Book Title: The Rose of Cikembang
Author: Kwee Tek Hoay
Translator: George A. Fowler
Year Published: 2013 (first published in 1927 by Panorama)
Publisher: Lontar Foundation, Jakarta
This is by far the oldest translated Indonesian novel I’ve ever read in recent years. I stumbled into it in a shelf of a bookstore, and I was particularly interested in the author’s name and the fact that it was first published 74 years ago. I’ve never heard of a Chinese-named author from the era. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to know that there was a prominent Peranakan author prior to Indonesia’s independence, since overseas-born Chinese people have always been synonymous with trading or medicine and rarely venture into arts and literature scene.
Kwee Tek Hoay, or KTH, was born in West Java in 1880 and first went to help his parents’ business before publishing his own magazines and newspaper . Kwee was especially interested in religions, theosophy and philosophy, ended up establishing Sam Kauw Hwee (The Three Religions Society). He included this aspect in his works “Bunga Roos Dari Tjikembang” (The Rose of Cikembang, 1927), “Drama Dari Gunung Merapi” (The Drama of Mount Merapi, 1931) and “Drama Dari Krakatau” (The Drama of Krakatau, 1929). Kwee also wrote about his ideal political vision in a four-volumed series “Drama Di Boven Digul” (Drama in Boven Digul, 1929-1932). He even wrote a satirical episode both on Dutch presence in the Indies and the disparancy of Peranakan and totok culture in his works, such as “Zonder Lentera” (Without Light, 1930) and “Nonton Capgome” (Viewing Capgome, 1930). Still, he wrote about Chinese heroism under Japanese occupancy with passion.
“Bunga Roos Dari Tjikembang“, or The Rose of Cikembang, revolves around the love story and interactions between Chinese Peranakan families with the native of the Indies, or referred as pribumi, set against the bustling trading days of Batavia in 1920s and also the life led in a plantation in Priangan highland.
There goes the story of Ay Cheng, a manager of a plantation who lived far from his glorious past in Sukabumi. His family fell into bankruptcy and he decided to retreat into the quiet hill. Although he was already 30 year olds, he was not married yet, for he feared that his future wife would not afford to lead a simple lifestyle, far from the lights of Batavia. That was what he told other people . However, the more important reason could be the presence of Marsiti. Marsiti was a young Sundanese girl he could not marry due to racial difference. An interracial marriage was not openly welcomed in higher social classes of the time.
But fate caught up with Ay Cheng and he was asked to marry the daughter of a rich man named Liok Keng Jim. His father Pin Lo insisted on the marriage as it would help them to return to a social class they once belonged to. Ay Cheng was torn between his deep love towards Marsiti and the obligation as the only son of his family. Marsiti, aware of her position, requested Ay Cheng to obey his parents’ wish and set to leave the house quietly albeit in tears. The heartbroken Ay Cheng finally married Gwat Nio, Liok Keng Jim’s daughter, and slowly forgot about Marsiti as he grew accustomed to his new life.
Few years later, it was Ay Cheng’s grown-up daughter, Lily, who was about to marry an American-educated young man named Bian Kun. All of a sudden, she became very ill and passed away. Bian Kun vowed that he would never get married despite Lily’s deathbed wish. Ay Cheng’s family and his would-be in-laws, Choan Hu and his wife, were drowned in sorrow.
Ay Cheng and Gwat Nio retreated to Garut, a small town in West Java, to recuperate their peace of mind and health. After the tragedy, they wanted to live quietly somewhere far from Batavia. However, it did not last long for Bian Kun was said to meet someone who resembled his deceased lover. This created another series of ripples and the couple’s new life was not spared.
To me, reading the book was a unique experience. Throughout the book, I kept imagining how certain lines sounded in the type of Malay language used at that time. It could have been much more dramatic, especially for the dialogues. It is worth to note that The Rose of Cikembang was first appeared as a stage play before being published weekly at Panorama magazine.
The using of Malay terms such as “nyonya” (ma’am), “tuan” (master, mister) or “juragan” (literally means “helmsman”, but it was used to address people of higher status) alongside English text highlights the prevalent feudalism, giving us an insight on the first-hand account of a life in Batavia before the end of Second World War. Before reading the book, I didn’t have an idea that a pribumi woman could never gain a status of a principal wive to Chinese men of higher status and the Dutch. The term “nyai” was used to refer these women and her status was only as a concubine. She could also be ushered back to her folks anytime. The societal pressure would eventually force the Chinese and Dutch men to marry someone from their own kind, regardless of their feeling as depicted in The Rose of Cikembang.
The theme of loss, meeting, fate and reincarnation are written in simple manner with interesting twists. For readers who are used to read novels with more intricate plots and endless intrigues, this book might be considered as a lighter read. Nevertheless, as a classic Chinese-Malay literature, it is a good introduction to a unique literary community whose echo is almost gone with time. Aside from the author’s foreword and end note, which was written as a poem, The Rose of Cikembang is also completed with a brief chapter on the variations of Malay language existed in the East Indies and how Chinese Peranakan people played their role in the colonized yet dynamic society.