs.

The adventure novel spans the archipelago, beginning amid the failed communist uprising in Batavia in November of 1926, moving to a fugitive on the lam in North Sumatra and eventually to the Dutch prison colony of Boven Digul in Papua, and then deep, deep into the jungle.

Ayu said the purpose of GIMS was to foster a love of Indonesian literature, the first work they selected rather appropriately spanning the nation’s borders and penned by an author whose achievements were formerly not considered part of the corpus of Indonesian literature because of his Chinese descent.

A series published by Gramedia titled Kesastraan Melayu Tionghoa dan Kebangsaan Indonesia (Chinese-Malay Literature and Indonesian Nationhood) recognizes the contribution writers like Kwee made to Indonesian literature, with novels and poems from the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th century that offer vivid descriptions of life at the time. With 10 volumes available so far, many of Kwee’s writings have been included in the collection.

Daniel, who founded Theater Bejana in 2002, said he first became aware of Kwee’s writings when he was in a University of Indonesia performance of Bunga Roos dari Cikembang (The Rose of Cikembang). After reading Kwee’s words, Daniel’s interest was immediately sparked.

“After studying and researching [Kwee] in depth, I discovered some very interesting things and felt it was my responsibility as someone who studies Indonesian literature to recognize that Chinese-Malay literary works were marginalized in this country. Many people don’t know that writers of Chinese descent also had a major role in the literary repertoire of Indonesia,” he said.

Theater Bejana has been performing Kwee’s work for years, starting with Bunga Roos dari Cikembang in February of 2004, an adaptation of Kwee’s Pencuri (The Thief) in 2010, and Zonder Lentera (Without Light) in 2011.

Recorded: A recent performance of Nonton Cap Go Meh proceeded both onstage and in Toa Se Bio’s courtyard, and included a flurry of photography. JP/R. Berto WedhatamaRecorded: A recent performance of Nonton Cap Go Meh proceeded both onstage and in Toa Se Bio’s courtyard, and included a flurry of photography. JP/R. Berto WedhatamaTheir recent performance of Nonton Cap Go Meh proceeded amid gloomy grey skies and impending rain both onstage and in Toa Se Bio’s courtyard, the “fourth wall” of theater effectively pierced by the actors in period costume as they moved through the temple’s tiny grounds. With the mélange of audience and actor came also a flurry of photography, creating an odd, fractured experience. But, the frenzy to record the performance for posterity over mere observation – all too common nowadays – is perhaps for Kwee and the kind of thinker he was all too proper.

“No change can happen in the world without struggle … Those who want change and those who want to hold on to the old norms, both sides are right and wrong in their own ways. People who want to develop too freely will race with the times, spreading seeds of confusion that not only harm themselves but others as well. But people who are too self-sure, lagging behind, they often retain a bitterness as punishment,” Kwee wrote.

This auteur’s works, once carefully typeset on printing presses, performed on Batavia’s stages and, in the case of Bunga Roos dari Cikembang, adapted into one of the earliest films ever made in the archipelago in 1931, are now enduring through other mediums – on digital records and in new publications and modern memory. Somehow Kwee’s writings have become simultaneously old and new, ever treading that fine line he so carefully advocated between tradition and modernity.


Theater Bejana will be performing Nonton Cap Go Meh from Feb. 2 to 4 at Gedung Kesenian Jakarta.

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Posted by: mel | January 30, 2012

When cultures collide, what do Chinese do?

The Chinese New Year is here and Jakartans of all ethnic backgrounds, not just Chinese, celebrate the event openly, in marked contrast to when the holiday was largely a closed-door private affair 15 years ago. This and the articles on page 22 look at what has changed, based on reports prepared by Amahl S. Azwar, Anggi M. Lubis, Corry Elyda, Dhenok Pratiwi, Fikri Z. Muhammadi, Hans Nicholas Jong, Muhammad Rizqi A., Nadya Natahadibrata, Pras Gustanto, Satria Sambijantoro,  Tassia Sipahutar and Yuliasri Perdani.

Devoted: A woman burns incense while saying prayers to mark the Chinese New Year at the Kim Tek Ie Temple in Glodok, West Jakarta. JP/Fikri Z. Muhammadi

Devoted: A woman burns incense while saying prayers to mark the Chinese New Year at the Kim Tek Ie Temple in Glodok, West Jakarta. JP/Fikri Z. Muhammadi

Eko Heryanto sees the Chinese New Year as an opportunity for a family get together. This year, he hosted the festivities for his core family at his home in Kelapa Gading, North Jakarta, where lanterns and an angpao (money) tree greeted the coming of the Year of the Water Dragon.

“I like the freedom that we have in celebrating the New Year now. We don’t need to conceal this from the public anymore,” Eko, who runs a software company, says.

However, he says he does not care so much about the spiritual aspects of the Lunar New Year, and is even prepared to debunk some of the myths that come with it.

He cites the superstition that if one sweeps the floor the night before the New Year, it brings bad luck.

“I would sweep the house if it’s dirty,” Eko, who doesn’t have a Chinese name or speak the language, says.

“We don’t even buy new clothes for the occasion,” says Eko, who is married to a woman named Asthri, with whom he has an 8-month-old child named Kayana.

He admits that he is not a devout Buddhist and rarely visits the temple for prayers, sometimes in defiance of his father’s advice.

“I only do what I think is practical,” Eko says.

Corry, a 24-year-old visitor at the Taman Anggrek Mall, also sees the Chinese New Year as a time for family gatherings and does not see any spiritual values in the event.

“It’s a time for angpao and to have fun,” she says.

Her family has converted to Catholicism and stopped observing the full rituals of the Chinese New Year since her grandmother passed away. There are no ornaments in her home and the family never says prayers at the temples.

“I was fully raised in the Catholic tradition,” she says.
Respecting elders: Tan Kho Tjiang, the 93-year-old patriarch of the Tanfamily, greets one of his descendants during a family gathering in CentralJakarta on New Year’s Day. JP/Tassia Sipahutar

Respecting elders: Tan Kho Tjiang, the 93-year-old patriarch of the Tanfamily, greets one of his descendants during a family gathering in CentralJakarta on New Year’s Day. JP/Tassia Sipahutar

Tan Kho Tjiang, 93, also stopped observing many of the rituals when he converted to Catholicism six years ago. During his family’s Chinese New Year dinner, this patriarch, who heads four generations of the Tan clan that numbers more than 100, led the event with prayers to thank Jesus Christ for all the blessings they have enjoyed.

Gone is the tradition of paying respect to the ancestors on Chinese New Year, but this did not stop the family from using the gathering to show their respect and reverence toward their patriarch.

In Bekasi, Darsono Salim, 51, says his Buddhist prayers with his wife at their home on the eve of the Lunar New Year. None of their three children, who are already married, join them because they have all converted to Christianity.

“It’s just the two of us now,” Darsono says.

Changing attitudes among Chinese about their traditions and cultures come largely with their conversion to one of the organized religions.

For the three decades under Soeharto, not only were the Chinese denied the right to express their cultural identity, they were also required to join one of the five recognized organized religions: Islam, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

In 1999, then president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid added Confucianism as the sixth religion recognized by the state. However, many Chinese had already converted.

Although some converts practice Confucianism along with the teachings of their new religion, others see Chinese traditions and Confucian teachings as clashing with their new faith.
Smoke gets in your eyes: Smoke from burning incense covers the Boen Tek Bio Temple, the oldest Confucian temple in Tangerang, as Chinese Indonesians bring offerings and say prayers to mark the Chinese New Year. JP/Hans Nicholas Jong

Smoke gets in your eyes: Smoke from burning incense covers the Boen Tek Bio Temple, the oldest Confucian temple in Tangerang, as Chinese Indonesians bring offerings and say prayers to mark the Chinese New Year. JP/Hans Nicholas Jong

Eveline, 58, came to the Dharma Bakti Buddhist Temple on Chinese New Year because her husband wanted to take photographs. She did not burn incense like most other visitors. She just sat there watching

Eveline, who lives in Glodok, West Jakarta, says she could not see herself joining the prayers because it goes strictly against her Christian faith. “I cannot say pagan prayers. That would be turning my back on Christianity,” she says.

Au Bintoro, who hosted a gathering of four generations of the Xie clan at his mansion overlooking the Rancamaya Golf and Country Club in Bogor, says that the majority of his family members have converted to Christianity.

The clan, however, insists that the eldest son of each Xie generation must remain a Buddhist to continue family traditions and preserve the values and teachings of that religion.

This year, Hartawan, the eldest of the 27th generation of Xie, led the ceremony and made sure that the rituals and values of the Chinese New Year were fully observed.

His uncle Au Bintoro says everyone took Hartawan’s lead despite their religious beliefs. “When he says prayers for our ancestors, we pray with him.”

Posted by: mel | January 30, 2012

What’s in a Chinese name?

The Chinese New Year is here and Jakartans of all ethnic backgrounds, not just Chinese, celebrate the event openly, in marked contrast to when the holiday was largely a closed-door private affair 15 years ago. This and the articles on page 22 look at what has changed, based on reports prepared by Amahl S. Azwar, Anggi M. Lubis, Corry Elyda, Dhenok Pratiwi, Fikri Z. Muhammadi, Hans Nicholas Jong, Muhammad Rizqi A., Nadya Natahadibrata, Pras Gustanto, Satria Sambijantoro,  Tassia Sipahutar and Yuliasri Perdani.

Oey Tjin Eng has always used his Chinese name and never really cared much about how society treats him. The 68-year-old caretaker of the Boen Tek Bio (Virtue Fort) Temple in Benteng, Tangerang, says he has never felt the need to change his name to something less Chinese to feel accepted by society.

The fact that he has never held any formal job helps.

“I am unemployed,” says Oey, who has tried to run a foodstuff business unsuccessfully. “I’m no merchant, that’s for sure. So, what could they possibly expect to extort from me?”
My name is Oey: Oey Tjin Eng, caretaker of the Boen Tek Bio Temple, never felt the need to change his Chinese name to an “Indonesian-sounding name” throughout the Soeharto years. JP/Tassia SipahutarMy name is Oey: Oey Tjin Eng, caretaker of the Boen Tek Bio Temple, never felt the need to change his Chinese name to an “Indonesian-sounding name” throughout the Soeharto years. JP/Tassia Sipahutar

For more than three decades under the Soeharto regime, a Chinese name was an open invitation to all kinds of discrimination, especially when dealing with the government.

But since Oey lives in a predominantly Chinese neighborhood, he rarely has to deal with the government, except for obtaining and periodically renewing his ID card.

“Most Ciben children use Chinese names,” he says, slipping into the slang describing Cina Benteng (Benteng Chinese). “At least they use them at home.”

Anita Novianti, a Ciben born during the Soeharto era, is one example. The 25-year-old, who works for a private firm, is referred to by her Chinese name, Tjiu Hau Lien, when she is at home. Lien means lotus and Hau means nice, she says.

Her name and appearance are probably about the only Chinese attributes in her daily identity. Her family speaks Indonesian at home, so she never learned to speak Chinese. However, she says she knows quite a lot about Chinese culture and traditions through her work as a volunteer at a temple.

Under Soeharto, Chinese Indonesians were barred from expressing their cultural identity, including the use of Chinese names, speaking the language and celebrating the Lunar New Year. This policy was intended to promote assimilation of the Chinese minority with the rest of the Indonesian population as part of the nation-building process. Chinese Indonesians, however, resented being singled out to forsake their cultural roots.

They were discouraged, though not completely banned, from using their Chinese names. This motivated most Chinese to embrace “Indonesian-sounding names” and Christian/biblical names, although some did not.

The sport of badminton offers a look at how this policy played out among the Chinese community. Rudy Hartono, one of the many world champions Indonesia has produced, most of them Chinese Indonesians, dropped his original name. He won the All-England championship eight times, all under his adopted Indonesian name. Other Chinese-Indonesian badminton champions, like Susi Susanti, Alan Budikusuma, Haryanto Arbi and Christian Hadinata, did the same. However, Liem Swie King, who earned a number of world titles in the 1980s, used his Chinese name comfortably.
Green Beauty: Miss Indonesia 2005 Imelda Fransisca hosts the Xieclan gathering for Imlek at her father’s home in Bogor. Imelda uses herChinese name, Xie Qing Mei, which means green beauty, at home thoughrarely in public. JP/Special

Green Beauty: Miss Indonesia 2005 Imelda Fransisca hosts the Xieclan gathering for Imlek at her father’s home in Bogor. Imelda uses herChinese name, Xie Qing Mei, which means green beauty, at home thoughrarely in public. JP/Special

Another case in point is Xie Qing Mei, who was crowned Miss Indonesia in 2005 under her Indonesian name, Imelda Fransisca. She says that she rarely uses her Chinese name, which means “green beauty”. Everyone in the Xie clan has a Chinese name, and one of the syllables designates a color.

“I didn’t choose my Chinese cultural heritage. However, because I was born and raised in Indonesia, everything I do is for this country. I am 100 percent Indonesian,” she says, recalling that some people had questioned her “Indonesian-ness” when she was crowned Miss Indonesia.

Harry Tjan Silalahi, chair of the board of trustees for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), says he took on his Batak name after the clan accepted him as one of them through long friendship. It was not a name that was forced on him.

“The use of an Indonesian name facilitates your interaction with the people,” Harry says. “There was never any ban against the use of Chinese names, in the same way that Javanese were never barred from using Arabic names.”

The practice of changing names among Chinese immigrants dates back to Dutch colonial times, he says. Upper-class Chinese adopted Dutch names, but many in the lower to middle classes adopted names common in their locality.

Many people have tried to retain the essence of their Chinese names by concealing it in their new Indonesian names. Tycoon Soedono Salim comes from the Liem clan, and his heir successor Anthony Salim continues this tradition. Mari Pangestu, the minister for tourism and creative economy, comes from the Pang clan.

Herdiana, 29, an editor for a woman’s magazine, says she feels comfortable with her name and the fact that she never had a Chinese name. “Even my mom didn’t have a Chinese name,” she says.

Melani Budianta, an English literature professor at the University of Indonesia, says she never resented the name change policy even though she felt compelled to drop her Chinese name, Tan Tjiok Sien, in 1966.

“Our family converted to Christianity, and we have embraced the Indonesian culture,” Melani says. “The real problem is not so much about the use of a Chinese name as it is about society’s stereotyping and the prejudice against Chinese.”

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