Jakarta

Chinese Indonesians can't
be put in boxes

Not many people, even those of Chinese-Indonesian descent, comprehend the complexity and diversity of Chinese people and their culture, let alone their history.

Here is a glimpse of that complexity.

Peranakan is a term for people of Chinese descent who were born in Indonesia and have blended into the local culture. Usually a peranakan has an Indonesian name and cannot speak Mandarin.

Totok refers to Chinese people who were born in China and maintain strong links to mainland China. The term now also includes Chinese Indonesians raised with strong Chinese traditions, and usually speak Mandarin.

"It is only a matter of time before such differentiations fade away," Chinese culture researcher and chairman of the Chinese-Indonesian Association (INTI), Benny G. Setiono, recently told The Jakarta Post.

"Due to better education, the younger generation of totok families are more open-minded in terms of cultural identity and political orientation to mainland China," he said.

There are currently more peranakan than totok in Indonesia, Benny said, estimating that out of the 10 million Chinese Indonesians in the country, 60 percent are peranakan, while 40 percent are totok.

Chinese-Indonesian sociologist Melly G. Tan agreed that the difference between peranakan and totok was now not as clear as it once was.

She estimated peranakan comprise 80 percent of the total Chinese-Indonesian population in the country.

"But there hasn't been a study on that," she said.

Between the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, a large number of Chinese immigrants moved to the archipelago from different ethnic groups in the southeastern part of China, including Hakka, Hainan, Hokkian, Cantonese, Hokchia and Teochew.

After settling down, some tried to maintain their original culture, and were later colloquially called totok. The peranakan developed their own culture, a mix between their Chinese heritage and local customs, and many married Indonesians.

In his book, Tionghoa dalam Pusaran Politik (Chinese Indonesians in a Political Whirlpool), Benny wrote that Chinese culture is present in all aspects of local culture, from language, music, dance, art and fashion, to cuisine and medicine.

Many words in Betawi are derived from the Southern Hokkian dialect (Ban-lam gi), such as gua (me) and lu (you), and numerical words, like cepe (100 rupiah), gope (500 rupiah) and ceban (10,000 rupiah).

Chinese influence in the arts are evident in the Gambang Kromong orchestra, the cokek dance and Topeng Betawi theater performance.

Similarities can be found between Javanese wayang kulit (shadow puppet) shadow plays and Sundanese wayang golek (wooden puppets) with the Chinese wayang potehi.

The Javanese and Balinese barong performance also is similar to the Chinese lion dance barongsai.

Chinese influence can be seen in local cuisine, including the use of tofu, green bean sprouts or taoge, fermented bean paste or tauco, black bean ketchup, noodles and meatballs.

The Chinese influence in local fashion is seen in kebaya encim, children's wear oto and Muslim men's baju koko.

Several Chinese patterns are found in batik art as well. Cirebon's batik has a mega-mendung (clouds) motif and wadas-Cina motif, while Lasem-style batik bears the image of ki'lin, a half-dog half-lion creature of Chinese mythology.

Chinese immigrants also introduced the tools and methods to make sugar and salt, to squeeze out coconut milk and to husk rice.

Even the tradition of setting off firecrackers during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadhan and before Idul Fitri are influenced by the Chinese custom of using firecrackers during Lunar New Year's celebrations.

Javanese jamu, traditional tonics made of herbs, roots and leaves, are also similar to Chinese traditional medicines.

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