Sarongs Offer Insight Into Samarinda’s Settler History


MARCH 26, 2013

Samarinda sarongs are hand-woven using a tool called a gedokan, which was brought to the city by Bugis refugees in the 17th century. Today the fabric is a town trademark. (JG Photo/Wahyuni Kamah)

Samarinda sarongs have become a trademark of the East Kalimantan capital. They are a sought-after souvenir that most visitors want to take home either for themselves, or as a gift for family and friends. But although the Samarinda sarong represents the city culturally, it turns out the practical piece of clothing is not made by Samarinda natives, but by Bugis settlers .

Samarinda city was pioneered by Bugis refugees who came from the Sultanate of Gowa in South Sulawesi during the 17th century, when the kingdom came under the attack from the Dutch. Up to that point, it was the only Sultanate in Eastern Indonesia yet to be colonized.

Many people from the Sultanate of Gowa traveled to the coast of East Kalimantan to seek refugee from the war. At that time, the area was under the control of the Kutai Kartanegara Kingdom. The king welcomed the Gowa refugees and granted them a designated neighborhood in Tanah Rendah. As compensation, the Bugis were expected to support the kingdom if it were to also come under attack.

The king renamed the neighborhood Sama Rendah in honor of the new arrivals, a title that indicated there was no difference between the natives and the refugees in terms of status and privilege.

The gesture of good faith is how the city of Samarinda earned its name.

The older part of town is now called Samarinda Seberang, while the newly developed area is known as Kota Samarinda . The two areas are separated by the Mahakam River, the second longest river in Indonesia, but both are connected by the Mahakam Bridge.

Nowadays, the majority of Bugis descendents live in the Samarinda Seberang neighborhood. Its demographic structure has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years.

“The area in Samarinda Seberang was the first kampung [village] that later developed into a city,” said Akhmadi, a local driver who took me to Jalan Pangeran Bendahara, where newcomers and descendants of Bugis people mostly live. Different to Samarinda Kota, which is dominated by more modern buildings and houses, the residential areas here look older. One still comes across old wooden and zinc houses. Most homes are simple, but well-maintained.

The main Pangeran Bendahara Street branches into alleys, one of them, Gang Pertenunan, is where many residents weave the famous Samarinda sarong. This street is the heart of the industry and the name of the alleyway itself is a testimony to its occupants’ profession: Pertenunan means weaving and textiles.

Homes here are compact and close together, giving neighbors a chance to chat while sitting on their small terraces.

During the day, however, most houses are bustling with activity, as residents busily work on their sarongs. Approximately 167 traditional weavers live in the area.

Samarinda sarongs are usually woven with the help of a manual tool called a gedokan . The sturdy piece of equipment is made of hardwood timber.

I visited one of the weavers, Ibu Rahma, who has been an independent producer of traditional sarongs for the past 18 years. She puts her weaving tool on the terrace of her house, where she works for five hours a day. The mother of three said that the price of one sarong depends on how long it takes to finish.

Rahma learned how to make sarongs after marriage, simply by observing how other women in the neighborhood wove using the traditional gedokan.

She also taught her daughters to weave, and now both of them are craftswomen, just like their mother.

“The money I earn from making sarongs does help to add to my family’s income,” said the Toraja-born woman who wed a Bugis man. She can finish one sarong in two days if she works intensively. That kind of sarong costs Rp 250,000 ($25) while a sarong that takes five to seven days to finish can cost up to Rp 400,000.

Rahma is responsible for all the steps required to make a unique finished product. She dyes the threads, designs the pattern and weaves it herself. Although she has had no formal training, business goes well enough. In the living room of her house, there is a display of her finished sarongs.

“Some neighbors ask me to sell their sarongs here too,” Rahma said.

Sometimes she helps her neighbors who need instant cash by giving them money in advance. “I have customers who come directly to my house. Some of them come from Malaysia,” she added.

The original Samarinda sarong is smooth and light. It has contrasting colors and features a unique design.

In the city center’s souvenir shops like Citra Niaga in Samarinda Kota, visitors can find “Sarong Samarinda” as cheap as Rp 30,000, but these budget varieties are made from poor quality material and have been mass-produced by machine.

“You can tell the difference between the original, traditional woven sarongs and the machine-made sarong just by the price,” Rahma explained.

But this is not the only challenge that she and the other traditional weavers face. The market has been flooded with similar products made in Java. And since there are only around 250 traditional weavers who can produce just one sarong per week, originals can be cut out of the market. Sales are buoyed by government officials, who wear the sarongs to important events and give them as diplomatic gifts.

Despite the challenges, traditionally woven sarongs remain a legacy of the first Bugis people who came to Samarinda — a culture still beautifully kept alive by the weavers in Samarinda Seberang.