Asian & Asian American Studies

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Chinese Identity in Post-Suharto Indonesia

Culture, Media, Religion and Language

In the series
Asian & Asian American Studies

Chang-Yau Hoon is Assistant Professor of Asian Studies at the School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University. He has published in international journals such as Asian Ethnicity, Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies, Asia Pacific Education Review, Journal of Asian Business and Life Writing. He has co-edited special issues of the Journal of Asian Business and Inside Indonesia, and is currently co-editing a volume entitled Chinese Indonesians Reassessed: History, Religion and Belonging.


During Suharto’s New Order (1966–1998), the ethnic Chinese expanded the nation’s economy (and their own wealth), but, paradoxically, were marginalised and discriminated against in all social spheres: culture, language, politics, entrance to state-owned universities, and public service and public employment. Following the fall of Suharto, and the anti-Chinese riots in May 1998, Indonesia underwent a process of “Reformasi” and democratisation, whereby for the first time in several decades Chinese culture became more visible. Many ethnic Chinese took advantage of the new democratic space to establish political parties, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and action groups to fight for the abolition of discriminatory laws, defend their rights and promote solidarity between ethnic groups in Indonesia. They utilised the Reformasi atmosphere to promote pluralism and multiculturalism, and to liberate their long-suppressed identity and cultural heritage.

This book sets out to unpack the complex meanings of “Chineseness” in post-1998 Indonesia, including the ways in which the policy of multiculturalism enabled such a “resurgence”, the forces that shaped it and the possibilities for “resinicisation”. The author examines how ethnic Chinese self-identify, and investigates how the pribumi “Other” has contributed to identifying the ethnic boundary in terms of “race” and class. A unique aspect of the study is its discussion of the complexities of cultural crossing, borrowing and mixing experience of Chinese-Indonesians through localisation and globalisation.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-268-6
Hardback Price: £49.95 / $69.95
Release Date: August 2008
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-474-1
Paperback Price: £22.50 / $34.95
Release Date: April 2011
Page Extent / Format: 256 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No


Preface and a Note on Stylistic Conventions
Series Editor’s Preface

Introduction: A Problematic Identity

Part One Mapping the “Chinese Problem”
1 Approaches to Accommodating Chineseness
2 Historical Constructions of Chinese Identity

Part Two Changing Cultural Stuff
3 Chinese “Culture” and Self-Identity
4 Heterogeneity and Internal Dynamics of Chinese Politics
5 Re-Emergence of the Chinese Press

Part Three Maintaining the Ethnic Boundary
6 “Race”, Class and Stereotyping: Pribumi Perceptions of Chineseness
7 Preserving Ethnicity: Negotiating Boundary Maintenance and Border-Crossing

Conclusion: Reconceptualizing Chineseness

Appendix 1: Evi Mariani’s personal reflection as a Chinese-Indonesian
Appendix 2: Poem, “In fact . . .?”, published in Republika

Glossary and Abbreviations

Hoon’s study especially fits neatly into an emerging scholarship by overseas or ethnic Chinese exploring and studying ‘Chineseness’ … Hoon’s own personal experience as an ethnic Chinese Southeast Asian (Brunei), who is able to pass as a local ethnic Chinese, gives him a unique insight and point of view into what it is like to be Chinese in Indonesia, how these stereotypes work in the everyday, and the ways they influence behaviors.

It takes a linguistically gifted and culturally cosmopolitan, diasporic Chinese – born in Malaysia, raised in Brunei, educated in Western Australia – with finely-tuned insider-outsider sensibilities, to lift the veil on the long suppressed Chinese community of Jakarta, Indonesia. It is a revelation to follow C.Y. Hoon as he skillfully navigates the treacherous waters of post-Suharto (1998) ethnic politics in Jakarta. After decades of being rendered near voiceless and faceless, Chinese-Indonesians are reclaiming their cultural and citizenship rights, and reconceptualizing their identity in the face of persistent stereotypes and essentialist constructions.
... Well trained in scientific participant-observer ethnographic methods, Hoon demonstrates convincingly that identity is mutually constituted in constantly changing and unfolding relationships between migrant and host. This engrossing study heralds a new generation of Chinese diaspora scholarship.
Evelyn Hu-Dehart, Director of Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America; Professor of History and Ethnic Studies, Brown University

This theoretically sophisticated, informative and highly readable book is the best thing I have read on what it means to be ‘Chinese’ in Indonesia since the fall of President Suharto in 1998.
Charles A. Coppel, author of Indonesian Chinese in Crisis (1983), and Studying Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia (2002)

This is an important and thoughtful book on the identity of the Chinese in Indonesia since the fall of Suharto. It makes an important contribution not only to Indonesian studies but also to studies of the ‘overseas Chinese’ elsewhere and of ethnic minorities generally. It is theoretically sophisticated: it problematizes Chinese identity and uses theories of identity, multiculturalism and hybridity to make sense of Chinese identities in Indonesia. At the same time, it takes into account the history and particular situation of the Chinese in Indonesia. The representation of Chinese and ‘pribumi’ subjectivities and the analysis of the ways stereotypes function in real life in the constitution of identities are particularly engaging. Best of all, the book presents sophisticated concepts and complex processes in a clear and readable way.
Lyn Parker, author of From Subjects to Citizens: Balinese Villagers in the Indonesian Nation-State (2003), and editor of The Agency of Women in Asia (2005) and Women and Work in Indonesia (2007)

May 1998 saw both the student movement that toppled Suharto and some of the worst anti-Chinese violence in Indonesian history, explains Hoon, and Chinese residents responded by organizing to become more visible and legal. He looks at the situation a decade later, asking how Chinese-Indonesians self-identify, how important it is to recognize the potential for Chinese identity to transform and change, and other questions.
Reference & Research Book News

Hoon’s central points border on prescription rather than analysis, however. He starts out by condemning the assimilation programme imposed on the Chinese during the New Order period. The author advocates ‘hybridity’ as an alternative. In his view (p. 24): “assimilation remains an impossible idea: it naively treats identity as a discrete singular entity and forces people to choose between ethnicities. In this instance, one can be either an Indonesian or a Chinese. On the other hand, the concept of hybridity does not suggest a submission to the impossible idea of assimilation, or a retreat into an essentialized version of Chineseness […]. In Indonesia, the appreciation of such hybrid identities might dissolve the rigid line between ‘Chinese’ and ‘non-Chinese’, ‘pribumi’ and ‘non-pribumi’.”
... However, Hoon is forced to conclude that ‘the Chinese-Indonesian experience of hybridity and cross-cultural fertilizations […] transgress, but do not dissolve, ethnic boundaries’ (p. 11). It appears that, once the prohibitions on Chinese culture and language were lifted after the end of the Soeharto regime, representations of Chinese as having slanted eyes and traits of stinginess and avarice surfaced in the Indonesian mass media. Chinese Indonesians themselves are also eager to craft out a ‘Chinese’ identity for themselves. By 2004, around 10 Chinese-language publications and two Indonesian-language Chinese publications in Jakarta were in circulation. The sponsors and news¬papermen see their efforts as a ‘cultural mission’ to promote Chinese culture and ‘resinicize’ Chinese Indonesians (pp. 117, 179). One of the Chinese non-governmental organizations formed after 1998, the Indonesian Chinese Social Association (Paguyuban Sosial Marga Tionghoa Indonesia, PSMTI), is also enthusiastic about creating a Chinese-Indonesian Cultural Museum for Taiman Mini Park.
... I find Chapters 6 and 7 especially fascinating. Here, Hoon presents his interviews with both Chinese and non-Chinese Indonesians about their perceptions of ‘Chinese’ and ‘pribumi’, and how they understand the inter-ethnic divides. Some common stereotypes of the pribumi among the Chinese are as follows: “the pribumi cannot be trusted, they are lazy, stupid, extravagant, irresponsible, undisciplined, and debt-ridden. They are exploiters and are always jealous of the Chinese. They see the Chinese as the enemy (p. 148).”
... As for the pribumi informants, they generally see the Chinese as either ‘naturally’ gifted with attributes to succeed in business or that ‘their family environment and disciplined upbringing’ nurture characteristics that are suited to private enterprise. They also see the Chinese as a group who do not want to socialize and who harbour fear and suspicion of pribumi Indonesians. In one instance, a pribumi informant recounts how his father, a government official, deliberately made it difficult for Chinese Indonesian citizens who needed official documents by delaying the process and charging them higher fees (p. 136).
…Most of these perceptions are presented as quotations from the interviews, that is, in the words of the informants themselves. Readers can almost feel the extent of ethnic tensions, regardless of the government’s policies in the New Order Period. It is a shame though that Hoon did not attempt to follow up on the contents of these interviews and analyse how the sentiments they revealed are formed. He concludes that ‘racial reification based on essentialism’ is the reason for these ethnic stereotypes and summarily condemns the ‘New Order’s social engineering’ as the culprit (pp. 144–5, 177–8).
Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde

May 1998 saw the most recent case of anti-Chinese violence across Indonesia. In the same turn of events, Suharto was unseated, after 32 years in power, as the president of Indonesia. In the aftermath of the fall, the Chinese in Indonesia were seen to have taken advantage of the fresh memories of the persecution as well as the democratic impetus afforded by the fall of Suharto and came out in the open with regards to their ethnicity. After decades of ban, the ‘three pillars’ of Chinese culture was finally restored. Post-1998, the Lunar New Year celebration is gradually allowed. … Admittedly, the study of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia is very much saturated with the works of esteemed scholars such as Leo Suryadinata. However, Hoon’s keen insight into the dynamics of pribumi–Chinese relationship, Chinese publications and effects of policies on Chinese Indonesians is one of the pioneers in post-Suharto era Chinese study.
... Traditional literature on the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia stressed on the erosion of culture brought about by the ban imposed by the Suharto regime. The fall of Suharto is thus seen as an opportunity for the restoration of Chinese culture in Indonesia. Hoon, however, called for a critical examination of the post-Suharto Mandarin boom as a unique phenomenon, rather than as a re-establishment of pre-1965 situation. The book argued that developments in the post-Suharto era do not show a re-emergence of pre-1965 Chinese identity, but one that is shaped by entirely new forces. For instance, the author found from his research that many young generation Chinese Indonesians are learning Chinese language in the post-Suharto era not because they identify with being Chinese as an ethnicity, but due to factors that increased the language’s marketability such as the rise of China as a regional power. In fact, the interest in acquiring Chinese language skills is not only confined among those of Chinese descent in Indonesia, but also among the non-Chinese. Singling out the phenomenon as a unique one and situating it in the context of the times was an important issue.
... Pointing out Chinese culture and organizations that persisted in Indonesia despite Suharto’s repressive measures towards them was a very strong argument put out by the author in the book. While it is true that the regime might have succeeded in creating an entire generation of Chinese Indonesians who are unable to speak or write in the Chinese language, many scholarship on ethnic Chinese in Indonesia do not concentrate on the preservation of Chinese culture in the ‘private domains’ during the Suharto years. Hoon argues that cautious preservation of the ‘Three Pillars’ of Chinese culture went on in the form of exclusively Chinese social gatherings, modification of Chinese temples into Buddhist Vihara and their lack of display of Chinese symbols in their compounds, and private Chinese language tuitions. Using examples from his field research, Hoon also filled in gap in the literature of Chinese Indonesians by elaborating on their story during the Suharto period. …
... Chinese Indonesians in post-Suharto era appear to be in a better position towards integration into the nation. The impact of repressive policies towards Chinese culture during the Suharto period, as well as long-term living in a country where they are considered sojourners had definitely made their marks on the community. However, the case of the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia showed the ultimate resilience and adaptability of a community through the times.
International Institute for Asian Studies Newsletter

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