Indonesia Expat
History/Culture Outreach

Chinese-Indonesians: The Identity In Between



As the “ancestral homeland” of over 300 ethnic groups, Indonesia is one of the most multicultural countries in the non-Western world.

8.8 million Indonesians are ethnic Chinese. Except that their “ancestral homeland” is not even here. My paternal ancestors come from Fujian province, PRC, but we’ve settled in Central Java for centuries. For other Chinese-Indonesians, their home might be Jakarta, North Sumatra, South Sulawesi, West Kalimantan or East Nusatenggara.

According to Chinese historian Dr. Tuty Muas of Universitas Indonesia, the Chinese have settled in Nusantara since the 13th century Yuan Dynasty. “That is a long time before Dutch contact,” said Muas. “Therefore, the Chinese presence as part of Indonesia is something we can’t deny.”

Batavia’s 17th-18th century sugar boom was also a period of mass migration from China to the Indies. Many Chinese were hired as skilled artisans to construct Batavia. Others worked in the sugar industry or became merchants. Either way, the Chinese population grew rapidly, demonstrated exceptional work ethic, and many blatantly showed signs of wealth, prompting social envy.

Many people seem to associate Chinese-Indonesians with “conflict” or “violence”. And many incidents can be named: 1740, 1965, and 1998.

“There is nothing wrong with researching what happened then. But if people are opening past wounds in the name of nationalism, then that is a problem,” said Muas. “If Indigenous-Indonesians keep presuming that Chinese-Indonesians are a group that deserves abuse, and Chinese-Indonesians keep judging Indigenous-Indonesians in return, then there is no end to the problem. Now is the time to stop this division and start seeing all of us as Indonesians.”

One of the alleged roots of Chinese discrimination in Indonesia is the Indische Staatsregeling (Indies’ State Regulation) of 1925, which effectively categorises the Netherlands Indies’ citizens into European, Far Easterners, and Indigenous. A different set of laws apply to each group. This regulation framed the Chinese, which fell in the middle of the hierarchy, to seem “privileged” from an Indigenous point-of-view. The privileges weren’t necessarily ones the Chinese enjoyed, such as collecting taxes for the Dutch government. But they were enough to breed racial resentment.

The Staatsregeling failed to recognise that Chinese-Indonesians are politically heterogeneous. In the pre-Independence era, some were pro-Netherlands, some were pro-China (including pro-Beijing and pro-Taipei), and others were pro-Indonesia.

Early Independence was a relatively peaceful period for multicultural Indonesia. According to Muas, Sukarno did not make any particularly discriminatory policies, though some scholars debate this. Indonesia fostered strong ties with PRC and the USSR. Many Chinese-Indonesians were still citizens of China.

And then, out of nationalistic spirit, Sukarno issued the PP10/1959, which limited the foreign ownership of retail businesses to the regency level, and prohibited it in sub-districts and villages. The regulation was well-meaning: to encourage Indonesians to take charge of the new country’s economy and prevent economic neocolonialism. While this policy did not specifically target Chinese-Indonesians, many who owned retail businesses in rural areas got into trouble.

According to sociologist Arief Budiman, Chinese-Indonesians in this era were politically divided into integrationists and assimilationists.

Integrationists, represented by Baperki, strove for the acknowledgement of Chinese-Indonesians as an ethnic group and tended to have secular ideals. Baperki ended up leaning left, along with the National Indonesian Party (PNI), the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), and Sukarno. In contrast, assimilationists, represented by LPKB (Lembaga Pembinaan Kesatuan Bangsa) wanted Chinese-Indonesians to stop identifying as Chinese and start adopting the customs of local indigenous ethnicities. LPKB leaned right with Islamic and Christian parties, and the military.

Budiman used to be an assimilationist due to his dislike of the “shameful” bigotry he observed among Chinese-Indonesians and the idea that a pendatang (outsider) “in Rome should act Roman”. Sukarno’s “authoritarian hell”–as Budiman wrote in Kebebasan, Negara, Pembangunan–prompted Budiman’s generation to join the right and fight against the left, despite knowing that democracy cannot flourish under a military regime.

That is, until 1965-1966 saw the downfall of Sukarno. Accompanying it was a bloodbath that cost an estimate of one million lives, including Chinese-Indonesians blindly accused of their association with PKI. Budiman said he felt responsible when the new ruler, Suharto, took assimilation policies to the extreme: banning Chinese language, schools, media, festivities, and cultural expressions. Chinese-Indonesians were even pressured to change their names to Indonesian-sounding ones.

If Sukarno’s era saw the involvement of Chinese-Indonesians in the parliament and ministries, Suharto made politics out-of-bounds for Chinese-Indonesians. Having a strong culture of trade, many Chinese-Indonesians naturally resorted to business, became wealthy, and sometimes privileged if their business ties included Suharto’s cronies. While this only applied to a few Chinese-Indonesians, it was enough to reinforce the recurring 17th-century problem: envy-driven generalised racial sentiment. And we all know what happened in 1998 when came Suharto’s turn to be thrown over.

Budiman started embracing integrationism in the 1970s when his studies in the U.S. introduced him to African-Americans, whom also endured a long history of discrimination and violence, but now enjoy equality in civil society and proudly identify as both “Black” and “American.”

“We can still preserve our ethnic culture without becoming any less nationalistic. Nationalism and ethnicity need not annul each other, but can coexist and enrich each other,” wrote Budiman. “I would like to say to the Chinese to not be ashamed of expressing their Chinese-ness, while still demonstrating in their deeds that their homeland is Indonesia.”

Budiman added that Chinese-Indonesians should be more involved in politics and make sure that Chinese-Indonesian interests are justly represented. In a democracy run by civil society, Chinese-Indonesians are equally responsible as other Indonesian citizens to make Indonesia the country worth pledging allegiance to.

Basuki Cahaya Purnama - "Ahok"
Basuki Cahaya Purnama – “Ahok”

Now in the Reformasi era, more things are being done to ensure that Chinese-Indonesians feel at home in this country. In 2002, President Abdurrachman Wahid declared Chinese New Year a national holiday and effectively reversed the previous regime’s anti-Chinese policies. Competent Chinese-Indonesians are in political offices, including Jakarta’s deputy-mayor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama. In 2009, Indonesia honoured its first Chinese-Indonesian National Hero, navy commander John Lie who fought in the Revolution. Some schoolchildren are now being taught that Chinese-Indonesians play important roles in both Indonesia’s struggle for Independence and contemporary socioeconomic development.

As a Chinese-Indonesian I now look back and think, “What great trials my ancestors have overcome!” and how their struggles have somehow made me who I am today. With this realisation in mind, I have never been prouder to call Indonesia my home, as Chinese blood runs deep in my veins.

Image source –

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