Stumble Into Indonesia's Unseen Places
Once upon a time, there was a noble prime minister from what now is known as China, named Qu Yuan. He was loved by the people and had done novel things for the country. One day, he was exiled from the capital after a series of slanders by the King’s jealous relatives. Qu Yuan couldn’t bare the thought of seeing his beloved country fall to ruins. He decided to end his life by drowning himself in the river. Knowing what their great hero did, the countrymen rushed rowing boats to save him to no avail. They then threw rice into the river for the hero to eat. To prevent the rice being eaten by the hungry fishes, they had the rice wrapped in thick leaves. The tragedy took place in the 5th day of the 5th month in the Chinese calendar. Hence every year, on the same date, a festival is held in remembrance of the betrayed prime minister. It is called Peh Cun, which means rowing a boat.
So that was the legend of the day called Peh Cun, celebrated by Chinese around the world every year. This year, like every year, the Chinese descendants in Tangerang, west from Jakarta, celebrated it at the Cisadane River. I went to see it with Gelar Nusantara, who organized a day-trip with about ten other people. Under the scorching hot June sun, people line up by the railing to see the dragon boat race that was also my main reason to sign up for the trip.
A few boats – each boat with a dragon head on one end – were seen on the river with 15 to 20 oarsmen per boat. It was nothing like the boat race in The Social Network movie that was very dynamic and super awesome. In fact, it was a very slow and sleepy race. One of the tour members, who was also a Chinese descendant, told me that Indonesian oarsmen often won medals in regional rowing competitions. Seeing this race, I’m betting they’re not the ones who got sent to the competitions. However halfhearted the rowing looked, it was something to see the race and the dragon boats myself, not to mention people’s enthusiasm toward the whole festival.
The real Peh Cun was actually a few days prior to the boat race. I was told that there was a standing egg competition! Remember my attempt to make an egg stand at the Equator Monument? This was just like that, but only held on the Peh Cun day, because the sun was at the closest culmination point to the earth. (Could somebody please translate that to me in human language?) That would’ve been an exciting competition even just to watch! They usually cram all the competitions and ceremonies in one day, but this year they decided different. I guess it wasn’t a very smart decision.
The wrapped rice wasn’t thrown in the river. I don’t know if this ritual is still done in any Peh Cun celebration around the world. But just like stuffed turkey on Thanksgiving, bakcang, the wrapped rice, is the special food on every Peh Cun day. Bakcang is served on the table of any household that celebrates Peh Cun. The steamed rice is originally filled with minced pork, as ‘ba’ or ‘bak’ actually means ‘pork’. But in Indonesia you can find a lot of bakcang filled with minced chicken or beef because we are dominated by Moslems, who consider that pork and any product made from the pigs is not kosher.
One of the complaints I have for the government is how many historical buildings and things aren’t preserved well. So it’s always relieving whenever I find some people or private companies are doing the job out of their own initiatives. After the Ulen Sentanu in Yogyakarta and all the properties of Tugu, now Benteng Heritage Museum in Tangerang.
The museum is located only ten minutes walk away from the riverbank, on Cilame street. To get there at A.M. time, you need to walk through a market that sells from tofu to frog legs. The museum has been operating since 2011 . It’s a shop house built in the 17th century, used to be owned by a rich Peranakan (mix of Chinese and Malay descendants) family. As the later generations failed to maintain the wealth, the house was unkept for so long, until it was bought by Udaya Halim, a self-made businessman, who spent his childhood in the neighborhood. Only 2/3 of the house can be bought back because the 1/3 part is still occupied by a distant relative of the original owner.
Pak Halim turned the 3-storey house back into its original form and look. He had some furnishings peeled and removed, uncovering colorful carvings. Classic furniture is added to represent how a Peranakan house in that certain era used to be. The ground floor is now the reception area, souvenir shop, kitchen and dining area. The second floor is the museum. To get to the third floor, they put an emergency staircase because the original staircase is at the 1/3 part. And I just realized that I don’t know what’s on the third floor!
Photographs, videos and artifacts are displayed to show the culture and history of Peranakan people, especially in the Benteng area, such as the wedding ceremony, the opium habit, and the arrival of Admiral Cheng Ho’s subordinate to Tangerang. Unfortunately, visitors aren’t allowed to take pictures in the museum. Some visitors annoyingly broke the rules, although the tour guide had straightforwardly told them not to.
Lunch was served and included in the tour. We had rujak pengantin (translates to bride and groom fruit salad), that was truly a vegetable salad with peanut sauce that’s normally known as gado-gado throughout Indonesia. We also had snacks and, of course, bakcangs!
“Next, we are going to make bakcangs,” Mbak Ratih from Gelar announced after we finished our lunch.
Yeay!! I was so excited! To me, a tour is always much more fun with something to make rather than just look at or hear. The lady that taught us how to make a bakcang was Pak Halim’s sister-in-law, assisted by her daughter.
Instead of teak leaves, we used bamboo leaves. Imported ones, to be precise. We do grow bamboo in Indonesia, but maybe not as lavish as they are in China, though we don’t have pandas to munch on them. Anyway. The half-cooked rice was spooned into the leaves that were folded into a cone shape. Then minced chicken, cooked in sweet and salty soya sauce, is scooped and put in the rice.
Folding the leaves to close the whole bakcang was a challenge on its own. If it wasn’t folded right in the beginning or if you put too much rice in the leaves, chances are you’re going to need to do the steps all over again, like Diyan did. Then tying the bakcang also had to be done in certain way, with the rest of the raffia held high, usually hanged to a nail on the wall or something like that. And how did I do in the class? Pretty good! I’m so proud of myself!
Behind the Benteng Heritage Museum, lies the Boen Tek Bio shrine, with Kwan Im goddess as the main deity worshipped there. Founded in 1684, the shrine, or klenteng in Indonesian, is still well preserved. The Kwan Im statue is located inside the main building, but we didn’t get in there because there were a lot of people praying. You’re not allowed to take pictures inside either.
We took a tour around the main building, where smaller shrines and statues of the gods are placed. Among them are the god of kitchen, and the god of hell. There was a piece of yellow paper with illustration like old Chinese money by the god of hell. It symbolizes money to bribe the god, so that the deceased doesn’t have to go to hell. That’s why, in the old days, the Chinese people were buried with their money and goods. But now I think they’ve replaced them with symbols.
Nearby, there is a shop house being renovated into a culinary museum, also owned by Udaya Halim. We stopped by and got to the top floor. Two kinds of cendol was served, one was the usual type with coconut milk water with palm sugar, and the other was with clear water and spices. Though I’ve been a huge fan of the one with coconut milk, as you can see here, I also like the latter one. It wasn’t too sweet, with just a hint of ginger flavor.
The museum is expected to open sometime in 2015. Watch out for that, guys!
The area where the museum and shrine are located is known as Benteng. The local Chinese or Peranakan descendants are called Cina Benteng, though the word ‘Cina’ is now officially replaced with ‘Tionghoa’, the term that’s considered more polite and non-racist.
Benteng means fort. It is said that there used to be a fort to protect Banten area, with the Chinese settle nearest to the fort. Hence, the Chinese or Peranakan descendants from this certain area is called Cina Benteng, which means the Chinese originated from Benteng area.
This has been our 2nd day-trip with Gelar, after the first on on the Chinese New Year’s Day. I’ve also been to one of their traditional performances as well as Diyan on their trip in Bali. If you’re interested in more of destinations with rich information on the culture and history, make sure you check out Gelar’s next destinations here.