Posted by: mel | January 30, 2012

What’s in a Chinese name?

The Chinese New Year is here and Jakartans of all ethnic backgrounds, not just Chinese, celebrate the event openly, in marked contrast to when the holiday was largely a closed-door private affair 15 years ago. This and the articles on page 22 look at what has changed, based on reports prepared by Amahl S. Azwar, Anggi M. Lubis, Corry Elyda, Dhenok Pratiwi, Fikri Z. Muhammadi, Hans Nicholas Jong, Muhammad Rizqi A., Nadya Natahadibrata, Pras Gustanto, Satria Sambijantoro,  Tassia Sipahutar and Yuliasri Perdani.

Oey Tjin Eng has always used his Chinese name and never really cared much about how society treats him. The 68-year-old caretaker of the Boen Tek Bio (Virtue Fort) Temple in Benteng, Tangerang, says he has never felt the need to change his name to something less Chinese to feel accepted by society.

The fact that he has never held any formal job helps.

“I am unemployed,” says Oey, who has tried to run a foodstuff business unsuccessfully. “I’m no merchant, that’s for sure. So, what could they possibly expect to extort from me?”
My name is Oey: Oey Tjin Eng, caretaker of the Boen Tek Bio Temple, never felt the need to change his Chinese name to an “Indonesian-sounding name” throughout the Soeharto years. JP/Tassia SipahutarMy name is Oey: Oey Tjin Eng, caretaker of the Boen Tek Bio Temple, never felt the need to change his Chinese name to an “Indonesian-sounding name” throughout the Soeharto years. JP/Tassia Sipahutar

For more than three decades under the Soeharto regime, a Chinese name was an open invitation to all kinds of discrimination, especially when dealing with the government.

But since Oey lives in a predominantly Chinese neighborhood, he rarely has to deal with the government, except for obtaining and periodically renewing his ID card.

“Most Ciben children use Chinese names,” he says, slipping into the slang describing Cina Benteng (Benteng Chinese). “At least they use them at home.”

Anita Novianti, a Ciben born during the Soeharto era, is one example. The 25-year-old, who works for a private firm, is referred to by her Chinese name, Tjiu Hau Lien, when she is at home. Lien means lotus and Hau means nice, she says.

Her name and appearance are probably about the only Chinese attributes in her daily identity. Her family speaks Indonesian at home, so she never learned to speak Chinese. However, she says she knows quite a lot about Chinese culture and traditions through her work as a volunteer at a temple.

Under Soeharto, Chinese Indonesians were barred from expressing their cultural identity, including the use of Chinese names, speaking the language and celebrating the Lunar New Year. This policy was intended to promote assimilation of the Chinese minority with the rest of the Indonesian population as part of the nation-building process. Chinese Indonesians, however, resented being singled out to forsake their cultural roots.

They were discouraged, though not completely banned, from using their Chinese names. This motivated most Chinese to embrace “Indonesian-sounding names” and Christian/biblical names, although some did not.

The sport of badminton offers a look at how this policy played out among the Chinese community. Rudy Hartono, one of the many world champions Indonesia has produced, most of them Chinese Indonesians, dropped his original name. He won the All-England championship eight times, all under his adopted Indonesian name. Other Chinese-Indonesian badminton champions, like Susi Susanti, Alan Budikusuma, Haryanto Arbi and Christian Hadinata, did the same. However, Liem Swie King, who earned a number of world titles in the 1980s, used his Chinese name comfortably.
Green Beauty: Miss Indonesia 2005 Imelda Fransisca hosts the Xieclan gathering for Imlek at her father’s home in Bogor. Imelda uses herChinese name, Xie Qing Mei, which means green beauty, at home thoughrarely in public. JP/Special

Green Beauty: Miss Indonesia 2005 Imelda Fransisca hosts the Xieclan gathering for Imlek at her father’s home in Bogor. Imelda uses herChinese name, Xie Qing Mei, which means green beauty, at home thoughrarely in public. JP/Special

Another case in point is Xie Qing Mei, who was crowned Miss Indonesia in 2005 under her Indonesian name, Imelda Fransisca. She says that she rarely uses her Chinese name, which means “green beauty”. Everyone in the Xie clan has a Chinese name, and one of the syllables designates a color.

“I didn’t choose my Chinese cultural heritage. However, because I was born and raised in Indonesia, everything I do is for this country. I am 100 percent Indonesian,” she says, recalling that some people had questioned her “Indonesian-ness” when she was crowned Miss Indonesia.

Harry Tjan Silalahi, chair of the board of trustees for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), says he took on his Batak name after the clan accepted him as one of them through long friendship. It was not a name that was forced on him.

“The use of an Indonesian name facilitates your interaction with the people,” Harry says. “There was never any ban against the use of Chinese names, in the same way that Javanese were never barred from using Arabic names.”

The practice of changing names among Chinese immigrants dates back to Dutch colonial times, he says. Upper-class Chinese adopted Dutch names, but many in the lower to middle classes adopted names common in their locality.

Many people have tried to retain the essence of their Chinese names by concealing it in their new Indonesian names. Tycoon Soedono Salim comes from the Liem clan, and his heir successor Anthony Salim continues this tradition. Mari Pangestu, the minister for tourism and creative economy, comes from the Pang clan.

Herdiana, 29, an editor for a woman’s magazine, says she feels comfortable with her name and the fact that she never had a Chinese name. “Even my mom didn’t have a Chinese name,” she says.

Melani Budianta, an English literature professor at the University of Indonesia, says she never resented the name change policy even though she felt compelled to drop her Chinese name, Tan Tjiok Sien, in 1966.

“Our family converted to Christianity, and we have embraced the Indonesian culture,” Melani says. “The real problem is not so much about the use of a Chinese name as it is about society’s stereotyping and the prejudice against Chinese.”

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