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Indonesia gets reacquainted with Chinese language, culture
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A century ago, Tjong A Fie Mansion used to be the most important address in the city of Medan.

A huge image of dragon representing Chinese culture hanging from the ceiling of the Tunjungan Plaza Mall in the Indonesian city of Surabaya.

A huge image of dragon representing Chinese culture hanging from the ceiling of the Tunjungan Plaza Mall in the Indonesian city of Surabaya. 

Constructed in the Chinese-European-Art Deco style and completed in 1900, it used to belong to one of the most influential Chinese people in Southeast Asia - Tjong A Fie.

He was a strong leader who constructed and developed a big part of the city of Medan - the largest on the island of Sumatra - after making his fortune from plantations, sugar mills, banks and railroads.

Unlike many other businessmen in the region, people respected him for his entrepreneurial spirit and ability to turn his most daring dreams into reality.

The mansion, an oasis in polluted and chaotic Medan, was modeled on the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion - an architectural masterpiece in Georgetown, Malaysia. It was the first house in the city to have electricity.

Emilia Siregar guides visitors through the spacious courtyards, ballrooms and studies of the Tjong A Fie Mansion. As a caretaker of the mansion, she knows everything about the place - from the make of the piano to the favorite wine vintages of the former owner of the house.

"This was the house of Tjong A Fie with his third wife and seven children. During the Suharto era (1967-1998), there was pressure from the government to turn the house into a hotel, but the family resisted. Only one year ago was the mansion finally opened to the public," Siregar said.

Former president Abdurrahman Wahid began to lift the ban on Chinese culture and language right after taking office in 1999. Since then, Indonesian cities started to embrace their long-lost Chinese heritage. Gates to Chinatowns were rebuilt and painted bright red in Surabaya and elsewhere, while Chinese songs and dances were once again performed in malls, hotels and restaurants.

"After Wahid acknowledged Confucianism as one of the official faiths of Indonesia, people of Chinese origin in this country became much braver and more open about their culture and using their mother tongue," said Hartaman Rasyid, a civil engineer who was forced, like all other Chinese-Indonesians, to change his name during the Suharto era.

"Private schools are now using Mandarin as one of their foreign language modules. Cooperation with China is improving. Many parents now ask their kids to study Chinese even though they do not speak it," he said.

While most of those who want to study Chinese in Jakarta choose Mandarin, in Medan young people are encouraged to perfect their Cantonese as there are many people of Cantonese origin living in Sumatra.

(China Daily February 18, 2011)

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