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Keling: Kampung Keling: Economic symbiosis in Medan's Chinese-Indian enclave

Contributed by Anonymous on Sunday, October 30 @ 00:27:22 CDT

CommunityBY: Apriadi Gunawan, The JakartaPost.com

Medan, North Sumatra, is known for its sharp racial distinctions between native Batak, Chinese, Indian and Malay ethnic groups. Ironically, one of the city's most prominent areas, Kampung Keling, or Little India, has evolved to become an example of racial harmony between the ethnic Chinese and the once predominant Indian community

Its almost lunch time. A 70-year-old woman of Tamil descent named Kolina stands busily chopping fruit and vegetables in front of her run-down house.
Strangers passing by might ask themselves why is she doing such work outside the house, and not in her kitchen.
Kolina smiles each time someone asks her this familiar question. With a touch of embarrassment, she admits that this has been her habit for over two decades, simply because her small dwelling has no kitchen.
Like many of her neighbors of Indian descent in Kampung Kubur, Madras subdistrict, in the North Sumatra provincial capital of Medan, she's accustomed to the hard life. Her house is similar to those around it. Small four-walled dwellings packed in narrow lanes that are no more than a few meters wide.
Kampung Kubur is so named for the simple reason that it is adjacent to a cemetery.
For people like Kolina, the narrow lane not only functions as a path to reach the "outside world" but also the place where daily chores are carried out.
Her house is just 4 meters by 6 meters, barely sufficient for a bedroom and makeshift living room. Inside, there is no fancy furniture, not even a TV set. The most noticeable features are a few pictures representing Hindu gods hung on the wall.
"I don't have the money to fill my house with expensive items. I have had to make do by myself since my husband died 10 years ago," said the childless Kolina.
To keep her company, Kolina considers her nephew as her own child. But much of the 15-year-old's material needs are still provided by his biological parents.
To make ends meet, Kolina sometimes washes clothes for an ethnic Chinese family living in this "Indian village". She receives about Rp 100,000 per month for her toil.
Even though the area -- dubbed Kampung Keling -- is known as Little India, fate has made it common for the predominantly ethnic Indians to seek employment with ethnic Chinese families who over time have come to dominate the location economically.
The local area head, Raunandas, said that despite once being the predominant ethnic group in the area, the ethnic Indians have long been seeking employment with the ethnic Chinese. Most of them perform menial work such as serving as maids, washerwomen or security guards.
Kampung Keling is considered the original home of Medan's ethnic Indian community. They are mainly the descendants of South Indians who came to work in the plantations of North Sumatra in the late 1800s. A prominent reminder of the South Indian heritage in the area is the Sri Mariamman temple, which was built in 1881 for the goddess Kali. The names of the streets in the area also once reflected the origin of those living there -- Calcutta, Nagapatam, Bombay Streets.
Another feature of the area is the Khalsa school, located adjacent to the temple. The school was once famous for being the only English language school in the city.
According to Raunandas, the ethnic Chinese started becoming more noticeable in the area in the 1950s when the Indian residents fell on hard times and started selling their houses. This also resulted in a diaspora of the original Indians from the area to the outskirts of Medan.
Raunandas, who himself is ethnic Indian and has lived in the area all his life, claims that after years of living together there is no longer any sense of shame in having to depend for their livelihoods on Chinese families -- latecomers to the area.
It is an historical fact, said the 58-year-old, that the Indians are at an economic disadvantage.
"The Indians are poor while the Chinese are always rich. If there are poor Chinese, they're very rare. Everyone accepts that," he remarked.
The pattern has thus been set. The ethnic Indians rule the small rows of houses and pathways hidden behind the more prominent two-story buildings on the main streets, which the Chinese use as both shops and homes.
The demography has also changed according to the latest census, with the ethnic Chinese outnumbering the 500 ethnic Indian families three-to-one.
According to one local elder, Naran Sami, Kampung Keling, which was originally called Patisah, changed its name to Kampung Madras to reflect the South Indian origin of those living in the 10-hectare area. But because the South Indians were mostly people of dark skin, the name Keling -- a slang word for darker skin -- became more popular.
What attracted them to the area was the presence of the Sri Mariamman temple, which today has become one of Medan's tourist attractions.
What makes the area unique is that at a time when Indonesia has been witnessing numerous communal conflicts, Kampung Keling, despite the divergence of race, religion and economic status of its inhabitants, has remained a peaceful place for its residents, irrespective of their ethnicity.
This peaceful understanding and cohabitation did not occur overnight, and it required years of mutual tolerance by all sides before a level of "comfort" could be attained.
As one resident put it, the two groups came from "different worlds", with each considering itself different from the other.
Exclusivity
One obstacle, according to Naran Sami, was the "exclusive" way in which the ethnic Chinese conducted their lives, making little effort to approach their Indian neighbors.
"Till today, the ethnic Chinese maintain highly exclusive lifestyles. They only engage with their own kind, rarely with people like us," he lamented.
This is felt deeply when an ethnic Indian dies.
"Rarely will we see them (the ethnic Chinese) pay their respects," he added.
"You also don't see a Chinese taking part in community volunteer work, or the neighborhood watch at night."
These feelings of jealousy persist. Fortunately, the cordial nature in which the two groups handle their differences -- highlighted by a symbiotic need of (economic) convenience -- has prevented negative feelings from spilling over into rage.
It is not a perfect relationship, nor one that is at all equal. But a symbiosis has naturally developed that has helped encourage a peaceful understanding among residents.
They have come to accept, albeit not necessarily like, the way the other lives. Despite their exclusivity, the ethnic Chinese are known for their generosity in providing "donations" when sought.
When a part of the area was burned down, the ethnic Chinese distinguished themselves by their generosity.
Riots
As far as Naran Sami remembers, in the six decades he has lived in Kampung Keling, he has never encountered any ethnic-based flare-ups. Even when parts of Medan were gripped by racial rioting in 1998, Kampung Keling remained relatively safe. In fact it was the ethnic Indians who prevented outsiders from attacking their Chinese neighbors.
Though still rare, there has also been an increasing number of mixed marriages between ethnic Indian and Chinese people.
One man who can attest to conditions there is Lukman Ahin, an ethnic Chinese who has resided in Kampung Keling since 1938 when he was just three years old.
Moving from the town of Tebing Tinggi, North Sumatra, Lukman's parents opened a repair shop in Kampung Keling, at a time when there were less than 100 ethnic Chinese families living there. Most other Chinese families sold household supplies.
He has since taken over the family business and turned it into an auto repair shop. Lukman claims that he has had little difficulty in dealing with his racially different neighbors.
"Frankly, this place is my little piece of heaven. I feel safe living and working in this Indian village," said the father of three, while adding that "they (the ethnic Indians) are our protectors".
Free from troublesome harassment, Lukman's business has prospered, allowing him to send his children to university.
Lukman may smile at his good fortune, but just a few meters away Kolina can only look forward to further toil for a pittance and hope for some charity from her more affluent neighbors.

 
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