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Chinese Indonesians
Chinese-Indonesians are ethnic Chinese people living in Indonesia, as a result of centuries of overseas Chinese migration.

The Chinese-Indonesian experience in Indonesia is one of extremes. On the one hand, they have made it their home and it's been a land of plenty as many have become fabulously rich, mostly in business. On the other hand, there have been some bloody pogroms targeting them, the most recent in 1998. Official discrimination is still on the books (or, at least, implemented as such) in most government offices.

Currently, there are roughly nine million Chinese-Indonesians spread throughout the archipelago, mostly in large urban centers. There are approximately three million Chinese-Indonesians in Greater Jakarta and despite being a tiny minority of the overall ethnic makeup of Indonesia (less than 4 percent of the total), their enormous economic strength and concentration in the capital city means the Chinese-Indonesian "footprint" is ubiquitous in many sectors.

Chinese-Indonesians vary in their origins, timing and circumstances of arrival to Indonesia, as well as level of ties to China. Many can trace their origins to the south China - Fujian, Guangdong and Hainan.

In general, there were three waves of Chinese to Southeast Asia. The first wave was spurred by trade dating back to the time of Zheng He's voyage in the 15th century, the second wave around the time of the Opium Wars and the third wave around the first half of the 20th century.

Chinese-Indonesians whose ancestors immigrated in the first and second waves, and have thus become creolized or huan-na (in Hokkien) by marriage and assimilation, are called Peranakan Chinese. The more recent Chinese immigrants and those who are still culturally Chinese are called Cina Totok.

Most Chinese who migrated to Indonesia came as traders or laborers. Colonial policies made it difficult for Chinese to acquire land, and the only region with a significant Chinese farmer population was West Kalimantan. The largest populations of Chinese-Indonesians are now mostly in the cities of Jakarta, Surabaya, Medan, Pekanbaru, Semarang, Pontianak, Makassar, Palembang and Bandung.


The economic activities and wealth of the Chinese community in Indonesia is very diverse; many are laborers and small-scale merchants, while others are in high-level entrepreneurs. Most are identified as ethnic Chinese in official documents, but many are not, for a variety of reasons. In many parts of Indonesia, however, they are represented among the wealthier classes out of proportion with their small numbers.

According to a survey of corporations listed on the Jakarta Stock Exchange, the Chinese-Indonesian community was thought to own or operate most major Indonesian corporations. This is a result of a long government restriction for Chinese-Indonesians from going into academia, public service and other governmental occupations.


Most Chinese-Indonesians are descended from Chinese ethnic groups, originally from the southeastern part of China. These ethnic groups include:

• Hakka
• Hainanese
• Hokkien (Min Nan speakers)
• Cantonese
• Hokchia
• Teochew

Ethnic concentrations

• Peranakan - Jakarta, Java, Makassar
• Hakka - Aceh, North Sumatra, Batam, South Sumatra, Bangka-Belitung, Lampung, Java, West Kalimantan, South Sulawesi, Maluku (Ambon) and Papua (Jayapura).
• Hainanese - Riau (Pekanbaru and Batam) and Manado.
• Hokkien - North Sumatra, Bagansiapiapi, Pekanbaru, Padang, Jambi, South Sumatra, Bengkulu, Java, Bali (especially in Denpasar and Singaraja), Banjarmasin, Kutai, Sumbawa, Manggarai, Kupang, Makassar, Kendari, Central Sulawesi, Manado and Ambon.
• Cantonese - Jakarta, Makassar and Manado.
• Hokchia - Java (especially in Bandung, Cirebon and Surabaya), Banjarmasin
• Teochew - North Sumatra, Riau, South Sumatra and West Kalimantan (especially in Pontianak and Ketapang).

Early colonial era (1500-1800): Favored by the VOC

The largest waves of Chinese migration happened during the earlier colonial era seeking to find new opportunities of trade. Race relations between the Chinese-Indonesians and native Indonesians (pribumi) have always been problematic and remain so up to the present. Some commentators trace this to the Dutch era when colonial policy favored the ethnic Chinese and in so doing gave them a head start in establishing their economic dominance over the region.

The caste system established by the Dutch also made it disadvantageous for ethnic Chinese to assimilate into the native population. Assimilation would mean being placed in the lowest estate together with the natives. Ethnic Chinese, together with Arabs and other "foreign Orientals" were members of the second estate. The first estate was reserved for Europeans and, ironically, Japanese and Siamese nationals as well.

Having the favor of the Dutch and being considered by "intelligent, diligent and capable of overseeing Dutch plantations," many ethnic Chinese supported colonial rule. Indeed, in the early years of the Dutch East Indies, ethnic Chinese actively helped strengthen Dutch domination in the region. As a reward, they were given landed fiefdoms and the Dutch-invented hereditary title of Sia by the colonial government.

Among the Sia, these aristocratic Peranakan families controlled a great deal of Java's land and wealth, confiscated by the Dutch from the native (pribumi) aristocracy. Through the officer system they governed the Peranakan and ethnic Chinese populations of Batavia. The system was later extended to other centers of Dutch power in Java and the rest of the archipelago. Deprived of land, the pribumi aristocracy lacked the economic resources (income via agricultural, livestock and timber products, alluvial and subterranean mineral resources, most particularly gold and gemstones) vital to fund their former fiefdoms. Both the Dutch and the Chinese participated in the trade of thousands of Javanese slaves. Javanese considered problematic were shipped off to Chinese-owned plantations in Sumatra.

Massacre of 1740

Despite their higher position (or, perhaps, because of it), the Chinese often were not liked by the Dutch. In the early decades of the 18th century, tensions began to build. In some ways, it resulted from the fact that having settled in and around Batavia ever since its foundation, the Chinese had come to be a powerful, influential element in its economic life.

Chinese workers were greatly involved in building Batavia and cultivating the adjacent agricultural areas. And Chinese traders, who were arriving in growing numbers, made the Dutch East India Company (VOC) increasingly dependent on them. The VOC made much of its profit from trade among different Asian nations - and it was the Chinese-Indonesian traders resident in Batavia who had the best contacts throughout Asia, particularly the largest market, China.

The Dutch and Chinese-Indonesians needed each other - which in theory should have ensured a good relationship. But an element among the Dutch colonists came to increasingly resent the situation of the Chinese being their effective social equals and economic rivals. The Chinese traders, like the Dutch ones, were taxpayers - which was an economic burden but also conferred considerable privileges.

Eventually, the Dutch resentment had reached a boiling point, setting off a cataclysm of hatred and bloodshed. On October 9, 1740, an order was issued to search the houses of all the Chinese residents in Batavia. This soon degenerated into an all-out, three-day long massacre - with Chinese being massacred in their homes, and captured Chinese being killed in prisons and hospitals. A Dutch pastor fanned the flames from the pulpit, declaring that the killing of Chinese was "God's Will." The colonial government also reportedly offered a bounty for decapitated Chinese heads. The number of victims in the three-day maelstrom has been estimated at around 10,000. The name Kali Angke ("Red Stream" in Indonesian) is said to date from that time, recalling the blood flowing into the river.

Afterwards, the "restoration of order" was proclaimed, with surviving Chinese henceforth ghettoized in specific quarters of Batavia and other Dutch-ruled districts. The Chinese area of Batavia was designated Glodok, where many Chinese still live in present-day Jakarta. Following the massacre, the Dutch Governor-General Adriaan Valckenier was arrested and tried by the VOC directors in Amsterdam. He died in prison, however, and the charges against him were declared "annulled by death."

Continued immigration and division into 3 sub-communities

Even such bloody events did not put an end to the continued Chinese immigration to the Indies, where economic opportunities not available in China itself outweighed the dangers of discrimination or persecution. Earlier Chinese immigrants had much closer ties with mainland China. Many of them, however, found the Indies an increasingly attractive place. The hostile and oppressive Manchu government of the Qing dynasty brought even more migrants from China. Lulled by comfortable lives, some of them no longer associated themselves with mainland China. They were called ‘Cina Baba' or Peranakans. Many intermarried with indigenous Indonesian women as there were not nearly as many Chinese women immigrating compared to men.

Most, however, identified closely with the Dutch, embraced Christianity, generally enjoyed higher education and social status and, mimicking Western lifestyles, were considered one of the most refined groups in the melting pot of Batavia.

Beginning in the late 19th Century, most of the aristocratic Sia families underwent rapid Westernization. By the early decades of the 20th century, many of them - especially those in and around Batavia - had become "more Dutch than the Dutch themselves." The Sia were consequently some of the strongest proponents of colonial rule. Those who still maintained ties to China, whose main belief was Confucianism, considered the Peranakans and Qiao Sheng groups to be disloyal. The ones who still maintained "purity" (oriented toward mainland China and its traditions) were called Cina Totok.

These three groups of Chinese Indonesians had starkly different nationalistic views and tendencies, and their legacy is still evident today in Indonesia. In the early 20th century these were the three groups:

• ‘Qiao Sheng' - inclined toward the Dutch
• ‘Cina Totok' - inclined toward mainland China
• ‘Cina Baba' (Peranakan) - more inclined toward the indigenous population of the Indies

Later waves of migrants still maintained ties to China, mainly by supporting Chinese nationalistic movements to overthrow the Qing dynasty. Although the support was mainly monetary, some Chinese Indonesians were actively involved in the inside politics, especially so during the Sun Yat Sen era.  Cina Totok were particularly active.

Although the Chinese Communists were largely unsupported at first, from the 1930s onward, the communists' effort to drive the Japanese occupants out of China gained the support of many Cina Totok and Qiao Sheng. Thus, Chinese-Indonesian manifestations of support toward mainland China became divided into two camps, parallel with the civil war sides in China itself: nationalists (Kuomintang) and communists.

Solidarity for Indonesian nationalism

At the turn of the 20th century, however, Cina Baba were increasingly assimilated into Indonesian culture, and younger generations of Cina Totok still tried to maintain ties with China. Although there were no official surveys at the time, Chinese-Indonesians seemed about split on support for the Indonesian independence movement and many simply aligned with the Dutch to maintain the status quo - as business was good. Some Chinese-Indonesians became involved in Indonesian politics. Cina Totok typically set up specific Chinese-oriented political parties aimed at an Indonesia-China alliance and established newspapers. Cina Baba and Qiao Sheng typically joined nationalist parties jointly with pribumi.

They were also among the pioneers of Indonesian newspapers. In their fledgling publishing companies, they published their own political ideas along with contributions from other Indonesian writers. In November 1928, the Chinese weekly Sin Po was the first paper to openly publish the text of the national anthem ‘Indonesia Raya.' On occasion, those involved in such activities ran a concrete risk of imprisonment or even of their lives, as the Dutch colonial authorities banned nationalistic publications and activities. Chinese-Indonesians were active in supporting the independence movement during Japanese occupation from 1942-1945.

Due to the lack of such clearly defined ethnic unit, the precise number of Chinese Indonesians who took part in the Indonesian National Revolution, and the percentage of the Chinese-Indonesian community as a whole, remains disputed. It is a sensitive issue due to the fact that sometimes it is linked to the postwar status of Chinese-Indonesians and their equal status (or lack of one) in the Indonesia created by that independence struggle.

Post-independence era

During the 1945-1949 war for independence in Indonesia, few Chinese Indonesians were involved in the Indonesian Republican army. At the time, the economy plummeted and the taxes increased dramatically. Everyday goods, such as soap and cutlery, were rare; much and had been confiscated by the Japanese and Dutch for their own armies. Chinese-Indonesians contributed in the smuggling of these goods into pribumi communities. However, the "business" became increasingly difficult as the Dutch continued to re-establish their foothold in Indonesia and armed conflicts were inevitable.

Following independence, the Japanese and Dutch companies were simply left behind. The new government sold the companies at fire-sale discounts, and Chinese-Indonesians quickly took over these companies. However, many pribumi sought to curb this effort, and they were successful in accusing Chinese-Indonesians of unpatriotic ways during the war (as they were rarely involved in armed conflicts). The fledgling Indonesian government forced many to relinquish acquired properties. This would be the first of many Chinese-Indonesian restrictions on personal rights. Political activity was greatly reduced, but not eliminated.

Discrimination got much worse as the economy was further dominated by Chinese-Indonesians. The ‘pribumi' complained of the government's lackluster efforts in creating a "level playing field" (there were demands for special  pribumi privileges that would allow less direct competition with the Chinese-Indonesian businesses) creating even more tension. This further escalated the already uneasy relationship, as pribumi had long considered Chinese-Indonesians to be in cahoots with the colonial administration. The tendency of Chinese-Indonesians to stick together in Chinatowns, segregating themselves from the pribumi, only exacerbated the situation.

In 1959, President Soekarno approved a directive that forced Chinese-Indonesians to close their businesses in rural areas and relocate to urban areas. Enforcement was brutal and many business owners were killed.

Soeharto, bigotry and cultural genocide

After the upheaval following the Soeharto coup in 1965, he set about isolating and officially discriminating against the Chinese. Group divisions such as the Cina Baba, Qiao Sheng and Cina Totok were blurred because Soeharto treated them exactly the same. They were all forced to change their names to Indonesian-sounding ones (Nowadays, many prefer Western-sounding first names, so you'll see many named Tony and Rudi or Agnes and Anastasia...). This law was considered most humiliating to those in the Chinese community since by doing so, they were forced to relinquish their family names, which may be, in some cases, traced back thousands of years. Between 1965 and into the 1980s, army and police officers were given a green light to abuse and extort Chinese-Indonesians, including openly robbing or raping. During this time, police could arrest anybody speaking Chinese. Various government policies banned Chinese-language teaching, speaking and publications.

Established schools and colleges run by Chinese-Indonesian foundations were seized by the government without compensation. Anti-Chinese sentiment increased among the pribumi Indonesians and anti-Chinese pogroms were frequent. In identity cards, all Chinese-Indonesians are still designated as "ethnic Chinese" (by using a 9 at the end of their ID number) as opposed to just "Indonesian" for other citizens of the country. This made it easy for officials to  identify them and extract bribes, and has been compared to 1930s-40s Germany when the Jewish population, as ordered by Adolf Hitler, was ordered to display a yellow Star of David patch at all times. Ethnic Chinese still are required to carry certificates that prove they have rejected Communist China, despite being born in Indonesia and descended from a family that has called Indonesia home for hundreds of years.

These highly discriminatory laws were believed by some to be a concerted government effort at cultural genocide. The only way to survive during that harsh period was via bribes. In addition, those who were considered heroes of Indonesian independence, such as Liem Koen Hian and Siauw Giok Tjhan, were either brutally executed, exiled or jailed. Those who protested were murdered. None of them were bestowed national hero status. It effectively discouraged any Chinese-Indonesian from dedicating their lives to the cause of Indonesian national development.

Since Chinese-Indonesians were barred from all public jobs, almost all turned to private entrepreneurship. They concentrated their efforts in those areas and became incredibly successful. It created opportunities for government and military brass to demand bribes from Chinese-Indonesian businesspeople. Bribes and corruption soon became commonplace. Rather than empathy for their situation wherein they had to bribe to survive, many Indonesians instead lambasted them for colluding with the civil service/government - which served to further poison the entire governance system. On the other hand, Chinese Indonesians felt that they were treated unfairly and the government was much more lenient toward the pribumi. Most of the people in the Chinese community are not Muslim, which only served to further generate negative sentiment from Indonesian Muslims (86 percent the country).

As discrimination and enmity intensified, Chinese-Indonesians drifted further away from Indonesia's mainstream society, even reaching a point where some would become offended if they were referred to as an Indonesian.

During the 70s, 80s and 90s, the younger generation looked to Western societies, cultures and politics, perceiving them to be better than the country that was so hostile toward them. They were more aligned with Western countries such as the U.S. and Britain. Such Westernization became so popular that many parents paid a lot of money to send their children to Western countries for education.

In 1998, with the Indonesian economy in a free fall, army elements and groups of pribumi attacked and raped Chinese-Indonesians. The May 1998 riots drew international condemnation. Many Chinese-Indonesians picked up and left the country to welcoming nations such as  the Netherlands, the U.S., Singapore and Australia. Ironically, they found Western countries were far more accepting than their country of birth. Even after the upheaval subsided, many refused, on principle, to return. The ones that opted to stay were somewhat relieved when Soeharto resigned on May 21, 1998.

Despite the offical legislation and mass opinion directed against Chinese-Indonesians, many have succeeded in fields other than business, particularly in badminton, Indonesia's favorite sport. Indonesian athletes  have long dominated the sport. Since the late 1950s, many of the beloved players and mentors are Chinese-Indonesians, such as Susy Susanty, Herianto Arby, Cristian Hadinata, Tan Jo Hok, Tjuen Tjuen, Liem Swie King, Rudy Hartono, Ade Candra, Ivana Lie, Verawati,  Alan Boedikusuma, Ardi Wiranata and Johan Wahyudi.


Early in the reform era (1998-2000), the government focused on  economic stability and increased security. Discrimination remained, however, yet Chinese-Indonesians had more courage to express themselves to a degree. This was unthinkable during Soeharto's reign. Unfortunately, there remains many loyal Soehartist officers who have continued to exploit the discriminatory laws. Not for some political or social ideology, but merely for their own enrichment (read: they still wanted the bribe income). For decades, the use of Chinese language characters was barred across Indonesia. But in 2004, even presidential candidates, such as Megawati Soekarnoputri and Hasyim Muzadi, exploited them in their campaign posters for the presidential election to gain favor with wealthy voters.


Shortly after Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid was voted in as president in late 1999, he set about to get rid of some of the discriminatory legislation in efforts to improve ethnic harmony.  Gus encouraged Chinese-Indonesian culture and literature. He also decreed the Chinese lunar New Year as a national holiday.

Chinese-Indonesians are currently in a time of rediscovery. Many of the younger generations, who cannot speak Mandarin due to the ban decades earlier, have chosen to learn the language, and many language schools have opened throughout the country. Shops now can openly use Chinese characters in their signage. Lion dances and dragon dances are often performed in public without special permission.

The Chinese culture is starting to be embraced, even by the popular media, who widely covers Chinese New Year celebrations and even broadcasts TV shows on Feng Shui and news in Chinese language in Indonesian television and radio, like Metro TV and Cakrawala broadcast radio. A small number of Chinese-Indonesians have regained the courage to get involved in politics. Chinese-Indonesians have adopted the term Tionghoa to identify themselves. The term ‘Cina' is deemed to be derogatory today due to its unfortunate racist usage in the past.


Many older Chinese-Indonesians speak Mandarin (the lingua franca amongst the elderly community)  but there are several other Chinese dialects spoken, depending on region. In Medan, for example, most Chinese speak Hokkien. In  Pontianak, W. Kalimantan, the Chinese community speaks Teochew. Hakka is also spoken, but by and large, Chinese-Indonesians under the age of 40 speak Bahasa Indonesia as a first language.


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