Handwritten batik products, such as sarongs, long cloth and shawls, are an inseparable part of the everyday life in Lasem. But it is intriguing to look at the production of tokwi, a cloth used by the Chinese to cover altars. The front part of each altar was covered with a tokwi cloth that had some motifs including dragons, fenghuang (mythological birds of East Asia that reign over all birds), the Eight Deities, kilin, and other motifs. As it shows, this practice is commonplace among the Chinese peranakans (local-born Chinese) not only in Lasem but also in several towns along the north coast of Java, such as Cirebon, Pekalongan, Semarang and Tuban.
Tokwi is a Hokkien word that refers to a 100×90 cm batik cloth used to cover altars. In the beginning, tokwi cloth was a product of the confluence of Taoist and Buddhist elements. It is theorized that tokwi was popularized during the reign of the Tang Dynasty (8th—9th centuries CE). Back then, a tokwi was made using hand-sewing techniques. The use of tokwi as an altar covering was retained across multiple dynasties, using yarns of various colors: red, green, yellow, blue, purple, black, white, and golden. Only a tokwi with intricate stitching that formed religious symbols would be considered a luxury and sought after by noble Chinese families and affluent merchants.
Over the years, people incorporated other embellishments into a tokwi, including decorative yarns, beads, mirrors, and metal, adding more luxury to tokwi. With the Chinese migrating to other parts of the world, tokwi then became known overseas. Tokwi has become the icon of Chinese peranakans in Southeast Asian countries, particularly in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. However, it is important to note that tokwi was not merely imported from China and ‘implanted’ in Indonesia. It was adapted and localized. The emergence of tokwi in Indonesia signifies the adaptation of Chinese culture to Nusantara (old term for Indonesia) batiks, which has become a trend since 19th century.
Tokwi batiks are used to cover altars on various occasions, such as birthday celebrations, wedding ceremonies, funerals, Chinese New Year, and daily prayers. Most tokwi batik motifs include Three Deities (Fu Lu Shou), The Eight Deities, dragons, fenghuang, lions, kilin, bats, butterflies, geometrical patterns, flowers, plants, and fruits. These patterns are usually sewn at the center of the cloth, but the smaller ones are put on the margins. The use of local elements in tokwi batiks marks the distinction between the tokwi batiks and tokwi cloth in China. The adaptation of tokwi to the local culture is reflected in the presence of various local motifs and colors, such as brown and brick red colors, marine animal patterns, and local animal and plant patterns which, together with the original Chinese motifs, create a new type of tokwi.
A piece of tokwi cloth contains several motifs. Usually, the main motif—which is put at the center of the cloth—depicts the Three Deities (san xing three stars) Fu Lu Shou, God of Fortune, God of Prosperity, or God of Long Life. Also, a dragon motif is used to represent the (Chinese) dynasty and symbolize majesty, power, alertness, and goodness. The fenghuang motif is used to signify beauty, peace and prosperity. A dragon and a fenghuang often come together to represent Yin and Yang, majesty, beauty, power, and happiness (when they used in a wedding ceremony). At times, the motif of the Eight Deities can be found in the upper part of tokwi; this is to illustrate that there is a world above us—the abode of gods and goddesses and various plants and animals.
Lasem’s tokwi batiks might lose its popularity to those tokwis imported from China, which are more sought after. Despite that, owners of some handwritten batik companies continue to produce their unique tokwi batiks. This goes to show that demand for local handwritten tokwi batiks is still there; people still use local tokwi batiks and these batiks are still produced to meet the demand. Tokwi batiks, once, started as a product of cultural adaptation, but today they have become a silent witness to the changing periods and the dynamics of multicultural life in the land where they were developed.