My Story of Lasem Batik

Many people might know Lasem as one of the famous batik towns in Indonesia. But whenever I hear the word Lasem, so many things cross my mind. Geographically, Lasem is located in Central Java north coast, about 4 hours from either Semarang or Surabaya. I’m familiar with the town because my grandparents from mother’s side live there. During my childhood in Surabaya, my grandmother often picked me and my sister up to go to Lasem whenever school holiday came. It’s because she knew that my family would go to Batu every Christmas holiday to new year and visit my grandparents from father’s side in Malang. Batu has cool weather, interesting places to be visited and nice hotels; while the weather in Lasem is hot and it has no interesting place nor good hotel.

As I grew up, I realize that Lasem has several things to be treasured. Many ancient houses in Lasem have unique architecture influenced by Chinese culture. That’s why you may call Lasem as Chinatown. The houses are mostly spacious, guarded with tall white walls. Not only that, Lasem also has many kelenteng or Chinese temple. Most importantly, Lasem has beautiful batik that makes the town famous.

My grandparents in front of their house

Inside my grandparents’ house

Thankfully my grandparents are among the people in Lasem who have batik workshop in their house. They inherit the house and the batik workshop from my great-grandparents. My grandfather was the last and only child who is willing to inherit the batik workshop. All his brother and sister have chosen other professions and life besides running the batik business. His elder brother preferred to be a lecturer in Semarang, an elder sister who loves to cook wrote recipes and established Nyonya Rumah restaurant in Bandung and lastly, the youngest sister simply enjoys her life of being a housewife in Jakarta.

I can say I’m glad my grandparents decided to continue that batik legacy. My grandfather, named Sigit Witjaksono (Njo Tjoen Hian) often makes the whole family members proud. He is often interviewed by newspaper journalists, TV reporters and students who want to know about batik or Chinese acculturation in Lasem. Unlike my grandfather, my grandmother doesn’t like to appear in public.

Batik has been the main business of my grandparents. With the money they make from selling batik, they successfully raised and gave education for their five children. They often please their grandchildren too by buying them new toys or clothes. However, I witness myself that running the business is not easy. While other people seek fortune in big cities, my grandparents must reside in Lasem because all the batik artisans who work in the workshop are Lasem residents and the workshop needs to be monitored everyday. They have to buy all the materials from other town like Pati, Semarang and Surabaya by bus. Only these later years the suppliers are able to send the goods to my grandparents’ house. When economic crisis occured in 1998, many batik workshops in Lasem went bankrupt and stopped the business. Only few survived until today, including my grandparents’.

As time goes by, less and less people want to be batik artisan because most young women in Lasem choose to be housemaid or TKW (migrant workers). Formerly, there were about 50 artisans who worked for my grandparents and now the number is not even close to 20. Understanding the difficulty of finding more batik artisans today, I feel quite unhappy to see many batik produced by printing. For me batik should be treasured not only because of the motif, it is the crafting process that makes it so valuable.

The process of making batik in my grandparent’s house:

From right to left, these batiks are arranged according to its making process.

Actually batik business has promising opportunity to grow and demand for batik is slightly increasing after it is listed as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. By UNESCO, Indonesian batik is described as “The techniques, symbolism and culture surrounding hand-dyed cotton and silk garments known as Indonesian Batik permeate the lives of Indonesians from beginning to end: infants are carried in batik slings decorated with symbols designed to bring the child luck, and the dead are shrouded in funerary batik.” However, my grandparents can’t go any further because of the limited number of batik artisans in Lasem so they produce craft more than batik. The offer to join any batik exhibition doesn’t help either since most of the batik that my grandparents have are allocated for their regular buyers. Perhaps because of those mentioned obstacles above, none of my grandparents’ children are willing to live in the house and continue the batik business. I myself have no idea if I could live in Lasem although I know that batik workshop should be preserved.

Some of the batik from my grandparents’ workshop