Betawi: Between tradition and modernity

Dina Indrasafitri in Jakarta/The Jakarta Post

Jakarta (The Jakarta Post/ANN) - In this day and age, for some it might be hard not to view Betawi culture as a victim -closed, fragile and pure but constantly ravaged by modern culture in its own land, the country's capital of Jakarta.

But an exhibition of Betawi culture held in Bentara Budaya in Central Jakarta is striving to put forward a different image of Betawi culture; one that is open, flexible and persistently present in the metropolitan area.

"Betawi Punye Gaye", which was held from April 20-29 in the venue, features a number of Betawi artifacts such as jewelry, traditional attire, paintings and even household utensils, all in the form of a Betawi house, which even includes a replica of the colorful Betawi house terrace.

Highlights of the exhibition include the collection of jewelry and furniture belonging to Emma Amalia Agus Bisri, who recently received the Makara Utama Award on socio-culture from the University of Indonesia for her dedication in preserving and developing Betawi culture.

The exhibition also features Betawi batik and authentic pictures depicting the lives of Betawi families in the past. Its information booklet even features information written in Betawi language, although in some parts it still contains very formal Indonesian.

Mulyawam Karim from the Indonesian Anthropology Discussion Forum (FKAI) said that Betawi culture's influence remained strong in the lives of Jakartans in its various forms, such as food, fashion and language.

"People always identify Betawi culture as a fading, marginalised culture. We want to show here that it still exists and it's potential for the lifestyle of today," he said during the opening night last Thursday.

One example, he said, was the way people decorated their houses with Betawi accents, even though they might not be of Betawi descent.

"Rich people nowadays, they build nice houses but they want the terrace to be in a Betawi style. We find that happening especially in Jakarta's further areas such as in Pondok Labu [South Jakarta]. So, Betawi is a lifestyle now," Mulyawan said.

Another example is using a Betawi wedding style, despite no family members being from a typical Betawi bloodline.

Real Betawi people have already been consigned to the history books, because the word "Betawi", derived from "Batavia", which had been Jakarta's Dutch colonial name, actually refers to people living in Jakarta during the colonial age, Mulyawan said.

"Right now, they are evolving into Jakarta people, along with other newcomers, but Betawi itself remains a culture source," he added.

According to him, despite the current process of globalisation, cities still need their own identities, and those who were born in Jakarta (despite their parents being from other regions and tribes) might adapt Betawi, or Jakarta, culture, as their own.

However, at times the culture and the city have to adapt to or give way to modernity, with an example being the Palmerah area, where the exhibition once, ironically, housed a thriving Betawi batik industry until the 1970s, when businessmen there sold their land to developers.

Historian JJ Rizal, said that Betawi culture is known for its tolerance and strength to adapt.

According to the exhibition booklet, Betawi people during colonial times were a product of a melting pot of immigrants and mix marriages involving people from Javanese, Sundanese (West Java), Melayu (Malays), Makassar, Ambonese and Bugis tribes, which are from Eastern Indonesia, as well as those coming from further lands such as China, India, the Middle east and Europe.

Immigrants from other areas in the archipelago mostly came to Batavia in the 17th century as slaves to the Dutch Colonials.

On the other hand, European, Arab, Chinese and Indian men came to Indonesia to trade or work and then proceeded to marry locals.

It was only until the 19th century that people in what was to be Jakarta began to refer to themselves as "Betawi" children, the booklet said. Thus, its culture itself is a mix of influences, ranging from Javanese and Sundanese to Arabic and Chinese.

"What is interesting about the Betawi people is their flexibility and how they openly welcome various cultures. They live between two huge cultures: Sundanese and Javanese, but they are neither, since they've picked up elements from Sundanese, Melayu, Javanese and colonial cultures. It shows in their rites of passage. Take their wedding attire, for example," Rizal said, referring to the attire that combines Arabic and Chinese elements, among others.

Therefore, Betawi culture is actually not identical to the xenophobic attitudes and animosity shown toward outsiders that is sometimes displayed in local elections favoring "locals" over "outsiders".

"We have to differentiate between culture and politics. When politics adopt culture, ethnic sentiments will surface and this nurtured sentiment actually shrinks Betawi culture. Politicians do this," Rizal said.

Forums identifying themselves as having Betawi roots engage in violent acts that exacerbate this condition by reducing the culture's image to one of violence and intolerance, he added.

"Betawi has also become identical only with Islam, while its influence is actually much richer," Rizal said.