Seeking Outstanding Lasem Batik Pieces in “Little China”, Central Java

If you are looking for fine batik pieces that are infused with both Chinese and Javanese cultural traits, then head to Lasem, a small town in the district of Rembang by the north coast of Central Java. Dubbed as “Little China”,  Lasem was where the first Chinese are believed to have set foot on Java. The assimilation of Chinese and Javanese cultures has blended harmoniously, as evident from the excellent batik materials produced here.

Like all batiks found along the north coast of Java, the colors used in the Lasem Batik are colourful : bright yellows, blue, red  and greens. But Lasem Batik distinguishes itself in the use of a particular red color, known as chicken blood red. Motifs are also specific, especially pictured are peonies, phoenixes, lions, watu pecah (broken rocks) or watu krecak that are very much Chinese influenced.

At the same time, Lasem Batik also uses traditional Javanese motifs such as the kawung, gunung ringgit and parangan. This harmonious fusion produces cloths that are both attractive, elegant and fascinating.

Batik Lasem, The Chinese batik
Batik Lasem, The Chinese batik (Source : tirto.id)

This kind of batik, however, disappeared in the 1950’s on account of adverse political conditions, but, fortunately, it has now made a definitive comeback, which is also because most Chinese merchants here are in the Batik trade. And, to produce these beautiful pieces they employ local women and young girls.

Today, to rebuild the industry, a Lasem batik merchant by the name of Santoso Hartono, producer of the “Pusaka Beruang” batiks, gathered together small and medium scale producers and established a cooperative, that together established the “Griya Batik Lasem” (the Lasem Batik House). The Griya is today located in the 1800’s built heritage home of the former regent of Lasem.

The distinguishing mark of Lasem Batik is that particular red color used here, known as ‘abang getih pitik’ or chicken blood red. This color is difficult to produce even in labs as it is taken from the roots of the mengkudu and jeruk plants then mixed with the water of Lasem, which is said to contain special minerals not found elsewhere.

This unique bright red color on Lasem batiks, sometimes called bang-bangan, is particularly loved by indonesian batik aficionados.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that batik producers from other batik centers such as Pekalongan, Solo, Yogyakarta, Semarang and Cirebon, will look for cloths that have only been given the basic treatment and dyed in red only on particular parts in its motifs.

The traditional Batik of Lasem
The traditional Batik of Lasem (Source : batikdan.blogspot.co.id)

Besides the bang-bangan red, Lasem Batik has also other unique and no less attractive colors and motifs. These are: Tiga Negeri (Three regions – namely red-blue-brown), Bang Biron (red-blue), es teh or Sogan (iced tea – yellowish brown), biron (blue), Empat Negeri or Tiga Negeri Ungon (four regions or three regions and purple -red, blue, pale brown and purple), where each combination bears specific meaning and are used for different occasions.

Lasem batik is sometimes referred to as “Batik Tiga Negeri”, which comes from its coloring process that passes three stages.

First the cloth is dipped in the red solution after the wax is removed from those areas that are to absorb the red color. Following the same procedure, areas that are to be made blue, then lastly brown, will be dipped in the required dyes. All these treatments take place under one roof. The cloth is called the 3 regions Batik since red comes from Lasem, blue from the city of Pekalongan and light brown from Solo.

ACTIVITIES

There are a number of hotels and modest inns available in the Rembang Regency.

To facilitate your search for Lasem Batik, you should first decide for yourself whether you are looking for the Chinese fused Lasem Batik, the non-Chinese batik or a blend of Chinese and Javanese colors and motifs.

Some best known batiks are: Sekar Jagad, Parang Rusak, Parang Tritis, Latohan, Ukel, Alge, Ceplok Piring, Ceplok Benik, Pasiran, Lunglungan, Gunung Ringgit, Pring-pringan, Pasiran Kawung, Kawung Mlathi, Endok Walang, Bledak Mataraman, Bledak Cabe, Kendoro Kendiri, Grinsing, Kricak/Watu Pecah, Kawung Babagan, Sekar Srengsengan, Kembang Kamboja, and Sido Mukti.

Whilst those are Chinese influenced known as Lok Can are those with motifs of phoenix birds, lions, gold fish, bats, deer, butterflies, turtles, prawns, crabs, snakes, dragons, and other animals and flowers.

While those infused with both Chinese and Javanese cultural traits are those called : motif parang (daggers), udan riris (rain drops), kawung, kendoro kendiri, sekar jagad, and  anggur-angguran or grapes.

There are also flower and plant motifs such as chrysanthemums, peonies, magnolias, cherry blossoms, bamboo, and more, besides other popular Chinese motifs like fans, eight gods (pat sian), goddess of the moon, or coins. Each of these motifs hold special meanings and are rich in philosophical value.

The Batik industry in Lasem is believed to have flourished since the 1420’s as mentioned in the Book of Bradasanti (in the year 1478) which says that the Batik process in Lasem was known since the arrival of Princess Lui Ni of Champa (present day Vietnam) who taught the art of batik to the children of Kemendung (present day Lasem).  Princess Na Lui Ni was the wife of Bi Nong Hua, who was Captain of one of the ships in the armada of Cheng Ho (Zheng He)who had asked permission to remain and settle in Lasem.

In the 14th century (1350-1375), Lasem was a small kingdom under the sway of the Majapahit Empire, and uniquely this region was always ruled by a Queen. At first, Lasem Batik was worn only by older Chinese women, which was why it was known as Batik encim. Over time, however the Javanese artistic expressions seeped into the Lasem batik and we start to see the use of kawung and parang motifs together with the Chinese motifs.  

Lasem has a number of Batik centers, that are spread over different villages. Popular is the hamlet of Ngropol in the village of Pancur. Others can be found around Pamotan and of course in the town of Lasem itself.

GET THERE

To get to Lasem you must first fly to Semarang, capital city of Central Java. There are frequent flights to Semarang from Jakarta, Surabaya and other large cities, though not from Yogyakarta. From Yogyakarta you must drive up north.

The town of Lasem lies around 130 km from Semarang, and will take about 3.5 hours drive to reach. While from the town of Rembang, Lasem is 12 km. East on the north coast of Java facing the Java Sea.

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