Posted by: mel | December 2, 2009

The Erased Time For Indonesia’s Ethnic Chinese

Jakarta Globe | Karim Raslan | 2 December 2009

For Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese, any review of their long history in the republic is fraught with painful memories: fear, death, corruption, sequestration and discrimination.

While times have changed, thanks largely to the efforts of former President Abdurrahman Wahid, many (and especially the community’s artists) are still haunted by what they experienced over the decades.

And as many ethnic Chinese now reconnect with their cultural roots (something that was not permissible within living memory), becoming fluent in Mandarin again, for example, other questions emerge. As China becomes ever more dynamic and powerful will issues of trust and loyalty rise to the fore? Will Indonesia be able to break the cyclical nature of its history? Are the country’s ethnic Chinese really free or are they doomed to re-experience the suspicion and violence of the past?

The artist FX Harsono’s latest show, “The Erased Time,” at Jakarta’s National Gallery, explores these themes.

Pak Harsono, who is ethnic Chinese and was born in the East Java town of Blitar, delved into his most intimate memories to create the show.

In doing so he has also conjured up a lost world — the surprising cosmopolitanism of his parents’ era, the 1920s and ’30s — a time when linguistic and cultural influences were diverse and multilayered with rich influxes of Javanese, Dutch, Chinese and Indonesian.

At the same time, Pak Harsono has probed a now half-forgotten outrage in Indonesia’s history — the slaughter of countless ethnic Chinese in the uncertain years immediately after the Japanese defeat in World War II.

In a strange and highly personal twist of fate, his father, a photographer, recorded the exhumation of the bodies some years later in 1951. These images were rediscovered by Pak Harsono years later when he was clearing out his family home. Indeed, these photos are at the core of the exhibition, a somber reminder of chaos and disorder juxtaposed with the reassuring images of friends and family, weddings and family gatherings.

Pak Harsono’s images are understandably stark and haunting. They are also redolent of the darkroom and the paraphernalia of a photographer’s studio — his late father’s world.

And there is one image in particular that seems to encapsulate this process of cultural loss and eventual rediscovery. Pak Harsono has conveyed the duality in the form of a performance that is duly recorded with a video and an installation in a darkened room of the gallery.

There’s a chair and desk set in the middle of the space, bathed in a solitary pool of light. Loose sheaths of paper with Chinese calligraphy — it might be someone’s name — are neatly laid out on the floor.

At the same time there’s a video playing. It shows a man, Pak Harsono, sitting at the same table. He lifts his brush and writes his name on a sheet of white paper: Ong Hong Boen. He repeats the action. Slowly, the floor around the desk is filled with sheets of paper, similarly inscribed.

In writing his original name, not once but a hundred times, Pak Harsono is reclaiming his identity and his past. Having never used Mandarin or Hokkien, his name is all he has that links him with his Chinese-ness.

For a generation of citizens in their 50s like Pak Harsono, those who completed a few years of schooling in Mandarin, there’s a vestigial memory of the Chinese characters locked in the back of their minds.

In the mid-1960s, when Chinese schools across Indonesia were closed after President Sukarno’s fall, it seemed for many decades as if the language would be lost forever. And yet with reformasi, the discriminatory policies against ethnic Chinese were removed, returning the language once again to a people who for more than 30 years had been unable to use it.

And yet, as one community rediscovers its past and its culture, gently nudging its way into a deeper understanding of the complexity of its roots, the future may well become more difficult to manage.

Ethnic Chinese Indonesians have always struggled between the competing imperatives of better integrating into society and maintaining their identity. This has unfortunately been regarded as a zero-sum equation for some in power, and has, as mentioned, been the cause of much heartbreak.

With a dynamic China to the north the focus of global attention, I cannot help but ponder whether the community will be able to survive in the middle — loyal to both Indonesia and its Chinese culture.

Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia.

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