By: Bodrek Arsana
This article was originally published in Latitudes magazine, a renowned bi-monthly magazine focusing on Indonesian culture. The magazine hailing from the island of Bali previously existed in paper form and was especially known for its in-depth critical articles and beautiful photography. As a tribute to all contributors of this magazine Latitudes.nu presents a selection of articles published in the years 2001-2004.
Fifteen-year-old Su Phin dreamed of what many young women her age dream of: love, marriage, children, excitement, adventure. She dreamed of a way out of the dull poverty in which she lived as the third of ten children in an ethnic Chinese family in a small village near the city of Singkawang in northwest Kalimantan. She even dreamed sometimes of becoming a movie star, postering the walls of her family’s six-by-six meter home on the edge of the rainforest with pictures of Chinese celebrities like Andy Lao, Aaron Kwok and Michelle Yeoh. But although she dreamed of a happy future, Su Phin wasn’t spoiled. She was willing to work hard, to be a good daughter and eventually a good wife. After completing elementary school, she labored each day with her father, a rubber tapper at a nearby plantation, selling the sap they collected for Rp1,500 (US$.15) per kilo. And when the chance came to help her family and to improve her own lot, she followed her dreams to Taiwan as the contract bride of a man three times her age.
‘It was 1999, right before Imlek (Chinese New Year),’ Su Phin recalled, speaking slowly, stopping every so often to wipe away tears. ‘A man came to our house to ask for money. He said that my older brother owed him ten million rupiah (US$1,000). My parents were just stunned, they couldn’t say anything. The man left, threatening to report my brother to the police. After he had gone, my father and mother got in a fight. My mother went crazy, wanting to kick my brother out, but my father defended him.’ Su Phin explained that her brother had long been a drunkard and a gambler who refused to work, preferring instead to spend his time on the street with his friends. ‘When he lost money at the gambling table, he would always come home and run amok. He would take everything we had in the house to sell so he could drink and gamble some more,’ she said.
After the quarrel, Su Phin’s brother ran away from home, leaving his parents to pay his debt. With no savings or valuables to sell, they were forced to borrow the money from a village moneylender. The payments on the loan quickly sunk the family even further into poverty. Su Phin worried, but could do little to help fix the situation-until she met a friend who suggested that if she married a wealthy Taiwanese man her family could use the dowry to get themselves out of debt. ‘In the city of Singkawang there’s someone who finds Taiwanese men,’ Su Phin said, imitating her friend’s voice.
Su Phin admitted that she didn’t ponder the idea for very long. Like most young women in the region, she had seen the material results of marriages between women from the Singkawang region and men from Taiwan. Dirt-floored huts on the borders of the tropical jungle had become two-story houses with ceramic tiles, glass windows and satellite dishes. People who had once trudged to work at the rubber plantations were speeding off on new motorbikes. Children like Su Phin whose parents had barely been able to afford an elementary school education for them were going on to junior high and high school. And in the days before Chinese New Year, people were lined up at Singkawang’s banks, waiting to receive transfers from their daughters and sisters in Taiwan. For Su Phin, it was a simple decision.
With five friends, all of them adolescent women like herself, Su Phin went to Singkawang, to the house of a man named A. Fong who was well known in the region as a cangkau or marriage broker-as well as a wealthy businessman and an influential figure in local politics. It was rumored in her village that he was the man to see about arranging matches to Taiwanese men. At A. Fong’s house, Su Phin and her friends were introduced to a group of Taiwanese men who had come to the area looking for wives. ‘We were told to line up in the parlor and we were each picked by a man,’ Su Phin explained. ‘The man who chose me was forty-five years old. The first time we met, he said he was a businessman. He seemed nice. He didn’t talk much,’ she remembered. Su Phin said that she didn’t have a chance to find out much information about the man who was to become her husband. There was the language barrier; she spoke Hakka and he spoke Mandarin. And there was also the money. ‘The broker A. Fong promised my parents would get Rp25,000,000 (US$2,500) if I married the Taiwanese man. The money was all I could think of,’ she said. A week after she met the man, she was formally betrothed to him in a simple ceremony at a Singkawang hotel, with her mother, father and A. Fong in attendance. A week after that, escorted by A. Fong, Su Phin and her new fiancé were on a plane to Taiwan.
Singkawang, a small city in the province of West Kalimantan, has long been famous as an outpost of Chinese culture in Indonesia. 85% of the city’s population of approximately 163,000 are of Chinese descent, with around another 300,000 ethnic Chinese living in the surrounding countryside. The Hakka dialect-which locals call Khek-is the language of everyday interaction even among ethnic Malays in the region, and many older ethnic Chinese have little knowledge of the national language of Indonesian.
Singkawang has been inhabited by ethnic Chinese since the 18th century, when the Sultan of Sambas began gold mining in the area. In the 1740s, the Sultan brought several dozen ethnic Hakka workers from mainland China to labor in the mines, and by 1770 the Chinese community in the region was 20,000 strong. These Chinese were grouped into over a dozen different Kong-ze or companies, until in 1777 a powerful leader named Low Lan Pak united the region into the Lan Fang Republic. The Republic lasted for almost fifty years, until the Dutch began to actively expand their power across what was then known as the island of Borneo. But even under the Dutch, the Chinese of Singkawang fared better than their counterparts elsewhere in Indonesia. Far from the center of power in Batavia, they were allowed a relatively high degree of autonomy, which even their integration into the new Indonesian nation could not suppress.
In large part, it is this persistence of Chinese culture in Singkawang that supports the contemporary practice of contract marriage between Taiwanese men and Singkawang women. Although brides are also brought to Taiwan from Vietnam and the Philippines, Singkawang women are often preferred because their appearance is similar to Taiwanese women and because they are perceived to have less difficulty adjusting to Taiwanese culture. Similarly, Singkawang families feel comfortable seeing their daughters marry Taiwanese-often more comfortable than they would be seeing them marry, say, Javanese-because of cultural parallels. As one father of a Singkawang bride commented, ‘I thought it was no problem for my daughter to marry a man from Taiwan. I thought that later she’d be able to meet our relatives there.’