Peranakan: an Indonesian Chinese

Peranakan: an Indonesian Chinese

Peranakan is a term used for the descendants of the very early Chinese immigrants to the Southeast Asia region (in Indonesia and Malaysia today or known as Nusantara) who have partially adopted indigenous (e.g. Malay, Javanese, Manadonese, etc.)  Customs as part of an acculturation and/or intermarriage processes with indigenous communities. Many peranakan Chinese families have been settled in Indonesia for centuries and have indigenous as well as Chinese ancestry. That is why the word peranakan is commonly used to categorize Chinese Indonesians. In both Malay and Bahasa Indonesia, ‘peranakan’ means ‘descendants’.  The peranakan Chinese number around 7 million among the total 230 million Indonesians.

Chinese Indonesians are diverse in their origins, timing and circumstances of immigration to Indonesia, and their level of ties with the Chinese mainland. Many trace their origins to the southern parts of China, such as Fujian, Guangdong and Hainan provinces. Even though connection between Nusantara and China could be traced back to the Han Dynasty (2 AD), a well known historical record of Sino-Nusantara nexus is usually based on I Ching’s (Yi Jing) report during his travelling to Java in 7th century. So it is possible that early peranakan settlement had existed long before Admiral Zhang He came in early 15th century which is usually considered as the first wave of immigration. The second wave of immigration occured around the time of the Opium Wars (1839-1860), and the third wave around the first half of the 20th century. Chinese Indonesians whose ancestors immigrated in the first and second waves, and have thus become creolised or huan-na (in Hokkien) by marriage and acculturation, are called peranakan Chinese. The more recent Chinese immigrants and those who are still culturally Chinese are called Cina Totok.

Back in the 15th century, many first generation peranakans were born as muslim as they were once part of Admiral Zhang He’s crewmen before settling down here and marrying natives. The peranakan left their Islamic legacy mostly by founding mosques which shows a combination between Chinese and local aesthetics.  The minaret of Great Mosque of Bantam indicated a pagoda shape tower, while Chinese peranakan officers built several mosques along the Ciliwung River Such as the Kebun Jeruk Mosque.  The peranakan contributed various cultural influences in various forms mainly culinary cultures such as various noodles from mie Acheh in Sumatera to mie Cakalang in North Celebes, the tasty lumpia Bogor to lumpia Semarang, to the beautiful batik pesisir from Cirebon, Pekalongan, Kudus, Lasem, Tuban, Sidoarjo, and traditional herbal medicines known as jamu.

The political situation since 1870 was unfortunate for peranakan culture.  The Dutch government issued an agrarian policy which prohibited the locals (pribumi or indigenous people) to permanently sell their land to foreigners (Europeans). Interestingly, both of peranakan and totok were categorised as foreigners (‘foreign Orientals’).  Consequently, integration between peranakan and their “indigenous” neighbours was disrupted as they could never be considered “native” or pribumi.  So it was common for latter generations of peranakan to embrace Buddhism, Confucianism and later Christianity rather than Islam.

The peranakan also filled special posts within the local administration. Early European seafarers encountered many Chinese peranakan holding important position as shahbandar (Harbor Master) in many city ports throughout the archipelago in the 17th century. This tradition continued until the 20th century when thousands of peranakan officers served the Republic of Indonesia’s military service. Despite the peranakan’s contribution to the nationalist movement and struggle against Dutch colonialism, the peranakan came under increasing government pressure by the late 1950s to assimilate with what was then viewed as the indigenous Indonesian ‘national identity’. In Soeharto’s era (1967 onwards), the peranakan were stigmatised as leftist sympathizers and banned from Indonesian politics only because Indonesia under Sukarno were politically against Western capitalism and chose to side with the Peoples Republic of China—something that Soeharto as a zealous anti-Communist American ally did not want. The peranakan influence was confined to the economic sectors in which some successfully gained power. It is often stigmatized that the peranakan Chinese, a mere 6% of the total Indonesian population (and despite their social-economic diversity in status), control approximately 60 percent of Indonesian economic sector.

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