Posted by: mel | November 3, 2009

Charles Coppel: The accidental provocateur

Jakarta Post | Aimee Dawis ,  Contributor ,  Jakarta   |  People | 3 November 2009

Charles Coppel never intended to become one of the world’s leading experts on Chinese Indonesians. At first, he had his heart set on becoming a diplomat and learning about different cultures and languages.


JP/Wendra Ajistyatama

An avid student of Greek, Italian and French, the Australian dutifully enrolled in law following the advice of his father’s friend who had helped establish the Australian diplomatic corps.

But Coppel was dismayed to learn in his second year at university that the Australian government discouraged its diplomats from speaking the languages of the countries they would be posted to, to prevent them from getting “too close” to their host countries.

So Coppel decided against joining the foreign services and practiced law for five years instead.

While working as a part-time barrister, he also pursued his growing interest in the Indonesian language and culture as a postgraduate student of Political Science at Monash University.

It was Mary Somers Heidhues’ doctoral dissertation,  Peranakan Chinese Politics in Indonesia that spurred his interest in Chinese Indonesians.

Then, under the tutelage of noted Indonesianists Herbert Feith and Jamie A.C. Mackie, he became intrigued with the Chinese Indonesians, a minority group who “have been constructed as ‘foreign’, no matter how many centuries they have settled in the archipelago”.

Coppel has since then looked at the role Chinese Indonesians – and their elites – played in the country as Indonesians rather than extensions of China, culminating in his seminal Indonesian Chinese in Crisis thesis, when Indonesia entered a tumultuous change of power from the Sukarno to Soeharto era.

“The 1960s was a period of extreme caution and worry for a marginalized group such as the Chinese community in Indonesia,” Mona Lohanda, a noted historian at the Indonesian National Archives, said of Coppel’s doctoral research. 

“You can imagine the immense difficulties he must have encountered in looking for written sources and people who were willing to talk about their experiences.”

The prolific Coppel took seven years to finish his dissertation.

“I was relieved to finally finish it in 1975,” Coppel recalled. 

Published in 1983, Coppel’s dissertation became one of the most widely read title on ethnic Chinese politics in Indonesia, and was translated into Indonesian 10 years later.

Coppel eventually grew tired of Chinese-Indonesian politics and started teaching the Indonesian Studies program at the University of Melbourne.

“I was ready to take a new tack, and no longer felt tied to the discipline of political science.”

He managed to get his hands on the manuscript of an unpublished history of the famous Kian Gwan (Oei Tiong Ham Concern) company, written by the Semarang journalist Liem Thian Joe.

Coppel ended up presenting Liem’s manuscript to an Australian audience in 1976.

While gaining greater historical depth, the subject matter of Coppel’s research has also broadened and diversified over time to the study of Confucian religion, Malay language and literature of the peranakan Chinese of Java.

Coppel insists that although his own work “stresses the historical embeddedness of the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia”, much of what he has done has been “curiosity-driven empirical research” and “a sense of obligation to make people know of the various events that happened”, especially during the May 1998 riots.

It was this “sense of obligation” that fuelled his drive to write on Anti-Chinese Violence in Indonesia After Suharto, which he presented at a 2002 conference titled “Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia in an Era of Globalization”.

Despite the atrocities that marked the beginning of the Reformasi era in 1998, Coppel insists that “there have been many important socio-cultural advances with respect to the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia since 1998”, citing the scrapping of various discriminatory regulations against the ethnic Chinese and the hundreds of Chinese social, political and economic organizations that have proliferated in the past decade.

One of these organizations, the Nabil Foundation, honored Coppel on Oct. 22 this year for his contributions to the nation-building process of Indonesia.

Along with Coppel, prolific writer Myra Sidharta and prominent sociologist Mely G. Tan also received the 2009 Nabil award.

When Coppel began his journey studying Chinese Indonesians, he believed his endeavor “might be thought of as a marginal enterprise”.

But almost five decades after embarking on his fieldwork in Indonesia, he is still “fascinated” with the Chinese-Indonesian community. 

All his works are provocative and inspire new ways of thinking about the Chinese in Indonesia as a part of Indonesia, especially in their relations with the indigenous 

“If we ignore the extent of interaction between Chinese and indigenous Indonesians in the past, except when it has involved hostility and violence, we are not merely denying the Chinese their rightful place as a part of Indonesian history.

“We are, in effect, continuing the colonial policy of attempting to segregate them from the Indonesians, and, in the process, lessening our understanding of Indonesian history as a whole.”


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