Sat, 12 Feb 2000

Beng Kong: Tomb of a forgotten captain

By Ida Indawati Khouw

Residents around Jl. Pangeran Jayakarta in Central Jakarta know of an area in their neighborhood called Beng Kong. But, only a few of them know that the name belongs to a great figure among the Chinese community in Batavia in the 16th century. This is the 25th article in the series on historical sites and buildings in Jakarta in Saturday editions of The Jakarta Post.

JAKARTA (JP): The area is named after Souw Beng Kong, the first Chinese "captain" -- a title given by the Dutch colonial authorities to certain community figures at the time -- in Batavia whose body is buried in a tomb in the area.

He originated from Fujian in mainland China, along with many Chinese Indonesians.

His tomb, which like many historic sites in the capital is badly preserved, is not on the list of Jakarta's preserved buildings. But local historians have plans to propose it be put on it.

It is located in a narrow alley off Gang Taruna near the busy street of Jl. Pangeran Jayakarta. Only bicycles or motorcycles can pass along it.

People firmly suggest strangers are escorted by locals when walking through the alley in the slum area. The tomb itself is often occupied by squatters.

According to historians Denys Lombard and Claudine Salmon, the tomb of Souw (1580-1644) is the oldest Chinese archaeological inheritance that still exists in the city.

But the historians apparently have no idea that the grave is no longer complete. The only remaining part that is still visible is the bongpai (gravestone in Chinese).

The other part of the tomb has been used for the concrete foundations of a modest house, which is currently occupied by the head of the local neighborhood.

The owner, Durat, and his family enter the house via a wooden staircase built near the gravestone.

The house was empty when the Post visited the site on Wednesday. Piles of worn-out junk were stacked around the gravestone.

The only things which could have proved its value were three separate inscriptions on the front of the gravestone.

Unfortunately, two of the inscriptions are missing.

The remaining one describes, in Dutch, about the brief career of the "late first captain Souw Beng Kong" from 1619 until he died in 1644.

According to a book entitled Chinese Epigraphic Materials in Indonesia, the two missing inscriptions -- both in Chinese -- say briefly about Souw and his history.

One of the stones mentions that Souw was from Hokkian in China and was an expert in letters and wushu martial art.

It also states that he was a generous man who landed in Banten (in West Java) and moved to Batavia in 1619 after he became a rich merchant.

"On Oct. 11 (1619), he was granted authority by the governor to watch over the Chinese community. Under his leadership, Chinese people were prosperous," the inscription reveals.

In 1636, it continues, Souw "sailed to Taiwan with the Dutch people and was highly respected there.

"On Apr. 8, 1644 (he) passed away.

"After 280 years, the grave was badly damaged so the gong-tang (Chinese council) donated 2,500 dun to renovate the grave on Oct. 11, 1929," reads the inscription as quoted by the book.

The book says that unlike wealthy notables of his time, Souw -- who was a native of Tongan in Fujian province of China -- had a very small family; the tombstone only mentions two children: Sing Nio and Sik Nio.

There is no data on the gender of the two but the name Nio is usually used for girls.

Adolf Heuken in his book Historical Sites of Jakarta said Souw had one child in China, two boys from two Balinese slaves, another from a Chinese woman and a daughter from an unknown woman.

The spelling of Souw differs. Some call him So Beng Kong, So Bing Kong or Su Minggang, while the Dutch named him Bencon.

But historians agree on the significance of his role in Batavia's history. Such was is status as the first captain in Batavia that his name became the "symbol of cooperation" between the Chinese and Dutch trading empire, VOC.

The site of his tomb is his own garden, which at the time was located close to the oldest Chinese graveyard in the city.

Not long after Souw was buried in 1644, the local Chinese community, who lived mostly in the areas in and around the walled city of Kota in West Jakarta, built a public Chinese graveyard six years later.

Expert on Chinese architecture Edison Yulius said that Jl. Pangeran Jayakarta area was at the time an ideal site for a graveyard as its location, on the west bank of the Kali Besar River, is inline with Chinese beliefs.

Based on Chinese cosmology, west was the symbol of death while east symbolized life, he said.

The lecturer on architecture at the privately owned Tarumanagara University here explained that in the beginning Souw's grave was typical of a Chinese tomb. It had a high pile of earth surrounded by another pile of earth in the form of a half circle at the rear.

"This is in accordance with the belief that the deceased is considered to be in the sitting position so there should be the back of a chair that is in the form of the half circle of earth," Edison said.

Due to the need for large tombs, the local Chinese then extended the size of the graveyard.

Lombard and Salmon recorded that in 1761 the graveyard had spread to the nearby areas of Kemayoran, Gunung Sahari and Sentiong.

In Hokkian, Sentiong means new graveyard.

In the early 19th century, the Dutch colonial government permitted the Chinese community to build other graveyards at several places in West Jakarta, such as Tanjung, Slipi and Kota Bambu.

All of these graveyards no longer exist.

Tragically, old tombstones with Chinese characters have been used by locals, for example those in the slum area of Kota Bambu, as blocks to cover open drains.

Lombard and Salmon noted that due to several reasons, including rising land prices in the city, many Chinese preferred to cremate their dead relatives instead of burying them.

According to the historians, the custom of cremation in the city was pioneered by a prominent Chinese journalist and community leader, Kwee Tek Hoay, who died in 1951.

"Since that time, thousands of Chinese Indonesians have followed his lead," they said.