Life

Chinese-Indonesian writers
told tales of life around
them

JAKARTA (JP): About two months ago an unusual book was launched by Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, a publishing house related to the well-known Gramedia Pustaka Utama.

It was a collection of works by different writers, but not one of them was present at the launch. The reason being they all passed away years ago.This anthology contains old books and poems written in the second half of the 19th century, and a few from the beginning of the 20th century.

Susie Kosasih was the only person present who is related to these writers. She is the great-granddaughter of Kwee Tek Hoay, one of the most prolific writers of that era.

The first volume of this book, -- there are many more to come -- containswell-known stories written by Chinese-Indonesians in a distinct language called Melayu Tionghoa, which is essentially Malay but mixed with some Chinese and even Dutch terms. Originally the stories were written using Dutch spelling, with oe read asu, tj as c and dj as j. The publication usesstandard Indonesian spelling, but has kept the original vernacular languageand its idiosyncrasies.

Chinese-Indonesian writers were very productive after the second half of the 19th century, providing their readers with material in the form of poems, essays, novels and short stories.

They started with poems, which took the form of reports of important events that had taken place in the country, such as the arrival of the kingof Siam, who donated the elephant statue that still sits in front the National Museum. These poems were followed by translations of Chinese classics, such as the Three Kingdoms, The Journey to the West etc., and also European classics such as the Count of Monte Christo and The Three Musketeers. These cloak-and-dagger stories translated from the Chinese forma substantial part of the collection.

At the turn of the 20th century original novels were created that have enriched the nation's literary heritage. According to French researcher Claudine Salmon about 800 writers were active until the early 1960s and together they wrote and published 1,356 works. Interestingly, they stopped publishing after the 1960s. It is most likely that writing in Indonesian become a problem for them.

What did these writers chose as their themes? Although the majority of the readers were Chinese-Indonesian, the writers did not limit themselves to writing about their own community. Instead, there are many exciting stories about all the different parts of Indonesia, thus introducing readers to the cultures that makes up Indonesia.

One writer, Soe Lie Piet, (father of well-known sociologist Arief Budiman) wrote about sorcery on Bali and also a tourist guide to the island.

Another, Nyoo Cheong Seng, who was also a director of a traveling theatergroup, wrote travelogues about every country or island he visited and thus has in repertoire stories set in Aceh, Makassar, Timor, Makassar, Burma andSingapore.

Probably the most famous of all the writers is the above mentioned Kwee Tek Hoay, who can boast about having written 200 works, the longest of which runs to 800 pages and is entitled Drama dari Boven Digoel. It tells about the Communist revolt in 1926, after which the Dutch banished the members of the party to Boven Digoel in Papua.

However, he is best remembered for the novel Boenga Roos dari Tjikembang (A Rose from Tjikembang). Although the book's plot is reminiscent of Shakespeare's Midsummer's Night Dream, Kwee not only adapted the story to Indonesian circumstances, but also used the book to discuss a topic that was quite a problem in those days, that of the nyai, a concubine kept by young men prior to their marriage.

The novel has been adapted for a play and even for a screenplay. A recentstaging of the play drew many people to see it for the sake of nostalgia.

The 1920 to 1930s was a time of enormous change in the lives of Chinese-Indonesians. Girls wanted to adopt Western lifestyles, especially in their choice of clothing and appearance. Novels of the time often contained social criticism, picking out the short ""bobbed"" haircut and miniskirts favored by the movie stars as targets.

Another target was the young girls free association with male friends, which often included going out in the evening ballroom dancing. There was, however, a female writer, writing under the pen name of Dahlia. She dared to support her gender and criticize male writers for being narrow-minded and prejudiced.

Besides being excellent historical sources about the Chinese Indonesian community at that time, this genre of literature is also very entertaining.The republication of the works, which will be followed by many others in the near future, is therefore to be welcomed, both by the public as well asresearchers in the field.

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