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Chinese Coin and Its History in Bali  

by on Thursday, 2 October 2008One Comment | 5,546 views

Here is an interesting excerpt from a paper, which is entitled Revaluing Uang Kepeng as a Medium of Local Exchange in Bali, written by Stephen DeMeulenaere, an Asia Coordinator of Strohalm Foundation for Integrated Economics (Holland).


Chinese money, known generally in Indonesia as Uang Kepeng or Pis Bolong, has circulated as a medium of exchange in Bali for at least the past 1,100 years, and only ceased to be used for local purchases in the early 1970s. Up until that time, a Balinese person could use Uang Kepeng in many ways, from buying meat and vegetables in the market to snacks in front of the school, to watching movies with friends at an outdoor theatre: basically anything involving the exchange of basic needs. Bali, up until the 1970s and in large part today, despite a massive tourism industry, lives a subsistence economy lifestyle.


Throughout history, Uang Kepeng was extremely important to the Balinese people, touching on all aspects of their lives, cultural, religious, social, political and economic. Today, the valuation of Uang Kepeng is only related to cultural uses in the arts and religion, while the social, political and economic aspects have withered away. Meanwhile, the memory of the currency as an ancient medium of local exchange remains very much alive.


The cultural uses of Uang Kepeng have depleted the supply of the coins, resulting in the production of poor quality coins that do not meet cultural and religious standards. Efforts are being made by the Bali Heritage Foundation to increase the supply of Uang Kepeng and producing it in an appropriate way according to cultural and religious guidelines, with the goal of producing a new series of official Uang Kepeng for cultural use.


In the meantime the series of disasters that have struck Bali before and after the terrorist bombing in 2002 have dealt a serious blow to the local economy. As jobs in tourism and export decline, more and more people are returning to the agricultural economy to survive. However, the supply of money at the local level is insufficient to meet local demand, and therefore people are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.


It is not only in Bali that people often think that the value of money is somehow embedded in the materials used to make it. They look at the size, weight, shape and design, the composition of the materials used, without considering the deeper aspects of valuation, the aspects that relate to history, culture and society, and through these aspects to how we govern ourselves, or meet our daily needs using money. While the cultural valuation of a traditional currency is important, to only value a currency in this way is to make it a historical artifact, an object to be displayed in museums, and not as the medium that ties these elements of a culture together and contribute to its sustained vitality. In essence, the real value of the currency is lost when it is no longer circulating.


If we see that the valuation of money goes beyond its physical attributes to include other elements, would it not be a good idea to consider the re-issuance of Uang Kepeng as a medium of local exchange? Further, rather than seeking external support for projects to improve local development and self-reliance, wouldn’t it be better to suggest systems of self-reliance that the Balinese people are already very familiar with, but only quite recently have fallen from use?


The former use of Uang Kepeng as a medium of exchange in Bali has played a central role in the vitality of Balinese culture, religion, society, governance and economy, and therefore should be re-issued as a complementary medium of exchange to meet present concerns about cultural degradation and demands for an increased supply of Uang Kepeng that is valuable to the people and supports the elements of Balinese culture.


The History of Uang Kepeng

According to the ancient history books of Bali, Uang Kepeng has circulated as a primary medium of exchange on the island of Bali for at least the past 1,100 years. A wide variety of these coins, made of various metals and with different texts, share the similarity of having a hole in the center, similar to a washer for a bolt, which allows them to be strung together to become larger units of currency.
Until the early 1900s, Uang Kepeng was the dominant currency in Bali and considered legal tender by the local people. When the Dutch finally “conquered” Bali in the early 1900s, Dutch guilders flowed into the island and could be converted into Uang Kepeng for use in the marketplace, as the Balinese had no use for guilders.
Although the earliest records of the use of Uang Kepeng as a medium of exchange in Bali dates from 900 AD, the existence of Chinese Tang Dynasty coins (618-907AD), and the production of Brass gongs and circulation of Vietnamese coins, brought by the Dong Son culture of Vietnam to Bali from the 4th century AD suggests a much earlier date of introduction of the currency. Certainly, the Chinese coin was a medium of exchange throughout most of east Asia from at least 1,000 years ago. However, Uang Kepeng was never produced in Bali to be used as a medium of exchange. It was only when cultural use demands increased that the coins were produced on the island.


In 1921, De Kat Angelino wrote an article in the Dutch journal Koloniale Studien on Uang Kepeng in which he wondered why the Balinese preferred Uang Kepeng as a medium of exchange to Dutch, British or Mexican money, which they often melted into silver jewelry. In Miguel Covarrubias’ book, “La Isla de Bali” (The Island of Bali) written in the 1930s and published after the war, he writes “the Balinese do not count in the present Dutch monetary system of guilders and cents; among the largest, the ringgit, big silver coins (worth two and a half guilders) that are normally divided into 1,200 Kepeng. The Balinese cannot visualize a foreigner using kepengs and when I bought peanuts or a banana at a food stand and they did not have Dutch pennies for change, the women vendors were amused to see me pocket a heavy string of kepengs.”

After Indonesian independence in 1947, and even after the passing of monetary laws in 1951 that made the Rupiah the sole currency of Indonesia, Uang Kepeng continued to circulate as a complementary convertible medium for the exchanging of local goods and services to meet local needs until the early 1970s.


Thus the circulation of Uang Kepeng as a means of exchange was discontinued only 30 years ago, and thus is in the memory of the majority of the Balinese. Most Balinese over 35 years of age recall their parents giving them allowances in the form of Uang Kepeng, with which they could buy lunch and snacks at school or pay for entertainment. Older adults remember their Banjar, the ancient democratic traditional government, imposing fines payable in Uang Kepeng for failure to abide by village rules or attend meetings on time. Others, particularly women, remember using Uang Kepeng to buy nearly all of their families’ daily needs in the marketplace. But regardless of age or gender, every Balinese knows Uang Kepeng as a medium of Hindu religious ceremony.

In recent interviews with local Balinese people, they reminisced about the days when they could buy what they needed without needing the national currency of Indonesia, the Rupiah. It also reminds them of the fact that despite rapid economic development on the island, the majority of people in Bali still live the self-sufficient agricultural way of life today. A way of life that is in many ways little different than it was 60 years ago, when the Canadian composer Colin McPhee, who resided in the town of Ubud in the 1930s, wrote in his memoirs of life in Bali:


“Each night I gave the koki a guilder, at that time about forty cents, which she converted into Chinese coins when she went to the market at dawn. She bought a pair of chickens or a beautiful fish, vegetables, fruit, eggs, rice, beancurd, a handful of dried fish for herself and the boy, and had something left over to treat herself to cigarettes and betel.”

Although Uang Kepeng originated in China, it was adopted fully by the Balinese people to become their money, a representation of the ties that bind their culture, religion, society, government and economy together, and gives the Balinese people a sense of deep connection with their history.

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