Mar 20, 2018 Last Updated 7:10 AM, Mar 17, 2018

Remembering today

Published: Jul 26, 2007

Ien Ang

I was twelve when my parents decided to relocate their family of seven from Indonesia to the Netherlands. It was 1966. As soon as the plane touched ground at Amsterdam airport, my father said, ‘From now on I don’t want you to speak bahasa Indonesia anymore. You must learn to speak Dutch as quickly as possible.’

I stepped into a new world: cold, prosperous, Western. Indonesia, the place we left behind, gradually disappeared from my dreams and worries, although never completely: my childhood years spent in the heat and dust of Surabaya have always remained somewhere in the back of my mind. However, coming from a family of Chinese (Cina) descent, my relationship to Indonesia is an ambivalent one. While I have fond memories of my early life in Indonesia, I also remember painful incidents when other children shouted ‘Cina, Cina, go home to your own country!’.

I remember vividly when the failed coup d’état of 1965 happened. As popular anger and frustration burst out on the streets, at least half a million people were killed in riots and mass attacks on communists and people who were otherwise targeted as culprits. Many of the people targeted were Chinese. As a young girl, I was unaware of the seriousness of the situation. Although I have always known that ‘we Chinese’ were discriminated against, my parents now tell me that at the time everyone in their circles lived in fear. Stories abounded of rivers red with blood and full of floating dead bodies. It was during this period that my parents decided finally to get out.

The past and the present

This was more than 35 years ago. So obviously I cannot speak for the ‘real’ Indonesia now: my relationship to it is extremely tenuous, based more on memory than on present experience. I have no sense of what it was like to live through the so-called ‘New Order’ installed by Sukarno’s successor, Suharto.

My disconnection from my Indonesian past was highlighted at the time of the economic crisis in Indonesia and the mass riots leading eventually to the resignation of Suharto on 21 May 1998. As reports emerged of thousands of frightened ethnic Chinese fleeing the country, I was reminded of my parents’ casual remark about rivers red with blood. I felt confused and detached. I didn’t know how to relate to the place that I used to call home.

In retrospect, I know that my own childhood dedication to the nation was doomed from the start: modern Indonesian nationalism has never successfully accommodated the presence of the Chinese minority within the incredibly diverse nation. The Suharto regime demanded that the ethnic Chinese assimilate into mainstream Indonesian society through name-changing policies and bans on the public display of Chinese cultural expression such as the use of Chinese language and Chinese New Year celebrations among other things.

A complex combination

If I had stayed, my Chineseness would have made it very difficult for me to feel comfortable in considering Indonesia ‘home’. Yet I cannot say that ‘China’ is my homeland either: I was born in Indonesia, not China. Like many other peranakan Indonesian Chinese, our family does not speak, read or write any Chinese; we no longer have connections with China, the ancestral motherland, and have very little knowledge of Chinese cultural traditions, rituals and practices. In other words, from a ‘pure’ Chinese point of view, most Chinese Indonesians are just not Chinese enough. The dilemma for Chinese Indonesians is clear: how can we make a claim on our Indonesian – as well as Chinese – history and heritage, or connection to that place, even if only in memory?

As I read through the many international, mostly Western newspaper reports on the 1998 crisis in Indonesia, I read the same thing over and over again: ‘The six million Chinese make up only three per cent of the total population of 200 million in Indonesia, but they account for 70 per cent of the country’s wealth.’ What is particularly disturbing about the constant reiteration of this ‘fact’ is that its simplicity will only reinforce the way in which ‘the Chinese’ are locked into an antagonistic relationship with the pribumi (indigenous), and with ‘Indonesia’ more generally.

Personally, I have always known this truth for a fact: my family experienced it first hand when we were living in Indonesia and I have heard the statement repeated countless times since I left. Chinese Indonesian common sense would have it that anti-Chinese sentiment amongst the majority Indonesians is to be blamed on ‘jealousy’, whereas many non-Chinese Indonesians routinely accuse the Chinese of ‘arrogance’ and ‘exclusiveness’. The depth of feeling that keeps the two categories apart cannot be overestimated: it has pervaded daily life and colours every social interaction and experience.

Yenni Kwok, a 25-year old journalist with Asiaweek born and bred in Jakarta, confirms that she feels ‘as Indonesian as any indigenous pribumi’, but that she is also ethnically Chinese. ‘Some people think I can’t be both. Not completely, anyway,’ she says. But she is acutely aware of the social separation between most Chinese and pribumi in daily life and the mutual distrust that governs relations between them. Writing in the wake of the 1998 crisis, she observes:

For all my ‘Indonesian-ness, I was brought up almost in a different world from the pribumi. There were pribumi living on my street, but I can’t honestly say I knew much about them. (…) For most Chinese, the only pribumi they ever get to know is their household maid, their pembantu.Once they reach adulthood, there is almost no further social contact. Even in professional life, the two groups rarely mingle.

Kwok’s description resonates with my own experiences of more than 30 years ago and I encountered this again during a short return visit I made to Indonesia in 1996. During this trip I was made to feel uncomfortable immediately when one of the first things the taxi driver did was complain about how the Chinese conspired to keep ‘us’, the real Indonesians, poor. A few days later in Jakarta, I was appalled by the strict social division in the rather nice restaurant where I was having lunch: all the servants were Javanese pribumi, while almost all the guests, well-dressed and at ease with their middle-class life-style, were visibly Chinese. What disturbed me most was the obliviousness of all involved to this ethnic inequality.

Of course I know all too well that it is impossible to homogenize all Chinese-Indonesians. Indeed, as Leo Suryadinata, a Singapore-based expert on the Chinese in Southeast Asia, has stressed, ‘some of Indonesia’s wealthiest citizens are Chinese, but most Chinese are not rich.’ The experiences I have described above — Kwok’s and my own — cannot really be considered representative, though they are certainly not unique.

What is the situation today?

Since 1998, Indonesia has been going through another period of political turmoil and rapid change. Some restrictive and discriminatory laws against the Chinese have been lifted, but not all of them. I have been told that there is open expression of Chinese culture in various forms. Whatever the case, people of Chinese descent will always be a part of Indonesian society. Perhaps what we are seeing now is a gradual acceptance of this fact, though I’m sure the tensions will never completely disappear. Will there be a time when Chinese Indonesians will no longer feel alienated from Indonesian society? Will there be a time when people like us will not leave Indonesia in search of a more secure home?

Recently, my younger brother Tiong, an artist, returned to the country of his birth and spent an intense time in Yogyakarta. He was only four when he left Indonesia, so perhaps he is less burdened by old memories, and more open to what contemporary Indonesia is really like. Many artists he met in Yogya were Chinese, he said, but they have become completely Indonesianised. ‘It’s no longer an issue: there is even a renaissance of Chinese Indonesian literature which was repressed for a long time’, he was told by a poet from Sumatra during a party at Agus Suwage’s house, another artist of Chinese descent. Perhaps Chineseness is slowly becoming just another prefix for many Chinese Indonesians today, an accidental legacy of history.

But when Tiong traveled to our city of birth — Surabaya — he found that things have not changed that much after all. When he asked our cousin-in-law whether he felt Chinese, he said ‘no no, I feel Indonesian.’ But he also said, ‘we Chinese have a task inýIndonesia, that’s why we are staying. We have to work together with the Indonesians.’ Overall, according to Tiong, the relationship between ‘Chinese’ and ‘non-Chinese’ Indonesians is pleasant but distant; a totally taken for granted situation but one in which the traces of history have not completely disappeared.

Ien Ang ( is Professor of Cultural Studies in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Western Sydney. She is the author of On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia and the West, London: Routledge, 2002.

Inside Indonesia 78: Apr - Jun 2004

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