Peranakan literature in Indonesia

February 16, 2008, [MD]

My problem with doing research is that I come across so many interesting topics, and it is hard not to pursue them, and get lost. Sometimes I write books down in my “books to read” list, or download pdfs meaning to read them later. Sometimes I spend hours on things that I absolutely do not have time for. But that’s probably how I learnt most of what I know. Even when I went to school in Italy, I could never study in the library, because I would always just grab a book from the shelves and start reading - unrelated to what I was actually trying to get done.

Tonight I am reading “Literature in Malay by the Chinese of Indonesia”, a wonderful piece of research by Claudine Salmon, because it has some important passages about early lending libraries in Indonesia started by the Chinese. Here are two great quotes that are really useful in my research:

p 93 “It seems undeniable that at one time in the history of Java, members of communities of Chinese origin played a determining role by spreading the habit of reading, through taman bacaan or lenidng libraries, and then by being the first to take advantage of printing, recently spread by Europeans. Lastly, they suddenly confronted Malay speakers with a considerabl volume of historical, philosphical, technical and literary information, translated from both Chinese and European languages.”

p 112 “Confronted by these rivals [Chinese publishers], Balai Pustaka became so anxious that in 1936 those in charge of the official publishing house sent a mission to inspect all the taman bacaan or “lending libraries” in Java. The mission found that the most frequently borrowed works all came from private publishing houses. Consequently, during the following year, Balai Pustaka launched a campaign to advertise the taman bacaan which bought its publications.”

Through the sources in her book, I came across some Chinese articles about early libraries in the Ming and Qing dynasties in China (one I was able to download through WangfangData, one I will pick up at the library tomorrow). I also find the topic of early literature in Indonesian very fascinating, it’s amazing to think about the Chinese peranakan living in Batavia and Weltevreden in 1870-1900 and writing these little snippets, some examples:

“Dengan boeroe soeda di karang,\ Biar di batja djoega sekarang;\ Kabar itoe mendjadi girang,\ Boeat semoea la orang-orang”\ (the last four lines in a poem about the visit of the king of Siam (Thailand) in 1872, apologizing for the poor quality, and explaining that he wanted his poem finished so people could read it quickly - p. 20)

“Hamba bernama ABDUL KARIM,\ Di negeri Ambon tempat moekim,\ Anak piatoe lagipoen miskin,\ Bahagian borgor tiada lain.

Satengah orang ada pangilan,\ Majoor TJI ia seboetkan,\ Nama jang benar kaloe soeratkan,\ ABDUL KARIM TJIAT itoelah soenggohkan”\ (self-description of a Chinese, head of the Chinese community in Ambon, written in 1890 - p. 25)

They wrote lots of original literature describing both Chinese (Peranakan) and different local ethnic cultures, marriage and love, morals and crime. It would be incredible to be able to read some of these earliest descriptions of Indonesia - however it seems that most of these books now only exist in one or a few copies each, spread out over several libraries in Indonesia, and of course KITLV in Holland. In fact, when talking about an early attempt of literary adaption, when a French novel is translated into Indonesian, but set in China, and with Chinese names, Salmon mentions that it would be great to be able to examine the original titles and the translations side by side, but that this will be very difficult, since they exist in different libraries.

We are used to classical texts in English being made available online, whether earlier by the Gutenberg project, or now by Google Books and The Open Content Alliance. However, nothing like this exists for Indonesian. I really wish some Indonesian magnate (god knows there are enough of them) would fund a huge book scanning project to preserve this early Indonesian literary heritage, and also enable far more research and scholarship around them.

Stian Håklev February 16, 2008 Toronto, Canada
comments powered by Disqus