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A Connection to the Past at Museum Pustaka Peranakan Tionghoa

EXPLORE JAKARTA | 18 December 2018

One morning, a firm voice broke the silence of the quiet space, a room filled with old books. I was greeted by Azmi Abubakar (henceforth referred to as  Pak Azmi) excitedly showed me the two-storey building, a place which houses his collection of books and other memorabilia. He caught my eye when I stared at a board inscribed in Chinese. His eyes sparkled, a big smile appeared on his face, and, in a voice that echoed through the  room, he began to explain.  

Museum Pustaka Peranakan Tionghoa in Gading Serpong, South Tangerang. Photo by Raditya Fadilla/NOW!JAKARTA

“When I bought it in Semarang, I didn’t know what this plank was. But when I brought it here, I found out what it meant. It’s a school signpost written in Chinese script “Tiong Hoa Hwee Koan”, the first modern private school in Indonesia built in Batavia. The school now is SMUN 19 (senior high school) or in Chinese 19 is Cap Kau, located in Kota, West Jakarta. This signpost was made in 1904, so it’s already 114 years old and the only signpost from the school that still exists until now. “Soekaraja” is inscribed on the top,  a place in Purwokerto where there was a branch of this school. The school was rebuilt here in Gading Serpong with the name of Pahoa,” he said.

For Pak Azmi, that wooden board has a special story. Tiong Hoa Hwe Koan was the first organisation in Indonesia for those of Chinese descent who settled in Batavia, founded in 1900. The organisation established a school called Tiong Hoa Hak Tong which later changed its name to Tiong Hoa Hwe Koan. To distinguish it from other Tiong Hoa Hwe Koan schools which sprung up in various cities and towns outside the city, the school then was known as Patekoan Tiong Hoa Hwe Koan School and abbreviated as Pa Hoa, the first Chinese modern private school that was established in the Dutch colonial era. The term ‘Tionghoa’, a phrased in Indonesian referring to the ethnic Chinese community, has its roots in this word. Tiong Hoa Hwe Koan was the pioneer that used ‘Tionghoa”.

“Behind this board there’s a strong meaning and sense of nationality. Only Indonesia uses the term of ‘Tionghoa’ for people of Chinese descent, and it’s a dear name for them. And it was indeed expressed by Indonesian figures including Bung Karno and the journalists at the time because Tionghoa were people who bravely pioneered the word ‘Indonesia’ replacing the name ‘Dutch East Indies’ through its media (Sin Po) in 1926. Here is the proof and I keep it. This is information and history that must be disseminated,” explained Pak Azmi.

Kedai Kopi Ie Leubeeue.

Material related to Tionghoa history is preserved at the Museum Pustaka Peranakan Tionghoa (Chinese Descents Library Museum). There are many piles of old books in every corner of the museum and articles from old newspapers placed in vintage cabinets, all related to the Tionghoa people. There is a terracotta statue which, Pak Azmi says he obtained from an old house in Solo, and describes a soldier who accompanied his emperor, arowana (freshwater bony fish) statue as the symbol of glory for Tionghoa people, and a portrait of a bald man with taucang, a popular male hair style in the era of Qing Dynasti.

The museum showcases a wooden board inscribed “Ie Leubeue” a famous name of traditional coffee shop owned by Tionghoa people in Jalan Perdagangan, Pidie Aceh. Pak Azmi who is Acehnese, but was born and brought up in Jakarta, talked about times when local people would gather at the shop and order coffee and cake without a thought about the ingredients in the food.

Here, comic lovers can find old comics created by Tionghoa people, from the first comic in the country “Put On” by Kho Wan Gie that was already published before 1930, the complete silat (Indonesian’s traditional martial arts) story series by Kho Phing Hoo, the series of “Panji Tengkorak” by Hans Jaladara, “Si Buta Dari Gua Hantu” by Ganes Thiar Santosa, etc, all of which were Indonesia’s last encounter with the Tionghoa people’s works before they were replaced by Japanese comics.

Pak Azmi ,who is a civil engineer and enjoys reading, pays special attention to the stories and the roles of Tionghoa people. The race riots against the Tionghoa people that occurred in Indonesia in 1998 were a turning point and he thought about what he could do for them. In 1999, Pak Azmi started to hunt for books in book centres across Jakarta, such as in Kwitang, Senen, Kota, Jatinegara, Tanah Abang and Rawamangun as well as across the country. When the collection grew large, he rented a home to store them. Despite owning a bookstore then, he didn’t sell books related to Tionghoa history. He also didn’t allow people to borrow them, preferring instead that they read them in at his home.

The museum collects more than 35,000 books.

Researchers finally caught wind of his efforts to create a space, a veritable repository of information, at Gading Serpong, Tengerang.

“Many friends of mine and others asked me why I built museum in Serpong not in Senen or Kota Tua which one identifies with the Tionghoa community. Some of them even willing to lend their place to me. It is because this was the centre of the problem and I need to think about the impact to various communities. Straits-born Chinese experienced remarkable process of acculturation here, and also there are many families and students, that’s my target. I want this museum to be integrated with their lives. And, this museum is not passive, but active outside, it invites people out there to discuss, create dialogues, and spread the information,” Pak Azmi noted.

The museum collects more than 35,000 books managed and financed by Pak Azmi himself and he uses the help of a few volunteers. To visit, guests need to make an appointment directly with him. Pak Azmi invites all visitors, researchers, public figures, students and others, and spends time explaining the history of the space, helps find information they need and more. He refuses donations, noting that in establishing the museum the fundamental point is to connect with the nation’s past. He admitted that the museum can’t be delegated to others in order to ensure that the emotional link between himself and the museum continues.

Azmi Abubakar, founder of Museum Pustaka Peranakan Tionghoa.

When I asked how he saw the role of Tionghoa people now, his strong voice turned deeper. He said that all ethnic groups in Indonesia have been reduced to the lowest level now, whether they are Madurese, Javanese, Bugis, and certainly Tionghoa. He noted the times when the community came together,  such as during natural disasters, the Asian Games, etc, but the sense of brotherhood has fallen considerably.

“When we say we are Indonesian it’s automatically connected to some ethnic group.  I’m Acehnese but I can say I’m Papuan too. For me that’s a manifesto for Indonesians. People have a negative view of Tionghoa people, it’s not because our people are hateful and malicious, the problem is information about their history were not conveyed. I look at the cause so we can find the solution. To express and respond to the problem. That’s why I made this museum,” Pak Azmi said.