As published on Sine Theta Magazine #8
Edited by Sine Theta
Kilometers and kilometers of ‘shops’ — the somewhat loose translation of what Indonesians call ruko — line up interminably in this North Jakarta neighborhood. Sports cars park in front of the Mediterranean-style designed ruko, built not more than a decade ago. Occasional loud, arrogant engine revs puncture the soundscape: many car clubs frequent this neighborhood, probably because of the cheap and casual nightlife accessible here.
On weekend nights this area turns into a haven for cheap drinks, tacky EDM and crowds of your everyday cici-cici koko-koko Jakarta — boys sporting their best street wear branded attire and girls clinging to designer bags. They drink at the same places, eat at the same places, and post Instagram pictures with the same poses (at the same places). At least half of the guys carry vaporizers in the pockets of their BAPE or Off-White parkas, which they wear in spite of the 80-degree heat. This is a sight almost emblematic to us Cina; the derogatory but still widely used term for Chinese Indonesians like me.
The story of Chinese Indonesians is quite cliché, not unlike the narrative of Chinese immigrants all over the world. We are the bankers and businessmen, doctors, and engineers. My grandfather sailed from China alone when he was 12 to work as a day laborer for his uncle, who owned a construction material store in Surabaya. He taught himself Indonesian by reading the newspaper and slowly climbed up to managerial positions, eventually administered his own firm and became one of the richest men in Surabaya. He was no longer a poor boy from a hilly village in China: he was building bridges for the government in Jakarta. He became a rich man — and many other young men who also sailed from China as he did, share the same success story still recounted by their grand- or great-grandchildren today.
Maybe it is the hardship they lived with growing up in China, or maybe it is the Chinese work ethic — either way, the art of making money is almost religious for us. Wealth is the perpetual subject matter, argument, thesis, and reason for every discussion, plan, and action. At any family gathering, petty talk about someone’s-friend’s-boss that ‘controls the fish exports to China’ or ‘distributes generators to villages in Kalimantan’ is unavoidable, followed by how lucky you’d be if you could marry someone from such a wealthy family.
Nonetheless, how can I not admire the way my grandfather earned every penny he earned? How can I disprove a culture that has sustained a massacre, a name-ban, another genocide, and decades of obliteration?
In one of his stories, Ken Liu used logography to convey the resilience of the Chinese diaspora. The protagonist Mr. Kan, an old literomancer, explained how the only Chinese character for ‘China’ free from connotations to the Republic, Dynasty, or Emperor, is huá . He explained that hua is in the shape of a bunch of wildflowers coming out of the ground.
Maybe Liu grew up watching wildflowers in the fields… But I grew up watching cockroaches. Exterminating cockraoches involves insect spray, a little running, and some poking. The trick is to flip them so that they lay on their backs and become helpless. Then you spray and spray until their little legs stop wiggling. Even then, sometimes the strongest ones manage to get back on their feet and survive.
The history of the Chinese diaspora in Indonesia is supposed to be a tragedy. The first Chinatown was burned and thousands were killed in the Chinese Indonesian massacre of 1740 by the Dutch East Indies Company that had previously ordered the Chinese to wear special identification ‘badges’. In the period following the September 30 coup, Chinese Indonesians were targeted and killed, Chinese schools were closed and usage of the derogatory term ‘Cina’ was mandated for all formal usage. The 70s saw sporadic looting and burnings of stores owned by the Chinese and in 1978 the government required citizens to have a ‘Letter of Proof of Citizenship’, which in practice was only applied to the ethnic Chinese. The government also banned the use of Chinese names, mandating that all Chinese Indonesians change their names into Indonesian names (hence, my Hakka surname Thio was camouflaged into Indonesian sounding Setiono).
The final gong was the 1998 riot, an anti-Chinese pogrom that remains an unresolved human rights issue, with no official number of casualties or rape survivors. Stores in Jakarta and Medan were looted or burned down, and national security forces failed to control the situation. Neighborhoods that had many Chinese-Indonesian residents were burned down and the houses were abandoned. Many Chinese-Indonesians fled the country and some never looked back.
Perhaps we are not wildflowers after all. Perhaps we are cockroaches. Exterminate us — not once, not twice, but three times — and we will come back to build.
Not long after the riots subsided, businesses started operating again, catching up on lost time and resources. Families that had fled came back to pick up the remains, rebuild, and carry on. One of the more upscale neighborhoods started rebuilding itself as rapidly as its destruction had first taken place as if trying to prove its might after the storm. As time passed, more gigantic houses were built, more roads, more businesses, more shops. The comeback after 1998 was formidable, and less than a decade later businesses were flourishing.
Fast-forward to the sight of the Mediterranean-inspired Ruko, speeding sports cars, and drunk teenagers flaunting their fancy clothes. Just 20 years ago, rioters were looting and burning down stores that have now turned into EDM clubs or hookah cafes. Yet, the absence of conversation and level of ignorance pertaining to this dynamic is harrowing. The 20th anniversary of the 1998 riot took place last May; the survivors are still waiting for justice. The tragedy is still not in history books. I don’t remember any conversation with my Chinese-Indonesian friends or family where ‘equality’ is ever brought up.
Did we forget the mighty sacrifices of those before us? Our grandparents who immigrated from starvation to start new lives here, or the people killed in the massacre? Are we trying to forget by dousing ourselves with riches and folly; or did we forget where we came from? What was heroic is now superficial — the struggle is no longer for survival but neither for status — our aunts gossiping about how many Hermés bags their second cousin owns (and if any of those are Mangga Dua knock-offs).
My political science professor once said that a state is made up of clashes between societies and politics is the attempt to buy out one group in order to let another group win. In the 19th century, the English government bought out the labor class by giving them a better social security system to avoid violent revolution. Similarly, many Chinese-Indonesians are bought out by wealth such that they turn a blind eye to the persecution that happened a mere 20 years ago, shying away from demanding political representation and equality.
The same flashy neighborhood in this story could have been the symbol of resilience and vigor but has instead become an exhibition of profligacy and ignorance. Recently, I tried looking for a book by a well-known Indonesian sinologist and the only copy I could find was a used copy from the first edition sold by one vendor on tokopedia. There were more works by the same author available on Amazon. We are so used to turning a blind eye in lieu of risking being distraught by knowing — telling ourselves that ignorance is bliss, and that silence is golden.
Today, there are still no reparations for the victims of the 1998 riots. Today, no one is yet held accountable for lootings and violence. Today, there is still bias from public universities against ethnic Chinese applicants.
Yet none of these issues are being addressed. Are we selling our soul by telling our yellow skin that it is okay to be obliterated as long as the poison is sweet? Or is my hope of seeing emphatic, self-aware, Chinese-Indonesians long gone?
Gold has slowly ceased to give us life. Gold has now put us to slumber.