Published Article: Lasem, Little China in Java

Monday, December 24, 2018

Moesson Magazine  |  March 2018

Of many old places in Java I have visited, Lasem, a small town located in the north coast of Central Java Province, is one of the most interesting for me. For generations, Chinese people have lived in this place, inter-racially married with the natives, and become well assimilated with the local way of life. Yet, they preserve their ancient beliefs and traditional Batik, the art of decorating cloth using wax and dye, rooted long way back from China.

Exploring Lasem often means entering a time tunnel that will bring us back to the 18th century, to the time when the spirit of Han Siong Kong, the first Clan of Han coming to Java, cursed and condemned his children and their descendants, forbade them to stay in Lasem. Believe it or not, the town is forbidden for the Clan of Han until today.

Behind the High Walls of Chinatown

Somewhere in 2011, the night bus that carried me from Jakarta to Lasem took the route of the Great Post Road, or De Groote Postweg as the Dutch called it. It is a long road built in the early 19th century, spanning from Anyer in the west to Panarukan in the east. For Indonesian, the road is known as Jalan Daendels or Daendels Road, after Governor General Herman Willem Daendels who initiated the construction.

At that time, the road brought positive impacts to the places it went through as it transformed many isolated villages into towns. Lasem is one of many towns passed by the road which now becomes the main road of the town.

After taking twelve hours ride, I arrived in Lasem and went straight to its oldest quarter: the Chinatown. Not like typical Chinatown which is dominated by shops and restaurants, the one in Lasem is dominated by old houses. Each house has large yards at its front and back, and is hidden behind a high thick wall with a Chinese style gate at the entrance. Nearly all these houses have workshops where people make traditional Batik, known as Batik Lasem.

From a book I had read about Daendels Road, it was said that many years ago, the Chinese merchants living behind the walls abused and exploited their female labors to make batik as many as possible to meet the market demands. No one outside the walls could help. The hairs on my hands stood up as I wandered through the narrow street between the walls. I felt like walking in a labyrinth and had no ideas what happened behind those centuries old walls.

To find out, I came to a house belonged to Sigit Witjaksono, a well respected Chinese man, and prominent figure in Lasem. I stood in front of the Chinese style gate and knocked on the wooden door, waiting for him to come out. “Welcome to my house. No need to take off your shoes, this is not a mosque”, said Sigit with a big friendly smile on his face.

Soon as I walked through the Chinese gate, I found a shady large front yard with tall mango trees grown in every corner. The old house looks like typical Indische house, probably built in the early 20th century with a large porch in front of it.

While sitting at the porch, I couldn’t help but noticing that there were so many old portraits and photographs on the wall. Most of those were of the ancestors and family members. There was one portrait of an old woman that to me, didn’t look like a Chinese. “If you sliced my hand you would find Javanese blood in my flesh”, Sigit conceded, leaning back in his wooden old chair. “There is no such thing as pure blood Chinese in Lasem. We have been for centuries assimilated with the natives”.

Born in 1929 from a wealthy Chinese family, Sigit was originally named Njo Tjoen Hian. His late father, Njo Wat Djiang, was a successful merchant, exporting Batik Lasem to Malaysia, and Singapore. In the heyday of Batik Lasem, nearly all native women in Lasem worked as labors in batik workshops. Today, it is estimated that only five percent of them work in that home industry.

“I have a dream of bringing Batik Lasem back to its glorious days,” said Sigit while taking me to the backyard of the house to see the workshop. I was allowed to see the process of making Batik. I would say that it was a very intricate work. First, they manually drew the motif with a pencil on a white fabric, and then put hot liquid wax on the motif so as to define it. After that, the fabric had to go through several dying processes.

Comparing to Javanese Batik in common, Batik Lasem is much more colorful, sometimes with some ancient Chinese letters put between the motifs. The whole process were done manually, just like the way it had been for many centuries. The labors, all were women, worked in shift. I was glad that there was no more exploitation and abuse behind the high walls of Chinatown.

The Ancient Beliefs

There are two Chinese temples in Lasem that every traveler should see. Not far from Sigit’s house, there was the Temple of Gie Yong Bio where I met an old Chinese woman named Ong Kroeng Nio, the caretaker who was also a fortune teller. She would read someone’s fate through a yellow paper randomly picked from a wooden red box. I couldn’t read the paper as it was written with ancient Chinese letters and some drawings.

From the main hall of the temple, Ong brought me to a sacred chamber at the back of the temple. It was a small dark chamber illuminated only by two small lamps. There I found an altar with a figure of Javanese man wearing traditional costume on it. For the very first time in my life, I saw a non Chinese figure put inside a Chinese temple.

The man, named Raden Pandji Margono, was worshipped by the Chinese for his valor in fighting the VOC (Dutch East India Company) during the Yellow War. It was a war in Java between the Chinese and the Dutch in 1740s. Together with his Chinese friends, Oey Ing Kiat, the mayor of Lasem, and Tan Kee Wie, a merchant and kung fu fighter, Pandji was killed in that war. The temple was built in 1780 to honor them.

From Chinatown in the south, I walked across the Daendels Road to the temple of Chu An Kiong in the north. It is the oldest temple in Lasem, situated right on the side of Lasem River. In the past, Chinese migrants came from Java See and entered the town through the river. Traditionally, they would build a temple to worship the god of the sea, Thian Siang Sing Bo, who became the host of the temple.

The Legendary Curse

The history of Lasem is strongly related with the coming of Han Siong Kong in the 17th century from the Province of Fujian, China. He came to Lasem to try his fortune and became the first man from the clan of Han in Java. He married a local Javanese woman who gave births to five sons and four daughters.

His attempt to make a fortune was not so successful until he passed away in 1743. He didn't leave enough money for his children to hold a proper funeral. In old Chinese tradition, a funeral would indicate someone's hierarchy in society, and it took a lot of money to hold it properly.

The sons, felt obliged to hold a proper funeral for their father, tried to multiple the little money their father had left in a gambling house. Sadly, they lost all the money in the gambling and that would mean no proper funeral. This was something embarrassing for the family.

Shy away from holding a poor funeral, the sons decided to wrap their father's body with a sack, and secretly brought it to a remote place in the middle of the night. While they were passing a vast rice field, there was a thunderstorm coming in sudden. They ran to take shelter toward a bamboo hut, and put their father's body in the middle of the field. Aparently, they didn't have any respect for their father.

Getting exhausted from carrying the body, all the sons of Han Siong Kong fell asleep at the bamboo hut. The displeased spirit of Han Siong Kong came to their dreams and cast a curse on his descendants. No one from clan of Han was allowed to settle in Lasem. Any ignorance to his curse would mean a bad luck.

All the sons suddenly woke up as they heard a thunder strike the rice field. They ran toward their father's body and found a huge tombstone right on the ground where they put their father's body in a sack.

On my second visit to Lasem in 2012, I tried to find the tombstone located deep in a village, far from the main road of Lasem. But before I started my quest, I came to interview some local Chinese just to find out about the curse.

“Few months ago, there was a Chinese business woman from Jakarta, her clan was Han, coming to the tombstone of Han Siong Kong,” said Maria, an old woman running a grocery store. “She prayed in front of the tomb and cried her heart out, begging for forgiveness.”

“Did her prayer break the curse?” I asked.
“I don't think so. Maybe not yet. No one from the clan of Han come to settle here in Lasem.” She replied.
“What would happen if there were someone from the clan dared to settle here?” I was curious.
“Well, as far as I know there was one man from the clan of Han settled here in 1980s. He ran a small motorcycle repair shop. He never succeeded and had to move out to Surabaya,” said Maria.

I was finally able to find the tombstone. The vast rice field had been turned into overgrown land. I couldn't reach the tomb by car, I had to walk through bushes and scrubs. The tombstone, adorned with ancient Chinese letters was surrounded by tall trees. It was kind of dramatic when suddenly the wind blew, swinging the tall trees as if to welcome me. I didn't stay long at the grave, and soon left after whispering a prayer.

On my way back to Jakarta, I wondered what could possibly break the curse of Han Siong Kong. Maybe Han Siong Kong tried to tell me through the wind that had suddenly blown at his grave. Well, too bad, I didn't hear his whisper.

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