Posted by: mel | February 1, 2009

The tale of the ‘peranakan’

Thu, 01/22/2009 1:49 PM  |  Lifestyle

Peranakan is a term used to refer to the descendants of early Chinese immigrants who partially adopted indigenous customs through either acculturation or intermarriage with indigenous communities.

Many peranakan Chinese families have been settled in Indonesia for centuries and have mixed indigenous-Chinese ancestry. There are about 7 million peranakan in Indonesia.

According to University of Indonesia anthropologist, Iwan Meulia Pirous, the origins of Chinese Indonesians vary greatly, as do the timing and circumstances of their immigration to Indonesia and their strength of ties with the Chinese mainland.

“Many local Chinese cultures are disregarded. After political reformation in 1998, the Chinese could more openly express their culture,” said Pirous, who is also a member of the Forum for Indonesian Anthropological Studies (FKAI).

“But this is always as a global Chinese identity. Symbols like dragons, Chinese coins and lanterns frequently appear, but there are also many local cultures.”

It is possible, Pirous said, that early Chinese settlements existed long before Admiral Zhang arrived in the early 15th century as part of what is considered the first wave of immigration.

The second wave of immigration occurred around the time of the Opium Wars (1839-1860), while the third wave was around the first half of the 20th century. Descendants of early immigrants, who have become creolized, or huan-na (in Hokkien), by marriage and acculturation, are called peranakan. The more recent Chinese immigrants and those who are still culturally Chinese are called cina totok.

In the 15th century, many first-generation peranakan were born Muslim as they settled down, marrying indigenous women. They founded mosques, using a combination of Chinese and local designs.

The peranakan contributed various cultural influences – mainly culinary, including various types of noodles. Other contributions are beautiful batik pesisir from Cirebon, Pekalongan, Kudus, Lasem, Tuban and Sidoarjo, and traditional herbal medicines known as jamu.

Since 1870, politics have threatened peranakan culture. When the Dutch government issued an agrarian policy prohibiting pribumi (indigenous people) from selling their land to foreigners, this affected the Chinese, who were categorized as foreigners (“foreign Orientals”). Consequently their integration with their “indigenous” neighbors was disrupted.

Despite their contribution to the nationalist movement and struggle against Dutch colonialism, the peranakan were coming under increasing government pressure by the late 1950s to assimilate with what was then viewed as the indigenous Indonesian “national identity”.

During Soeharto’s era, the peranakan were stigmatized as leftist sympathizers and banned from politics, because Sukarno’s regime chose to side with the People’s Republic of China – something that Soeharto as an anti-Communist American ally did not want.

– Matheos V. Messakh

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