Sat, 04 Nov 2000

The Chinese, a vital part of Batavia

By Ida Indawati Khouw

The Chinese, who traditionally have been unfairly considered "outsiders", have played a major role is shaping Batavia. This 63rd article on old and protected buildings in Jakarta briefly recalls the role the Chinese played.

JAKARTA (JP): Many large cities have a neighborhood that is called China Town but Batavia's (old Jakarta) China Town was unique in that it dominated the city. One historian called Batavia a "Chinese colonial town under Dutch rule."

Such a sobriquet is of course debatable, but several censuses conducted in the 1600s and 1700s showed that the Chinese population was larger than any other ethnic group and they also dominated every business sector.

They were present long before the arrival of Vereenigde Oost- Indische Compagnie (VOC Dutch trading company) which built Batavia in 1619 on the ruins of Jayakarta, the name of the area when it was still under control of Banten sultanate, after the Dutch defeated the indigenous kingdom.

The prince of Jayakarta permitted the Chinese community to build their settlement in the eastern part of the Ciliwung River estuary at the same location where VOC constructed their first castle.

The Chinese traded, grew sugar cane and distilled the arak alcoholic beverage famous among visiting sailors at the Jayakarta Port.

The community members called their coastal settlement Yecheng, meaning Coconut City, because coconut trees were ubiquitous. The width of the coastal area permitted for the settlement was 6 li (about 3 kilometers).

But in 1614 the Chinese kampong became smaller because the treaty with VOC allowed the latter to purchase some parts of the area to build lodges. The company then demolished houses close to the Dutch area for fear of fire.

"At that time the roof of the Chinese houses were made from highly inflammable straw and bamboo," said Edison Yulius, expert on Chinese architecture from Tarumanagara private university.

The kampong steadily grew following the expansion of the walled city of Batavia between 1619 and 1650. The Chinese settlement was then "encircling" Batavia. The borders were the present Jl. Jembatan Batu and Jl. Telepon Kota in the south, along Jelakeng river in the west, along Kampung Muka Timur in the east and the Jakarta Bay in the north (all in downtown Kota).

Chinese (usually the rich ones) had the privilege to live inside the isolated city of Batavia, following the VOC decree that Javanese were not permitted to live within the town fearing that they would be infiltrated by people from Mataram and Banten (kingdoms in Central Java and West Java respectively, the VOC's enemies).

"For a long time the Dutch felt insecure in Batavia ... the town survived two sieges from Mataram (the Javanese kingdom)," Susan Abeyasekere said in her book Jakarta, a History.

The Dutch chose to live side by side with the Chinese because they needed people to live within the new city. Besides, the ethnic group had skilled laborers and the Dutch needed merchandise from East Asia brought in by Chinese junks.

"Moreover, the Dutch wanted to make sure that all of the Chinese trading affairs were controlled through the VOC tax office," said Leonard Blusse in his book Strange Company Chinese Settlers, Mestizo Women and the Dutch in VOC Batavia.

In 1622, the VOC adopted a policy of bringing a large number of Dutch and Chinese to the city and Governor General J.P. Coen even sent ships to China to kidnap people on the Chinese coasts.

The people were needed to build the wall encircling the city and buildings in the city. That's why Chinese ornaments and red colors can be found today in many Dutch buildings in Kota.

After the city was built, the skills of the Chinese contributed significantly to the economy of Batavia. As writer and church minister Francois Valentijn described in the 1720s, they conducted wholesale trade in tea, porcelain, silk cloth and lacquerwork and also provided skills such as smiths, carpenters and so on.

"If there were no Chinese here, Batavia would be very dead and deprived of many necessities," he concluded.

Abeyasekere said that their houses were an amalgam of European architecture and the shop-houses of southern China, "distinguished by such features as upward curling roof ridges."

Facilities like hospitals, orphanages and rest homes were built within the wall but there is no remaining evidence of the presence of those institutions. There is only an inscribed stone from the Chinese hospital, located at the present Jl. Tiang Bendera. The stone is now in the back yard of the National Archives Building on Jl. Gajah Mada, West Jakarta.

The Europeans were heavily dependent on Chinese labor and Coen said "there are no people who serve us better than the Chinese nor so easy to get as the Chinese."

In 1632, Blusse commented further that, without considering the great number of slaves, Chinese ranked first in number.

Census data show that in 1699, the number of Chinese were 3,679 followed by Mardijkers, freed slaves, with 2,407, Europeans 1,783, racially mixed people numbered 670 and others were 867.

In 1739 the number of Chinese had increased to 4,199.

Blusse said that the number of Chinese in the city had closely related to the city economy because they were the only ethnic group in Batavia which was subject to personal tax.

"When there was a sharp decrease in the trade of Chinese junks, which was the prime income for the merchant group, the Chinese left Batavia to Banten or Mataram where they were not taxed. Some were persuaded to return through decreasing or even scrapping the personal tax," said Blusse.

He further said that in 1630 the personal tax received from the Chinese was more than a half of the city's total tax revenue.

The growing number of Chinese alarmed the Dutch who responded with harsher and harsher regulations. "First they tried to put a quota on the number of Chinese who could be brought in by junk, but this was evaded by landing laborers outside the harbor," Abeyasekere said.

Unchecked arrivals of Chinese created unemployment problems with hundreds of coolies out of work. When these men, living outside the walled city, began forming bands of thieves, the government's reply in 1740 was to plan the forced transfer of unregistered migrants to another Dutch outpost in Ceylon, Sri Lanka.


But rumors among the Chinese were that they would be dumped at sea during the journey and the peasants revolted.

Carrying home-made weapons and flying banners inscribed, "To Assist the Poor, the Destitute and the oppressed" and "Follow the Righteous of Olden Times", the coolies marched on the city, where hundreds of their friends lived.

Although those within the wall had little or no contact with the Chinese outside, rumors spread that they were planning to assist the rebels.

When the ill-armed Chinese force attacked the town on Oct. 8, the fact that they were easily repulsed did not save the Chinese inside.

Europeans and Indonesians spontaneously attacked, plundered and burned 6,000 to 7,000 Chinese homes and massacred many of their inhabitants, "probably more than a thousand of them," Abeyasekere said.

Five hundred Chinese who were shut up in the jails of City Hall (the present Museum of Jakarta History in Kota) then brought one by one and killed. There was no exception for patients at the Chinese hospital.

Most surviving Chinese fled Batavia for areas in Java.

For a week the town blazed and the canals ran red with blood. "It was reported that after the massacre only six to eight Chinese woman and a child under 14 remained in the southern part of the city," Edison said.

Gradually the government regained control and by the end of the following month order was restored and Chinese were then prohibited to live within the wall again.

A special suburb was allocated to the Chinese just south of the town that has ever since been Jakarta's Chinatown -- the area known as Glodok.