On Being Chinese Indonesians

FEBRUARY 16, 2018

Chinese New Year, or Imlek in Indonesia, is now recognized as a national holiday, but it was not always the case.

Just a few decades ago, the New Order-era government under former President Suharto banned Chinese traditions in Indonesia.

In his book "Ethnic Chinese in Contemporary Indonesia," sinologist Leo Suryadinata wrote about a dark chapter in Indonesian history, which saw Chinese schools being closed down, Chinese-owned media outlets banned and ethnic Chinese organizations dissolved. Chinese Indonesians were also obligated to change their names to more traditionally Indonesian-sounding ones.

As we welcome the Year of the Dog, we talked to some Chinese Indonesians about their perceptions of self-identity and their family histories, as they know it.

Astrid Suu says there is beauty in diversity. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

Astrid Suu (pen name)

"I actually officially don't have a Chinese name. But when I was in Singapore for school, I took Chinese as my second language, so my teacher gave me a Chinese name. So it's a made-up one. It's actually my dad who chose it [my last name]. He followed his older brother so really, he was just following him.

I think everyone should celebrate where they come from. And then, differences are more beautiful than uniformity. In my opinion, it is better for Indonesia, right, since we are rich with not only Chinese and Indonesians; there are so many more – for example, Indians and within Indonesia there are a lot of ethnic groups, such as Javanese, Sundanese, Bataknese, all of those things.

And if we are all uniform, it gets boring. The beautiful thing is that we are all under one umbrella. We are all Indonesians."

Claudia Latif

"If it's about my name, I think I heard from my father that his father changed the name because Indonesian people used to be, like, racist. They wanted to change the name because it was safer to use an Indonesian name than a Chinese name at that time. So they came up with the name Latif. My Chinese name is Liang Chian Si. It is probably [connected] with the initials, because Liang starts with 'L' and they changed it to Latif."

L.L. told the Jakarta Globe about his experiences during the 1998 Jakarta riots and how it affected his family and personal life. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

L.L. (real name withheld)

"Honestly, at one point, I hated Indonesians. Like, I didn’t like being Indonesian. I felt like we were a minority at that point, as a Christian and Chinese, so it was hard. Someone told me, like, 'oh ya, they deserve it you know, who told them to show off their riches? So they deserve to experience something like 1998.'

I was like, I never did anything. My family never did anything. I felt like, how could you wish that upon anyone? Even if it was someone I hated, I would never wish that upon them.

So at a certain point in my life I was like, I tried to keep my distance from Indonesians. But as I grew, of course not all of them are like that. And in a moment of craziness, people can do the worst, and then they realize, like, 'oh what did I do?'

My Indonesian name was like random, like, a lot of my friends, when I asked them about the name change, they said, 'oh where did your name come from? For example, Li to Gozali, Chan to Chandrawinata. At some level, they all wanted to keep a sense of their Chinese identity. So they try to integrate their Chinese names with their Indonesian names. At a certain level, we are still proud to maintain our identity."

Cindy Silviana Sukma expressed hope that relations between ethnic Chinese and Indonesians will continue to improve. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

Cindy Silviana Sukma

"My name is Cindy Silviana Sukma. But if you want to ask me my Chinese name, it's Chang Xin Li.

I asked my mother what Chang Xin Li means. So, 'Chang' is the family name and 'Xin' means 'heart.' 'Li' comes from 'Mei Li,' which means 'pretty.'

I don't really know the reason, but back then, Chinese people had to change their names because Indonesian names prevented trouble."

Krisna Dwijanto spoke about his struggle with his identity as a Chinese Indonesian. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

Krisna Dwijanto (real name withheld)

"My grandfather's surname changed, and we really didn't know until several years ago when we looked at his birth certificate, because for the longest time we always wondered, like, why our last name and our Chinese name were different.

Turns out, that was his first Indonesian name and he did have the name Tan, like Tanuwijaya, but his friend – he had a friend in the tax office – said it would be better if he had a more Indonesian-sounding name.

So he changed his first name into his last name and he picked a new first name. All because of the advice of the head of the tax office. So that’s how my family name came to be. I find that there is a uniqueness in being a Chinese Indonesian, compared with [other members of the] Chinese diaspora around the world.

Yeah of course, there's always that element partly because of accurate experiences that people have had with the Chinese elite. And also because of a lot of negative sentiment and ignorance from people who have never met someone who is different from them.

Well, my grandmother in Singapore is actually peranakan [descendant of Chinese immigrants in the Malay Archipelago], so she is half Javanese. So that's one of the other things I didn't know until a few years ago, and that changed my perception as well. Because before that, I thought I was totally Chinese. And to know that I actually have roots in Indonesia brought me a sense of belonging.

I believe the root of any sort of discrimination lies in building up too many walls around ourselves and our identities and not getting to know the other; not having experienced a relationship or even a conversation with someone different from ourselves."