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In Surakarta, Chinese-Indonesians heal old wounds for sake of harmony

Ganug Nugroho Adi

The Jakarta Post

Surakarta, Central Java  /  Fri, January 24, 2020  /  05:05 pm
In Surakarta, Chinese-Indonesians heal old wounds for sake of harmony

Chinese-Indonesians are praying at Kelenteng Pasar Gede in Surakarta, Central Java. (JP/Ganug Nugroho Adi)

For 45-year-old Helmi Cahyadi, the celebration of Chinese New Year in Surakarta, Central Java, means the return of the harmony once lost between the Tionghoa – as Chinese-Indonesians are locally known – and non-Tionghoa. 

Locally known as Imlek, this particular time of the year always reminded him of the May riots more than 20 years ago that almost cost him his life.

During the riots, the motorcycle dealer owned by his father, 68-year-old Cahya Saputra, was plundered by a mob prior to being burnt down. He and his family were able to escape just a short time before the riot by climbing the back wall of their house and jumping three meters down to the ground.

Helmi, both of his parents and his little sister survived. However the family business that had been established for more than 10 years was destroyed in the blink of an eye. Before being burnt, everything inside the quite large dealership located in the Kliwon Market area was looted, including about Rp 200 million (US$14,640) in cash that was stored in the safe. 

The racist violence demolished in an instant the harmonious and peaceful-living neighborhood.

"My family survived. However, we were greatly depressed. If I must be honest, we as the Tionghoa no longer trust the Javanese. Ever since the incident, we always feel suspicious. It took us a long time to escape the trauma," said Helmi.

A textile businessman of Chinese descent, Liliek Setyawan, said that the May 1998 riots had caused a huge economic loss for Surakarta as many businesses, from grocery stores and cinemas to shopping malls, dealers and factories, were destroyed.

"The inflation went crazy; some provocateurs then blamed the Tionghoa for the inflation. The mobs who believed in this lie later turned their anger against the people of Chinese descent," said Liliek.

Sumartono Hadinoto, 64, also shared a harrowing story. During the riots, he, alongside his mother, wife and daughter, had to sneak out from the back door and knock down a wall with the help of his neighbors -- during which time the mob could be heard screaming while knocking down the front door. 

His entire family survived. However, after the riots subsided, Sumartono realized that he no longer had possessions. His house was destroyed, as well as his business, an aluminum factory. He had to start from zero again and rebuild his business.

Read also: ‘Chinese Whispers’ contemplates 1998 riots through digital graphic novel

"After almost one decade, we finally got over the trauma, but we don't seek vengeance. The incident is political, not a war between ethnicities. There were parties who provoked [the mob] to fight against the Tionghoa," said Sumartono.

Despite this reasoning, he said it took a long time for them get back on their feet and put their trust in non-Tionghoa again. 

After almost 10 years, Sumartono was finally able to mingle with the locals again. The move was marked by helping co-found the Imlek Festival in Surakarta. He also initiated the return of Grebeg Sudiro, a carnival that blends the Chinese and Javanese cultures to welcome Imlek. It has since been held annually since 2007.

"Forget about the May 1998 riots. Let's create a more beautiful history. In Surakarta, tolerance between different ethnicities and religions has existed for ages. We must continue to maintain and preserve it," said Sumartono, who this year serves as head of the Solo Imlek committee.

In Surakarta, the series of Imlek celebrations opens with Grebeg Sudiro. Sudiro itself is taken from the name of a subdistrict, Sudiroprajan, which is the city's Chinatown.

A barongsai performance enlivens an Imlek celebration in Surakarta in 2019.A barongsai performance enlivens an Imlek celebration in Surakarta in 2019. (JP/Ganug Nugroho Adi)

Local historian Heri Priyatmoko said that the Tionghoa begun to stay in Sudiroprajan, or specifically Kampung Balong, in 1745, not long after the transfer of the Mataram Kingdom from Kartasura to Surakarta.

"They bred, interacted with the surrounding Javanese villages and conducted mixed marriages. So the Javanese and Tionghoa in Surakarta have been living in harmony for hundreds of years, giving birth to multi-ethnic, multicultural and multi-religion families," said Heri.

Issues regarding intolerance or racism never existed in Sudiroprajan, added Heri. During the May riots, Kampung Balong even served as a safe refuge.

Hosting about 4,000 people with mixed heritage between Javanese and Tionghoa, Sudiroprajan developed into an acculturation area that later gave birth to several Imlek traditions, such as Grebeg Sudiro, the Buk Teko Earth donation and the Umbul Mantram ritual.

The Imlek celebration itself began to enliven the city in the era of mayor Joko "Jokowi" Widodo in 2007. It was then continued by the current Mayor FX Hadi "Rudy" Rudyatmo and puts a spotlight on the barongsai (Chinese lion dance), reog (masked dance), wayang potehi (Chinese glove puppets), Chinese calligraphy and other art performances in a balanced manner. (kes)

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