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A 1912 stele in an abandoned cemetery. Photo: Handout

Meet the Indonesians saving Chinese heritage, one tomb at a time

  • History buff Philipus Raharjo and restaurateur Bram Luska spend their time scouring the hills of Semarang for forgotten Chinese grave sites
  • Protecting such sites is vital to learning how the Chinese diaspora lived, they say. But not all the tombs they find are ready to give up their secrets

When the 40-year-old history aficionado and calligraphist, Philipus Dellian Agus Raharjo, wrote on social media in September last year about his trip to the Thio Family Mausoleum in his hometown of Semarang, Central Java, his post caught the eye of Bram Luska, a 35-year-old restaurateur.

Luska had always been intrigued by the characteristically Chinese building but had never been inside.

The mausoleum, built by a Chinese property and export-import tycoon, Thio Sing Liong (1871-1940), is one of the many historical footprints left by Indonesia’s Chinese diaspora and is now a protected heritage site.

Together Raharjo and Luska visited the mausoleum and started a collaboration which would see them scouring for forgotten Chinese grave sites around Semarang.

Luska and Raharjo at the Thio Sing Liong Mausoleum. Photo: Handout
“Chinese gravestones [known in Indonesia by the Hokkienese term bongpay] can tell us a lot about the history of the Chinese people in Indonesia; their descendants, how they lived and so on. Most people probably consider cemeteries morbid but I think they are interesting in what they have to reveal,” Luska said.

Though different kingdoms in the Indonesian archipelago had contact with China as far back as the 13th century, Chinese people did not begin to settle down until the early 15th century, when Chinese Muslim traders arrived and helped spread Islam. Later, when the archipelago came under Dutch power in the 17th century, more Chinese traders and workers migrated to what was then The Dutch East Indies. The oldest Chinese graves found in Indonesia to date are from the 17th century era.

For their first excursion, the pair investigated the hilltop burial ground of Bergota, Randusari Spaen, where several Chinese graves had been discovered but remained unidentifiable due to their dilapidated conditions. They were determined to document everything before it was lost to posterity.


On their trek, they inadvertently took the wrong turn and ended up on the opposite side of the hill from where most known Chinese graves were situated. As luck would have it, however, they managed to find an old Chinese grave tucked away in a corner.

The tortoise-back-shaped top of the grave had been smashed open and it was clear from the charring seen on it that local residents were using the site to burn their garbage. But the identity of the deceased was still decipherable; a woman named Thio Koen Tjie. Further up the hill, they discovered another old grave belonging to a man with the family name of Thio, too.

What puzzled both Raharjo and Luska was that both graves were dated differently from most other graves found across Indonesia. Typically, ancient Chinese graves adhere to the imperial dating system, in which the name of the emperor and the year of his reign would be engraved on the headstone to mark the date of death. But these two Thio graves bore no such details.

A gravestone dating from the reign of the Kangxi Emperor found in Semarang. Photo: Handout

Mystery graves

Dr Claudine Salmon, a French expert on Chinese cemeteries in Indonesia, said the omission of imperial details “was frequently used when one did not wish to refer to a dynasty or to another type of count, such as the Christian era, or the year of the establishment of the Chinese Republic”.

Judging by the inscriptions on the tombs found, she believes the dating system used here is based on a 60-year cycle. The drawback to such a system is that it is not possible to date the tomb accurately. But Salmon noted that there were instances where conflicting political loyalties made people reject certain calendrical systems. After the fall of the Ming dynasty in 17th century, for example, loyalists refused to date their tombs according to the new Qing calendar.


Raharjo said there was some merit in the theory that the graves belonged to Ming loyalists. He pointed out that the techniques used in the construction of the mystery graves bore resemblance to the late Ming graves found in Kasunyatan, Banten, West Java.

Why Chinese Indonesians and their children are learning Mandarin

Their first ever quest also presented a poignant moment for both Raharjo and Luska.


“While we were documenting the second Thio grave, a man suddenly showed up and asked what we were doing there. He said that he was planning to raze the old grave because it had never been visited by anyone,” Raharjo reminisced.

Both he and Luska were astounded and went on to explain the importance of old graves to the preservation of history and urged the man to reconsider. The man eventually agreed to think the matter over.

The success of the Raharjo-Luska gravesite-quest eventually attracted a few others to join them on their subsequent trips. Both men have also found their own distinctive roles in their new passion. It falls to Raharjo to read the scripts on the tombstones they chance upon since Luska is not versed in Chinese characters.

Chinese graves are often found in a dilapidated state. Photo: Handout

“I can read Hanzi because I studied Japanese and both languages share many ideograms. But to this day I wouldn’t consider myself fluent in Mandarin because I still have trouble with my pronunciation,” Raharjo said.


Luska, on the other hand, often picks their destination sites. So far his instincts have paid off and the team has unearthed the locations of numerous hitherto unknown Chinese graves in Semarang. As a Chinese-Indonesian, he believes that it is important to be in touch with his heritage.

Why do these Indonesians love visiting cemeteries?

“I feel that both of us have been guided on our trips to search for old graves. There have been a lot of coincidences that feel like synchronicities.


We often started out with not much information to go on but ended up finding something interesting.”

He recalled a profound experience when he saw a stele erected in 1912 by a Mr Liem on a burial site reminding future Chinese generations never to forget their culture.

Most abandoned Chinese graveyards often have new houses built around them. Photo: Handout

“These excursions feel spiritual to me. I always burn incense and pay my respects to the ancestors before embarking on a trek.”

The quest for ancient Chinese bongpay started by the two men has created a network of volunteers and history aficionados who now keep an eye out for new information or sightings of undocumented graves. They are also hoping to convince the government to declare some of their most important finds as national heritage sites to protect them from further damage or vandalism.

“It won’t be easy to get official recognition for these sites but it’s worth a try,” said Luska.