Book Review: ‘Tjong’ – Books

David Rawson (Jakarta Post)

Jakarta ●
Wed, November 23, 2022

book review,Peranakan,Chinese-Indonesian,Literature

Tjong (2022) is the second novel by Herry Gendut Janarto and takes as its main character a totok (Born in China) Chinese Indonesian, Tjong Kei Lin, born into a poor family in Guangzhou, China.

In the first novel Yogya Yogya (2020), the main character, Gayuh is a peranakan Chinese (locally born), son of a lower-middle-class family in Yogyakarta whose ethnicity only emerges at home. The character Tjong Kei Lin, born in 1912, emigrates to Indonesia (Namyong) as a teenager to work for his stepfather and died in Indonesia in 1980.

This novel, telling the story of Tjong Kei Lin’s life, reveals a stronger sense of clan and life that experienced greater turbulence than Gayuh in Yogya Yogya. Tjong is a novel that runs through several tumultuous historical events during Tjong Lei Kin’s life. It focuses on the Indonesian National Revolution and the Cultural Revolution in China.

A predominant motive in Tjong is the challenge to Chinese-Indonesian stereotypes seen in both the depiction of Kei Lin’s life and the narrator’s direct commentary. Kei Lin’s commercial success challenges the stereotype of a privileged connection to colonial power or through well-to-do family connections. His eventual business success is described as luck: lifelong hard work, indomitable determination, and learning from failure.

The depiction also dispels the stereotype of the “economic man” who is miserly and consumed by business and profit. In contrast, Lei Kin’s success is depicted as both the family’s enduring love and the guarantee of their well-being. The stereotype of a racial community with pro-colonial sentiment is also challenged.

During the revolutionary period, Lei Kin was pro-Indonesia and supported the struggle for independence. In doing so, he won the enduring admiration of Indonesian independence fighters. Lei Kin also breaks the stereotype of the immigrant who seeks only to make a fortune to leave Indonesia and return to live in China. Lei Kin falls in love with the city of Yogyakarta and makes Indonesia his permanent home.

Tjong portrays the world within the Chinese-Indonesian community, which maintains its diasporic identity by maintaining its ties to China. This is exemplified by Kei Lin’s visit to his home, where he seeks to renew family ties and find a Chinese bride. This contrasts sharply with Gayuh’s character in the novel Yogya Yogya who has no diasporic relations and marries a Pribumi.

Tjong, contrary to Yogya Yogya, depicts various intersections between this community and external events. One such intersection is in the aftermath of the failed communist coup of 1965 and intense anti-Chinese sentiment. Another intersection is the Chinese Cultural Revolution when Kei Lin’s children return to study in China but are held in labor camps.

The novel is not only highly readable, but also makes a valuable contribution to contemporary Indonesian literature on Chinese Indonesians. It can be placed alongside, among other literary works, the short story by Putu Wijaya Sketsa (Sketch, 1993), which explores Chinese Indonesian stereotypes and tensions with the Pribumi (Indonesian native), the short story by Soeprijadi Tomodihardjo Hari Terakhir Mei Lan (Mei Lan’s Last Day, 2007) on diasporic ties and Dewi Anggraeni’s novel Membongkar Yang Terkubur (Revealing what has been Buried, 2020), an exploration of the history of a Chinese-Indonesian family over several generations.

Angela C. Hale