Chinese Indonesians—The Reality

Chinese-Indonesians are ethnic Chinese people who have settled in Indonesia as a result of centuries of migration.

In Indonesia, the Chinese-Indonesian experience has been troubled. On the one hand, they have made it their home, and it has been a country of plenty, with many becoming wealthy, primarily because of their business acumen. On the other hand, there have been occasional periods of violence against them, the most recent of which occurred during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

Recommended read: The Noah Principle highlights Indonesia in a time of financial, political and social crisis that led to a brief but brutal period of anti-Chinese violence. Through the experience of its carefully crafted characters, it also examines how absolute power distorts reality and desensitizes people to the suffering of others.

Currently, around nine million Chinese Indonesians live throughout the archipelago, primarily in major metropolitan areas. Greater Jakarta is home to approximately three million Chinese Indonesians. However, despite being a tiny minority of Indonesia’s overall ethnic makeup (less than 4% of the total), their enormous economic strength and concentration in the capital city meanss the Chinese-Indonesian “footprint” is ubiquitous in many sectors.

The origins, history, and conditions of Chinese-Indonesians’ immigration to Indonesia, as well as the depth of their ties to China, vary widely. Many people can trace their ancestry to Fujian, Guangdong, and Hainan in southern China—while many consider Indonesia their home.

There were generally three waves of Chinese immigrants to Southeast Asia. Trade from the time of Zheng He’s journey in the 15th century was the driving force behind the first wave. The second wave peaked around the Opium Wars, and the third wave began in the first half of the 20th century.

Moreover, Peranakan Chinese are Chinese-Indonesians whose ancestors arrived in the first and second waves and who, due to marriage and assimilation, have become creolized or huan-na (in Hokkien). Similarly, Cina Totok refers to the more recent Chinese immigrants and those who are still culturally Chinese.

The vast majority of Chinese immigrants to Indonesia were merchants or laborers. On the other hand, Chinese farmers could only be found in West Kalimantan due to colonial laws that made it difficult for them to get land. The cities of Jakarta, Surabaya, Medan, Pekanbaru, Semarang, Pontianak, Makassar, Palembang, and Bandung have the highest populations of Chinese-Indonesians.

Despite their status as Indonesians, many Chinese Indonesians are still not seen as “real” Chinese or Indonesians. They attempt to reinforce their “roots” through daily practices. For instance, participating in Chinese holidays or festivals, learning the Chinese language, or practicing Chinese customs. And how can we forget the Chinese New Year, which is the most widely observed Chinese holiday when it comes to Chinese Indonesians? They have similar customs to Chinese people, such as the exchange of red envelopes called (hóngbao), wearing red outfits, and not sweeping the floors.

Chinese Indonesians celebrate Indonesian national holidays too, such as; Independence Day, Kartini Day (a day honoring Kartini, one of Indonesia’s national heroes who fought for women’s right to education), and Heroes’ Day because they are legally Indonesian citizens. In addition, Chinese Indonesians are fully accustomed to speaking Bahasa Indonesia, the nation’s official language. This also applies to Indonesian nationals who were born in China and who use translanguaging and code-switching to switch between speaking Chinese and Bahasa Indonesia. It is however, crucial to emphasize that the Chinese and Indonesian people are both parts of their respective backgrounds and culture. And rather than thinking of themselves as belonging to just one of them or even neither, they still strive to emphasize who they are, who they belong to, and what their future is as Chinese Indonesians citizens of the Republic.            

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