The true stories behind batik Tiga Negeri or Three Counties batik

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Above: A Tiga Negeri batik referred to as Kopi tutung due to its coffee colour. (photo: IO/Suhanta)

IO – Last week, from the 25th till the 27th of October the Komunitas Peranakan Indonesia or Indonesian Cross Culture Society held a three-day exhibition at the Dharmawangsa Hotel in Kebayoran entitled: Batik Tiga Negeri Solo, Sebuah Legenda or the Three Counties Batik of Solo, a Legend. At the exhibition Three Counties batiks were on display followed by a seminar the next day and a interview with the Tjoa family on the Sunday. The Tjoas have a very significant connection to the batik style known as Tiga Negeri batik.

The common wisdom has always been that Tiga Negeri batik or Three Counties batik was batik that was first dyed red in the town of Lasem on the north coast of Java, it was then dyed “sogan” or brown in Solo and finally dyed blue in Pekalongan, another north coast town. Benny Gartha who is chief researcher at the Museum Textil and in a few months from now is coming out with a book on Three Counties Batik with the same title as the exhibition disclosed at the seminar on the 26th of October. “Preliminary research indicates that there were Tiga Negeri batiks which were not dyed in Pekalongan. In Solo this style of batik was popularized by Nyonya (Mrs) Tjoa Giok Tjiam in 1910. She first sent her batiks to Lasem for the red dying and then the blue and soga brown colours were dyed in Solo. Her batiks were never sent to Pekalongan for dying. It was her workshop that gave that particular style of batik the name Batik Tiga Negeri but Tiga Negeri did not represent the three counties where the batiks were dyed but was named after the famous Sam Kok stories known as the Three Kingdoms.”

Tjoa Giok Tjiam was in fact Nyonya Tjoa Giok Tjiam’s husband’s name. Her maiden name was Nyonya Lien Netty as she was also called. Benny Gartha cautioned his audience that his research was still at a preliminary stage and that more research might reveal that there were other batik workshops which did dye their batiks in three different counties. However, the name Three Counties Batik originated with Mrs Tjoa Giok Tjiam and she named it after the Chinese Three Kingdoms legend. “There were and perhaps may even still exist other places that produce Tiga Negeri batik such as Lasem and Pekalongan. In Semarang they made it with only two colours namely brown and blue. Such places will still have to be further researched,” Benny Gartha remarked.

Sumartono Harinoto was also a speaker at the seminar. He was the producer of Ling Batik which at times also produced Tiga Negeri batiks. He explained that the characteristics of a Tiga Negeri batik were the three colours namely, red, blue and brown, although later the colours green and purple were also used on Tiga Negeri batiks. Usually the design is the buketan or bouquet of flowers design of Pekalongan which shows Indo-European influence and the flowers were usually dyed red and blue. The batiks were nearly always in the pagi sore or morning and afternoon style. In this style it is as though an imaginary line had been drawn across the textile and each side of the slanting line has a totally different motif drawn on it. The result is that one batik has two styles which makes it as good as having two batiks in one. The background was originally always the ukelan or hook design in a brown soga colour. This is considered a auspicious motif to wear when a single person wants to “hook” a spouse. In Solo, batiks with such characteristics were known as batik gendologiri. The Three Counties Batik amalgamated the batik traditions, styles and motifs of Central Java with those of the North Coast of Java. From this emerged a startlingly vivid and yet traditional style, very pleasing to the eye.

The Tjoa family are a peranakan or mixed blood family who produced Tiga Negeri batiks for several generations – from 1910 till 2014. Mrs Lien Netty, the wife of the first generation of Tiga Negeri batik producers in Solo taught the wives and daughters of her two sons, Tjoa Tjoen Kiat and Tjoa Tjoen Tiang to create the Tiga Negeri Batik. In future generations it would always be the daughters-in-law and daughters who understood and controlled production while the men held the secret recipes for the dying and creation of colours. The first two generations of the Tjoa family Batik Tiga Negeri producers kept very much to the classical definition of Tiga Negeri batik namely red, blue and soga-brown colours with the ukelan-hooks on brown soga as background. The motif remained predominantly the buketan or bouquet motif with small animals and insects in the background.

In Solo the Tiga Negeri batik was not popular. Neither the Javanese nor the peranakan Chinese living in Solo wore it. Neneng Iskander an expert in Indonesian batik and one of the leaders of Wastraprema, the Indonesian textile association explained, “In Solo Tiga Negeri batik is mostly used to carry babies and as a cover or blanket. The people living in Solo are too attached to the centuries old, traditional Solo batiks which originated from the royal courts. So, it was never really worn in Solo.”

So, who purchased and used the Tiga Negeri batiks? “Tiga Negeri batiks have always had a large market in West Java especially in areas such as Bandung, Garut, Tasikmalaya and Cirebon. When I was still in secondary school I was already helping Batik Ling sell Tiga Negeri batiks in those town,” disclosed Sumartono Harinoto.

Asep Dede Benjang is a West Java textile lover and expert. He explained, “In several areas of West Java ownership of the Tiga Negeri batik was considered to be a status symbol. It is also considered to have mystical or sacred powers amongst some people. It is worn as a sarong or smaller pieces are worn as  headdress at special times. For instance, during a marriage ceremony. It is also used as part of the dowry and the more pieces a family gives the greater their prestige. At a funeral if the deceased is buried without being covered by a Tiga Negeri batik the burial is considered incomplete. If a child has a fever it is wrapped in a Tiga Negeri batik because the Tiga Negeri batiks are considered to have healing powers. My grandfather was believed to have special mystical abilities. When he was dying it was extremely difficult for him and took very long for him to pass away. Finally, he asked the family that a Tiga Negeri batik headdress be placed on his head and then he departed very soon after that.

Its also very much used by a special community in West Java namely, sheep breeders and herders especially in the Garut area. The Garut ram is famous all over Indonesia and when they have ram fights (unlike cock fights there is no betting involved), before the rams fight they will play traditional Sundanese music known as kendang pencak and also have pencak silat or Indonesian martial arts displays. During these events the sheep herders – both men and women – wear Tiga Negeri batik sarongs or simply fold them and drape them over their shoulders. They also wear the Tiga Negeri batik headdress and the event is not considered complete without them. For them it is also a status symbol.”

How did the Tiga Negeri batik come to acquire such power and status in West Java? Asep Benjang and Benny Gartha believe that it was the regents in West Java who began using Tiga Negeri batik and also handing then out as gifts and rewards to the common people. For example, people going on the pilgrimage to Mecca were given Tiga Negeri batiks and those wearing a Tiga Negeri batik were thought to have obtained the blood, tears and prayers of those who had made the batiks. So, they inherited the pamor – a word which translates roughly as the luster, prestige and power – of the batik.

Later generations of the Tjoa family made changes to the classical designs, colours, motifs and backgrounds. They introduced colours such as green, maroon and different shades of blues to replace the brown soga background colour of the ukelan background motif. They also replaced the ukelan background motif with other motifs such as mutiara or pearls, pasir or sand, kembang pacar or balsamina impatiens flowers etc. Some batiks are no longer in the form of pagi sore and even the buketan motif is at times replaced.

Another peranakan Chinese workshop that produced Tiga Negeri batik in Solo was Batik Ling which produced Tiga Negeri batiks from the 1970s till the 1980s. The production of Tiga Negeri batik was begun by Sie Anna Nio and her husband Khoe Tjee Ik. Their batiks were signed “Batik Ling-Sala” or simply “Ling-Sala”. Ling was the name of their oldest daughter, Ay Ling.

Their son Sumartono Harinoto was present at the seminar and spoke about his family’s Tiga Negeri batik, produced under the Batik Ling trade mark. He explained, “The Ling Tiga Negeri batik still used the buketan motif and traditional Javanese background motifs. It also had a lot of butterflies, birds and especially phoenixes.”

Other Chinese peranakan workshops in Solo that used to produce the Tiga Negeri batik were, Lie Kou Poen, Lie Kong Ting (Batik cap Baji), Lie Hwat Sing, Sie Hway  Tjwie, Tjan Kong Theng, Oey Kiem Gwan and S.B. Tjia. None of them are still producing Tiga Negeri batik today. Neither is Batik Ling. It would be a dead tradition if it were not for a very few textile artists who still produce batik tulis (batik that was handmade with bamboo cantings for waxing in the traditional way and that are also dyed in the traditional manner) Tiga Negeri batiks. One such textile designer Aji Setyowijaya runs a batik atelier in Jogjakarta called Batik Kidang Mas together with fellow artist and designer Yahya Adi. He only makes Tiga Negeri batik in the classical tradition.  “The creation of Tiga Negeri batik was a brilliant idea because they used the three primary colours: red, brown and blue- and in the beginning the dyes were all natural. That’s how we still make them at Batik Kidang Mas. Indigo for the colour blue, several types of wood for soga brown and the roots of the noni plant for red. However sometimes we do use a chemical dye for the red.”

Adi Setyowijaya only creates three copies of each original batik that he creates unless he considers it a masterpiece than he will only create one original. His masterpieces go for around Rp 25 million while lesser batiks go for Rp 10 to Rp15 million per batik.

Descendants of the Tjoa family were present on the Sunday and were interviewed about the history of Tiga Negeri batik and their family business. It appears that slowly with the passage of time the descendants lost interest in the batik business as they found more agreeable and more profitable means of earning a living. Also in the Tjoa family tradition the daughters-in-law played an important role in the business as they took care of production but women in the 21st century have their own careers. Nevertheless, when the wife of Tjoa Siang Lie, one of the descendants of Lien Netty saw the admiration and respect that the Tiga Negeri batiks received at the exhibition Mrs Tjoa Siang Lie who is a dentist turned to her husband and said regretfully, “I am so sorry that I did not make the time to help continue the production of Tiga Negeri batiks for I  was a dentist and civil servant instead but I see now how precious and beautiful they are and I regret not having done so.”

Mr Tjoa Siang Lie responded to her with a broad smile, “Please, don’t apologize or regret anything for I feel so lucky to have a wife like you. You help me and you have given me other things that are just as precious…” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)