Lasem: story of Little China

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(Photo: Prive. Doc)

IO – A hallway cramped with the sights of the walls were dull indeed, but quite interesting to be enjoyed. Far from the word shabby, narrow hallways in Lasem actually have a rich history. On the back of the dull wall stood several old buildings. 

Lasem is one of the sub-districts in the Rembang District, about 134 km from Semarang City. Been to Lasem, reminds me of an era of the Chinese immigrants’ arrival on sailing ships in the 14th to 15th centuries in Lasem. 

I found a city with a majority of Chinese descent. Lasem residents called the region “Chinatown” or “Little China.” 

The number of old buildings in Little China hold thousands of stories from the past. The period in which Chinese immigrants landed in the sea north of Java to conduct commerce; among them is commander Cheng Ho. 

Cu An Kiong Temple 

“Most of the Chinese merchants who landed in Lasem are male, and a lot of them were married to indigenous women and settled in Lasem,” said Gandor, an expert of Lasem heritage that I encountered when I was there. It is no wonder that the remaining residents of Chinatown in Lasem are living Chinese descendants. 

Another piece of evidence is the establishment of an old temple in the coastal north beach. Cu An Kiong Shrine, which has high artistic value; it is not known exactly when it was founded, only that it was renovated in 1869. 

It is said that this temple was built as a form of gratitude to God by the immigrants for having survived a perilous journey across the seas. There is something interesting about this old temple: a mural containing 100 panels of Fengshen Yanyi illustrations, known as Fengshenbang. The mural is a story of the Mythology of Daoist Gods by Xu Zhonglin. Uniquely, the mural, which is believed to be the same age as the temple, has not suffered any fading. 

Not far from the Cu An Kiong Temple, there is an old house with white bones. The house is located south of the temple. From the front of the building, it is just an ordinary house, but it caught my attention enough to stop by and ask about its history. 

People call it “omah lawang ombo” or “opium house”. According to the story, the house belonged to a Harbourmaster named Liem Kim Siok. He smuggled opium in his house and exchanged it for weapons to fight the invaders in 1880. Now, Captain Liem’s house, which is located on Jalan Dasun, Lasem is known as an opium house. 

Opium is the raw material for the narcotics which comes from the opium poppy. During the Dutch era, opium was legalized by the government, but for some reason opium was finally banned, resulting in a practice of opium smuggling carried out by Chinese people in the 16th to 19th centuries. 

A gentle breeze wafted across my face as I was sitting on the veranda in front of the opium house with Pak Gandor, who shared his history with me. The house, which was built around the 1800s, was built in a Chinese-Dutch architectural style, with one of the characteristics being a tall and thick gate. Likewise, the types of main doors and windows on the right and left are wide. A large yard with mango trees makes the house feel cooler. 

Some household furniture still remains inside. Not escaping my sight, a sign with the family tree of Captain Liem was lying on the floor. Meanwhile, in the side yard, there is a tomb with reliefs of Chinese characters on the headstone. It is said that the tomb contained the owner of the house, Captain Liem, who died because he was killed while fighting against invaders at that time. 

Written batik is a mixture of two cultures 

The attractiveness of Little China is not only seen from a historical point of view, but a handicraft in the form of written batik resulting from a contact between Chinese and Javanese culture. Under the hot sun, I walked through the “batik village”, observing middle-aged women making batik. Their old hands looked shrewd in etching the canting containing malam on the cloth. 

It is said that in the 15th century, Putri Campa, who was none other than the wife of Bi Nang Un, introduced a batik technique to indigenous women in Lasem. No wonder the Lasem batik motif has a symbolic pattern of Chinese tradition mixed with local motifs. Until now, Lasem’s written batik motifs still retain this pattern as a characteristic of batik on the north coast. 

In that century, batik lasem had a golden age and was the most profitable business after the opium trade. However, this Lasem Batik handicraft business had experienced setbacks over the years. Since batik was recognized by UNESCO, Lasem batik craftsmen have begun to rise again until today. 

Striding along Lasem was like entering a passage of time in the past. The stories of the past from little China are never ending to be explored. There are many more unique and interesting stories behind the old buildings in Lasem. (Mia Kamila)