Photographing the Descendants of One of the Oldest Chinese Communities in Indonesia

Photojournalist P.J. Leo spent nine years documenting the unique lives of Indonesia's Benteng Chinese families.
All photos by P.J. Leo

Lim Tjoan Lie has only one wish before he dies—to be remembered. So a few years ago, this farmer, a member of Banten province's Benteng Chinese community, approached photojournalist Pujianto Johan Leo and asked him to photograph his entire family. P.J. Leo agreed, and those photos, along with many others of the province's Benteng Chinese community eventually became a book, Guardians of Tradition.

The Benteng Chinese occupy a unique spot in Indonesian society. They are among the oldest Chinese communities to permanently settle in Indonesia, moving into what is now modern-day Tangerang, a suburban industrial city on the western edge of Jakarta, all the way back in the early 1400s. The details of their arrival were recorded in the classic Sundanese text Tina Layang Parahyang, which told tale of a community of Chinese migrants who had arrived by sea and made landfall near the mouth of the Cisadane River.


Much of the community settled next to a fort called Benteng Makasar that stood between the territories of the Banten Sultanate and the Dutch East India Company (VOC) city of Batavia. The Benteng in their name still refers to this fort ("benteng" means "fort" in Bahasa Indonesia) and the area where the fort once stood is now a Chinatown called Pasar Lama, in Tangerang.

Today, the Benteng Chinese community contradicts many of the stereotypes about Indonesia's ethnic Chinese community. The Benteng Chinese are overwhelmingly working class, finding employment as farmers or the owners of small shops. They have darker complexions and, after years of inter-marriage with the local Sundanese and Betawi populations, they speak a mix of both dialects. But the community still maintains a deep connection with the past as well.

It was all deeply fascinating to P.J. Leo, a photojournalist with The Jakarta Post, who spent years getting to know Tangerang's Benteng Chinese community. VICE's Stanley Widianto sat down with P.J. Leo to discuss his motivations for creating a book and what he learned about the community in the process.

VICE: What’s the story behind the making of the book?
Pujianto Johan Leo: My colleagues at The Jakarta Post planned to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the newspaper with a photography exhibition. But they wanted it to be different. From there, I realized that I had enough photos and texts of the Benteng Chinese community to make a book. We hired Arbain Rambey to curator it and he selected 85 photos that represent Benteng Chinese the most.


How do you decide who to photograph?
I’ve visited the homes of all of my subjects. I didn’t want to just take their photos and move on to another person. I talked to them. I listened to their stories. Once I’ve taken a photo of someone, they become family to me. Tjoan Lie’s children will call me if I don’t visit them on Chinese New Year.

What makes the Benteng Chinese different from other Chinese Indonesians?
The majority of Benteng Chinese work as farmers or small shop owners. Not everyone featured in my book is poor, but there are becak drivers or scavengers. Benteng Chinese people get called “hitachi,” short for “hitam tapi Cina,” or "black but Chinese." Like the Chinese in Singkawang, they have small eyes and don’t speak Indonesian all that well. They speak very fluent Hokkien. Their skin is dark because those who live in Singkawang are farmers. Those who live in Tangerang came from Mainland China in boats, according to the Tina Layang Parahyang. They arrived at Cisadane River estuary that is now called the Naga Bay. The Benteng Chinese, when they’re in Tangerang, speak like Betawi people. But if you go to the Naga Bay, or to Legok, you can hear them speak Sundanese.

Do you think that because they don’t look like most Chinese Indonesians, the Benteng Chinese were shielded from some of Indonesia's anti-Chinese race riots?
Only few know about the community. If you ask Banten people about the Benteng Chinese, they most likely don’t know. All they know is that you’re Chinese, if you’re light-skinned and have small eyes, like the Koreans, Japanese, or Vietnamese. That’s just the stereotype. That’s why I was safe during the 1998 riots. I had long, thick hair. So if a Batak person saw me, they thought I was Batak. The Manado people thought I was one of them too. Some people even thought I was Dayak.


What's the relationship like today between the Benteng Chinese and other ethnic groups in Tangerang?
Well, Tjoan Lie’s in-laws are not Chinese. And the last time I was in Tangerang, I photographed a family during a Khong Hu Cu ceremony and the daughter had converted to Islam and was now wearing a hijab. Differences like those are common.

From my observation, the Chinese community in Tangerang blends in just fine. They don’t create divisions. And although they are Chinese Indonesians as well, the Benteng Chinese have very different values compared to other Chinese Indonesians in Jakarta, Medan, or Pontianak for example.

Why do you think the community has held onto its values and traditions so well?
Every Banteng Chinese household has a small shrine with photos of family members who have passed away. They pray for them. I often asked the younger members of the family why they still do this ritual. And usually they said, “I want to pay respect to my family.” They still hold onto their ancestors’ teachings.

Does that make them different from Chinese-Indonesian communities of big cities?
The young people both in small and big cities have more “Western” references and views. I mean, they like hip-hop, K-pop, but they follow the traditions at home. They burn the hio. Students would stop by Boen Tek Bio temple, in Pasar Lama, or Boen San Bio in Pasar Baru, to pray.

What’s the story you wanted to capture in this book?
I’m not an expert on history. I just see myself as a witness to Benteng Chinese community's way of life today. Through these photos I just want to say, "Look at these houses, paintings, Chiao Thau weddings, et cetera."

What’s the one thing that's stuck with you during your time working on this project?
It’s the sense of collectivity. Not only in the community but also in their relationships with people around them. There’s a becak driver, we call him Koh Teng San. Other becak drivers of different ethnicities never call him out for being Chinese. They’re tight.