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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Rose of Cikembang

Kwee Tek Hoay

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To purchase The Rose of Cikembang

Title: The Rose of Cikembang
Author: Kwee Tek Hoay
Genre: Novel
Written: 1927 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 140 pages
Original in: Malay
Availability: The Rose of Cikembang - US
The Rose of Cikembang - UK
The Rose of Cikembang - Canada
The Rose of Cikembang - India
  • Malay title: Boenga Roos dari Tjikembang
  • Translated by George A. Fowler
  • With an Introduction

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Our Assessment:

B+ : tangled plot, but charming

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Jakarta Post . 25/8/2014 Linawati Sidarto

  From the Reviews:
  • "With his agile pen, Kwee realistically portrays the social codes and morals of that era, while at same time making his own views on those matters crystal clear. (...) George E. Fowler not only skillfully translated the novel, but in his introduction he wrote a historical and literary overview worth reading by itself." - Linawati Sidarto, The Jakarta Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A detailed Introduction to The Rose of Cikembang helpfully traces the changing ethnic and linguistic developments in the Dutch East Indies (eventually: Indonesia), and then Kwee Tok Hoay's position as an Indonesian of Chinese descent writing in the "rich linguistic stew" that was the local (Low) Malay. The "creolized society and culture" of the Malay-speaking Indonesians of Chinese origin was called peranakan, and Kwee -- "perhaps the most prolific Indonesian writer of the century" -- authored: "some of the most quintessential works of peranakan fiction".
       This simple (if exceptionally tangled) novel stands in a long tradition of Indonesian popular fiction (that continues to this day), leaning heavily on idealized concepts of romance and fate -- though in its time it was apparently also fairly daring in its treatment of interracial romance. Far-fetched though much of The Rose of Cikembang is, and despite a presentation that rushes much along (as Kwee explains in his Foreword, he originally wrote it as a play, which explains much of the way it is presented), the novel holds up well as a simple, touching story.
       The novel begins when Tuan Oh Ay Cheng is thirty years old. His family has fallen on hard times, his father moaning that: "I, a former Chinese officer and once a millionaire, have to live in a row house and pay rent of fifteen rupiah a month", and all their hopes lie in their only son. He's done good so far, too, moving up in just five years from being a clerk at a rubber plantation to being the manager. The owner of the plantation, Tuan Liok Keng Jim wants to marry off his daughter, Gwat Nio -- and he wants Ay Cheng as a son-in-law, to take over his entire business empire.
       The problem is that Ay Cheng is happily in love with Marsiti, his devoted nyai -- his concubine --, and has no wish to marry. The older generation don't want this opportunity to pass, however, and they convince Marsiti to leave Ay Cheng, for his own good, promising to set her up in comfort far away. Heartbroken Ay Cheng is faced with a fait accompli and marries Gwat Nio -- though still pining for his true love.
       Gwat Nio turns out to be amazingly understanding, and also a wonderful wife, and the couple do find happiness. They also have a daughter, Lily -- a wonderful child, whose only fault is that she takes: "delight in everything that is sad", practically wallowing at the thought of tragedies to come. And of course they do.
       On his deathbed Liok Keng Jim makes some stunning revelations, as well as reporting the sad news that Marsiti has died. But he dies before he can reveal the final secret he's been holding onto. Ay Cheng imagines he can piece together the story from what his own father can tell him about what happened, but there's no opportunity to do that either .....
       Jumping ahead in time, Lily is engaged to Bian Kun -- but Lily knows her fate is a different one. Their great love isn't doomed, but she is -- and though she wishes Bian Kun happiness with someone else, he promises:

I swear I will not marry any girl except one exactly like you, Lily, in appearance, character, and behavior.
       Yes, it's quite clear where the story has to go from there -- and one can see how the stage-version, with its possibility of dramatic unveilings and appearances was obviously tempting (this sort of thing works even better on stage than on the page, an in-the-flesh comparison obviously more impressive than any written claims).
       The 'Rose' of the title only makes her appearance two-thirds of the way into this short novel, but readers surely saw her and this coming; still, Kwee presents much of this nicely and amusingly, with quite the happy ending.
       Quite a few elements of The Rose of Cikembang border on the absurd, and certainly the extent to which the women (notably Gwat Nio and then Rose) are understanding is nearly ridiculous, but Kwee does help keep the book from sinking entirely in the too-good-to-be-true with those tragic deaths (Marsiti and Lily, in particular). Kwee's critique of how nyai are seen and treated in this society is oblique but effective, and similarly he manages to touch -- ever so lightly -- upon a variety of social issues of the times. Among the most amusing asides is how the plantation that Ay Cheng used to manage -- "sold to a Dutch company who purchased it at a high price, resulting in a multifold return to Liok Keng Jim" soon after Ay Cheng marries -- at the conclusion: "again came into the hands of Ay Cheng, because the Dutch owner had gone bankrupt" (typical of the elliptical treatment of the essentially unseen colonial masters in the novel, and a beautiful sly dig).
       This is far from realist fiction, and even strains the usual romance-novel bounds, but even in such a quick presentation -- the novel proper only takes up a hundred pages here -- there's quite a bit of richness, and there's no doubt that Kwee manages to make a touching tale of it. It is a nice little read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 January 2016

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The Rose of Cikembang: Reviews: Kwee Tek Hoay: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indonesian Chinese-Malay author Kwee Tek Hoay (郭德怀) lived ca. 1880 to 1952.

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© 2016 the complete review

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