Friday, January 16, 2004

Icon of the Chinese Diaspora

Icon of the Chinese Diaspora

When I was in Yogjakarta last week, I went into an eating shop and saw eight calendars hanging on its walls. Immediately I knew the owner was Chinese. Only the Chinese have this obsessive preoccupation with dates and figures.

In Semarang, I had my lunch at a Chinese restaurant and saw 17 wall calendars hanging there! Even temples were not spared: I saw calendars with huge numerals at the Sam Poh Kong temple. This temple was built in honour of the great 15th century Chinese mariner, Zheng He (or better known in Malaysia as Admiral Cheng Ho) who made seven voyages to Java island.

This Muslim eunuch is greatly revered in Malacca where a similar temple stands in his honour. Zheng He's fleet even went as far as Madagascar and the Middle East. There are even theories that suggest Zheng He reached as far as America and should be credited as its discoverer instead of Columbus. Zheng He's voyages marked that great era when the Chinese ruled the waves and trade flourished between the Chinese, Arabs and the peoples of Nusantara.

The Sam Poh Kong temple in Semarang looked better maintained than the one in Malacca. Expansion and renovation works were going on feverishly, no doubt fueled by the enormous wealth of the local Chinese community. Giant red candles and joss-sticks cast a garish air to the place. The main altar was almost hidden inside a dark cave-like hall; there amidst the paraphernalia of worship, stood the images of Admiral Zheng He--silent icons of the Chinese diaspora.

The stamp of the Chinese people is everywhere in Semarang. I explored the narrow alleys near Pasar Johar and saw the fruits of their industry: trading shops, toko mas (goldsmiths) and toko obat (Chinese pharmacies). Peer into any one of these shops, you'd see the familiar sight of a towkay or towkay-soh, poring stern-faced over the account books or flipping the ever-present calendar on the wall: Nothing concerns the pragmatic Chinese more than the bottom line and a secure future. That is the secret of their success.

I also took the trouble to visit Semarang's harbour, Tanjung Mas as I am very fond of ships. (Of course Didi Kempot's song, Tanjung Mas Ninggal Janji was also a contributing factor). As I stood there watching the bustle of goods being loaded and unloaded, I secretly wished that someday I'd be able to come to Semarang through the sea, landing in Tanjung Mas--perhaps feeling a bit of the thrill that Admiral Zheng He experienced when he first set foot here more than six hundred years ago.

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