The Big Read « Slow Burning in Chinese Indonesia: The History of the Tionghoa
Ubud High examines the plight of the 'Tionghoa', or the Chinese-Indonesians - the most influential and most persecuted minority in Indonesia's history.
ANDREAS WAS SCARED, very scared. It's not every day that an electrical engineer is invited to shoot people.
May 1998, Indonesia. More anti-Chinese riots. The forty year-old engineer is standing behind a barricade. To his right, a petrol station. To his left, a row of gutted shops. Andreas has hidden his wife Neneng, 31, and their three-year-old daughter Vania in the centre of the country's capital, away from the worst rioting and rape in the north and west of the megacity. In front of the engineer are four handguns, laid out on a neighbour's kitchen table in the middle of the street. The police are nowhere to be seen.
A naval officer urges Andreas to take his pick of the weapons before the mob returns.
- "Today, Andreas," the off-duty officer and neighbour says to him, "you can kill. Shoot anybody who comes over the barricade. You have my permission."
Life has been a roller-coaster for the Chinese in Indonesia.
Migrating in their first major wave during the 15th century, Indonesians of ethnic Chinese descent - the Tionghoa - occupy one of the most precarious positions of Indonesian society. On the one hand, a minority of Chinese-Indonesian people have become fabulously rich through political favouritism, entrepreneurship and a knife-sharp business sense.
On the other hand, severe discrimination - and regular pogroms such as the vicious 1998 riots - have peppered the lives of Chinese-Indonesians for over 270 years. Andreas sighs.
- "Everything changed with the arrival of the Dutch."
Andreas and I are sipping tea outside the family's old teak house in Jakarta's satellite city of Tangerang. He's 55 now.
It's Cing ('ching') Bing, the Chinese lunar festival that celebrates the family dead. Andreas' wife Neneng, now 47, lights three incense sticks in the front parlour and places them in an urn containing her grandfather Tjoa Tiauw Siang's ashes.
- "Neneng's family did well out of the Dutch," says Andreas after a while. We sip more tea and watch the family busily prepare the arrival of their ancestors' spirits. "Her father, Engkong, liked them a lot. Engkong's father, Tjoa Tiauw Siang, and his grandfather Tjoa Tek Him worked as middlemen between the Dutch landowners and the locals who worked the plantations around here."
Before the vanguard of the Dutch East Indies Company - the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or 'VOC' - made landfall in 1597 in their quest for lucrative spices, all evidence points to a harmonious relationship between the southern, mostly Hokien Chinese immigrants and their Indonesian hosts.
In these pre-colonial times, Chinese culture fused easily with existing Indonesian arts and traditions. By the end of the 16th century, substantial Chinese populations had taken root on the islands of Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan. The budding port town of Jayakarta - renamed Batavia by the Dutch and now Indonesia's hectic capital, Jakarta - had become a thriving centre for Chinese trade that spanned East Asia. And unlike the Portuguese, British, French, Japanese and Dutch, the Chinese who arrived in Indonesia didn't come to conquer, but to make money.
As Pramoedya Ananta Toer - a Javanese novelist imprisoned for 14 years in 1960 for defending the rights of Chinese-Indonesians - states in his landmark book Hoakiau di Indonesia ('The Chinese in Indonesia'):
'The Chinese who came to Indonesia... were the poorest from their troubled country. They did not come to Indonesia for a picnic or some happy excursion: they came here to work hard.'
By the end of the 18th century, the voracious Dutch trading company - the VOC - had masterminded a three-tiered caste system that positioned themselves at the top of their self-imposed race pyramid. The Chinese traders, with their superior trading contacts spanning Southeast Asia, were placed in the middle just below the Indonesian nobility. At the bottom of the pile lay the inlander, or pribumi - the indigenous Indonesian people.
For a while all progressed well for the Dutch. Their VOC created vast wealth selling off spices at huge profit to a new European market. Meanwhile, the Chinese in Batavia had also become a powerful, influential elite. But despite the higher social position conferred on them by the Dutch - or perhaps because of it - tensions began to mount between the eastern and western traders.
In 1740, sparks flicked at the touchpaper.
VOC officials in Batavia became convinced they had uncovered evidence of a Chinese rebellion against them. Chinese residents in turn believed that the heavily outnumbered Dutch Company was planning to expel, and possibly kill, those Chinese who were surplus to Company requirements. In a pre-emptive move, the VOC's Governor General Valckenier ordered a house-to-house search of Batavia's Chinese quarters that quickly slid into all-out rape, arson and murder. Chinese prisoners were executed in their prison cells; the hospitalised were murdered in their beds. John Joseph Stockdale, a travelling British writer and adventurer of the time, later described the events:
'Suddenly and unexpectedly an instantaneous cry of murder and horror resounded through the town, and the most dismal scene of barbarity and rapine presented itself on all sides... Neither pregnant women nor sucking infants were spared by the relentless Dutch assassins: all the Chinese, without distinction, were put to the sword.'
Modern estimates put the Chinese dead from this three-day orgy of murder at about 10,000.
Immediately following the massacre of 1740, Dutch confidence in their profitable East Indies began to shake. Competition for spices was warming at home. Under the pretext of defending public order, the VOC promptly introduced draconian laws that limited Chinese travel, work and residence. Dutch administrators designated an area to the west of the capital - conveniently well within Dutch cannon range - as the city's official, segregated Chinese ghetto.
And even after the Dutch central government placed their errant East Indies Company under direct rule in 1799 - the VOC having been liquidated a year earlier due to massive corruption - Chinese persecution continued unabated.
One of Holland's first acts in its renamed 'Batavian Republic' - the Bataafsche Republiek - was to confiscate property belonging to any Chinese deemed to be politically suspect. Livelihoods were devastated as Dutch officials seized houses and shops without compensation. More ghettoes were established, widening the gap between the Chinese and an increasingly resentful, duped, indigenous population. The Chinese occupation of broker-and-nothing-else was enforced when an Agrarian Law passed in 1879 banned all Chinese-Indonesian people from becoming farmers unless they married an indigenous wife.
The Dutch, at all costs, had to retain their race pyramid.
As Pramoedya Toer says:
'The Chinese people's forced isolation from the broader society naturally created a sense of shared fate among them, created a new mentality, a group mentality, the mentality of a minority… which forced them to confront society as something external and alien. The Chinese in Indonesia are victims of history. That is all.'
The die had been cast.
- "I fought against the Japanese when they landed in 1942," says 87-year old Engkong, Neneng's father. "The first thing they did was to attack Chinese shops. Locals joined in. So we built barricades and fought them all. It was furious."
Engkong's wife Ma, 86, has joined us at the broad teak table. Talk of the dead has prompted darker memories.
- "I was most afraid just before the Japanese Army arrived in 1942," says Ma. "First they bombed us from their 'planes. Then the Dutch soldiers ordered us to dig holes in the sand and cover ourselves with cloth so we wouldn't get killed. Afterwards, Engkong and I were taken to the same refugee camp in Jakarta but we didn't meet there. I was there for a month, Engkong for two more. They told us we were there for our own safety."
- "Three days after the Japanese landed," continues Engkong, "the Dutch soldiers surrendered. They were taken to prison camps and murdered by the Japanese."
With the power vacuum that swallowed Holland's rapid capitulation in the East Indies, atrocities branched out across the islands. Dutch officials were murdered out of hand by vicious mobs. On the vast northern island of Kalimantan, the Imperial Japanese Army fanned nationalistic flames to incite large-scale massacres against the Dutch, the Chinese-Indonesians and anyone else seen to be pro-colonial.
The religious number was played: in the Muslim stronghold of East Java, murder and forced circumcision of the mainly Christian Chinese was carried out by extremist Muslims from the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) movement.
- "The Japanese stayed for three years," says Engkong. "They took whatever they wanted from the rice and coconut farms. If one of the workers stole something he was blinded or killed. After the war, things got worse. The Dutch government wanted their old colony back. So the British and the Japanese joined the Dutch to fight against the Indonesian people."
Ma cuts in:
- "That was when Engkong and I got married. We met for the first time on our wedding day in 1948. We'd never seen each other before. It was an arranged Manchu wedding."
- "There were a lot of foreigners in Jakarta then," says Engkong, "the Japanese, the British, the Dutch, the Portuguese - but it was the pribumi we were most afraid of. It was a very unstable time in 1948."
We watch Neneng and her younger sister Neni put the finishing touches to a table-full of food that we'll eat later in the day. Neni throws us a sidelong glance before she disappears back into the kitchen.
Andreas picks up the story.
- "Some Chinese-Indonesians stayed on the fence during the Indonesian Revolution. Others backed the Dutch. Some supported the struggle - my father included. But after the Dutch were kicked out in 1949 many pribumi accused us of being unpatriotic: we didn't do well out of Independence..."
The newly-formed Indonesian government quickly forced all Chinese-Indonesians who had bought Dutch or Japanese businesses after World War Two to hand them back to the state. In 1959, President Sukarno approved a law that forced all Chinese-Indonesians to close their businesses in the countryside and relocate to cities.
- "The new Indonesian regime was brutal towards us," continues Andreas. "Many Chinese-Indonesian business owners were murdered. A lot just packed up and left for good."
As many as 100,000 returned to China to risk life there rather than stay on.
The Sixties saw anti-Communism sweep across Southeast Asia. Dominoes threatened to fall as the Vietnam War unfolded. On the night of September 30th 1965, a group of Indonesian military officers attempted to mount a coup allegedly to protect the left-leaning President Sukarno against right-wing elements of his army. Six out of the country's seven top generals were brutally killed. In one of the greatest mysteries of modern Indonesian politics, an eighth man - the right-leaning Major-General Suharto - was miraculously spared. In apparent revenge, Suharto immediately seized control of the capital Jakarta, and launched vicious media propaganda that described the coup as the work of the Partai Komunis Indonesia - the PKI, or Communist Party of Indonesia.
- "I think I was most scared in my life in 1965," says Andreas, "when I was six. My parents had just bought a second house in Semarang (Central Java) but we hadn't moved in yet. I used to play there with my nanny - I used to enjoy riding my new bicycle around the empty living-room. One day there was lots of screaming outside. My nanny knew something was terribly wrong so she hid me in the darkest room for two days. After the rioting was over, two military officers came to bring us back home - my father was in the army, you see. I was too young to know what was happening but I could feel something truly awful was going on. It was so easy at that time for anybody to shout: 'This person is PKI!' and that person would disappear forever."
Wholesale murder flooded across the island nation.
- "It was too dangerous to talk," says Andreas.
I ask Andreas' father-in-law, Engkong, what happened after the huge anti-communist pogrom of 1965-1966. The old man gets up silently in his pyjamas and shuffles back to his bedroom.
His youngest Neni, 37, watches him carefully.
- "There're a lot of things my dad wants to talk about, but he can't."
The youth wing of the Muslim Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) in Kediri, East Java, lined up over 3,500 communists and cut their throats before dumping their bodies into rivers. Hundreds of Chinese-Indonesian people were murdered on the pretext of being supporters of Red China - their shops looted and their houses torched.
On Bali alone, 50,000 to 100,000 people were slaughtered between 1965 and 1966. The killing stopped like a shut-off tap just as quickly as it had begun.
Modern historians estimate the minimum total murdered across Indonesia between 1965 and 1966 at a conservative half a million. The Indonesian military claims that the purge accounted for a million dead. Over 1,500,000 suspected communists were imprisoned, and several million more terrorised into abandoning their politics for the next three decades. From 1965 to 1997, official anti-Chinese racism snowballed during President Suharto's 32-year steel grip. During the so-called Smiling General's dictatorship, Buddhists' and Confucians' right to pray openly and without fear was put on pause.
Neni's elder brother Isong, 60, a religious teacher in the local Confucian temple, describes the white-hot temperature of a proxy anti-Communist war smouldering behind the thinnest of muslin curtains:
- "We could go to the temple whenever we wanted, but" - Isong makes a telescope with his hand - "we were watched very, very closely."
The Chinese New Year celebration of Imlek was banned. Chinese-Indonesian schools were seized and closed. Public performances of lion and dragon dances, Chinese puppet shows and other traditional Chinese arts and rituals were forbidden. Chinese medicine was outlawed. Chinese-language newspapers were shut down except for one state-sponsored publication. Writing or speaking in Chinese was punishable by a fine or jail-time. All Chinese-Indonesians were identified by a special numerical code on their ID cards making them instantly identifiable to police or government officials. Harassment, blackmail and bribery followed.
The laws widened the already yawning gap between Indonesia's indigenous population and its ethnic Chinese while diverting attention from the massive corruption that saturated every level of the new Suharto government - including the police, the judiciary and the military. Age-old divide-and-rule, so useful for the Dutch, was proving to be a valuable smokescreen in the hands of the new Indonesian elite.
Says Isong of the purge:
- "The most painful thing was having to change my name. Our fathers' names define who we are. You see, my father Engkong was born Tjoa Hay Tjuen - we are the Tjoa family - but a government official came to our home in 1966 and renamed him Riyadi Tjahaya. I was born Tjoa Kim Hauw" - Kim Hauw means 'Gold Tiger' - "but they decided to call me Heriawan Tjahaya instead. I just go by my nickname of 'Isong' now. They pulled our names out of a hat. It was so hurtful."
Anti-Chinese racism flared for the next 32 years under Suharto's New Order. Localised anti-Chinese pogroms came and went. A 1974 visit by the Japanese Prime Minister inexplicably turned into all-out anarchy that burned much of North Jakarta's Chinatown to the ground.
Isong, the Confucian teacher, recalls the bigotry of the 1980s:
- "All Chinese were fair game then. They saw us as collaborators between a small number of highly-placed Chinese-Indonesian businessmen and the Suharto government. There was a lot of personal harassment. Grave-robbing became a new game. Thieves had discovered that we sometimes bury our dead with gold or jewellery. In our cemetery, some of the community had to build concrete vaults with iron gates and barred roofs to keep the looters out. It was shocking."
Andreas sums up the 32-year-old New Order.
- "You know, there weren't a lot of ways out for us then. We weren't allowed to hold public jobs. It was extremely difficult to join the military or the police. Politics and academia were out. So the only way was to make business. I joined Schneider Optics and then Danone's Aqua division. Most of my friends went into trading or set up on their own - others went and joined the banks and manufacturing sectors."
Bribery and collusion became standard practise for any Chinese-Indonesians trying to survive in this New Order dripping with cronyism, corruption and official racism. Indigenous Indonesian people saw this apparent collusion as further proof that the Chinese in Indonesia were corrupt, selfish, unpatriotic and filthy rich.
Oyong, Isong's younger brother, who works on a knife-edge to produce his incense sticks adds:
- "People think that the Chinese-Indonesians are hugely privileged, but actually we don't have a lot of choices in this country. Some say we own 30 percent of the economy. I don't own any of it. Most of us are just ordinary traders trying to get by. That's what the pribumi just don't get."
What the average Indonesian pribumi also couldn't fathom was the almost pornographic display of wealth occurring in cities such as Jakarta during the Nineties. With nearly 30 percent of Indonesia's population living in urban areas and 2.3 million young people flooding the job market every year, any downturn in the economy was going to spell trouble. When the Asian Financial Crisis boiled over from Thailand in 1997 and savaged the Indonesian rupiah, trouble once more turned to chaos. The economy collapsed; the backdrop for mayhem was ready.
Andreas describes the warm-up to the Jakarta blood-letting of 1998:
- "A lot of the big Chinese-Indonesian businessmen moved their money out of Indonesia because the rupiah was crumbling. So all of the Chinese-Indonesians were blamed for causing the crisis - by the government, the people, everyone.
"Things became very dangerous when the four Trisakti University students were shot dead during the anti-government rally. Then Jakarta went up in flames. Malls were burned down with people inside them - there were uniformed men standing on the ground floors giving looters a countdown before they set the buildings on fire. There were gangs of men hunting Chinese victims on the streets. They chased them down with sickles and machetes and clubs. They went around looting and burning all the Chinese shops and homes. More than a hundred Chinese-Indonesian women were raped, and a lot committed suicide after. It was all organised, like the PKI murders. It was all pre-planned to create instability. The idea was that the government would step in after a few days, call off the murder, direct attention away from the collapsed economy and the corruption, and look great in front of everybody - after giving the people some time to vent their fury. But the plan went wrong and the people threw out Pak Suharto instead."
I ask Neneng's younger sister Neni, then 21, where she was during the riots.
- "When all the shooting happened? Alone and scared. I was guarding the house on my own. Mum and dad had gone to stay in dad's younger brother's house in Tanjung Burung."
- "Neni locked herself inside the family home," says her husband Dadang. "She wouldn't leave. I was outside guarding her."
Neni shivers across the table:
- "So scary."
I ask Neni how long she spent inside the house.
- "One week." She shivers again. "Terrifying. Quiet."
Andreas says after a pause:
- "The rioters weren't human, you know. They were like animals."
- "They were like cannibals," Neneng whispers.
Her younger sister Neni adds:
- "The mob looted all of the Chinese shops down to their spoons. Frying pans, ladles, everything. They even raided the pig farms and stole the pigs. After that, prices went up for everything if you were Chinese. Instead of going to the shop and paying for something like usual, you had to ask what the right price was that day."
In the months that followed the hectic, hot-blooded Jakarta riots, thousands of Chinese-Indonesians fled to more welcoming countries like Australia or Singapore. Some returned. Many have stayed away.
How long did it take the family to get over the trauma? I ask.
- "Personally, I didn't dare drive into Jakarta for three months," says Neneng. "We just watched the news on the TV to try and understand what was going on. Andreas stayed glued to his CB radio. We took Vania nowhere. Months later, every time we stopped at the traffic lights where the mob had gathered, my heart would pound out of my chest."
Did it occur to the family to leave Indonesia?
Isong, the Confucian teacher, answers unequivocally:
- "We were born here and we grew up here. We have to continue to survive here. It is not possible to go to Australia or China because we have no relatives, no nothing there. We don't know who our ancestors are there. We are Indonesian. We have mixed already."
- "I, too, am Indonesian. But my feelings and traditions are still Chinese."
After the implosion of 1998, Indonesia was beginning to look like a failed state. Few outside commentators believed that the geographically and politically fractured island nation could ever regenerate. As the old dictator Suharto finally stepped down under severe public pressure, the country saw a slew of presidents come and go.
However, as each president came and went - first B.J. Habibi, then Abdurrahman Wahid ('Gus Dur') and Megawati Soekarnoputri - shifts on the secular front became surprisingly apparent. All former laws discriminating against the Chinese-Indonesians were lifted. The Chinese New Year celebration of Imlek was pronounced a national holiday. Mandarin-language schools sprang up to cater to a new generation eager to exploit China's emerging role in the region. Chinese newspapers and magazines rolled off the country's presses. And after an absence of more than 30 years, the dragons of the Chinese barongsai began once again to dance for the masses.
Some say another pogrom can't happen. After all, the world's media was on hand to beam Indonesia's last anti-Chinese massacre live across the globe.
Outside the Tjoas' home, the dusty family Rottweiler dozes fitfully next to the cool teak paneling. The incense sticks in Tjoa Tiauw Siang's ashes have long gone out as the last call to prayer rises from the darkened mosque on the other side of the evening street. The family has retired: the living-room has returned to silence.
In Neneng's bedroom, on her dressing-table in between the eye-shadow and the perfume lies a samurai sword.
Slow burning in Chinese-Indonesia.
Have your say
Feel free to post your comments on 'Slow Burning in Chinese Indonesia'. Were you in Jakarta or elsewhere in Indonesia at the time of the '98 riots? Pin your witness statement here and tell us what happened...
Jenny Jusuf: Jan 25, 2014
I remember that day when our vice-principal entered the classroom. We were doing math. It was the last day of our final exam. He walked straight ahead, his face slightly pale. "Put down your pens. I need you, each one of you, to step ahead and put your papers here," he pointed the teacher's desk while we fell silent, "then go to the basketball field. You must NOT make any noise--not even a word--and stay there. I repeat, DO NOT make any noise. The school would not be responsible should anything happened to you."
I remember entering the teacher's office to call my mom. My principal was there. She stormed out as soon as she saw us. She was crying. "They are getting there. I hope her daughter would be safe." I can't remember who said that, because it was when my vice-principal shrieked in horror. "What do you mean I can't go home?! I can't stay here! I DON'T WANT TO DIE!"
I remember thinking, "Is this some kind of a very bad joke?" I remember seeing thick smoke on my way home.
"We are going to escape." That's what my mom said. I wanted to help her pack but she wouldn't let me. "Where?" "I don't know." "When?" "When things get worse." I stopped asking questions.
I remember standing in my grandmother's kitchen with my mother, father, little sister, cousins and my aunt, watching a group of people bringing lots of stuff they sacked from a convenience store. Magic jars, spring beds, TVs, fridges, canned food, rice. I remember seeing little kids carrying boxes of instant noodles. My older cousin tried to mock them by yelling through the window and my aunt snapped at him, "Are you trying to get us killed?! Shut the f*** up!"
I remember the great relief on my grandmother's face when my uncle arrived. "That was very close," he shivered. "I had to cover my face and yell, "KILL THE CHINESE! KILL THE CHINESE!" just to get through. I was very lucky they didn't stop me, they thought I was one of them. The perks of having dark skin." I remember listening in terror when another uncle called. He was trapped inside his workshop when people started throwing stones, threatening to burn down the place. They didn't, for some reason. My other uncle, not so lucky. His clothing store was burned down into ashes.
I remember the rape stories. Lots, lots of rape stories. Some of them took place just around the corner. It was two weeks later when my mom finally let my sister and I get outside. We went for some ice cream. They stared at us. Some threw racist jokes. Some mocked us. Someone yelled, "You Chinese b*tches, I will rape you alive!"
I remember trying to be brave.