Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 28, 2020

The Rose of Cikembang, by Kwee Tek Hoay, translated by George A Fowler

How quickly the months roll around!  Once again it is time for me to share my reading for the Indonesian bookgroup to which I belong, and this time, the book is a classic of Indonesian literature, The Rose of Cikembang (Boenga Roos dari Tjikembang) by Kwee Tek Hoay (1886-1951), translated by George A Fowler in 2013.   First published in 1927, the story dates from the era of Indonesian nationalism before WW2 and independence from the Dutch and before Bahasa Indonesia became the official language. As it says in the Introduction…

The Rose of Cikembang (pronounced ‘Chee-kem-bhang’) was part of an already remarkable body of modern mass literature, now largely forgotten, which had been created over the previous thirty or so years mainly by Indonesians of Chinese descent in a language that had long been known as Low Malay, or simply Malay.  This was a rich linguistic stew that contained in its fundamental Malay broth chunks of Javanese, Hokkien words and grammatical structures, Balinese—Balinese house slaves and soldiers being in wide demand in early Batavia—Portuguese, and Dutch.  The particular mixture varied from port to port, depending on the dominant language of the respective hinterland.  It was called ‘Low’ to distinguish it from the ‘High’, or more courtly, and supposedly linguistically purer, variants of this lingua franca of archipelagic commerce and general communication. (p.vii)

In other words, a translator’s nightmare! In the Translator’s Note, George Fowler notes other challenges too: colloquial idioms and terms of a bygone era in all their—to put it mildly—idiosyncratic spellings. He also acknowledges the help of his Hokkien-speaking wife Scholastica Auyong, as well as other colleagues and Ms Wikan Satriari of Lontar in cracking the mystery of Kwee’s own approach to Romanising Hokkien words and spelling Dutch ones. From his profile at Words without Borders, I can see that Fowler is a full-time freelance commercial and literary translator of Chinese, Indonesian, Malay and Tagalog, but even so, the work in translating this short work must have been very demanding.

Cover, second printing, 1930 (Wikipedia)

The blurb summarises the classic status of this novella in Indonesian literature:

First published in 1927, The Rose of Cikembang is an excellent example of the so-called peranakan literature of the Netherlands East Indies, a literary form that was written in a variant of the Malay language then prevalent in the urban centres of the Indies and a forerunner of today’s Indonesian. Peranakan literature was created by writers and publishers of largely Chinese descent and flourished between 1900 and the Japanese Occupation beginning in 1942.

The Rose of Cikembang was one of the most beloved novels of popular and prolific writer Kwee Tek Hoay (1886-1951). Highly sentimental, this story is rich in many of the often controversial themes he was famous for: interracial love and the lives of its offspring, fate and karma, and mysticism and reincarnation. The Rose of Cikembang was reprinted twice and twice made into a movie, including one of the East Indies’ first talking picture shows.

It certainly is sentimental, and melodramatic too.  Contemporary readers will chafe at the representation of compliant women whose only ambition is to serve a man.  But just as there can be serious study of pulp paperbacks for the mass market Anglosphere in the popular genres of romance, westerns and sci-fi, The Rose of Cikembang merits interest because of its audacious themes.  You only need to look at the Wikipedia entry to see that the novella has been the subject of serious scholarship.

But what’s in it for the everyday contemporary reader?

Well, it’s set a century ago so it’s a window on a world long gone.  The plot features an Indonesian of Chinese heritage who has been working contentedly as a manager on a plantation, with his nyai (concubine) by his side.  Ay Cheng has no wish to marry because he loves Marsiti, and while her devotion to ironing his shirts and sewing on his buttons might grate today, she loves him too, and these companions share special moments like revelling in the beauty of the sunset.  So when his father Pin Lo turns up and lays down the law about how he has to marry Gwat Nio to ensure the financial future of the family, Ay Cheng is devastated and refuses to do it.  Pin Lo does the emotional blackmail thing with Marsiti who actually takes control of the situation and decides that she will leave because it’s in the best interest of the one she loves.

One of Kwee’s preoccupations was, apparently, the importance of education for women and girls.  Despite his distress at losing the one he loves (not even knowing where Marsiti has gone, though she had promised to tell him once he was married) Ay Cheng eventually finds himself enjoying Gwat Nio’s company because she is an educated and refined woman who can take her place in any company.

Ay Cheng, who loved music, was very attracted by Gwat Nio’s talent at playing the piano.  And whenever there happened to be guests, men and women of all races, Gwat Nio would always join him in greeting and talking with these guests in such an appealing way, so different from the country-bred and shy Marsiti who used to always go off and hide if there were visitors.  Thus, the longer Ay Cheng lived with Gwat Nio, the more he came to feel that this wife of his was far more estimable compared to his nyai of earlier days: he began to sense that he had been wrong and had behaved stupidly when he had first refused to marry Gwat Nio and had wanted to live forever with the Sundanese woman.  (p. 23)

The arrival of a daughter within a year of marriage cements his new relationship, and he begins to forget Marsiti.

Every good popular novel needs a crisis and it arrives when Ay Cheng has had to relocate to Batavia (now Jakarta) because his father-in-law is not going to live long. On his deathbed, (yes, a deathbed scene, with a half-finished sentence…) he begins to reveal information about Marsiti that in the stage version of this book would certainly have had the audience sit up and take notice.  And this death is very promptly followed by the death of the only other person who could shed any light on the mystery.

(Or so we are led to think, of course).

There is then an abrupt change of scene with the lovely daughter Lily reaching betrothal age, and the reader is kept nicely in suspense, about her inauspicious dream, the fortune-teller’s gloomy prediction, another death, a good deal of gender neutral histrionics (LOL not just hysterical females) and some strange resemblances, which raise a sceptical frown unless the reader shares a belief in reincarnation.  (Though, sceptic that I am, I do not forget the Victorian enthusiasm for spiritualism, and the same thing occurring after the Great War.  When premature death rates were high, it must have been comforting to believe that the loved one was not gone forever.)  All this drama eventually resolves, yes, with some remarkable coincidences, and a remarkable capacity for ‘moving on’ concluding with an homage to the purity and durability of true love.  It’s easy to imagine the curtain coming down on the stage play of this story and the audience erupting into thunderous applause, not a dry eye among them.

What will we talk about at my book group?  The role of women almost certainly.  Here’s an excerpt that set my antennae twitching, even though I am always wary of expecting to find the values and mores of the present in books written in the past:

‘Forgive us, Juragan.  Rose was in no way at fault in that matter.’
‘In what matter?’
‘In the matter of the young juragan falling down in a faint at the grave.  Before that, he tried to take hold of Rose.  In her fright she broke free and ran off, not knowing what had happened.’
‘I haven’t come to make an issue of such a small thing.  Never fear, Bapak, I am not blaming you or your grandchild.  Call her, for I want to meet her.’ (p.66)

So, here we have a young girl of seventeen tending her mother’s grave, when a complete stranger advances on her and tries to take her in his arms.  She gets away, and he faints.  Who is the one who is traumatised here???  Yes, there is a class difference and this is a strictly hierarchical society, signalled by the word juragan (which is Sundanese for ‘Sir’, with feudal overtones), but still, this girl’s grandfather is apologising for upsetting the young man after he had assaulted the girl, and the young man’s father is magnanimously accepting the apology, while also demanding that the traumatised young woman be brought before him.  The reader is not invited to imagine the terror of this girl when she is summoned before the father of her assailant, but I imagine her trembling in her room—reliving the assault and feeling paralysed by fright.

Best to read the story as a fairy tale, and accept (albeit through gritted teeth) the way women and girls have to submit to being treated like possessions with no feelings of their own.  This is a story about love and its power, and it asserts the value of education for women, and yet they are ‘given’ to suitors by their male parent, and expected to conform to the bizarre manoeuvrings of complete strangers.  (There is more in store, much more, for this young woman than just fending off a young man!) Like fairy tales, The Rose of Cikembang is a morality story which reinforces the submission of women in a patriarchal society.  It makes a very interesting contrast with Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet in which the nyai sold by her parents as a concubine to Herman Mellema is a woman of great agency: self-educated and a successful businesswoman for whom the only constraints are racist laws imposed by Indonesia’s colonial overlords.  Pramoedya, however, was writing half a century later, and moreover, as the Introduction to The Rose of Cikembang explains, Kwee in the 1920s was writing about a sub-culture within Indonesia, with a value system all its own.

Leaving the scholars to unpick the story as they may—for the everyday reader IMO, The Rose of Cikembang needs to be read in that context as an element of transmission of values that we do not share, and simply enjoyed as light entertainment.

Image credits:

PS I’ll be AWOL for a day or two after cataract surgery on the day before this is scheduled to publish on Friday morning, but expect to be back on deck sometime over the weekend.

Author: Kwee Tek Hoay (1886-1951)
Title: The Rose of Cikembang (Boenga Roos dari Tjikembang)
Translated by George A Fowler
Publisher: Lontar Foundation, 2013
ISBN: 9786029144246, pbk., 150 pages
Source: Personal library, with thanks to Halina for sourcing it in Indonesia


  1. What an interesting history. I was fascinated also to contemplate the differences between the cover designs you included.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it is interesting… that’s the old Dutch spelling which was replaced by standardised phonetic spelling in 1972.


  2. I hope your surgery went smoothly and you have not had any complications. Eye-health is so core for us bookish folks.

    As for your reading, you have probably explained this before, but how did you end up in a bookgroup devoted to Indonesian reading? Not that it doesn’t sound interesting – and I’m sure it becomes more so, as do all reading projects, as one moves along with them and learns – but it seems so specific and you seem so not-Indonesian. :) I’d like to join something similar, but it seems like a situation in which one must be prepared to purchase and I’m not in that position just now.


  3. LOL, I am indeed Not Indonesian!
    I became a teacher of Indonesian when the state government made learning languages compulsory in primary schools. There weren’t any primary teachers trained so they set up a free training program, which I embraced because I like learning languages and I’d already learned it for 6 months before my first trip there in the 1990s. I went on to lead the professional association for teachers of Indonesian and I published some teaching resources as well. For a while, I was fluent in Indonesian though it’s very rusty now.
    The book group came about when I was attending an art gallery visit with a U3A group. One of the other participants was Indonesian, and #LongStoryShort she told me about this group that was starting up, and so it began.
    I think the issue of book buying is a perennial in book groups. We get round it by choosing our books well ahead, and (mostly) choosing ones that are in our public libraries. Halina, who leads our group visits Indonesia regularly, and for some titles, brings back copies of ones that are much cheaper to buy there than here in Australia.
    Thanks for your good wishes, I am having a bit of a complication with high eye pressure, but hopefully some new medication starting today will fix that and make the headaches go away.


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