Indonesian Islam’s Forgotten Face

Zhuang Wubin’s book explores the rich history of a formerly oppressed group. (Photo courtesy of Zhuang Wubin) Zhuang Wubin’s book explores the rich history of a formerly oppressed group. (Photo courtesy of Zhuang Wubin)

Zhuang Wubin’s photos have legs. They begin in one place, as one thing, and in a matter of seconds transform on the page, cruise through 120 million rods and seven million cones and reregister as something completely different.

“Chinese Muslims in Indonesia” begins as a book of photographs intended to shed light on the rich history and roots of an ethnicity that is now over 60,000 strong across the archipelago.

It is a two-year journey through Wubin’s lens that goes from the tiny shops of Cirebon and Bangka to the venerable mosques and holy tombs in Jakarta, Banten and Surabaya.

“I’ve always been interested in the history, but I’ve just never had the chance to study it,” said Wubin, a writer and photographer who focuses on long-term photographic projects documenting Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.

“I wanted to do something that’s more substantial. And something close to me and personal to me … that involved history. I wanted to do something about Chinese people and I wanted to do something in Indonesia,” he added.

Wishing to reveal the past through photos taken in the present, Wubin set out to create a photojournalist’s depiction of “Chinese Muslims in Indonesia.”

“I’m interested in the 600-year-old conversions. The history of Chinese conversion is not just one year old or one generation away.”

The book is made up of different parts focusing on new converts, people that may have converted one or two generations ago, Chinese Muslims that go back some six generations, pribumi, or indigenous Indonesians, who are open about the fact that they have Chinese blood and holy sites such as Surabaya’s Cheng Ho Mosque, Pacinan Mosque in Banten and Kebon Jeruk Mosquein Jakarta.

While the photos themselves tell vivid stories, Wubin’s background as a journalist and his ability to paint both a mental and physical picture shines through in his captions.

Take “Life of Dedication,” for instance. The photo depicts a man in traditional Muslim dress with his back to the camera and later erupts into a profound story.

From the words, we learn that Mohammad Iman, who is from a small town 30 minutes from Cirebon, was once a firm believer in Sam Kauw, an organization that promoted traditional Chinese religious values.

But then one day the 63-year-old broke the head of a Dabogong statue. While attempting to repair the broken statue, doubt washed over Mohammad and he began to question his beliefs.

Then in 1973, when he married his wife, who didn’t have a specific faith, the two decided to choose the Catholic faith when registering with one of the six state-recognized religions.

But Mohammad still found it hard to picture himself as a Catholic and began to dream about praying with other Muslims.When his wife first saw him pray to Allah, she cried.

The story only gets more complicated from there. It involves Mohammad’s wife of over 25 years accepting his religion and promising to convert and ends with Mohammad being diagnosed with kidney failure.

The reader is then left in suspense about whether the man, who now teaches elderly villagers how to read the Arabic Koran, will be able to support his wife and whether his small shop will generate enough to pay for his medication.

Concise, vivid and full of history, heartache and hope, Wubin’s words turn the photos, from candid shots noteworthy for their color, contrast and use of light into memorable stories.

Wuhid’s book is also home to a host of essays from historian Charles Coppel, who is based at University of Melbourne and has contributed greatly to research on Chinese Indonesians over the last 30 years, Enin Supriyanto, a contemporary art curator in Indonesia and Yenny Zannuba Wahid, the daughter of former President Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid. Gus Dur is believed to be the descendant of Tan Kim Han, a Chinese Muslim ambassador at the Majapahit court.

“Photography is supposedly a very immediate medium and you use photography to involve people in the story,” Wuhid said.

“And there’s a lot of text. History cannot be told by photography alone, so I need the text.”

While the book’s photos catch your eye, the text is what keeps you turning the pages, keeps you captivated and imbibing history.

While “Chinese Muslims in Indonesia” is bound to stay on the coffee table for guests to peruse and brush up on their history, the power of the photos makes the book a must-have for any Indonesian who is proud of their country’s rich diversity.

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