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The tragedy of May 1998

Glodok: A photo essay


Monika Swasti Winarnita 

In the wake of the riots in May 1998 and the revelation that more than one hundred rapes – mostly of Chinese Indonesian women – took place, sensationalised representations of this sexual violence emerged in some parts of Indonesian society.  Pornographic novels and tabloid stories surfaced, depicting Chinese Indonesian women as exoticised, lascivious Orientals somehow deserving of the hate-filled violence unleashed upon them. Images were also circulated on the internet of a beaten naked woman’s body, upon which the words ‘Cina’ or ‘Chink’ were inscribed. Whether these were ‘real’ photos or manipulated is unknown and in some ways irrelevant. What was alarming was the way in which these women’s bodies were used as markers of cultural, ethnic, and racial difference.

The day after the May 1998 riots in Jakarta, photographic artist Paul Kadarisman took photos in Glodok, Jakarta’s Chinatown. Glodok was one of the worst hit areas of the city in the destruction that took place on 13 and 14 May. Its malls and markets were ransacked and severely damaged and the large Glodok Plaza mall set alight. In a pattern repeated elsewhere in Jakarta and other cities, urban poor looters from nearby slums perished in the fire. Kadarisman has previously exhibited works of photography that critically engage with social concerns but these Glodok images have not been exhibited.

I was invited by the photographer to write a commentary to accompany the photos – as it was put to me, a personal note about the event. As an Indonesian with a mother of Chinese (peranakan) descent and a Javanese father, the riots had a very deep and profound affect on me. Like the photographer, I write this commentary with the awareness that it is only a limited representation of the atrocities that took place. Both textually and visually, this is only a partial record of what took place.

These photos are not intended to further the spectacle of violence. Through framing, choice of angle and composition, Paul Kadarisman conveys the atmosphere of fright and horror during and immediately after the May riots. However, he uses symbols and metaphors in his images without deliberately representing the ‘realities’.

As the photographer intended, the photographs should also speak for themselves.

Photos: Glodok, May 1998

Under the New Order, legislation outlawing the use of Chinese language and forms of cultural expression, including Chinese names, sought to encourage their assimilation as Indonesians. At the same time, the government acted to highlight their Chineseness in other ways, and as a group they remained outsiders conveniently marked by ethnic, religious and class differences.

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