The Spinners of Boyanese Bhavacakra

by Danang Nizar

Long outside the radar of anthropology, there was an ethnic group in a secluded island called Bawean, located in the middle of Java Sea, Indonesia, which has a distinctive transnational migration culture. Bawean people (or Boyanese) have a longstanding tradition of migrating to the Malay Peninsula. As early as 1845, the ethnic Boyanese were registered in the national census of Singapore, and a century later, in 1957, their population had grown into a significant number: 22,167 residents—almost double the total population of Saltdean, East Sussex, in 2011.

Only beginning in the 1960s have scholars such as Abdullah Malim Baginda and Jason Vredenbregt conducted extensive research on this ethnic group. Although Vredenbregt (1969: 109) predicted that the migration culture of Boyanese “may well be doomed to disappear in a few more years, as a result both of the rapid social change Indonesia is at present undergoing, and of the political independence of South-East Asian countries,” in fact this custom still exists, and even thrives, in 21st century. Fortunately, I had the privilege to witness this firsthand when I spent one year working as a primary school teacher in Bawean Island, which is also lauded as the Island of Women—referring to the preponderance of women, due to men’s massive outmigration.

Grandmothers spending a typical afternoon—delousing one’s head while looking after the grandson (Photo: Danang Nizar)

The importance of transnational migration to Boyanese culture affects all facets of life on the island. In Bawean, a simple topic such as ‘family’ can turn into a delicate matter. One time at school, the third grade (or Primary 4 in the UK) students were asked to draw their own family tree and all of a sudden the situation became chaotic: Kid A forgot her father’s name, Kid B did not know her mother’s name, Kid C and Kid D were caught in a heated debate about why they have the same grandfather, and Kid C seemed not very happy to be related to Kid D. But here lies the real twist: turns out Kid D was just copying Kid C’s work to fill her grandfather’s name because she was raised by a distant relative while her divorced parents were in Malaysia, and because her relative had recently passed away she lived with the relative’s niece—thus Kid D had no idea who her grandfather was. Confusing? It is indeed a lot to take in, especially for a 9-year-old child.

Yet, in the midst of all this confusion, there was one part of the family tree which students never left blank: grandmother. All students can fill their grandmother’s (or in Boyanese called ‘mbuk) name with certainty and—most importantly—pride. Many children in the school were raised by their grandmother since infancy, because their parents work in Malaysia or Singapore; a typical pattern that Mitchell (1987) described as a transitional phase within a spectrum of ‘old migrant’ and ‘permanent urbanization’. Although in the case of Boyanese, or at least in my school neighbourhood, nearly all of the migrant workers from Malaysia or Singapore eventually return to the island for early retirement. However, instead of a leisurely retirement, a full-time job will be waiting for them back home: being a ‘parent’ to their grandchildren. Even though they might not be able to always help their grandchildren’s mathematics or science homework, the one thing that they can do is to ensure that their grandchildren are not skipping classes.

Therefore, Bawean is not just an Island of Women, because those who stay are no ordinary women. They are strong individuals, who, despite their advanced age, still work as farm labourers in the rice fields while awaiting remittances from overseas, for the sake of their grandchildren’s better life attainment. However, describing the concept of ‘better’ has never been easy. Most likely, several years from now, the children from overseas will return home for retirement and the grandchildren will then work overseas, to replace their parents as the family’s breadwinners. In exchange, when they bear children, they will send them to be raised by the ‘mbuk in Bawean. Again, and again, and again—and the cycle goes on. As if Boyanese society has their own version of Bhavacakra; a Wheel of Life or Wheel of Becoming. The phenomena of circular migration which resulted in kinship care is a common practice in Bawean, and has been maintained for centuries. Maybe it is the ‘mbuk who has successfully debunked the Vredenbregt’s prediction of the disappearance of this age-old tradition; since they are the ones who keep spinning the Boyanese Bhavacakra back home.

Danang Nizar is currently enrolled in the MA in the Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation at the University of Sussex, and previously worked in various NGOs and UN agencies in Indonesia.




Baginda, A. (1959). The Boyanese of Singapore. Singapore. (2018). Interactive Tour of the Buddhist Wheel of Life (flash movie). [Online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Oct. 2018].

Mitchell, J. (1987). Cities, Society and Social Perception: A Central African Perspective. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp.82-83.

National Library Board, S. (n.d.). The Baweanese (Boyanese) | Infopedia. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Oct. 2018].

Pillai, P. (2015). Yearning to Belong: Malaysia’s Indian Muslims, Chitties, Portuguese Eurasians, Peranakan Chinese and Baweanese. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, pp.152-202.

Vredenbregt, J. (1964). Bawean migrations. Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia, 120(1), pp.109-139.

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