Scenic: The Bangka coastline features unique granite outcroppings.
Rich in tin and pepper, the Bangka Belitung Islands are also endowed with enchanting natural scenery, and are a showcase for Indonesia’s plural society.
“The Bangka Belitung Islands are heaven on earth with their fertile soil, captivating beaches and abundant tin,” said Bangka Belitung local Anugrah Gusti Prima, who, after finishing college in Bandung, returned to work at the provincial tourism office to promote his home.
“Although the people of Bangka Belitung have diverse ethnic origins, there’s no discrimination here. When anti-Chinese riots broke out in some parts of Indonesia at the end of the Soeharto regime, local people and those of Chinese descent lived peacefully in the province,” Anugrah noted.
Bangka and Belitung were first inhabited by seafaring ethnic groups from Sulawesi and Kalimantan. Then entered people from Johor in Malaysia, China, Java, Aceh and other areas who eventually integrated into a new generation: the Malays of Bangka Belitung.
The dominant language spoken in the province is Malay, which also serves as a regional language along with the other ethnic tongues like Mandarin and Javanese.
Muslims make up the majority at 87 percent, followed by Buddhists at 8 percent, Protestants and Catholics at 5 percent and Hindus and others at less than 1 percent. People have built hundreds of mosques both large and small, Protestant and Catholic churches, and temples, monasteries and shrines on the islands.
Anugrah took The Jakarta Post to the Indonesian Tin Museum, an icon of Bangka. Officially opened on Aug. 2, 2007, the museum is not far from the center of youth amusement and recreation on Jl. Jenderal Achmad Yani in Pangkalpinang, the provincial capital.
Apart from keeping records of tin mining, the museum’s building is the site where president Sukarno, banished to Bangka at the time, negotiated with the Dutch government and the United Nations Commission for Indonesia, resulting in the Roem-Royen Statement on May 7, 1949.
Anugrah said the people of Bangka Belitung supported Sukarno and chief delegate Moh. Roem. “President Sukarno was sent to Bangka by the Dutch on the assumption that he would not be backed by the Bangka community, then mostly of Chinese descent. But it turned out that the Chinese were more nationalistic,” he said.
After the negotiation affirming Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch, ethnic Chinese citizens on the islands opened shops in traditional markets while indigenous residents set up eateries near Chinese stores.
Based on the museum’s data, people from China reached Bangka Belitung in 1733 when the sultan of Palembang returned from exile in Johor along with a noble family that began large-scale tin mining in Bangka. Thousands of Chinese workers also arrived.
Those Chinese working during Bangka’s tin heyday began assimilating with locals and intermarriages followed, residents coexisting peacefully in spite of differences in religion and ethnicity. When Bangka Belitung was attacked by Philippine pirates for tin in 1789, Malay and Chinese residents took up arms against them.
Bangka Belitung is also a tourist destination, boasting white sand beaches including Parai Tenggiri Beach in Sungailiat.
After enjoying the beauty of Parai and other beaches, tourists can visit Taman Bunga Teratai Dewi Kuan Yin (a lotus garden of the Goddess Kuan Yin) in Kampung Jelitik built by Hermanto Wijaya after receiving what he claimed to be a divine instruction in 1998.
This place of worship is believed to possess healing powers, causing people to remain young and blessing people with good fortune. “Its water has no distinctive taste but many people come here for its purported healing and youth-promoting properties,” said Ajam, a cleaner of the shrine.
According to Ajam, many visitors come seeking good luck by tossing coins onto stones in the middle of the garden’s pool. If the coins fall into the pool, their wishes cannot yet be fulfilled.
The region also offers unique souvenirs. “Cual woven fabrics constitute Bangka’s cultural identity. We should never allow the cloths to disappear or be replaced by factory-made products,” said Maslina Yazid, 46, a cual weaver in Bangka.
She has preserved cual craftwork since she was married in 1979 to Abi Yazid, who comes from a family of skilled weavers in Tempilang, West Bangka, long known as a cual center.
Plural: A temple under construction is still a worthwhile place to visit.
Cual cloths were first woven by a woman descended from a Muntok noble family in Kampung Petenon, West Bangka, in the 18th century. The fabrics were used for the Muntok nobility’s attire, wedding clothes, special clothes for Islamic holidays and other ritual ceremonies to reflect their social status at the time.
The cual dress tradition almost disappeared after World War I when supplies of materials for cual weaving were cut off. Later, the entry of textiles from various regions prompted cual craftspeople from Muntok to abandon their work.
In 1990, the Municipal Industry Office of Pangkalpinang and PT Timah, one of Indonesia’s 28 major tin smelting companies, started reinvigorating cual in Bangka by assisting a cual handicraft business group headed by Maslina.
Maslina set up the Bangka Cual Woven Fabric Cooperative in 2003 and also offers cual weaving courses to the public. So far, there are 40 cual craftspeople in Bangka Belitung. “Cual woven cloths are sought by local and foreign buyers, and also sold in Singapore,” Maslina said.
Standard quality cual are sold at Rp 1.5 million (US$166) to Rp 1.8 million, some even reaching Rp 5 million and as high as Rp 18 million. Bangka’s other typical woven products are batiks with cual motifs. Some Bangka Belitung regencies and the provincial administration have even patented the cual batik uniforms they wear during work hours. — JP/Indra Harsaputra