Lasem, The Little “Beijing Old Town”
The entire north coast of Java is not only the beating pulse of the island’s economic activities, but it is also dotted with fascinating cities and towns that hold significant historical values and enchanting cultural legacies.
While Cirebon in West Java; Demak, Kudus, and Jepara in Central Java; as well as Surabaya and Gresik in East Java are historic cities marking the spread of Islam on Java, other cities like Semarang and Pekalongan present a rather oriental ambience, rich in Chinese legacies. Most interesting, traces of Chinese culture on Java lead to their origin in the little town located in the Rembang Regency, in the Central Java Province, called Lasem.
Lasem is believed to be the site where the Chinese made their first settlement on Java over 200 years ago. An uncorroborated account even suggests that Lasem was named after the number 63 (Lak-sam in the southern Chinese dialect) that refers to the fleet of the legendary Admiral Cheng He from the Zu Di empire of the Ming Dynasty. The story goes that 63 of the fleet‘s Jungships were washed ashore by a heavy storm to this coast. The location where they landed and settled was henceforth called: Lasem.
Another historic record mentions the arrival of the first Chinese in Lasem in the fifteenth century (1411-1416.) He was a Hanafi Chinese Muslim by the name of Bi Nang Un, who pioneered the establishment of the Chinese settlement in Lasem. He was later followed by more Chinese Hokkien immigrants who embraced Confucianism.
The influence of Chinese culture on Lasem can still be strongly felt until today in the city’s architecture and daily life of the people. Once known as “The little Beijing old town” by European researchers during Dutch the colonial days, Lasem was, however, dubbed the town “le petit Chinois” or Little China by the French. Through the centuries, Lasem today exemplifies the peaceful assimilation of Chinese and Javanese cultural traits that have become part of the Peranakan Chinese, descendents of mixed marriages.
Today, one can still observe the maze of high walls and distinctively oriental designed gates. Inside these walls and gates are huge houses with Javanese-style porches and Chinese-style roofs. Distinct Chinese architecture is also found in several other buildings all across the town. These exceptional buildings are found in the Babagan village, Gedong Mulyo, Karang Turi, Soditan, Sumber Girang and Ngemplak, that are today designated as protected cultural heritage buildings by the local government.
Another outstanding feature of Lasem are three unique Chinese temples. The first is the brightly-hued and intricately-designed Chinese Cu An Kiong Temple in Dasun Street. Built in the 16th century, the temple is regarded as the oldest temple in Lasem, and is even believed to be the oldest on Java. Next is the Gi Yong Bio Temple in Babagan Street, which is also a monument to the time when the Chinese of Lasem together with local Javanese compatriots waged war against the Dutch colonial rule in 1745-1752. The third temple is the Poo An Bio which was built around 1740, when the Lasem Chinese population increased rapidly with the arrival of Chinese refugees from Batavia fleeing the slaughter of the Chinese by the Dutch. The three temples in Lasem are incorporated into the Trinity Foundation, where each shows diverse rituals.
The most outstanding Chinese legacy in Lasem is probably the Reclining Buddha Statue which is housed in the Vihara Ratanavana Arama. The Reclining Buddha measures 14 Meters in length and is done in bright gold color. Inside the vihara is also a miniature Borobudur Temple.
Another legacy of Chinese culture – and its welding with the local Javanese culture – are painted in the colorful patterns of the Batik fabric commonly known as Batik Lasem. The Batik of Lasem features vibrant designs such as the phoenix and butterflies with a combination of geometrical Javanese patterns such as parang, kawung, and udan liris. What makes the Batik Lasem special is the domination of a particular red color that is here known as “getih pithik” – the Javanese language for Chicken Blood-, which is said be only made here. Lasem’s hand drawn batik centers can be found in the subdistricts of Gedongmulyo, Babagan, Karangsuri, Sumbergirang and Karanggede.
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