- Minority Stages: Sino-Indonesian Performance and Public Display by Josh Stenberg
Indonesian Chinese have played important roles in urban artworlds since at least the beginning of the seventeenth century, when European travelers note public performances of xiqu (Chinese opera) in the multiethnic port city of Banten. Chinese communities have patronized and performed art forms from China for centuries, not only various forms of xiqu but also barongsay (lion dancing), Chinese puppetry, and various musical traditions. Major Chinese holidays such as Chinese New Year, the Lantern Festival, and the Dragon Boat Festival were public celebrations observed by entire cities through boisterous parades, diverse cultural performances, gift-giving, fireworks, and participatory rituals such as pole climbing. Large-scale xiqu troupes toured the Dutch Indies and other parts of the Nanyang (South Seas) as far back as the 1830s, if not earlier, sponsored by wealthy Chinese businessmen, business associations, and community organizations. Chinese traditions fervently cross-pollinated with indigenous and modern forms in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—resulting in a multitude of eclectic hybrids such as the gambang kromong of the Betawi cultural area of western Java, a syncretic mix of Chinese string and wind instruments with Sundanese gamelan that accompanied social dancing and folk drama. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, as vital commercial theater and entertainment scenes flourished in urban centers, Chinese entrepreneurs assumed leadership roles as producers and impresarios. A major player was the Surabaya Chinese magnate Yap Gwan Thay, who owned theaters and a number of stores and restaurants; produced balloon shows, magic acts, topeng (Javanese masked theatre), Chinese opera (in both Malay and Chinese), and two forms of Malay operetta—komedi stambul and bangsawan; and manufactured carbonated beverages, pharmaceuticals, and fireworks.2 During the interwar period, Sino-Malay authors were Indonesia’s premier playwrights, contributing scripts for both amateur enactments and professional productions. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Chinese Indonesian entrepreneurs also owned record labels, movie studios, and independent television channels.
Minority Stages: Sino-Indonesian Performance and Public Display situates itself as a “preliminary” (169) study of the diversity of Chinese cultural performance in Indonesia, focusing strategically on a number of key theatrical genres (xiqu, potehi, and Chinese spoken-language theater), the well-known tale of the Butterfly Lovers Sampek-Engtay as dramatized in popular theater, amateur performance activities under the auspices of community organizations, and large-scale Sino-Indonesian ritual celebrations. The book is based on extensive fieldwork in a number of Indonesian cities and towns, including the metropolitan city of Bandung and Singkawang, a town in West Kalimantan with a near-majority Chinese population, mostly of Hakka derivation. Published literature and [End Page 61] the popular press are diligently mined, and reference is also made to YouTube videos and other new media.
Citing the work of Melani Budianta and Ien Ang, the author takes performance as a domain in which “Chineseness,” a malleable and indeterminate category of identification, is constantly remade and reshaped (5). Before Indonesian independence, “intra-Chinese divisions” based on language (Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, and Hakka being predominant in the archipelago) and the racial categories of “pure” (singkeh or totok) versus “mixed blood” or “acculturated” (peranakan) Chinese were significant distinctions (138). Thus the predominately Hokkien population of Java patronized the potehi or glove puppet tradition practiced in the southern Fujian region of China from which most of Java’s Chinese population originated. As Java’s Chinese were mostly peranakan, potehi increasingly mixed with Javanese practices, and is today performed largely by non-Chinese people in Indonesian, with only occasional Hokkien expressions.
Stenberg understands the eclectic cultural blends of the late colonial period produced by peranakan artists as products of their mestizo environments rather than political statements. Some of these arts are now held up as symbols of Sino-Indonesian integration. Drawing on Bakhtin’s distinction between organic and intentional hybridity, he describes the shadow puppet form now generally known as wayang kulit Cina-Jawa as “the organic expression of a highly talented Yogyakarta bicultural artist,” Gan Thwan Sing, not “a conscious negotiation of...