Indonesian traditions and beliefs have exerted a strong influence over those ethnic Chinese migrants who have resided in the country for generations. Most came to Indonesia during the 12th & 15th centuries thereby making Peranakan settlement & history in Indonesia older than that of Malaya's. The long-resident Peranakan, or Straits Chinese, who have settled mostly in Java and other outer islands such as the Riau islands, West Kalimantan and Sumatra, are the earliest examples of assimilation in Indonesian society. The Peranakans are descendents of Chinese merchants, males who came unaccompanied to the East Indies for the lucrative spice trade. Many of these immigrants married the local Indonesian women and their descendents are today known as the Peranakan, meaning local born. Peranakan Culture in Indonesia was just as similar and identical to that of Singapore and Malaysian Peranakan Culture in more ways than one.

Photo above: Old Photos of Indonesian Peranakans & an old Peranakan book in Dutch (right). After the late 19th century, the invention of the steamship facilitated the flow of Chinese migrants to Indonesia, who this time came accompanied by their wives and families. Unlike the Peranakans, these Pure Chinese, or Totoks as they were known, had Chinese families and retained the use of the Chinese language, dress and customs. They kept their mainland Chinese culture for generations and saw to the establishment of Chinese schools, newspapers and most eminently, Chinese business networks. Historians today have largely attributed the prosperous economic activity among the Chinese as the reason for the Dutch colonial policy that segregated the Totoks and Peranakans from the rest of the Indonesian community. This led to no small measure of misunderstanding and jealousy among the two groups.

The Peranakan Chinese population in Indonesia numbers at 6 million people out of a total Chinese population of 9 million while the Totok or Pure Chinese Community numbers at around 3 million or so. Making them the largest Peranakan Chinese community in the entire world. Singapore and Malaysia however only have a miniscule 500,000 Peranakan Chinese each. This explains why the overwhelming majority Indonesian Chinese only converse to each other in local Indonesian dialects and Bahasa Indonesia and not in Mandarin. The Dutch imposed a policy of seperation that gave powers and trading priveleges to the Peranakan & Totok Communities. As a result they were known as Chukongs or Kapitan Cina and controlled vast areas of land, plantation, coal and gold mines, diamond & tin mines and the like. Therefore the wealth and prestige of the Peranakan Chinese in Indonesia was similar to that of those in the Straits Settements

Above: Indonesian Nonyas dressed in the sarung kebaya for important events and functions. Peranakan Culture in Indonesia has largely died outdue to the numerous and anti Chinese policies that were so prevalent in the past. However in spite of these issues Peranakan Culture in the form of Food and Language has survived till this very day. Ayam Buah Keluak, Kueh Lapis and Kueh Bengka Ambon are just some of the cultural contributions that the Indonesian Peranakans have given to the rest of the Peranakan Communities in Malaya. The lovely sarung kebaya itself as we know it originated in Indonesia itself not in the Straits Settlements as it was invented by the Indonesian Chinese Peranakans themselves.


Indies-Chinese nationalism in the early 20th century was shaped by the transformation of the Chinese community in the Dutch East Indies. The Chinese community in this period was characterised by the division between the Totok and the Peranakan communities, and by the growing influence of the Totok community. Skinner views the distinction between the Totok and the Peranakan communities as cultural: the Totok community was characterised by its pure Chinese culture, while the peranakan community was characterised by its cross Chinese-Javanese culture. The construction of a united Chinese community could have been achieved if a single community of Totoks and Peranakans had been constructed. I shall now proceed to explain why this was not achieved.

The expansion of the Totok community at the beginning of the 20th century was a consequence of the inability of the Peranakan community to completely assimilate the new Chinese migrants who had arrived from China to take advantage of the economic development of the Dutch East Indies. This massive migration of labourers can be identified as belonging to the Huagong pattern. From the 1900s this migration started to include women, and this gave the male migrants the freedom to choose not to settle with peranakan or indigenous women; this weakened one route of assimilation into the peranakan community. The large proportion of Hakka and Cantonese dialect groups among the migrants also weakened assimilation since the Peranakan community was distinctly Hokkien.

Above: Indonesian Nonyas dressed in the sarung kebaya for important events and functions. In 1909 the Qing government issued the Nationality Law which declared all overseas Chinese to be Chinese nationals, this raised Huaqiao consciousness as it gave a legal basis for China-orientation. This consciousness prevented assimilation into the Peranakan community as the new migrants were motivated to maintain and propagate their pure Chinese culture. Indeed, the Totok community actively sought to re-sinicize the peranakan community, as seen in the efforts of institutions such as the Totok press and Totok-dominated Tiong Hoa Hwee Koan (THHK) schools to revive Peranakan interest in Chinese culture and to establish a China-oriented world-view.

Just as the Peranakan community failed to assimilate the Huagong migrants, contributing to the rise of the Totok community, the Totok community failed in its goal of re-sinicizing the Peranakan community. One fundamental reason was that the peranakans perceived China to be an alien land. This was due to the vast difference between peranakan and Chinese culture, and the fact that most peranakans perceived the Dutch East Indies to be their homeland. In the late 1910s a group of peranakan leaders migrated to China; all but one found China to be an alien place to live. Dutch efforts to prevent the re-sinification of the Peranakans also contributed to the continuance of the Indies Dutch-orientation of the Peranakan community.

Photo Above: Books on emborideing Nonya Kebaya & Indonesian Peranakan History. The fact that unhappiness with Dutch policy was a central motivation behind the apparent unity between the Peranakan and the Totok communities can be seen in the Dutch Nationality Law (DNL) issue. Apart from dismantling unpopular policies, the Dutch sought to maintain the Indies-orientation of the peranakan Chinese through the establishment of Dutch-Chinese schools, the first of which was established in 1908. These schools were a reaction to the THHK schools, and they were popular with the peranakan community. The Dutch-Chinese schools eventually grew to be more popular than the THHK schools with the Peranakan community, as the latter were seen to be suitable only for those living in China. By the late 1930s, it was clear that the THHK schools serviced the Totok community, while the Dutch-Chinese schools serviced the Peranakan community. [15] The China-oriented nationalist attempt to re-sinicize the Peranakan community through education had failed.

Photo above: Indonesian Peranakan Festivasl held yearly at Tangerang and Jakarta with Dondnag Sayang troupe. The failure of the attempt to unify the Chinese community under the China-oriented nationalist movement is most clearly demonstrated by the establishment of the all-peranakan Chung Hua Hui (CHH) in 1927, which was the first of the major all-peranakan organisations. This marked the peranakan rejection of China-oriented nationalism and the totok-dominated pan-Chinese organisations. But as Skinner points out, this disunity was already evident in the 1917 Semarang conference. Suryadinata notes that among the participants of this conference can be identified a small group of Peranakan leaders such as Kan Hok Hoei (H. H. Kan) who did not seek protection from China and who sought collaboration with the Dutch in order to protect their interests. H. H. Kan would eventually help establish the CHH, which was an Indies-oriented organisation. It sought to promote the interests of the Indies-Chinese community through collaboration with the Dutch, as manifested in its participation in the Volksraad. In contrast, the China-oriented nationalist movement rejected involvement in local politics, as seen in the Semarang conference’s declaration that the Indies Chinese should not participate in the Volksraad. The CHH failed to unify the peranakan community, much less the Indies-Chinese community.

Above Photo: Shows one of the panels at the Peranakan Festival in Jakarta describing the Sarung Kebaya called Kebaya Encim in Indonesia used by the Nonyas and old Bibiks there. In response to what was seen as the CHH’s pro-Dutch position, a group of Indonesian-oriented Peranakans established the Partai Tionghoa Indonesia (PTI) in 1932. The PTI, seeking political assimilation of the Chinese in the indigenous Indonesian society, was anti-colonial and supported the Indonesian nationalist movement. The establishment of the PTI marked the internal division in the Indies-oriented peranakan community between the pro-Dutch and Indonesian-oriented groups. Like the CHH, the PTI was unable to unite the peranakan community, much less the Indies-Chinese community. Lacking the support of Peranakan big business that the CHH enjoyed, the PTI was politically weaker than the CHH.

In the early 20th century the Indies-Chinese community hence was divided into three groups. The first was the China-oriented group, mainly consisting of the totok community. The second was the Indies-oriented Peranakan pro-Dutch CHH. The third was the Indonesian-oriented Peranakan PTI. This division was manifested in the geographical dispersal of these groups’ centres of power. The China-oriented group was based in Batavia, which was the gateway into the Dutch East Indies for new Chinese migrants. The CHH was based in Semarang, which possessed an old and established Peranakan community and which was also a centre for Peranakan big business. The PTI was based in Surabaya, which was a centre for contact between Indonesian nationalists and Peranakans.

Above Photo: Peranakan Cultural Exhibitions & Festivals being held in different parts of Indonesia. The inability of each of these three groups to establish hegemony over the others led to the disunity of the Indies-Chinese community. The China-oriented nationalists failed to reconstruct the Indies-orientation of the Peranakans, largely due to Dutch efforts to prevent the peranakans from becoming China-orientated. The Indies-orientated pro-Dutch CHH was rejected by the anti-colonial Peranakan group. The Indonesian-oriented PTI was politically weak and could not gain political strength beyond East Java. The Chinese community in the Dutch East Indies hence was characterised by disunity prior to the Second World War. After Independence from Holland, anti Chinese Demonstrations, massacres, killings and riots obliterated Peranakan Chinese Associations, Culture and Position. Anti Chinese policies and outright discrimination further worsened Peranakan Chinese influence as many Peranakans immigrated to Holland, Australia and other western countries. This immigration is continuing at quite a considerable scale till this very day.

The situation today however is vastly different & has greatly improved as more Indonesian Nonyas are using the kebaya their grandmothers used to use and having yearly Peranakan Festivals on a simlar scale to that of their Malaysian, Thai and Singapore Peranakans cousins. There has been a revival of Peranakan culture in the last 10 decades in Indonesia ever since Chinese New Year has been declared part of a National Holiday. There has been the numerous openings of Indonesian Peranakan restaurants, cultural & antique shops, musuems, festivals, exhibitions and special events held to showcase and promote Peranakan culture all over the Indonesian islands.

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