Celebrating Peranakan Culture
The beautifully preserved Chinese-inspired Candra Naya building in West Jakarta was a fitting place over the weekend for Peh Cun, a traditional boat festival that attracted hundreds of people.
The festival, which ran from Friday to Sunday in the building at Green Central City, is also known in Indonesia as Festival Bacang.
“It’s one of the most important traditional Chinese festivals after Imlek [Chinese New Year] and the Mooncake festival,” said Priyanto Chang, general manager of Nanfeng Nusantara, an Indonesian Peranakan music group.
The festival commemorates Qu Yuan, a dedicated and loyal government official, who served during the Chu dynasty (approximately 328 to 288 B.C.). Slandered by a member of the royal family, Yuan was banished from the kingdom. Saddened, he jumped into the river.
People who believed in Yuan’s innocence took their boats to the river to find his body. They threw bacangs (Chinese rice cakes with beef or pork filling) in the river so the fish would eat them and leave Yuan’s dead body alone.
Yuan’s body was never found, but the Chinese people still celebrate the fifth day of the fifth month in the Chinese calendar as the Peh Cun festival.
The festivities take place in Chinese communities in several big cities in Indonesia, including Medan, Yogyakarta, Jakarta and Pontianak. In Jakarta’s celebration, many Chinese traditional dances, songs, games and performances were featured.
Nanfeng Nusantara performed at the festival in Jakarta on Saturday. Visitors gathered by the stage and sang along to Indonesian folk songs, such as “Dayung Sampan” (from Tangerang), “Si Jali-Jali” (from Jakarta) and “Rasa Sayange” (from Maluku), on guzheng (Chinese zither), ruan (Chinese guitar) and erhu (Chinese two-stringed fiddle).
“It’s something we never would have seen in the New Order era,” Priyanto said.
In 1967, early in the New Order, then President Suharto released a presidential instruction that forbade all forms of Chinese literature, cultural and religious activities and performances in Indonesia.
The regulation prompted millions of Chinese Peranakan in Indonesia to abandon their Chinese roots. Some, however, continued to observe the traditional culture in the privacy of their homes.
Fortunately, the decree was annulled by then President Abdurrahman Wahid in 2000.
Since then, Chinese Peranakan music and dance groups have abounded in the country. We can now see the music, literature and arts performed in public spaces and taught in schools.
“I’m so glad that I’ve lived to see the revival of Chinese Peranakan in Indonesia,” the 47-year-old Priyanto said.
What is Chinese Peranakan culture?
“It’s not the traditional culture of China [the country],” said Andrew Susanto, president of the Association of Peranakan Tionghoa (Chinese) Indonesia (Aspertina). “Peranakan culture is a result of many years of acculturation between the traditional Chinese culture and local ones.”
Andrew explained that it originated in the 14th century, when the first Chinese merchants arrived in Indonesia. Some of them chose to stay in the country and married local women.
Their children became the first Chinese Peranakan in Indonesia that embraced both cultures.
Aspertina was established in Jakarta last October. Today, the association has more than 200 members all over the archipelago, as well as a board of experts on Peranakan culture in Indonesia.
“The main role of the association is to perpetuate the Peranakan culture in Indonesia,” Andrew said.
In May, the association, in collaboration with a publisher in Jakarta, produced the book “Peranakan Tionghoa di Nusantara — Catatan Dari Barat ke Timur” (“Chinese Peranakan in Indonesia — Records From West to East”). The book contains articles written by journalist Iwan Santosa about the communities from across Indonesia.
“It’s not an academic book,” Andrew said. “Yet it sheds some light on Peranakan culture in this country. Hopefully, the book will encourage more people to learn and write about the culture.”
Recently, Aspertina supported “Beauty Treasures,” a fashion show by Indonesian Fashion Designers Association (APPMI) fashion designers Jeanny Ang, Deden Siswanto and Rudy Chandra.
All the collections in the show were inspired by Chinese Peranakan culture in Indonesia. Yet, the inspiration for the show came from the Peranakan Museum in Singapore.
Jeanny was on holiday in Singapore in April last year when she visited the Peranakan Museum.
“I was so surprised when I visited the museum,” Jeanny said. “The museum has comprehensive collections of Peranakan clothes, jewelry and furniture from the 19th century. And 90 percent of the collections came from Indonesia.”
According to the labels accompanying the collections in the museum, the kebayas were mostly from Java, while the elaborate headdresses, gold necklaces and bangles came from Sumatra.
The visit inspired Jeanny to revive Peranakan fashion in Indonesia.
“From the exhibits [in the museum], I could see clearly that Indonesia is one of the centers of Peranakan culture in Asia,” she said. “Yet, the culture has been much forsaken here. We have to do something to revive it.”
Jeanny then shared her ideas with her close friends, fashion designers Deden and Rudy.
Both of them were very enthusiastic about her ideas; Deden even visited the Peranakan Museum in Singapore to see the exhibits himself.
“We can see the complete traditions of Chinese Peranakan people from birth to death in the museum,” Deden said. “It’s very detailed and informative. It’s a shame that we don’t have anything like that in Indonesia.”
Rudy was also eager for the fashion show. “I came from a Peranakan family,” he said. “When I was 6 years old, I saw my eldest sister getting married in the traditional Peranakan way. She wore the bright red Chinese bridal cape, embellished with phoenix and dragon embroideries. She looked like an ancient queen.”
That early impression left an unquenchable longing in Rudy’s heart, especially as he never saw anything like that again in the New Order era.
“Now as a fashion designer, I want to revive the pride of Indonesia’s young generation in the Peranakan culture through fashion,” Rudy said.
The fashion show, held in the grand ballroom of Hotel Mulia Senayan, Jakarta, on June 14, was a celebration of the Peranakan culture.
In the foyer of the ballroom, the guests were entertained by Chinese traditional music and dances. They could also see displays of double-sided batik (Chinese Peranakan batik) from Lasem, Central Java, and wayang potehi (Chinese Peranakan puppets).
Jeanny contributed 25 sets of women’s outfits to the fashion show. The mini-dresses, made of silk batik in soft pastel colors, were designed to look like Chinese lanterns. The long cocktail dresses, made of satin silk in bold colors, featured the feminine mermaid silhouette with cascading pleats and layers.
Deden took on a more somber tone for his collection. He presented midi cheongsams for women and cropped silk jackets for men made of dark-hued velvets, silk satins and organzas. Most of the items were embellished with ornate floral and phoenix prints and hand-paintings.
Rudy’s collection was very glamorous. He presented elaborate evening gowns and cocktail dresses made of jacquard, silk organdy and double-sided batik from Lasem. Most of the dresses were adorned with krancang (Peranakan batik hand-embroideries) in the ornate pattern of peonies.
A Chinese Peranakan bride, dressed in auburn, closed the fashion show, attracting enthusiastic applause. The strapless, mermaid-shaped wedding dress was overlaid with grape-leaves embellishments, covered by a sequined tulle cape and an elaborate headdress with kembang goyang (rocking flowers) decorations.
The show impressed Andrew from Aspertina. “The fashion show is amazing,” he said. “It could become a trendsetter. By featuring Peranakan elements in the show, we can show that Peranakan fashion is not passe. It’s still very chic and stylish these days.”
The show also inspired Aspertina to establish a Peranakan Museum in Jakarta. “We’re now discussing with the management of Taman Mini Indonesia Indah to establish the museum on their premises,” Andrew said, referring to the cultural theme park in Jakarta’s east.
“We’re currently cataloging all elements of Chinese Peranakan in Indonesia, so that our young generation can learn and study about their cultural roots.”
For more information, visit www.aspertina.org.