Chinese New Year in Indonesia Is Political

Chinese New Year in Indonesia Is Political
Photo Credit: AP/ TPG Images

What you need to know

After Suharto’s New Order collapsed, Chinese New Year became a national holiday. It could only be celebrated at home before.

Whenever I go abroad, some people ask me why I — and most other Chinese-Indonesians — do not speak Chinese at all. Some were even quite informed about Indonesia, asking if I have ever felt angry or resentful because I belong to a minority group that is often the victim of the Indonesian government’s scapegoating.

Initially, I considered these questions innocuous. Many are simply curious about the life of Chinese people living overseas.

After all, it is hard to be offended when I could barely articulate my own identity. When I was little, I was never told stories of our family. I knew nothing more than a few facts: my grandparents, born in southern China, migrated to Indonesia some time before they married and started a family here.

I was born in Indonesia and attended an assimilation school. As a child, I wondered why we learned Chinese language secretly at a church, why the Chinese New Year was not celebrated as a national holiday, and why there were no Chinese cultural shows at all. But these questions neither bothered me nor made me question my identity.

When I was 11 years old, the May 1998 Riots, an outburst of civil unrest that targeted Chinese-owned stores and homes, shocked me and my family to the core. Though Bandung, where we lived at the time, was not affected by the riots, it was the first time I asked myself: “What is wrong with Chinese-Indonesians?” My parents told me not to speak of politics carelessly.

After Suharto’s New Order collapsed, the hidden history of Chinese immigration slowly gained wider recognition. Chinese New Year became a national holiday. Previously, we could only celebrate it after we came home from school or work.

The attacks in 1998 inspired me to start reading about the history of Chinese-Indonesians. Through reading, I took the understanding of my roots to the next level. I was surprised to discover that Chinese-Indonesians withstood a long history of discrimination, stretching back to the era of colonialism. I became attuned to the various types of discrimination that Chinese in Indonesia face.

Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Indonesian protesters shout slogans as they march though the streets of Jakarta May 12, 2000. Hundreds of students took to the streets on Friday to mark the second anniversary of bloody riots which helped to topple former President Suharto. Social and economic chaos and protests by tens of thousands of students demanding democratic reforms helped bring Suharto's army-backed rule to an end on May 21, 1998.

As I traced the history of my family, a series of photos of my grandfather’s funeral struck me. As my father, in his early 30s, was burying my grandfather following Chinese traditions, his factory co-workers arrived in an open boxcar to offer condolences.

The head of the factory briefly shut down the plant to allow my father’s co-workers to attend the funeral. Despite their different ethnic backgrounds, many of the workers came. In a photo, a colleague from East Indonesia can be seen comforting my father.

But do these scenes mean that Indonesia values diversity and upholds the national motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, Unity in Diversity? Not really. The May 1998 riots were an extreme case, but Chinese-Indonesians often face discrimination in their daily life.

As late as 1996, the Indonesian government required Chinese-Indonesians to present citizenship certificates, or SBKRIs, when applying for passports and other documents. My father once showed me his SBKRI. Though born in Indonesia, he had to display this document and take an oath of allegiance to the country whenever he conducted business with the government, as if he had previously been a foreigner.

This is only one of the many discriminatory policies implemented by the New Order regime. Another policy virtually forced ethnic Chinese adopt Indonesian-sounding names. I have two names, one in Indonesian and the other in Chinese, but I cannot use the latter in official documents.

I feel deprived of access to my cultural heritage. Living in such an environment, I’ve had to swim against the tide to learn the traditions that define who we are, including the Chinese New Year. To me, it is nothing more than a reason for family members to gather once a year.

Years after the funeral, my grandfather was finally cremated. My father said that we, the future generation, would no longer understand Chinese burial traditions.

It was at this moment when I realized how far I was from my roots. Although what happened has happened, I continue to trace the history of my family and it allows me to understand the larger historical context and how Chinese-Indonesians came to be a vulnerable population.

Vulnerabilities, now, under Covid-19 is a condition shared throughout Indonesia.. I am grateful that many of my Chinese-Indonesian friends decided to unite with their compatriots, no matter their ethnic backgrounds, who suffer from the pandemic. Some have volunteered at hospitals to care for those who have contracted the virus. This Chinese New Year, I hope this cross-identity work will become a starting point to promote greater solidarity and justice in Indonesia.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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