Posted by: mel | March 29, 2009

Chinese Identity in Post-Suharto Indonesia

Published: November 04, 2008 in Knowledge@SMU 

chinese-identity1Hoon Chang Yau, Asian Studies professor at Singapore Management University, was born in Malaysia, raised in Brunei and educated in Australia. His new book, Chinese Identity on Post-Suharto Indonesia: Culture, Politics and Media, was launched recently as part of the Sussex Library of Asian Studies. It is an in-depth analysis and account of the evolution of the Chinese community in Indonesia, especially in the post-Suharto period, and their efforts to define a unique and complex Indonesia Chinese identity. 

After the fall of Suharto, Indonesia experienced the ‘Reformasi’ period in which democratisation and the increased visibility of the Chinese were two key developments. Long-suppressed politically and culturally, the Chinese community re-emerged, attempting to rediscover its history, culture and language although with some inter-generational differences in interpretation. As Hoon’s book describes in detail, this journey — “the Chinese Indonesian experience of hybridity and cross-cultural fertilisations that transgress, but do not dissolve, ethnic boundaries” — is inextricably intertwined with the Indonesian environment they find themselves in.

Knowledge@SMU spoke to Hoon about the historical evolution of Indonesian Chinese identity, the post-Suharto resurgence, and the outlook for the future. 

Knowledge@SMU: The first chapter of your book describes how the Chinese in Indonesia developed their sense of self-identity partly in response to stereotypes imposed on them. Could you describe some key early influences?

Hoon: If you were to look at the history of the Chinese in Indonesia, the initial period was very similar to that of the Chinese who came to other parts of Southeast Asia. There were different waves of migration from China. The earlier waves from the 15th century were mainly driven by trade. At that time, the Chinese were very much assimilated or acculturated into the local community. Chinese males took on local wives and they kept a very distinct ‘peranakan’ [mixed Indonesian and foreign ancestry] identity.

The ethnic Chinese later developed a hybrid Chinese-Malay language. They even established their own newspapers, one of which was called Sin Po, one of the largest in Indonesia. It was written in the Chinese-Malay language where the characters were Malay but a lot of Hokkien [Chinese dialect] words were used. That language later developed into the Betawi [Jakartan] version of Indonesian.

In the early 20th century, there was a new wave of migration. Labourers from China started to come in recruited by the Dutch. They did not see the peranakan Indonesians as Chinese enough, and the peranakans did not identify with them. But, interestingly, the Dutch managed to group them together and forced them to live together in ethnic quarters. The peranakans were ordered to wear pigtails so that they could be easily identified by the Dutch. The Dutch also came up with policies that made it difficult for them to mingle with the local community. They had to apply for visas even to travel as close as 5km away.

When the Ching Dynasty was overthrown in China, the Chinese started to feel strong nationalistic stirrings in them. Peranakans who had lost their `Chineseness’ suddenly felt proud to be Chinese. In any case, the Dutch had always identified them as Chinese. So they started to get interested in the Chinese identity, sent their kids to Chinese schools, and learnt about Confucianism. So their identity changed once again.

During that time, there were Chinese Indonesians who were Dutch-educated, Indonesian-educated and Chinese-educated. But when the Japanese came, they too grouped them together as Chinese.

Knowledge@SMU: What were some of the key differences between the colonial and post-colonial periods in the treatment of the Chinese community?

Hoon: When Indonesia became independent, the government viewed the Chinese as internal outsiders. There were a lot of stereotypes that were formed of the Chinese. The state claimed that the Chinese had not played a role in the independence movement. Indeed, many Chinese were rather Dutch-oriented and had a lot of business ties with the Dutch people.

After independence, citizenship and national identity became important. The Chinese identity had to undergo another change. For instance, in a single family you could have a member who was stateless, a Chinese national, a Taiwanese citizen or Indonesian. However, during Suharto’s time, they were blanketed under the assimilation programme. That was when the Chinese identity was diminished.

After the fall of Suharto, all the ethnic groups that were oppressed by Suharto wanted to be acknowledged and to claim their identity. The Chinese community has the money and resources to do that. There was also the older generation who had retired and were well off. They were Chinese-educated in the 60s before the Chinese schools were closed. So they have come back to the scene to define what ‘Chineseness’ was and should be.

They sponsor big programmes and events which are covered by national television. Big fun-raising concerts are attended by people from rich Chinese conglomerates, some dressed in [Indonesian] batik, and the women in [Chinese] cheongsam. Suddenly, there is displayed different sorts of ‘Chineseness’, some fabricated and exaggerated. I think it’s just a rite of passage. Anyone who has been oppressed for so long would want the opportunity to express and engage in this kind of nostalgia.  

While the younger generation may be proud of this display because it is a part of their original heritage, they may find it too foreign for them. My question is, how much do the Chinese identify with these ornaments? Does this expression resonate with the way the younger Chinese are, and who they want to be?

Knowledge@SMU: After the fall of Suharto, how did the Indonesian Chinese respond in terms of their own continued existence?

Hoon: One of the first things they did was to form political parties because they realised that they needed political power to survive in this nation. And with political activism, they also demonstrated that they were and are not disloyal and unpatriotic to Indonesia. But only a few Chinese are doing that. Most are still afraid to go into politics as they remember how the left-wing communists were persecuted during the Suharto’s time.

A couple of Chinese political parties have been set up but they died down a few years later. They figured that ethnic-based politics don’t really work for the Chinese as they are just a minority in Indonesia. Besides, the ethnic Chinese would rather put their bets on non-Islamic, secular national parties.

Knowledge@SMU: The Chinese are often seen as ‘the other’. How can they change this perception?

Hoon: The Chinese are visible not just because of their skin colour. It is a class issue as well. Not all Chinese are wealthy but many of the wealthy people in Indonesia are Chinese. So the class issue evolves into a bigger problem which is compounded by race and religion. The main problem is that we are so used to seeing ‘the other’ as an enemy. But if we try to reconceptualise it so that one can still be oneself, they can still be ‘the other’, and we can still be friends, then multiculturalism will work. So, it’s okay to be different. You don’t have to be like me, and we can still work towards a common goal.

Knowledge@SMU: How do you think the Chinese identity will take shape in the coming decade?

Hoon: I think the younger people will rediscover their heritage and new aspects of their Chinese identity from popular culture and media, coming out of East Asia — China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The middle-aged group will be proud to be able to express their ‘Chineseness’. However, there are still many who are happy with how they’ve identified themselves as Javanese or Sudanese. For the older generation, especially the Chinese-educated ones, they will continue to play the role of cultural gatekeepers to help the younger generation become more Chinese. Problems may arise, however, if they start to make it compulsory for all young Chinese to do certain things to qualify as Chinese. Personally, I’m an advocate for natural hybridisation to take place.

Knowledge@SMU: The theme of essentialism is central to your book. Why is it so important?

Hoon: Essentialism basically means that you try to define a certain category or group (e.g. ethnicity, race, gender) in a certain way, and assume that they are unchanging, eternal and fixed. You are actually imposing an essential character on that object or subject which you think is inborn and can’t be changed. For example, if I were to say that a woman’s role and space is at home — that the domestic sphere is where she should be –, then I’m ‘essentialising’ women. Or if I were to say that for ethnic Chinese to be Chinese, they need to speak Chinese and meet certain other requirements of ‘Chineseness’, I’m `essentialising’ the community.

What my book is really saying is that identity should not be ‘essentialised’ because it is such a fluid thing. Now that I’m in Singapore I find that, unconsciously or subconsciously, I’m changing and adapting. Instead of saying that I’m diluting my identity, I’m actually taking on more and different identities. In my book, I challenge the notion of essentialism, especially of the older generation who tend to define ‘Chineseness’ in a certain manner.

Knowledge@SMU: How has your research changed your own perceptions about the Chinese in Indonesia?

Hoon: I became interested in the topic with a strong set of assumptions about what qualifies one to be Chinese. Although I was trying to approach it from a very objective point of view, I was thinking inside that the Indonesian Chinese were not authentic enough to be Chinese; they did not meet the basic criteria — for example, not speaking the language, or knowing anything about the Chinese New Year. Coming out of the research process, I find myself more liberal in my definition of ‘Chineseness’. I’ve stopped defining it because I realise that there are different ways of being Chinese. People can still call themselves Chinese and not behave like me. The point at which a person’s ‘Chineseness’ begins and ends is too fluid to pinpoint.


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