DRAGON NESTS BELOW THE WIND: The History and Diversity of Chinatown in the Archipelago

10 March 2023

Written by Johanes Koraag

         The existence of ethnic Chinese in the archipelago is easily recognizable by the cultural traces they leave behind. We can find ethnic enclaves (i.e. Chinatowns) in almost all cities in Indonesia that have a history of trade. The Chinese ethnicity is indeed synonymous with the world of trade even though the Chinese are heavily involved in other industries. Many dishes that are now considered traditional food of a region are the result of acculturation between Chinese and local cultures: noodles, meatballs, tofu, and soy sauce among others.

         Agni Malagina, Sinologist and Lecturer at the University of Indonesia, has a passion for exploring the history of Chinese migration to Indonesia. Malagina shared her research experience in Wednesday Forum on February 22, 2023, with the theme "Dragon Nests Below the Wind." On her journey, she visited and gathered information in five unique Chinatowns in Indonesia, namely Chinatown in Tanjung Pinang, Riau; Chinatown in Bangka Belitung; Lasem Chinatown in Central Java; Chinatown in Sumenep, Madura; and finally, Chinatown in Timor Island, East Nusa Tenggara. These five Chinatowns have unique and distinctive characteristics, showing that the ethnic Chinese who settled these places are not a single entity, but are remarkably diverse and have different cultures.

         Malagina said that her desire to research Chinatowns was to explore the background and practices of Chinese culture in Indonesia.  She wanted to know the history of the formation and development of the archipelago's Chinatowns over the course of 15 years of research. Recognizing the uniqueness of Chinatowns in the area in the context of history, social change, and urban development will provide an overview of how the existence of the Chinese community grows with cultural heritage and the complexity of the dynamics of Chinatown life all of which then contributed to the shaping elements of Indonesian culture.

         Tanjungpinang Chinatown in the Riau Islands is a unique Chinatown because it has residential areas above sea level with ‘pelantar’ (small wooden rig) as a link between one residence and another. There are similarities to the life of the Bajau in Sulawesi. History records the arrival of the Chinese to the territory of the Malay Sultanate of Riau Lingga as early as 1700 at the request of the Sultan of Riau Lingga, who was based on Penyengat Island. They came to Senggarang and Tanjungpinang to open Gambir plantations, the main commodity for tanning ox hides and strengthening the color of batik and cloth in India, as well as medical and other needs in China. The majority of the Chinese here came from the Guangdong region.

         Bangka Belitung's Chinatown began with the opening of Bangka as a tin mining center by the Sultanate of Palembang in the 1720s. Tin became the main commodity of the Bangka trade to fulfil China's need for tin. Tin became the main raw material for making tin foil to wrap Chinese tea leaves, which was a high-priced commodity at that time. Apart from tin, white pepper is an important commodity in Bangka that is also cultivated and traded by the Chinese. Most of Chinese people who initially became coolies in the tin mines came from the Guangdong region.

         Lasem Chinatown in Central Java, on the north coast of Java, was one of the stopover points for expedition ships and trade missions during the Maritime Silk Road and Spice Route. Lasem arose during the Majapahit Kingdom. Its Chinatown grew as a city full of Chinese houses in the 17th century and was popularly known as Little China or Petit Chinois in the 19th and 20th centuries. Lasem developed as a trading city with hundreds of Chinese and colonial-style mansions due to the profits from the opium trade. Lasem, along with Rembang and Juwana, was dubbed the opium funnel city of the Dutch East Indies in the 18th century. After the opium trade faded as the colonial government monopolized opium with the Opium Regie, Lasem shifted focus and grew into a batik city that traded batik with the trade network that had been established during the opium trade. The majority of Lasem's Chinese come from Fujian.

         Sumenep Chinatown on Madura Island, East Java, began with Madura's role as a stopover island for food and clean water during the Maritime Silk Road and Spice Route since the 12th century. Sumenep with its Sumenep Kraton grew as an influential kingdom in the trade route shipping area. Its Chinatown grew with many Chinese people who helped build the city of Sumenep. Sumenep as a large trading city in the era of the spice route also involved the Chinese in the economic activities of the time. An interesting phenomenon in Sumenep is the number of Chinese Muslims who refuse to be called converts. The majority of Chinese here come from Fujian and Guangdong.

         Chinatowns on Timor Island are located in two places, namely Kupang City (East Nusa Tenggara) and Dili City (Timor Leste). The terminology of Chinatown only exists in these two cities. However, ethnic Chinese have spread throughout the mainland of Timor, especially in the central region of Timor to the inland mountains since the time of the Maritime Silk Road and Spice Road trade. Timor is the center of the best sandalwood in the archipelago (Lesser Sunda). Sandalwood became an important commodity for India and China, as the main material for making incense, statues of Buddha and other deities, furniture, and buildings. The Chinese in Timor spread to the interior during the time of sandalwood invasion as a trade commodity. The Chinese Timorese sandalwood business traded with Macau.

         The Chinatowns of the archipelago are unique. The form of these towns does not follow a standard pattern because the Chinatowns were built by different Chinese sub-ethnic groups. However, there are some elements that are commonly found in Chinatowns such as temples, residential houses, and economic activities such as carpentry, culinary, artisan worship tools and others. The existence of Chinese people in Indonesia is very dynamic, has a long history of struggle, especially regarding the political history related to identity politics since the colonial government to the New Order government. However, the presence of Chinese people, as Indians, Arabs, Europeans, and other foreigners in Indonesia who came and acculturated since centuries ago, has formed a distinctive Indonesian cultural character.