It comes as a big surprise to learn that the Jakarta suburb of Tangerang, known today for its sprawling factories and warehouses, has a history that makes it unique in the country.
Tangerang is believed to be the site of one of the first settlements of ethnic-Chinese in the archipelago.
Although there are signs that Chinese merchants had contacts with Indonesia dating back as far as the 6th century, permanent settlements weren’t established until much later.
A man called Chen Chi Lung is thought to have led a small band of followers from the northern Javanese coast, close to what would later become Batavia (now Jakarta), up the Cisadane River in 1407.
These initial settlers are also thought to have been acolytes of the famous Muslim admiral from China, Cheng Ho, who led seven great Chinese fleets to Indonesia and beyond in early 15th century during the Ming Dynasty.
So, this means that ethnic-Chinese settlement in Indonesia, starting in Tangerang, occurred a full century before first contact with European explorers.
These settlers have since become known as “Cina Benteng”, meaning “the Chinese of the fort”, a name that derives from Tangerang and the bend in the Cisadane River becoming the site of a Dutch fort in the 17th century.
The fort was built in order to protect the Dutch settlement of Batavia from attack by the unruly Bantenese further west.
It’s fascinating to consider that today’s sprawling district of Tangerang started out as a small village of Chinese settlers on the banks of the Cisadane River in the early 15th century.
Before the property developers and factories arrived, it was a fertile rural area with rice fields and rubber plantations.
If you go to the old center of Tangerang today, and wander down the narrow, crowded Pasar Lama traditional market, you will still see Chinese-style buildings with characteristic low-curving sloped roofs and a lively 17th century Chinese temple where incense still smolders.
One man, a third-generation descendant, has made it his mission to try and save a little of what is left of the Chinese heritage in Tangerang.
Born and raised in old Tangerang, Udaya Halim, whose Chinese name is Lim Tjin Pheng, is using this heritage to help encourage the Tionghoa community — as the ethnic-Chinese community is now known — to appreciate and preserve their traditions and identity while educating Indonesians as a whole about the longevity and richness of Chinese heritage.
“Culture is borderless. It is like water and air. It is nourishing the soul. It takes and gives. It blends to build a character of a nation and to preserve Bhinneka Tunggal Ika,” Udaya said, referring to the country’s slogan meaning “unity in diversity”.
As a small boy growing up in a modest house overlooking the Pasar Lama market, Udaya would sometimes gaze over the narrow lane toward a large, old Chinese-style house on the other side and wonder what secrets it contained.
Much later in life, after founding the King’s English Language School in Tangerang and expanding it to other cities, Udaya had a dream one night that he found himself inside the house. That was the moment he knew it was his destiny to buy the old house, renovate it, and turn it into a museum dedicated to the preservation of the Chinese heritage of Indonesia — before it was too late.
He had recently visited the old trading port of Malacca in Malaysia and it was like déjà vu for him: today’s old city of Malacca was just as Udaya wanted the future Pasar Lama to become – a living monument to Tionghoa heritage tourism.
Udaya had been impressed by the quality of the restored houses in Malacca and, as a result, felt more confident that a similar transformation could be made here in Tangerang.
Today, Udaya’s dream is finally starting to come true.
Purchased in September 2009, lovingly and carefully restored in its original style, and keeping as many of the original features and materials as possible, the Museum Benteng Heritage association was founded on the auspicious date of Nov. 11, 2011.
So far, at least one example of a 17th century Chinese-style house in Tangerang has been restored.
Constructed on two main floors with a beautiful first-floor terrace overlooking the street below, the building contains many historic artifacts and pictures of Tionghoa life in Indonesia from over the centuries, together with explanations of the importance of the voyages of Admiral Cheng Ho in spreading Chinese heritage across Asia.
For instance, there is a collection of old opium scales from different periods found across the region, examples of traditional Tionghoa costumes that were borrowed from the 18th and 19th century Qing Dynasty and a collection of tiny ladies’ shoes used for the bound feet of women in the days when the Chinese thought that small feet enhanced a woman’s beauty.
There is also an ivory mahjong set, Chinese artifacts found in the vicinity of old Tangerang and examples of old Chinese techniques and styles of batik.
One of the most impressive original elements of the house is a delicate relief surrounding the first-floor opening up toward the skylight above.
The relief depicts the story of General Kwan Kong, a famous Chinese general widely revered as a paragon of loyalty and righteousness, thought to date from the 17th century.
Museum Benteng Heritage is very much a living museum and community hall, as it is now used by the local Tionghoa in Tangerang and, increasingly, by the wider Chinese diaspora in Indonesia to hold cultural events.
These events include the hosting of traditional Tionghoa wedding ceremonies, kebaya and sarong fashion shows that display how the Tionghoa adapted local fashions to incorporate traditional Chinese designs and culinary festivals using the house’s own kitchen to show off traditional Tionghoa food, known also as Peranakan or Baba Nyonya food.
In fact, Museum Benteng Heritage has grown in reputation to become such an important icon of Indonesian Tionghoa culture that it has won several prestigious awards, such as the MURI (Museum Records Indonesia); the Cipta Pesona Award from the Ministry of Tourism for the best cultural a tourism destination in 2012; and the Gold Winner of the Prix D’Excellence Award for Heritage Restoration from FIABCI Indonesia in 2012.
It was also named the Silver Winner of FIABCI International in 2013. This last award, akin to the Oscar of real estate, is given to real estate projects that embody excellence at all levels of their creation.
Udaya is unwavering in his energy and dedication to the cause of preserving the Tionghoa identity and traditions in the country, not as a way of showing off Chinese culture but to educate all Indonesians, both indigenous and Tionghoa, in how the mixing of cultures has created this unique Tionghoa heritage in Indonesia — a story that started here in Tangerang in the early 15th century.
There’s no holding him back now: he has recently bought and is in the process of renovating another Chinese-style building just a couple of blocks away on the banks of the Cisadane River.
He intends to turn this building into a café and restaurant specializing in Tionghoa food, even offering cooking classes to those keen to continue the culinary Peranakan Tionghoa traditions.
His latest ambition is to protect the old Tionghoa area of Tangerang from further destruction and to turn Pasar Lama, with its 17th century temple and early 18th century mosque — which have lived in close harmony for three centuries — into a heritage site for cultural tourism.
“My ambition is very simple. Tionghoa should be treated equally with others in Indonesia so that they can call Indonesia home,” Udaya says.
If you’d like to visit the museum, it’s open to visitors six days a week (closed on Mondays) and, if arranged in advance (firstname.lastname@example.org), can also include an interesting 45-minute heritage walk to other Tionghoa buildings, including the still-functioning Boen Tek Bio Temple and the old 18th century mosque with its unique pagoda-shaped building.
Peter Milne, Jakarta Post— Photos courtesy of Udaya Halim