The Acehnese Man Guarding Chinese Manuscripts

Believe in momentums? I do. After reading an ethnographic book I discovered the author’s Twitter handle, on which I found a link to someone’s blogpost about a museum of diaspora Chinese literature in Indonesia.


Museum of what?


Yeah, that was my reaction, too. I had no slightest idea such place existed. And to think it’s been 2.5 years since my visit to and subsequent writing of Benteng Heritage Museum, thought of to be the only museum related to Peranakan (diaspora) Chinese in Indonesia.


So with abundant curiosity and some trepidation, since our Facebook message had gone unanswered, my pal Lailai and I trekked to Bumi Serpong Damai earlier this week. We both love books and Lailai is a Chinese descendant from nearby Tangerang neighborhood, hence the mutual interest.


We found the museum in the unassuming Ruko ITC, locked out. The travel agent next door said it was always closed, but offered to pass our note. Almost left disappointingly, we stumbled into a Chinese man who pointed us to a used bookshop across the street.


And there, we found Azmi “Daud” Abubakar. As the blogpost had said, he is indeed of Aceh heritage. After exchanging pleasantries and roaming in the bookshop, we were lead back to the museum.


Honestly, it was not yet quite a museum, but more of a 2-storey shophouse filled with gazillion literatures related to Chinese Indonesians that has become Azmi’s labor of love. The labor of love that was apparent on his expressions as he told us how he, one of 1998 activists from a nearby campus, came to a sad realization how the movement that had nobly meant to challenge Soeharto’s New Order led to yet another bloody persecution of the Chinese descendants. He started to get curious of the once-verboten materials related to Chinese Indonesia, read a thing or two, bought this and that, and before long the literatures and likeminded contacts, including foreign researchers, started to flow into his directions.


Momentum, I’m telling you.


Azmi, later assisted enthusiastically by wife Rini, eventually founded Museum Pustaka Peranakan Tionghoa about five years ago, now located in the shophouse he’d purchased. In there we found stacks of ledgers dating back to Dutch colonial times like Het Chineesche Zakenleven in Nederlandsch-Indie (1912) and Stichting & Vereeniging “Indo-Tionghoa” Semarang (1937), or a fragile picture of Chinese men in European clothing in a house adorned with Dutch and Kuomintang-era flags, marked only with a row of Chinese letters and the Latin word “Palembang”. If that was indeed a snapshot of a Chinese foundation it does make sense, as history books indicated in early 20th century the members of Kong Koan (Raad van Chinezen), a board set by Dutch government, and Tiong Hoa Hwee Koan, an association founded by Chinese diaspora themselves, already held different political views between bygone imperial Chinese, the socialist democratic China of Dr Sun Yat-sen, or the idea of a free Dutch-Indies.


You can’t accuse all Chinese diaspora in colonial times as a willing Dutch ally, as evidenced by a framed yellowing sheet of Kedaulatan Rakjat newspaper from early Independence years, hung on the museum window, that broadcasted a Chinatown bombarded by Dutch Allies for having resisted to play along. In Cabaukan, the 1999 novel that marked the first time a Chinese word put out for public use after a 32-year taboo, which both editions are found in the museum, Remy Sylado also cheekily suggested the same thinking as he used the same Tan Peng Liang name for two characters who contributed very differently to the pre-1945 independence struggle.


You can’t also accuse all Chinese Indonesians as wild mushrooms inundating our motherland as an article in Tempo (17 September 1977, Th. VII No29), another gem found in the museum, chronicled how then Regent Bahrum Damanik had purposely invited the Chinese diaspora to build businesses in the sleepy Tanjung Balai. That now in 2016 suddenly five viharas there were burned after a Chinese descendant complained of an overly loud mosque just mirrored what Ariel Heryanto in Identitas dan Kenikmatan: Politik Budaya Layar Indonesia (2015) wrote of the diabolical politics of New Order that welcome the capitals but not the individuals. Soeharto has died and the diaspora can now freely celebrate Lunar New Year, yet it’s presumptuous to think in reality many Melayu have accepted Chinese diaspora as equal Indonesians.


Azmi saw this through, hence the determination in dedicating the museum to the mainstream Melayu Indonesians, offering a bridge of familiarity between the ethnic groups, as also illustrated by their naming of the adjoining noodle stall “Mie Aceh Cheng Ho”, borrowing from the legendary 14th c. Muslim Chinese admiral. Yet the couple needs serious help to organize the manuscripts scattered about, for as much as they treasure the papers they cannot read Chinese, something crucial that has hindered them from making the most sense of the abundant information around them. So here I am now extending the bridge to my readers who have academic knowledge or genuine interests on the matter, kindly visit the museum and lend your hand. Anyone is welcome, yet as the Minang-hailed Rini said as she fixed her mauve-colored hijab, it’s down to us the Melayus to set things straight for the Chinese diaspora would be instantly flashed by ingrained cynicism.

The man has stood guard of the once-forbidden manuscripts. It’s time for the concerned masses to help in making sense of that almost-forgotten history.

As published:


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