The initial idea of the photo workshop at CCCL, the French cultural centre of Surabaya, is to work with professional photographers and serious hobbyists to explore the Chinatown in this second largest city of Indonesia. Compared to Jakarta, Surabaya is an older port-city but it is often maligned as nothing more than an industrial town. And as historian M. C. Ricklefs has reminded us, the “traditional” culture of Yogyakarta, so often taken to be the cradle of Javanese civilization, had in fact borrowed heavily from the older palace culture of Surabaya.
On the first day of the workshop, 12 participants turned up, which is more than what I could have managed. But the way I usually structure my workshop meant that the bulk would eventually drop out. Right from the start, I figured that it might be difficult for people not residing or connected to the Surabaya Chinatown to pursue a project that was rigidly tied to the place. Therefore, my initial brief to the 12 participants required them to either hit the library or talk to their friends in order to propose a work related to the wider Chinese community in Surabaya.
However, for some of the participants, they must have expected to be spoon-fed during the workshop. To be thrown into the deep end is never a comforting feeling. Understandably, they duly left the workshop.
According to Mamuk Ismuntoro, the leading documentary photographer in Surabaya, a few others dropped out because of language issues. My Bahasa Indonesia is not proficient enough to hold a serious discussion in photography.
With the remaining participants, I worked on an individual basis, pushing them as they pursued their different projects. In this sense, the “programme” for each participant was not the same.
At the end of the workshop, there are two immediate observations that I will like to make.
First of all, in a workshop with the stated aim of mapping Surabaya Chinatown, there is only one Indonesian Chinese participant, Fabiola Natasha. Dwi Putri Ratnasari, on the other hand, is half-Chinese and the ten remaining participants who turned up at the start are pribumi (“indigenous”). On one of the days when I accompanied Natasha on her shoot, I wondered about it aloud in her husband’s car. She quipped: “If you have organized a fashion photography workshop, I’m sure the Chinese photographers in Surabaya will all turn up.”
The other observation concerns the “professional photojournalists” whom the workshop aims to reach out. There were a few of them in the initial group of participants but in the end, only one of them persisted. I have no immediate explanation for this, except that they may have become used to the routine of fulfilling assignments dished out by their editors without really seizing the initiative in doing personal work.
Fabiola Natasha (b. 1975; Surabaya)
In her first attempt to produce a photo essay, designer Fabiola Natasha documents the life of 42-year-old Suntoro (Gan Ging Sun), a Sino-Javanese man who makes two million rupiah a month selling spring rolls on the streets of Surabaya Chinatown. He learnt the skill from his father Gan Ging Swie, a China-born migrant who had been doing so since 1945. With his meagre income, Suntoro feeds his five children. Taking into account the length of this workshop, Natasha’s attempt is an encouraging one, although it is also apparent that she has missed out on the more candid and intimate moments of Gan’s life.
Aftonun Nuha (b. 1985; Surabaya)
Freelance photojournalist Aftonun Nuha attempts to understand the history of the Surabaya Chinese from a different approach, directing his lens to the relics and “traces” of the Tiong Hoa Surabaya Football Club. Founded in 1914 by Liem Tjhioe Swan, the club existed under the Tiong Hoa Sports Association (Gymnastiek & Schermen Vereniging), which was founded in 1908 by Djie Ting Hian. During the early days, the football club was made up of Chinese players. By the end of the 1930s, several of its members had made it into the Dutch East Indies team. In 1959, the club changed its name to Naga Kuning and in 1966 it became PS Suryanaga. Today, all of its players are pribumi (“indigenous” Indonesians). But Nuha’s work ends with a series of portraits featuring the strikers of the current team, juxtaposed against doctor Liem Tiong Hoo, who played as a striker in the early 1950s.
Ayos Purwoaji (b. 1987; Jember, East Java)
Travel buff Ayos Purwoaji tries his hands on creating an essay of Pak Semian, a Sumenep-born Sino-Javanese who lives on his own in Surabaya while working as a spiritual healer at Hok An Temple in Chinatown. The work is incomplete due to Semian’s reluctance to be photographed during the rituals and Purwoaji’s fear of imposing on his subject. In his eagerness to fulfil the assignment, Purwoaji feels let down by the outcome but I reminded him that the most important thing that he should bring away is the difficulty of trying to “enter” someone else’s life.
Agyl P. H. (b. 1988; Surabaya)
A student at Airlangga University, Agyl P. H. photographs the Indonesian Chinese who gather every night at An Karaoke, which is located at the basement carpark of Surabaya Indah. The building used to house an ice-skating ring, which has since been closed down. The husband-and-wife team of Lanny and Budianto manages the public karaoke. There are no stipulated charges to sing at the place. Patrons and clients just pay what they want. Despite having no prior experience in journalism, Agyl’s enthusiasm for the workshop has led him to this interesting place, courtesy of a lead from his friend.
Dwi Putri Ratnasari (b. 1987; Jember)
Working with her family photographs, Dwi Putri Ratnasari takes us through the life of her Chinese mother Rimbawati Santoso (Tjoa Hwa Tjee), who grew up as a Catholic and converted to Islam through her marriage with a Javanese man. Upon conversion, she changed her name to Wardah Dianawati. Initially, Ratnasari found the working process somewhat pointless and thought that the snapshots were biasa(normal). However, she has since realized the compelling nature of her mother’s story. As a storyteller, it is our job to tell an interesting story, whether it is through the chance encounters of street photography, the digital intervention of Photoshop, or Ratnasari’s deliberate process of salvaging family pictures. The following captions are written by Ratnasari with my assistance.
[Above] My niece is the daughter of my aunt (right). She is like her mother in this photograph. My mother was around ten at that time. This photograph was taken in Jember, East Java. My mother’s family moved to Surabaya towards the end of the 1970s. My mother is nine years older than her younger sister.
[Back and front of the same photograph] My mother (right) is seen with her siblings and my grandmother’s relatives. This photograph was taken at Taman Remaja Surabaya.
[Above] On the back of the photograph, there are different stamps, dating it to 1975 or 1976. The print is made by Sakura. My mother (left) was 14 then. This was taken in Rembangan, a recreational park in Jember, At that time, she was studying in Malang.
[Above] Rimbawati, Petrus, Magdalena Santoso (from left to right)
My mother is the oldest. After her conversion, she changed her name to Wardah Dianawati. There should be one more person in this photograph. My uncle is missing. Om Didi (right) passed away in 2003.
[Above] My mother’s handwriting on the back of the photograph dates it as 22 December 1977.
The stamp on the photo tells me that this is made in a studio at Jember, East Java. The name of the studio is not clear but I think it is Tamara. My mother was 16 then. She was already dating my father at that time.
[Back and front of the same photograph] The photograph is dated May 1979.
My mother (in middle) is seen at SMK Cor Yesu, a Catholic boarding school for girls in Malang, East Java. She learnt about homemaking and sewing at the school. When I was in elementary school, my mother made additional income by sewing jilbab. She must have learnt it at the school. Unfortunately, I can’t sew.
[Above] My parents married in 1981 at Jember. The wedding was at my paternal grandmother’s house. My parents are seen with two of my father’s closest friends. My mother used two costumes during the wedding. Normally, the bride has to wear seven different costumes during the traditional Javanese wedding.
[Above] The photograph is dated August 1982. This was taken at the funeral parlour in Jember, East Java. My maternal grandpa Tjoa Ping Soei died in a car accident. By that time, my mother (in the front, left) had converted to Islam for a year. I call my maternal great-grandmother (in the middle) ‘Mak Co”, which is probably in the Hokkien dialect. My Mak Co used to have a business selling funeral wreaths.
[Above] My uncle is seated in the front of the boat. This is at Situbondo, East Java, where the ashes of my maternal grandpa was scattered into the sea. Every year during Lebaran, Mak Co would bring me out to the sea at Situbondo to perform ziarah to my grandpa.
[Above] c. 1988
I’m half Javanese and half Chinese.
[Above] Coming home after Haj, 1990.
When my parents came back from Haj after 40 days, I didn’t recognize them. I would cry when my mother carried me. In this photo, you can see that I am a bit afraid. This is my home in Jember, East Java.
[Above] c. 1995 / 96
Holiday at Batam
This is the first holiday, apart from the haj, that my parents went with his friends. They also went to Singapore. They came back with a lot of electronic goods.
[Above] Egypt trip / 2002
My parents took a trip to Egpyt after Umroh in Mecca. Other than Egypt, they went to Cordoba in Spain. I don’t know why but we were not asked to go. My brother and I had to take care of the house in Jember for almost a month.