300 YEARS LATER . . .; Chinese search for home in Indonesia's Sumatra

The town is out of a book by Joseph Conrad. A sluggish brown river curls its way out to the blue sea. Old boats, some in use, others discarded, lean on the mud banks.

As evening approaches, old men crouch on their haunches. Youngsters in crisp white shirts buzz past on their Japanese motorbikes. Muslims stroll to the mosque, hands behind their backs.

The men wear fresh sarongs and black, carefully brushed songkoks on their heads. The women are in delicate lace.

From the Chinese cemetery on the hill above the town, placed there for its good fung shui -- its position relative to the wind and water -- the mountains behind look like mythical beasts with cloaks of mist thrown over them. The message from the megaphones of the mosques -- ''Allahu akbar,'' or ''God is most great,'' -- echoes through the streets.

On that first evening in Padang, we walked past the Chinese restaurants, all noise and gusto as flames leaped from sizzling woks, and past more subdued Muslim eating houses where people hunched over plates of rice. Then we met Mr. S.

He was a tall stick of a man. Freckles dotted his hands and face, wisps of hair were drawn sternly back on his head. His trousers seemed too big, his thin arms too long.

He was a peranakan, one of a group of Chinese whose ancestors settled in Malaysia and Indonesia more than two centuries ago.

They adopted local customs and dress. Some even became Muslims. The group also gave birth to one of the world's greatest but least-known cuisines, a delicate mix of Chinese and Malay.

Mr. S.'s ancestors may have come to Indonesia as early as 1700 in a series of southern migrations of Chinese who, driven out of their homeland by warfare and poverty, sought a new home in Southeast Asia.

At first they settled in Penang on the west coast of Malaysia. Later they made the short hop across to Medan in northern Sumatra, now one of the most Chinese of Indonesia's cities. Earlier this century they moved south, halfway down the western coast of Sumatra to Padang.

Mr. S.'s family originally came from Fujian Province in southern China. His grandfather was a trader.

S. does not speak the language of his ancestors. ''Even my father spoke only a little Chinese,'' he said. ''We spoke either Indonesian at home or Dutch, the language of our colonial masters.''

Indeed, S. and his wife still speak Dutch at home. Both were educated in Dutch schools here.

We sit in his house, a relic of Indonesia's past. A big veranda opens into a room decorated in a hodgepodge of styles: Chinese wedding chests; gold-framed, 10-foot-high Viennese mirrors stretching up to the chandeliers; pictures of Dutch 18th century pastoral scenes on the walls. And, at home in this incongruous mix, an exercise bike.

At the back of the house is a garden full of orchids. A small outbuilding houses the ancestral altar where stern portraits of S.'s ancestors hang. Everywhere there is dust and decay.

We ask him about the future, about the Chinese belief of building for the future, for the children and their children in turn.

''You know,'' he says, ''I wonder if for us in this country there is a future.''

His wife brings cakes and tea in delicate Dutch cups.

''For generations, my (ancestors) worked hard. We gained respect. Other Chinese left to make their fortunes in Jakarta, but we stayed on and became more involved with the community.

''Yet, though my family has been here for so long, we are still alien. Anytime there is trouble, we are no longer Indonesians, suddenly we are Chinese.

''Yet we have no Chinese language, and in 1966, when anti-Chinese feelings were high, the local Chinese clan associations decided to burn all the old records of our families rather than have them fall into the wrong hands. So our history has gone. . . .

''I hold an Indonesian passport, I call myself Indonesian, but I am a man . . . '' -- he asks his wife in Dutch for the English words -- ''a man in the middle.''

Some of those Chinese who left to go to Jakarta have set themselves apart, he says, bringing local resentment on themselves. But he never thought of leaving Sumatra.

''Java is too crowded, not enough air to breathe.''

Indeed, it is hard to imagine why anyone would choose to leave for Java, where more than half of Indonesia's 150 million people live.

In Padang, the very space seems to make people more relaxed. Lavishly decorated horse-drawn carriages ferry people about the town. Just a short journey up into the hills the air is crisp and cool.

This is Minangkabau country -- a fiercely Muslim but also matrilineal society. The houses have strange, horn-shaped roofs, part of a tribal tradition in which the weak but cunning Sumatran bull is said always to have triumphed over its stronger Javanese adversary.

Though some traditions have died out, many women still hold the keys to rice barns and title over land. And when a woman chooses a husband, he moves into the woman's family home.

Numbering only about 5 million people, the Minangkabau are known for their resourcefulness. They exercise an influence over Indonesian life out of all proportion to their numbers.

The center of their culture is Bukittinggi, a beautiful town set between two volcanoes. Nearby are lakes that rival the best Switzerland has to offer, and hotels not even one-tenth of the price.

Tribespeople in colorful woolens mingle with long-haired Western travelers -- remnants of the '60s -- who stop to catch their breath in the cool before continuing their journeys to London or Sydney.

This is still territory largely unknown to the outside world, a place where people leave rather than arrive.

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