Benteng Chinese in Indonesia: Preserving traditions


Estefany Fortuna

Oldest Chinese temple “Boen Tek Bio” in Pasar Lama Tangerang.

With on-going construction of gleaming white buildings lining the streets and endless hectares of suburban neighborhoods in the making, Tangerang is the city of gentrified dreams. However, nestled in the outskirts of this never-ending modernisation project is a quaint area rich in hundreds of years of cultural history.

Pasar Lama Tangerang––or the Old Market of Tangerang––is home to the Benteng people, who make up most of the Chinese-Indonesian community in the city of Tangerang. Located near Cisadane, a river that runs for 126.000 kilometers, each corner of this region shows how the people’s traditional culture is preserved well––from the architecture of the buildings, the food stalls selling traditional delicacies, the language spoken around, and to the way Benteng people live their daily lives. Some parts of their culture are the fusion of Chinese and Indonesian traditions.

The Historical Bond Between Benteng People and Pasar Lama

The name “Benteng” in Benteng people of Tangerang holds a historical value which explains how the community first came. “Benteng” itself is an Indonesian term for fortress. 

Oey Tjing Eng, one of the Benteng people popularly recognised in Pasar Lama as a “historian”, explained that a fortress, known as Dutch fortress or locally known as Makassar fortress, used to take place in Tangerang area. A lot of Chinese people used to live outside the fortress, bestowing upon themselves the nickname “Cina Benteng”, which literally means the Chinese people who live around the fortress.

Dwelling in the Pasar Lama area, Benteng people apparently have envisioned and labelled their territory in a unique way. Unbeknownst to most, Benteng people actually settled accordingly to create a “王” (pronounced “wāng”), which is a Chinese character that means “king”, in the map. The settlement area of these Benteng people is characterised by its 5 meter width measurement per building, or what locals know as “petak sembilan”. The “petak sembilan”, as the civilisation area of the Benteng people, then also becomes a market area, which we now know as Pasar Lama.

“So, when Chinese people usually lived, like, on the seafront, then they would definitely create a market area near the quay,” explained Oey Tjin Eng on how Pasar Lama was first created by Benteng people.

Cultural fusion

Benteng people still preserve their traditions and cultures. Cio Tao, a sacred wedding ceremony as the result of Chinese and local Indonesian culture acculturation, is still practiced today.

The traditional Cio Tao wedding process begins with the bride and grooms’ parents sending prayers to Thien — a divine figure considered to be The Almighty — and to the families’ ancestors. Various offerings are presented on the altars.

Parents proceed to light candles for their soon-to-be wedded children as a symbol of guidance and love. The bride and groom must also pray at the altars to honour deceased ancestors. Wine is then poured underneath the altar of Thien.

Next comes the Cio Tao ceremony. In Hokkien, which is one of the many Chinese dialects spoken in the country, Cio Tao means “to comb”.

The bridal hair is decorated with 21 flower-shaped accessories made of either brass, copper, silver, or gold. These metal flowers are called kembang goyang, literally means dancing flowers. The bride must then wear a red dress, a long green skirt underneath, and a neckpiece covered in gems. The groom is made to wear a black robe and a traditional Chinese headpiece in red.

Money is given to both the bride and groom as provisions to be used later on in the pair’s lives.

Subsequently, the bride and groom are gathered with two young children to carry out the 12 bowls tradition.

Parents then cover the bride’s face with a green veil. Coins are thrown around for guests to pick up. This act is called saweran, which is a traditional custom borrowed from Indonesian culture. Previously, saweran used yellow rice from China. However, limitations encouraged Indonesians to replace it with coins, which is how this custom came to be common within Chinese-Indonesians, especially to the Benteng.

The groom unveils the bride. The act of veiling and unveiling represents the bride being sent off to a new household.

After the revealing of the bride, the next procession starts.

Afterwards, the newly wedded couple feed each other traditional cakes and desserts, such as onde, agar-agar, kue lapis, ronde, and bika ambon. These cakes are also the result of fusing Chinese and Indonesian cultures.

To mark the end of the wedding ceremony, a tea drinking tradition called teh pai is commenced. This tradition is also carried out to honor each family’s living elders.

Guests may enjoy the food prepared for them while dancing to gambang kromong, a traditional orchestra formed by blending Chinese and Indonesian instruments.

Besides Cio Tao, other forms of cultural acculturation can be found in the presence of local foods in Chinese religious processions. Generally, Chinese people carry out an ancestral prayer ritual to honor and remember their ancestors. They believe that after someone dies, the soul of said person will leave the body and continue to stay alive. Therefore, prayers are held to ensure that they can live comfortably.

The prayer procession is conducted at an altar, also known as meja abu, or grey table. Items on the altar include spirit boards, incense, candles, paper money, food, and drinks. For the food and drinks served, each Chinese family has a different variation. Oey Tjin Eng explained the fusion of Chinese and Betawi culture in serving the food.

“Chinese people can’t make lepet, ketupat, lontong, sambal godok, and sayur asem. It’s all local culture. When I married a local, these kinds of foods were served at the altar,” said Oey Tjin Eng.

Along with time, a combination of cultures — such as Chinese and Betawi cultures — is inevitable. Through interaction and cultural contact, acculturation will occur. However, this does not mean that it will replace the original culture. Instead, it will create a new culture that complements each other.