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  • Minority Stages: Sino-Indonesian Performance and Public Display by Josh Stenberg
  • Henry Spiller
Minority Stages: Sino-Indonesian Performance and Public Display. By Josh Stenberg. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2019. xi+ 257 pp.

Josh Stenberg aims to rethink much of the received wisdom about Sino-Indonesian identity/ies in this wide-ranging, deeply researched and engagingly written study. He makes a compelling case that Indonesian Chinese performance is not simply a minority or fringe activity but an "integral contribution to Indonesia's performing arts" (p. 169).

Each chapter adds complexity and nuance to the overarching theme of the book: Indonesians with Chinese heritage deploy many different strategies to negotiate and articulate their Sino-Indonesian identities in the contexts of particular places, times and situations. Although suppression, or at least suspicion, of Chinese language, Chinese culture and Chinese-ness in general has a long history throughout Southeast Asia, the especially heinous repression under President Soeharto's New Order regime (1965–98) understandably is a recurring motif throughout the book. Stenberg points out the irony "that suppressions resulted in the deeper integration of Chinese arts and stories into Javanese society" (p. 167). The succinct history in the introduction of the long involvement of people of Chinese heritage in what is now Indonesia succeeds (as does the rest of the book) in showing "how unsound it is to conceive of Chinese as alien to the archipelago" (p. 8).

The first genre study (in chapter 1) focuses on four hundred years of various Indonesian approaches to xiqu, which many would generalize as 'Chinese opera' (although Stenberg mostly avoids that term). Although most of the detailed history of xiqu in Indonesia is "largely unrecoverable" (p. 36), the author nevertheless succeeds in painting a vivid picture, based on an impressive array of sources in a variety of languages, of the ups and downs of xiqu performances of various sorts throughout the archipelago. The author concludes that xiqu "was a major source of entertainment for both Chinese [End Page 398] and non-Chinese residents of the Indies" (p. 48) until its intrinsic Chinese-ness made it untenable to perform under New Order anti-Chinese policies. The chapter provides an encouraging conclusion in its accounts of recent revivals since the fall of Soeharto.

In chapter 2, Stenberg turns to the sine qua non of Indonesian theatre—wayang—in various Chinese-inflected forms, using Chinese stories, Chinese-style puppets and (at least in the past) Chinese languages. He uncovers a history for wayang potehi (based on southern Chinese glove puppet theatre), again by mobilizing an impressive array of sources into a coherent, but never overinterpreted, narrative, that accounts for the hybridity of the form. In current expressions, wayang potehi is generally performed in the Indonesian language. The chapter also covers other hybrid Sino-Indonesian wayang performances. The author concludes that such hybrid performances are affected by "the vocabulary and cultural policy of a given political regime", but ably contribute to making the case for "the Chinese minority as an integral element of an Indonesian whole" (p. 75).

In contrast to the arguably assimilative project of Chinese wayang, the Chinese-language spoken theatre that arose towards the end of the colonial period (chapter 3) did so in the spirit of increased interest in identification with China and was "associated with a strident and self-conscious aspiration to modernity" (p. 76). The bulk of the chapter is an account of one play, Temple of the Five Ancestors. The author contrasts the different political angles of its two versions: one version was meant "to unite Chinese and Indonesians as fellow victims" (p. 95), and the other to "foster a sense of patriotic Chineseness" (p. 95). Chinese-language spoken theatre disappeared during the New Order and has not experienced a revival. Back in a more assimilative mode, chapter 4 focuses on different incarnations of a single Chinese story, Sampek Engtay, as an exemplar of Chinese influence on more mainstream Indonesian-language spoken theatre.

The final two chapters (5 and 6) expand the discussion to less formalized Sino-Indonesian performances, and the strategies adopted [End Page 399] by Chinese social and religious organizations to the strictures on expressions of Chinese culture...


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pp. 398-400
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