A. Dahana

  1. Introduction

The presence of Peranakan people in Indonesia cannot be separated from history of relations between Indonesia and China. Old Chinese chronicles even mention about relations of these two areas dated back to the first and second century. Regarding relations between China and Indonesia, historians usually refer to notes made by Ma Huan, a note taker who accompanied the great sea explorer Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty in early 15th Century. According to Ma Huan, who accompanied three of Zheng He’s seven voyages and three times visited some areas in east coast of Sumatera and north coast of Java, there had been some Chinese settlements in the areas. They were probably traders who were waiting for good season for going back to China.

According to Prof. Wang Gungwu the development of Chinese migrants from ancient to modern time goes through five phases. The first is what he calls Huashang (traders) who came to Southeast Asia to do business. They stayed in the area for a short time, usually waiting for the change of wind direction which would bring them back to their country. The change started in mid 19th century when the Dutch colonial government needed manpower to increase plantation products for world market. Most of the people to fill this need were Chinese laborers. It was the beginning of Huagong (laborer) phase of the process. Then, again according to Prof. Wang, followed the Huaqiao (Overseas Chinese) phase. The term is used to refer to understanding that the people who arrived around this time are migrant workers. They left their place of origins and would sometime return to their country after successfully build their luck. It followed by Huaren or Huayi (Chinese or people of Chinese origins) phase soon after they decided that they would stay for good. Actually the term huaqiao cannot be applied universally or let’s say, there is always exception. A Chinese community which live in one place at Riau Islands has a yearly ritual of burning ship. It is said that the ritual is to commemorate their ancestors who as soon as arriving in the island, they burned their ships used for their travel. The purpose is to make them impossible to return to their country of origins. Therefore, at least some parts of the new immigrants had not any intention of returning home.



2. The Origins of Peranakan

people and Peranakan Culture in Indonesia


For the purpose of looking into the origins of the Peranakans, let us look into the definition of Peranakan according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, one of the most trusted source of universal knowledge. According to Britanica, the so called Peranakan are people who reside in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. They are native-born person of mixed local and foreign ancestry. Again according to Britanica there are several kinds of Peranakans, namely Peranakan Chinese, Peranakan Arabs, Peranakan Dutch, and Peranakan Indians. The Peranakan Chinese, however, form the largest and the most important group, and for this reason many scholars use Peranakan to refer specifically to the Chinese group.

Based on history of Chinese migration, until the end of the 19th century, the arrival of Chinese to the Indonesian archipelagoes was limited because of difficulties in transportation. Most of those who reached the island of Java were men, mainly from the southern provinces of China, most of them were Hokkianese, who then married indigenous women, usually came from nominal Muslims or abangan according to the term used in Java, or women of non-Muslim origins.

In time these immigrants, their local wives, and their descendants formed a stable Peranakan Chinese community. Peranakans partly adopted the indigenous way of life and generally spoke the local language rather than Chinese. Along the northern coast of Java, where the Chinese population of insular Southeast Asia was concentrated, a combination of Malay pasar or bazaar and Hokkien dialect was used as a common language as a tool of communication, and this language later became known as Bahasa Melayu Tionghoa (Chinese Malay). The Peranakan Chinese community was firmly established in the Indonesian archipelago by the mid-19th century and had become self-contained with a decline in intermarriage. New immigrants were rapidly assimilated into the Peranakan community because there was no mass immigration.

The Peranakans was usually distinguished from Chinese people who arrived during the next flood of immigrants which are culturally more oriented to China which is called the totoks. Anthropologist G. William Skinner called the Peranakans as “Creolized Chinese society.” The process, according to Skinner again, is something theorethically improbable if not impossible. This is “the creation through fusion of a new socio-cultural system that achieved autonomy and stability despite continued contact with both parent societies.” Accordingly, Leo Suryadinata, one of leading experts on ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, Indonesian Peranakans are “too Chinese to be called Indonesian, and too Indonesian to be called Chinese.” We can consider therefore, the Peranakans are culturally different from either Indonesian or Chinese.

However, although Peranakan society in Indonesia had existed for ages and can be called as inseparable part of Indonesian society, during the last century they faced various problems in being accepted as Indonesian. This was largely caused by the policy of Dutch colonialism which created what nowadays can be said as segregation policy. The system separated Chinese from local people, which was called “pribumi” in the past. This separation was created by several factors like employment, settlement, legal status, politics, and other regulations. The policy was established disregarding that there was cultural orientation differences between the Peranakans and the Totoks. Consequently, in area of relations between the Chinese and the Pribumis there had been no mutual understanding between the two groups, and the only communication only took place in the “market” As the result, there had been always mistrust between the two groups.

Unfortunately, most national governments since Indonesian independence in 1945 until about 15 years ago, when reforms started, tended to continue the colonial policy. Series of anti-Chinese disturbances which occurred during the last century were mostly motivated by this separation. In modern Indonesia the fait and destiny of the Chinese is tied up to elite politics and relations between Indonesia and the People Republic of China. Conflict related to power politics within Indonesian elites would usually make Chinese as victims of violent actions.

Fortunately after the 1998 disturbances we witness better relations and communication, and better appreciation between the two groups. Many Chinese are now active in politics—the area avoided by them for almost 30 years during the New Order government. Ethnic Chinese are now regarded as one of Indonesian suku bangsa (ethnic group) in plural Indonesian society. Many believe that Indonesia is now moving from pluralism toward multi cultural society, in which all ethnic groups disregarding their cultural level of development, have the same rights and obligations. But, I believe we are still far from reaching the dream of multicultural society, since there are at least two prerequisites for the creation of this dream. To reach the goal we still need first economic development, and second, development of education. The opposition to the appointment of Mr. Basuki Tjahaya Purnama, popularly known as A Hok to become Jakarta Governor can be taken as example of the fact that anti-Chinese feeling still exists at least among some parts of Jakarta population. This feeling is based mainly on primordial aspects.


3. The Influence of Nusantara Culture to

Peranakan Culture in Indonesia and the Region

When two cultures or civilizations meet, there are at least three possibilities: either conflict, peaceful coexistence, or the emergence of new culture. Soon after the end of the Cold War era, prominent scholar Samuel Huntington declared that the era of ideology had ended and the world would enter into a new phase of conflict. The new era is characterized along two new lines, namely culture and religion. Considering into the emergence of al Qaeda, ISIS and other radical groups which basically against Western civilization, Huntington’s predictions seem to be valid.

However, if we look into history, particularly on history of relations between China with surrounding countries, including Southeast Asia, the third possibilities as I described above is the common law. Chinese cultural influence on Japan, Korea, Vietnam and most Southeast Asian countries are strong and as the result emerged a culture consisting of combination of local and Chinese cultures.

In Indonesia the arrivals of Chinese immigrants created what is popularly known as Peranakan culture. Indonesia is multi ethnic and multi cultural country. As the result, the arrival of Chinese new comers has created various blended cultures which are different from one region to the other. Iwan Santosa in his book Peranakan Tionghoa di Nusantara: Catatan Perjalanan dari Barat ke Timur gives many examples on how the result of local cultures mixed with Chinese culture in various places in Indonesia have created some kind of hybrid culture popularly known in Indonesia as budaya Peranakan. He gives examples how in Jakarta the Peranakans live in peace with other non-Chinese people like the Jakarta people, the Arabians, Sundanese, Javanese and other ethnic groups. He also gives example how this cultural contacts have created hybrid arts like barongsai (lion dance), gambang keromong music, cokek dance and others. It is interesting also to witness that the barongsai are also played by non-Chinese.

In Bali, this cultural contact goes into religion. Interestingly, Iwan Santosa cites words from a pedanda (Balinese religious priest) who said: “China and Bali cannot be separated. The are so many aspects of Chinese Culture which have become parts of Balinese culture.” Many Balinese dances show influence from Chinese dance arts. Mutual influence between Indonesian and Chinese culture can be found in almost all aspects of life. In food who does not know lontong capgomeh, the combination of rice cake and Indonesian curry. In language we find Bahasa Melayu Pasar. It is Malay spoken language inserted with Chinese words—in Indonesian case Fujianese.


 4. Diaspora of Peranakan

People and Culture in Asia and the Pacific

It is interesting to observe how Peranakan people and culture have not only existed in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries, but have also spread to other regions. One the most popular example of this is the presence of Peranakan people and culture in Australia and the Pacific. The arrival of the Chinese in Southeast Asia was mainly motivated by the intention of searching for better lives. Therefore, it was relatively easy for them to move around from Southeast Asia and the Pacific. It was probably since the beginning of their arrival, some parts of the immigrants continued to travel in search of better lives. According to Prof Wanggungwu, the final stage of ethnic Chinese migration after they gained the status as Huayi or ethnic Chinese is remigration. After the Peranakan is becoming an inseparable part of the local communities, their offspring continue to seek better education and better life abroad. Many of them do not return to their country of origins. Their destinations are, among others, Asia-Pacific countries. But many of them have also migrated to North America, and even European countries.

The Indonesian case is specific and can be regarded as new phenomenon. While quite a few of Peranakan Chinese from Indonesia have migrated to Australia since several decades ago, the mass departure of them only occurred after the 1998 riots where ethnic Chinese became the victims. Since then, many Indonesian people of Chinese origins went to Asia-Pacific countries. There are three countries which became their destinations: Australia, Canada, and the U.S. Interestingly although they have left Indonesia, they still feel being Indonesians. As an example, Monica Swasti Winarnita describes about how Indonesian Peranakan community in Perth, Australia performed specific Jakarta art performance, the Ondel-Ondel and Chinese Betawi dance, during the commemoration of Indonesian Independence Day in the year 2007. The show, then was included in the Indonesian representative group under the name Indonesian Guest Nation during the 2007 Perth Royal Show. The majority of members of Perth Peranakan are recent arrivals since they came to the city soon after the 1998 Incident. This case proves that despite probably being disillusioned of what had happened upon them and their families during the 1998 riots, they do not throw away their identities—an amalgam of Indonesian and Chinese cultures. Many of them still keep their status as Indonesian citizens.


5. Concluding Remarks

My presentation deals mostly with the origins of Peranakan culture in Indonesia and its influence. However, I believe that the object I present is not specifically Indonesian. The arrivals of Chinese immigrants is also specifically Indonesian, since the area with their proximity to China, especially Southeast Asia, had become the targets for Chinese migrations. They brought along their culture and tradition to the new place and in addition to intermarriage with local women, there had been also cultural contacts between the new arrivals and local culture. The emergence of Peranakan people and Peranakan culture is the result. [A. Dahana is Professor of Chinese Studies, BINUS University].