It is undoubtedly exotic in its looks, but to the naive passerby the only thing that may seem truly extraordinary about this building in Palembang, the capital city of the Indonesian province South Sumatra, is its colourful architecture. The structure, which resembles a temple, is painted in deep red and pink and topped off with a jade green dome. Two towers in the shape of a five-tiered pagoda flank the sides, complete with Chinese-style touches on their roofs.
However, closer inspection reveals a crescent moon and star perched atop its dome. This is not a Chinese temple, but the Muhammad Cheng Ho Mosque.
A synthesis of Chinese culture and Islam, the mosque would not have been possible under Suharto’s New Order era, in which funding and power of the Indonesian state were greatly expanded to maintain domestic order. Under Suharto, the expression of Chinese culture in any form was considered a threat to national identity, and thus repressed.
With the change of power in 1998, a number of discriminatory laws against ethnic Chinese were abolished, and since then Indonesia has seen a gradual and steady revival of Chinese culture. For many, it was a process of self-discovery and healing as the Chinese population was able to once again openly embrace its ethnicity.
Other attempts have also been made to revive Chinese identities. The building of the similarly named Muhammad Cheng Hoo Mosque in Surabaya in 2002 is one of the best examples of this revival. The mosque is near the city centre and its design is strongly influenced by the Chinese style in stark contrast to its Javanese surroundings. Palembang’s Cheng Ho Mosque, built in 2006, was inspired by the design of this mosque.
The mosque is named after Cheng Ho, commonly known as Zheng He, a 15th century Chinese admiral who is said to have helped spread Islam in Indonesia. According to a local historian, Cheng Ho visited Palembang four times between 1405 and 1433 to destroy a crew of pirates.
When I arrived in the city, I asked the driver about the Cheng Ho Mosque and he was surprised to learn that there was a mosque in the area with a Chinese name.
A local graduate student at Sriwijaya University who accompanied me during my visit also told me that she had never heard about the mosque. Though she frequents the area, she always thought that the twin minarets belonged to a Chinese temple. She is not alone: many people assume the same.
The Cheng Ho Mosque has a unique architectural design, combining elements of Palembang local culture with Chinese and Arabic nuances. Built on 5,000 square meters of land, the mosque is situated inside a middle-class housing complex. The minarets at both sides of the mosque mimic Chinese pagodas, painted in red and jade green.
The two-story mosque has been open since August 2008. There is no physical barrier separating the men and women at the mosque, so the men pray on the first floor and the women on the second. The mosque will eventually have a small house for the imam, an office, a library and a multipurpose room.
The Cheng Ho Mosque is more than a place of worship. It hosts both religious and social activities and has become a tourist destination of sorts, attracting visitors from Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and even Russia. In fact, when I arrived at the mosque, it was filled with dozens of junior high school students celebrating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. They listened to the recitation of the Qur’an and were taught a religious lesson.
The Cheng Ho Mosque demonstrates that there is room in Indonesia for inhabitants to express their unique identity – a blend of Chinese culture and tradition and Islam within a local Indonesian context.
* Evi Nurvidya Arifin is Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from The Jakarta Globe.