The Jakarta Post
Acculturation: A scene from Ang Hien Hoo's wayang orang performances. The troupe was disbanded in 1987. (Ratnawati/File)
Ang Hien Hoo, a community of ethnic Chinese Indonesian citizens in Malang, East Java, has enriched Chinese arts with wayang orang (human puppet), a Javanese dance drama presenting classical stories of Ramayana or Mahabharata. The history of this activity was recently rekindled in Malang through the memories of Melani Budianta, a cultural science professor at the University of Indonesia, Jakarta, whose studies cover gender, post-colonialism, comparative literature and cultures.
This ethnic culture was traced as far back as her personal recollections and the reminiscences of her father’s generation by utilizing the networks of her relatives and peers. Born in Malang in 1954, Melani recalled that her happy childhood memories were filled with traditional arts, which indeed livened up the town at the time.
“Wayang orang was a favorite of mine and my three sisters,” she pointed out. Back then, little Melani was even unaware that she was an Indonesian of Chinese descent.
Formerly a small town known as a plantation area, settlement and resort built by the Dutch colonial government, Malang also attracted Chinese immigrants. Ang Hien Hoo was originally a funeral organization set up in 1910.
“At the time there was fear that Chinese residents in Malang would forget their funeral and burial rituals as part of their ancestral traditions,” she noted. The association was also meant to unite ethnic Chinese people and reduce their westernized lifestyle.
Ang Hien Hoo in Malang had its office at Eng An Kiong, a Chinese temple that has existed since 1825. Like in other cities in Asia, such temples, while functioning as places of worship, also become socio-cultural centers.
Melani related that in its arts activities, especially wayang orang, Ang Hien Hoo wasn’t commercially oriented.
“Its members were even prepared to pay for their performance costs out of their love of and commitment to this art,” she said.
The ethnic Chinese dancers trained at a building used for funeral services not far from the temple from 1957 to the early 1960s. Their graceful dance movements were no less elegant than Javanese artists to a degree that they drew the attention of president Sukarno.
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This dance troupe was even invited to perform at the State Palace several times. Sukarno was so amazed by Ang Hien Hoo’s shows that one of its lead dancers, Ie Kiok Hwa aka Nelly Ie, was given an Indonesian name, Ratna Djuwita. She died on June 3, 2013, at the age of 77.
The other top dancer was Melly Oei, who was named Ratnawati by Bung Karno, as the president was popularly called. Ratnawati, a partner of Ratna Djuwita on stage, once lived in Malang and now resides in Surabaya. She still keeps documents of Ang Hien Hoo’s heyday in black-and-white photographs.
Melani recounted that as time went by, this group had to compromise with cultural change. A political upheaval was a hard blow to the artists in 1965, forcing them to submit to the prevailing situation. “In the New Order period the funeral services kept going but the cultural activities, including wayang orang, were halted,” she said.
Their performances were resumed in early 1970, but they had to be put under military control. Only in the reform period, particularly during the administration of president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid in 1999, did former Ang Hien Hoo artists revive wayang orang by seeking new talents.
“There were some changes in their approach, such as the open recruitment of candidates rather than the exclusive selection of those who were ethnic Chinese, like it used to be,” Melani said.
Top dancers: Ratnawati (left) and Ratna Djuwita perform in the episode of Minakdjinggo at the Bogor presidential palace. (Ratnawati/File)
This was intended to get the younger generation acquainted with the traditional art form, which resulted in cultural collaboration. An example was the episode called The Birth of Setyaki staged during Malang Tempo Doeloe (Malang’s olden days), an annual cultural program held from 2006 to 2014.
“Innovative creativity was shown when the tiger swallowing Setyaki was replaced by barongsai [lion dance] from Eng An Kiong.”
Ang Hien Hoo’s wayang orang gave evidence of harmony between ethnic Chinese and locals in Malang those days, thereby creating cultural resilience, Melani said. Toni Subroto, 49, and Titik Widarningsih, 48, serve as a living example of the harmony.
They were part of the last generation of dancers training under Ang Hien Hoo before the troupe was disbanded in 1987. The theatrical ties between Toni, an indigenous Javanese, and Koo Kwe Lian, the original name of Titik Widarningsih, resulted in marriage.
“Basically we want Ang Hien Hoo to reawaken, but more in the soul, spirit and local wisdom of the art itself,” Toni said. The man who still works as an active professional dancer described wayang as a very complete art form covering dance, drama, music and literature.
The couple also reminisced about the moments when they had to do dance exercises, although they had to share the space with the deceased that were laid in state at the funeral house, which has now changed its name to Panca Budhi.
Toni says he appreciates traditional arts creatively presented in contemporary style as public entertainment. “But it would be ideal, on certain occasions, to present such art as wayang orang according to their genuine standards for the younger generation’s learning process,” he said.
A walk into the past: Toni Subroto (seated from left), Titik Widarningsih, and Melani Budiantara, along with a number of cultural observers in Malang, pose for a photograph.(JP/Nedy Putra AW)