Indonesian Icons: The get-together tradition of ‘arisan’

From a decades-long tradition to movie inspiration - arisan is a social rite, financial help, a fun get-together and more.

Radhiyya Indra

Radhiyya Indra

The Jakarta Post


Despite stigma: (Illustration) Some say arisan is only for socialites, but in reality, the practice has helped a lot of people’s financial situations. (Unsplash/Courtesy of Shubhesh Aggarwal) (Unsplash/Shubhesh Aggarwal)

February 9, 2022

JAKARTA – From a decades-long tradition to movie inspiration – arisan is a social rite, financial help, a fun get-together and more. As today’s youth experience the rising trend in blockchains, stocks and shares, investments are now a hot topic that goes beyond the usual investor crowd. Young Indonesians are dipping their toes in the cryptocurrency world. But among the many trendy online mutual funds, a decades-old financial culture is still very much alive thanks to its enjoyable practice. “I’ve held arisan with my friends since 1982,” 72-year-old Tien from Parongpong, West Bandung Regency, said to The Jakarta Post on Jan. 15. Arisan, the name for a rotating savings and credit association (which also exists in various countries from Asia to Africa), is a social gathering where people chip in money and circulate it through a lottery in a trusting circle of friends or relatives. The practice has long existed in Indonesian communities from villages to urban areas. It was even immortalized in popular culture through the award-winning 2003 film Arisan! by renowned filmmakers Nia Dinata and Joko Anwar. Some people might be familiar with its stereotypes – only socialite or middle-aged moms join arisan – and its stigmas – arisan is a place to gossip – but in reality, arisan has helped a lot of people’s financial situations. Family bonds and financial help Tien first became acquainted with her arisan friends at the Banjarsari elementary school in Jl. Merdeka, Bandung, where all their children went. This was back in 1982. “As time went on, we thought, let’s just have an arisan so our bond is not lost,” she said. Like many would reason, it always feels better to hold an arisan instead of “useless gatherings.” Now, almost half a century later, the tradition continues. Tien and her friends often bring their grandchildren to the arisan to meet each others’ families.

Bonding: (Illustration) For big families, arisan helps them get to know each other better. (Unsplash/Courtesy of Tyler Nix) (Unsplash/Tyler Nix)

“The family bond feels good, even my six-year-old grandson called my friend’s husband the other day to say thank you for giving him a candy,” Tien said. The longevity of their friendship through the arisan is something that Tien cherishes. “[It has been going] since our children were in kindergarten, when we were still young, before we even covered our heads with the hijab,” she laughed. “We’ve become sisters.” Over the years, the arisan money they’ve collected has made many of Tien and her arisan friends’ dreams come true – from buying expensive goods to going abroad as a group. But the “lottery” is never a rigid system. Whenever an arisan member finds themselves in difficult times, the group directs the money to help them. “It’s already [second nature], no need to discuss it anymore,” Tien said about the terms of allocating arisan money for emergencies. Three of the members’ husbands have died over the years, and each has been helped by the arisan fund. “When my daughter was hospitalized once, [the arisan friends] even accompanied me to Jakarta.” Moreover, the money that they have agreed to pay monthly never becomes a chokehold on members who are struggling financially. “If I couldn’t afford to pay the monthly saving, I would pay half the price and another member would also pay half so we can combine the sum. There’s no forcing between us,” she said.

Decades-old friendship: Tien (center, below) and her arisan friends pictured in front of a restaurant where they held their monthly gathering in 2018. (Courtesy of Tien) (Personal Collection/Courtesy of Tien)

Political power
With the many names it has in different countries (tandas in Latin America, kameti in Pakistan, hui in Chinese communities in East and Southeast Asia), arisan in its essence is a general saving system that many countries have. “But it bloomed in Indonesia out of a long agrarian tradition, with its early concept of gotong-royong (mutual cooperation).” historian Andi Achdian explained to the Post on Jan. 19. Andi, whose research in East Java delves into the long history of arisan, said the early agrarian form of arisan was villagers putting their harvest together in one barn. The modern version that we know now emerged when they moved to the Dutch East Indies cities around the end of the 19th century. “The villagers were trying to survive, some of them became factory workers, housemaids, etc. […], so they worked together as a community to develop a mechanism [to help them] if, for example, a death or other matters that required a lot of money occurred,” he said. “So there was a kind of safety net for the poor in the urban environment at the time.” And it turns out, arisan played quite a big role in shaping the people as a political force. “The form of arisan was used as the basis for organizing people during the anticolonial movement. In terms of organizing the community, some of the activists [back then] made arisan a kind of tradition that was developed into bigger things in political organizations,” he explained. “At that time, collective awareness was driven by workers, farmers and the poor in urban areas. And the most effective way to do that was through arisan.”

Big meal: (Illustration) Arisan with friends or relatives gives everyone a chance to enjoy a satisfying meal together. (Unsplash/Courtesy of Stefan Vladimirov) (Unsplash/Courtesy of Stefan Vladimirov)

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Spanning generations
These days, arisan has had a new breath of life, perhaps for better or worse. Online arisan whose members are total strangers is currently popping up on the internet. But incidents in which one person embezzled the money have bloomed from this practice, one example being a 32-year-old woman from West Kotawaringin Regency, Kalimantan who embezzled around 250 million rupiah (US$17,471) just last Sunday (23/12). “[With online arisan], the principle of building a community, a collective through social gathering is, perhaps, not represented. So, in terms of its culture, it’s a [bit different],” Andi said. However sketchy its online form might look, it shows that arisan lives through many generations and reiterations. “My family’s arisan members consist of my cousins as I happen to have eight siblings. […] Men and women all join the pool, so not only mothers are involved,” 54-year-old Indah Kurniati from Tangerang said. This big arisan family allows her and her cousins’ children to know each other and play together. And in the end, now Indah’s 26-year-old daughter even has her own arisan circle with her same-aged friends. “I formed an arisan group with my college friends from the campus promotion team,” Mariyatul “Tia” Qibtiyah said to the Post on Jan. 17. A graduate of Al-Azhar Indonesia University in South Jakarta, Tia and her friends of around 30 people decided in 2018 to keep meeting up through arisan. “Since we are busy, we often do it online because we’re worried that if we met once a month, only a few of us would be able to come,” she said. “So instead of [the common monthly get-together], we have a party every now and then,” she added. Asked why she and her friends prefer arisan over other profit-oriented investments, Tia said she was fond of its tight-knit relationship. “Arisan produces a different kind of euphoria, basically,” she concluded. “It’s not old or outdated as many might think.”

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