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Josh Stenberg, Minority Stages: Sino-Indonesian Performance and Public Display. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2019, xvi-257 pp. ISBN: 9780824876715

Jack Meng-Tat Chia
p. 243-246
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Josh Stenberg, Minority Stages: Sino-Indonesian Performance and Public Display. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2019, xvi-257 pp. ISBN: 9780824876715

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  • 1 See, for instance, Alexander Claver, Dutch Commerce and Chinese Merchants in Java: Colonial Relatio (...)

1In recent years, we have seen a number of studies that attempt to examine the historical and contemporary developments of the Chinese community in Indonesia. These works have contributed to the burgeoning literature and investigated a wide range of topics, including Dutch-Chinese commercial relations, the Chinese Muslim community, visual culture and representations, as well as the ethnic Chinese dimension in China-Indonesia relations.1 Josh Stenberg’s Minority Stages: Sino-Indonesian Performance and Public Display is a welcome addition to the field of Chinese Indonesian studies in particular and that of Chinese diaspora studies in general. Broadly, Minority Stages explores various forms of Sino-Indonesian public performance and display that serve as a platform for “Chineseness” to be shaped locally and nationally in Indonesia. The book has two primary goals: The first is to demonstrate how “Chineseness” is manifested in Sino-Indonesian performance, and the second, to “recover the cultural history of the Chinese-Indonesian subject” (p. 6). Drawing on archival research and fieldwork in various parts of the Indonesian archipelago, Stenberg organizes the book by genre of Sino-Indonesian performance, with chapters exploring xiqu (戲曲), wayang, Chinese-language spoken theater (huaju 話劇), commercial theater, voluntary associations, and religious performance. Each genre of performance is featured in turn.

2Chapter 1 presents a broad historical overview of xiqu from the Dutch colonial period to the present. Chinese migration to Southeast Asia contributed to the spread of xiqu from southeast China to the Indies as early as the seventeenth century. According to casual reports by Europeans, xiqu was a dominant form of Chinese entertainment and could often be seen at Chinese rituals and festivals. The heavily Chinese-dominated areas frequently hosted xiqu performances, contributing to the genre’s emergence as a “pan-Indies phenomenon” (p. 29). Xiqu gradually declined as a result of assimilation, loss of language, and the rising popularity of cinema, well before the suppression of Chinese culture under Suharto’s New Order government. Fast forward to the 1990s, several xiqu troupes merged to form Tridharma Arts, becoming active in religious and ritual performances at Chinese temples and festivals. Chapter 2 explores four forms of Sino-Indonesian wayang, namely, wayang potehi, Hakka marionettes, wayang kulit Cina-Jawa, and wayang klitik. Wayang potehi, which can be traced to the Hokkien glove puppet theater practice, is one of the most known forms of Sino-Indonesian performance. This genre was popularly performed at major Chinese and civic festivals during the colonial period. By the 1950s, Potehi became a linguistic bridge for the Chinese communities and even began involving pribumi Indonesians. Despite New Order’s anti-Chinese measures, Potehi has survived and remains popular in temple performances. Hakka marionettes are a common theatrical practice among the Hakka community in Singkawang. According to Stenberg, the genre, in contrast with Potehi, has experienced little or no hybridization or indigenization. Unlike Hakka marionettes, Wayang kulit Cina-Jawa, which was invented and promoted by Peranakan dalang Gan Thwan Sing (1885–1966), is an adaptation of wayang kulit. This genre disappeared before the New Order period but has been revived in the recent years to present Indonesia’s multicultural image. Wayang klitik, the last of the four wayangs in the chapter, which Stenberg’s respondents last thought to have been performed in 1960s or 1970s, has unfortunately vanished with little documentation.

3Chapters 3 and 4 focus on Sino-Indonesian staged theatrical performance. Chapter 3 examines how ethnic Chinese intellectuals in Indonesia relied on Chinese-language spoken theater as an instrument to negotiate their cultural identities between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Indonesia. In this chapter, Stenberg compares Chinese author Baren’s (巴人) 1949 historical drama Temple of the Five Ancestors (五祖廟) with Medan Chinese journalist and author Shalihong’s (沙里洪) 1959 script of the same title. While Baren’s script presents a resistance against imperialism and propagates communism, Shalihong’s work relies on Sino-Indonesia history to encourage Chinese nationalism. Chapter 4 discusses how Chinese stories were incorporated into Indonesian commercial theater from late colonial period to the present. During the early decades of the twentieth century, Sino-Indonesian intellectuals brought Chinese literary drama into the Indies theater scene. Subsequently, Chinese stories such as Sampek Engtay (三伯英台) made their way into local performance fabrics and evolved into “a national performative imaginary” (p. 99). As Stenberg points out, Sampek Engtay was popular in commercial theater throughout the first half of the twentieth century. After a brief ban during the New Order period, Sampek Engtay has been revived and continues to be popularly performed in Indonesian commercial theater.

4Chapters 5 and 6 turn our attention to Sino-Indonesian community performance. Chapter 5 investigates the activities of Sino-Indonesian voluntary associations, which can be considered as an organized display of cultural hybridity and national loyalty. The activities by these organizations, as Stenberg suggests, “strengthen ties within the Chinese community, reinforce ethnic identity, provide space for language and cultural instruction, and create avenues for the Chinese population to interact with (or perform for) Indonesian society as a unit” (p. 116). Sino-Indonesian associations, such as tongxianghui (同鄉會), Chinese-language school alumni clubs, and cultural societies, perform loyalty to Indonesia and Indonesian culture and display their local identities to bring home the point that Chinese Indonesians are patriotic citizens of the Indonesian nation. Chapter 6 demonstrates how Chinese religious and ritual performance is a producer of “Chineseness,” serving as a platform for Sino-Indonesians to perform their identity for one another, the general Indonesian population, Indonesian political authorities, and the broader Chinese diaspora. Stenberg draws on the examples of Bandung’s Vihara Dharma Ramsi (靈光寺) and Singkawang’s Hakka congregants to compare Sino-Indonesian religious performances in Java and Kalimantan. The Lantern Festival, known in Indonesian as Cap Go Meh (十五暝), has been revived and widely celebrated, albeit differently, in Bandung and Singkawang during the post-Suharto era. The chapter convincingly demonstrates the diversity of Sino-Indonesian ritual performance and the complex dynamics between Sino-Indonesians, local population, and the Indonesian authorities in the presentation and execution of a Chinese festival.

5As a scholar of religion, I selfishly wish the author could have offered more background and detail on Chinese religious practices in Indonesia. For instance, in chapter 1, Stenberg mentions the Tridharma, a uniquely Sino-Indonesian religious movement, and Generalissimo Tian (天都元帥), the patron deity of theater, but he offers little elaboration of the religious organization and the deity’s cult in Indonesia. The author only reveals to the readers in chapter 6 that the San Kauw (三教, the Three Teachings), which combined Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, and incorporated aspects of Peranakan Chinese culture and monotheistic traits, was “later known by its Indonesian name of Tridharma” (p. 141). Yet, he offers little information on the liturgical and ritual practices of the San Kauw or Tridharma religious movement. In addition, Stenberg points out that “Buddhism” became an umbrella term for Sino-Indonesian religious practices during the New Order era and that Taiwanese Buddhist organization, Tzu Chi (慈濟), was involved in the Singkawang’s Cap Go Meh celebrations. However, he provides little discussion as to whether Buddhist organizations are in any ways involved in Sino-Indonesian performance and display.

6But these minor quibbles aside, Minority Stages is a fine piece of scholarship that successfully advances our understanding of the diverse Sino-Indonesian performance genres from colonial times to the present. The greatest strength of this book lies in the acuity and vividness expressed through the author’s descriptions of performances by the Sino-Indonesian communities. Stenberg’s compelling ethnographic account dives readers straight into the lively and effervescent performance practices. After reading this book, I, for one, feel enticed to visit the Cap Go Meh festival in Singkawang. All in all, Minority Stages will be particularly useful to those who are interested in Indonesian studies, Chinese diaspora studies, and performance studies. Despite being a serious study on performing arts, I found the book extremely entertaining and fun to read.

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1 See, for instance, Alexander Claver, Dutch Commerce and Chinese Merchants in Java: Colonial Relationships in Trade and Finance, 1800-1942 (Leiden: Brill, 2014); Hew Wai Weng, Chinese Ways of being Muslim: Negotiating Ethnicity and Religiosity in Indonesia (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2018); Abidin Kusno, Visual Cultures of the Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia (New York: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016); Taomo Zhou, Migration in the Time of Revolution: China, Indonesia, and the Cold War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019).

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Jack Meng-Tat Chia, « Josh Stenberg, Minority Stages: Sino-Indonesian Performance and Public Display. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2019, xvi-257 pp. ISBN: 9780824876715 »Archipel, 100 | 2020, 243-246.

Référence électronique

Jack Meng-Tat Chia, « Josh Stenberg, Minority Stages: Sino-Indonesian Performance and Public Display. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2019, xvi-257 pp. ISBN: 9780824876715 »Archipel [En ligne], 100 | 2020, mis en ligne le 28 novembre 2020, consulté le 23 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Jack Meng-Tat Chia

National University of Singapore

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Association Archipel

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