Beyond Lion Dances and Red Lanterns at Fancy Malls

I spent my formative years in a low-key neighborhood near where Central, West and South Jakarta meets. My public school’s classmates were the local Betawi kids, some of us ‘newcomers’, and a lone Chinese boy named Icong.

Icong came from one of the neighborhood’s only two Chinese families. The differences between him and Aan, the other Chinese boy living in a duplex across our rented house, was that Icong’s family lived behind their mom-and-pop warung and Aan went to a Catholic school Mom wished she could’ve afforded to send me to.

They say no theories imprint better understanding than experiences. I learned early in life that not all Chinese descendants were Mercedes-riding, smug bourgeoisie. Aan’s bike was fancier than mine but Icong didn’t even own one. Aan celebrated Christmas while Icong brought kue keranjang (glutinous cakes) to school during Lunar New Year. Both boys laughed when hearing jokes, bled when falling down during games. Both were different to one another, yet both were just like me.

I’ve long lost contact with them but they’re why I never boxed apart my Chinese and Melayu friends. My first college internship was in property sector where Chinese Indonesians were primary clients, while my first full-time job was in capital market where Chinese Indonesians were primary colleagues—whom I braved the 1997-1998 crumbling capital markets and terrifying riots with.

And that’s one sad fact marring so many upheavals across the archipelago since modern Chinese immigrants started arriving a few hundred years ago, that they often bore the much-untold brunt (Remy Sylado’s 1999 novel Cabaukan and FX Harsono’s series of art installations are interesting reference points to start). The Dutch colonialists first initiated segregation by assigning different class systems and eligible working sectors between indigenous Malays and migrated Chinese.

The two ethics huddled together in the pivotal years leading to 1945 independence, and Soekarno did his best to assimilate us further by inviting Chinese Indonesians into his cabinets, but later Soeharto used the convoluted 1965-66 conflicts to reverse things for the next 32 years. The Chinese Indonesians are omitted or opaquely portrayed on history textbooks. Banned from military and government, they’re pushed into entrepreneurship they’ve probably been gifted to begin with, and as economy soars so do they in multiple and, hence, seemingly more separated than the Malays and inviting all kinds of misunderstanding and jealousy, becoming bull’s eye target for collective anger when things go awry. Quite ironically as history has long suggested that the ancestors of so-called indigenous Malays arrived from the Southern China thousands of years ago anyway. We’re all Chinese descendants—our forebears just landed on largely spaced, different periods.

Post Reformasi 1998 the Chinese descendants have gotten overdue governmental nods for the inclusion of Lunar New Year into official calendar and Konghucu into official faith. Sadly, community-based initiatives are still far and few in between, hence a noteworthy praise is reserved for Benteng Heritage Museum (BHM) in Tangerang, a short drive from Jakarta.

Founded a couple of years ago on a relatively well-preserved 200-year-old Chinese shophouse filled with antique memorabilia of bygone Chinese diaspora living, BHM set out to tell the forgotten heritage of Benteng, a riverbank delta bustling since the days it marked the border between Banten and Jayakarta monarchies. The delta where Chinese immigrants have assimilated with indigenous Malays for generations, traced clearly on the simple faces peddling cakes, knickknacks and cut flowers in the muddy Tangerang old market where BHM is tucked into—a far cry from rich Chinese tycoons often in mind. For a few flashback moments, I had Icong’s family on my mind.

My friends and I were lucky to meet founder Udaya Halim when we recently visited BHM and a 300-year-old Chinese temple nearby. A son of modest local Chinese who now runs a respectable English language school, Udaya generously decided to take a time out of his busy schedule to share a well-researched presentation and give a tour to peruse his private collection of vintage, historically-disavowed materials associated to Chinese diaspora beyond Benteng. What was supposed to be a 1-hour visit ended up being a half-day blast filled with history lessons, tale swaps, massive picture hunting and, at a point, an impromptu dancing in peals of laughter when Udaya put on a 1940s jazz record onto his 1904 gramophone.

Indonesian history is full with gaping holes, half of which are possibly engineered, and our education system, even after 1998 Reformasi, hasn’t really done a good job in catching up. The age-old tradition of verbally passing down history isn’t only bias, it’s now waning— one example being that my Betawi cousins and friends proudly assume that Moslem Arabic is the only heritage they carry, oblivious to how close their mother’s bridal gown resembling Chinese brides or how similar gambang kromong sounds to Portuguese folksongs. Another example is, frankly, the rising number of Chinese diaspora children raised in ultra-homogenous privilege before being shipped off overseas—so disenfranchised from their own unique heritage of Chinese Indonesian, let alone Indonesian, that even the country name is uttered shortly as “Indo”, whatever that means. Beyond festive lion dances and red décor at malls, we must revisit our past, research the history gaps with open mind, before we can close the complicated ethnic gaps in the future.

To all my Chinese Indonesian friends—Hokkien, Khek, and Tiochu alike– Gong Xi Fa Cai.

As published:

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