Finding Thio Thiong Gie

Sunday, May 26, 2013

As a traveler wannabe, I have met many interesting people, say it a young entrepreneur in Klaten who started his business from scratch, a loyal royal servant in Yogyakarta who believed that there was a value of Islam in every royal tradition, or a porter in Baduy who had for many times got in touch with modern world and yet decided to preserve his ancient way of life.

From all above, I learned about principles. But when I met Thio Thiong Gie, an 80 year old puppeteer of potehi - a traditional Chinese puppet, created thousands years ago – who could still speak and perform in Chinese Hokkien dialect, I learned that sometimes in life, you just have to go with the flow.

I knew this man from a blog I had found six months earlier on the internet. Finding his house in a narrow street deep inside the Chinatown of Semarang was a real fortune as I couldn’t even find the street on google map.

What follows is my short conversation with Uncle Thio, taking place at the front porch of his house in the China town of Semarang, right before the Chinese New Year's Eve this year.

Thank you for coming.

A traditional Chinese song coming out from a nearly broken old radio and the scent of burnt joss sticks had simply made me feel like being in a time capsule. Everything in that house seemed to be preserved as it had been in the past, including the old chair on where Uncle Thio sat that afternoon.

To tell the story of how he encountered the world of potehi, Uncle Thio began with the coming of his late father, Thio Thiang Soe, from the Province of Fujian, China to Java in the early 1930s. Like many Chinese migrants in common, the father set his foot by running a retail business, establishing a linen shop in Demak, a small town in the north coast of Java. There, he married a local Chinese woman who, on January 9, 1933, gave birth to Uncle Thio.

The business was good until Japan occupied Java in 1942. The anti Chinese sentiment campaigned by the Japanese had effectively provoked the mobs to burn down Chinese properties like houses and shops. They looted the linen shop and left Uncle Thio’s father in bankruptcy.

Demak was no longer safe for the family to stay. They moved westward to Semarang. Uncle Thio recalled how his fair skinned father turned into dark skinned man as he became a roundsman, collecting iron scraps from all over Semarang with a cart. Within a year, the father bought a small house in China town. And that is the house where Uncle Thio and his family live today.

Thio’s encountering the world of Potehi began when his father tried another fortune by becoming a street vendor, selling fried cookies and snacks at Chinatown. This new business required lots of papers for wraps. As a son, Thio was in charge of tearing off the papers from old books and magazines.

One day, while doing his job, he found a book written in Chinese, titled “Chu Hun Thay Chu Chao Kok.” It was some sort of novel about a crown prince, named Chu Hun, who flees from the kingdom. Thio was soon immersed deeply in the story. So deep he was even able to visualize the story by using his hands as gestures.

His ability was noticed by Oey Seng Tui - a friend of his father whose job was to find a puppeteer to play potehi - who one day visited the food stall where Thio was reading the story book. Oey then forcibly took the book away from Thio's hands. Shocked with the rudeness, Thio asked:
"Why would you do that? I was reading the book"
"This book is written in Chinese. Do you really comprihend the story?" Oey doubted.
"Yes, I do. I can even picture the story with my two hands." Thio replied and demonstrated his skill in telling the story.

Amazed with what Thio did, Oey decided to bring two puppets of potehi on the following morning and asked Thio to practice with those puppets. Excited but wondered, Thio asked:
"Why should I practise potehi?"
"Well, I see that you have the potential of becoming a puppetter. I would like you to perform next week in Cianjur." Oey replied.
As if he had had no choice, Thio did what Oey had told him. Never did he think that it would stir his life to some direction.

Thio's first debut in potehi - taking place at a Chinese temple in Cianjur, West Java - ended up with he got a high fever due to being nervous and lack of confidence. At the backstage, he was approached by the temple's caretaker who offered him a favor. He was given a glass of water filled with a spoon of ash, taken from the pot where people put and burned the joss sticks, and was asked to drink it.

At first, he refused drinking it as it was gross. But the caretaker insisted.  He said that the ash would calm Thio's mind and make him smarter. After taking the ash with water, Thio felt much better.   As if he had bought what the caretaker said, Thio had never been nervous or lost his memory while performing potehi since then. His mind was always clear and he could remember every detail of the story he performed.

He got many invitations to perform the puppet. In those days, the performance was brought in Chinese Hokien dialect, considering that the spectators were mostly Chinese. But slowly, he changed it to Bahasa Indonesia as more and more native people got interested in potehi. Only the opening act of each chapter that remained in Chinese Hokkien.   

Under Soeharto's New Order Regime, everything related to Chinese culture was legally banned. For over three decades, potehi was like vanished in Indonesia. Uncle Thio lost his job. He blamed Soeharto for putting an end to his - what he had thought - career. But on the other side, Uncle Thio thanked Soeharto for issuing the policy. His late father's sense of surviving while being under pressure seemed to run in his blood. He founded a welding workshop and left the world of potehi behind. The money he earned from this new business was much bigger than what he had got from potehi and that of course brought good prosperity to his family.  

Strongly devoted to the teaching of Confucius, Uncle Thio referred to the symbol of Yin and Yang to describe what Soeharto had done to Chinese people during his oppressive regime. "Soeharto was just a human being like us. I didn't see him as a real bad person. There's always a white dot in the black, and vice versa." And that was how Uncle Thio forgave the regime that had taken the world of potehi away from his life.   

As for the welding workshop Uncle Thio founded, it was named "Bintoro," after the founder of The Sultanate of Demak, his hometown. Today, since the business was taken over by his eldest son, the name had been changed to Putra Mandiri. That story then led us to talking about the assimilation between Chinese and native. We both agreed that the natural assimilation had happened in Indonesia, long before the Dutch established its colony here. We were also convinced that the coming of Islam to Java was brought by Chinese traders and scholars. Even the founder of Demak, Prince Bintoro, who was more popular as Raden Patah, was born by a Chinese mother who was married to King Brawijaya, the last king reigning in Majapahit.  

I wondered why there were like two official names for the founder of Demak, the first Islamic kingdom in Java. Uncle Thio excitedly responded to my wonderment by telling me the story where the name of "Patah" came from. Regardless the legitimacy, I somehow had a faith in the following story he told me.  

The Chinese princess, whom I had thought the official wife of Brawijaya, was actually a concubine. When she was pregnant, she was exiled to Palembang. The king, who remained in Java, had a dream - which more sounded like a premonition - that the baby who was going to be born would be a man who would overthrow his power in the future. He was not worried with that dream until one day, a messenger, sent by the Chinese princess, came with news that the baby had been born, and it was a boy. He kindly asked the king for a name as requested by the Chinese princess.  

As if to confirm the premonition he got in his dream, the news had made him emotionally order the man to kill the baby. Instead of giving a name for the baby, he shouted: "patah!" which literally meant "break it!" while it was actually a metaphor for "kill the baby!"  

The messanger, being not sure with what he heard, repeated the question over and over again. And the answer he got stayed the same; "patah!" Unwiling to risk his life, the messanger returned to Palembang with the name for the newly born baby: Raden Patah. I first thought it was hilarious. It sounded more like a myth rather than a fact. But seeing how serious Uncle Thio told me that story, I was a little bit convinced with that.   

Chinese New Year's Eve was about to come when the family was gathered in front of the porch. They started the ritual of burning yellow papers, saying prayers for the ancestors. It was time for me to leave the house and let them celebrate the New Year. Before leaving the house, I made an appointment with Uncle Thio to capture him with the potehi puppets on the following morning.   

Coming to the house for the second time, I didn't have to get lost in the Chinatown like on the other day. Everybody wished me a happy and prosperous new year when I came.

Since I had found this puppeteer few months earlier on the internet, I had kept one question in mind that couldn’t wait any longer to pop out. Considering that he was the only puppeteer of potehi that could speak and perform in Chinese hokkien dialect, I wondered who could fill his shoes one day. Uncle Thio took a deep breath before answering this question. He was really concerned that there was no one of the young generation today interested in playing potehi. Slowly but sure, people would forget the existence of this puppet.

Should there be someone want to learn how to play potehi, Uncle Thio would be glad to share his wisdom, for free if that would be necessary.

There was actually one thing caught my eyes ever since I came to this house for the first time. It was the altar dedicated for those who had passed away in the family. The old faded portraits hanged on the wall were really perfect for a background. I kindly asked Uncle Thio to pose with his potehi in front of those portraits.  

While taking his pictures, Uncle Thio proudly 'introduced' me to his late family members. One figure I - somehow - respected was the father. I couldn't help but wondering how big the responsibility he had to bear during those difficult days, when he had to transform himself from being an entrepreneur running a linen shop to a roundsman, selling scraps with a cart. And just like his late father, Uncle Thio accepted sincerely what life offered him.   

After taking several shots, I thanked Uncle Thio for his time and the conversation we had had. I left the house by foot for the biggest Chinese temple in the Chinatown of Semarang. I was disappointed to find that the temple was covered with dust and spider webs all around its corners. It seemed that people didn't really care to maintain it.
While sitting on an old wooden chair, having no idea what to capture, I looked around and realized that despite all the dirt, the temple remained magnificent. Well, at least the grandeur of its architecture still echoed the glory of the past. Maybe I should have stopped looking only at the flaws. Maybe I should have started thinking like Uncle Thio who once said: "There is always white in every black, even if it's just a dot." 


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  1. Hmm..dinding plus frame-frame itu emang menggoda banget untuk dibuat background foto portrait. Lihat archive postinganmu Mas, kayaknya musti cepet-cepet pindah ke Semarang deh. Haha!

    1. Haha iya mas.Setiap melongok ke rumah2 kuno di pecinan, saya selalu gatel untuk motret foto2 leluhur di meja altar.
      Semarang kota besar tapi sepiii.... Mending saya pindah ke Surabaya aja. Mall nya gede2 kaya di sini. Heheee

  2. Thanks banget Pak Wibi, keren, saya ijin share ya di FB,

    1. You're very welcome Ko' Gun ....I'm glad this article can be useful for you.

  3. Salam Pak Wibi...
    Perkenalkan saya Selli, reporter dari LPM undip.
    Jika bapak berkenan, saya boleh minta alamat atau cp nya Pak Thio?
    Untuk keperluan liputan tentang wayang potehi, Pak. Terimakasih sebelumnya :)

    1. Hallo Selly, terima kasih sudah mampir ke blog saya. Kebetulan waktu itu saya tidak minta nomor kontak beliau. Dateng ke rumahnya juga tanpa janjian. Saya cuma tau beliau tinggal di daerah pecinan semarang, di gang pesantren.

      Jadi waktu pertama ke sana ya nanya2 sama orang di pecinan. Rumahnya nyempil di gang kecil. Namanya gang pesantren. Kl Selly datang dari arah greja blenduk.... gang nya ada setelah jembatan kali di pecinan semarang.

      Maaf ga bisa bantu info detail. Jadi dateng aja ke pecinan dan tanya gang pesantren, kelurahan purwodinatan, tempat tinggal pak thio, dalang potehi..... Good luck ya!