Up until recent history, Indonesia has had a very strict cultural containment policy. The government saw the need to assimilate ethnic Chinese in the country in order to unify the nation. The result? “No Chinese Allowed.”
My grandparents’ grandparents on both sides immigrated to Indonesia from southern China over 100 years ago, so I’m told. Unfortunately, no one knows the exact year because this was a time before passports/birth certificates/meticulously kept records. This is especially amongst poor Chinese peasant farmers (or at least I think that’s what my ancestors were.)
Fast forward to the future 40 or so years. Anti-Chinese sentiments in Indonesia were very high due to the amount of money they earned through their commerce with the Dutch colonizers. Hard to like someone who makes a living through the enemy. Racism was strong and culminated in a law under President Suharto’s regime in 1967, effectively banning all forms and expressions of Chinese culture in Indonesia. What did this look like? Chinese calligraphy was contraband and black market. Names had to be changed. Chinese New Year couldn’t be celebrated. The only thing that wasn’t banned was Chinese cuisine, probably because it was too good. Government backed systematic racism.
You couldn’t get into the best universities simply because of your race. You couldn’t get certain jobs for the same reasons. Certain places were better left untouched. My Dad had to fight off many bullies and people that called him Chinese and came after him looking for fights. Constant discrimination was a thing. No joke.
What’s in a Chinese name?
To most people in Western society, names are arbitrary. A lot of times it’s: “My parents had a grandfather with the name or I liked the sound of it.” On the other side of the spectrum, family in Asian culture is everything. A family name could be likened to how the Europeans would view their coat of arms. In many Asian cultures, the family name comes first followed by the personal one. Even this is important because it tells someone which generation* of the family you are and lets you know how to call them (because hierarchy and titles are also a big deal.)
*Depending on gender, all your siblings and cousins will have one character in common. So technically, you only have one that is exclusively yours.
Guess what. Despite names not being explicitly mentioned, many Chinese were forcibly made to change their last names. Granted, this was actually a good thing because Chinese names invited racism and changing them would help the assimilation process. Long story short, my paternal grandfather was adopted by Chinese but came from a region without a last name, which is common in certain areas of Indonesia. After calling my Dad, he tells me that when the law was passed, immigration officers personally made visits to the houses of Chinese families. Can you imagine?
My Mother’s side is Hokkien Chinese with the Chinese name of Tan, using the same character as Chen (in the picture.) My ancestors, like many Indonesians, instead of completely getting rid of their Chinese names, decided to adopt Indonesian names that sounded/concealed the Chinese one. The name chosen was Kristanto. No Chinese allowed.
Sure, it was a horrible thing that people weren’t allowed to be themselves. I would never advocate the oppression of another people group and especially asking them to change out of spite. Despite the horrors of these laws and various riots resulting in the deaths of thousands of ethnic Chinese, there were still positive results. WHAT DO YOU MEAN? Let me explain.
All of this racism helped to better unify the country. You can never change the color of your skin, but when you become less different than someone they tend to notice it less. My maternal grandparents grew up speaking Javanese and Indonesian. My great-grandmother (pictured above) wore the Indonesian kebaya dress until her death. As my parents grew up, racism began to decrease more and more. Jakarta currently has a governor of Chinese descent! You can’t get more integrated than that. Sure, it’s not perfect but now it’s better than ever before.
How do I know that this assimilation is a good thing? A neighboring country decided to do exactly the opposite as Indonesia. Malaysia made sure (and even until today) that the Chinese and Indian immigrants would know that they aren’t all equal. Bumiputras (native Malays) have priorities and the privileges of Indonesians in the 60s. Chinese and Indians Malaysians are second class citizens.
The Chinese and Indian communities have been encouraged and allowed to keep their cultures. Until today they celebrate their own festivals, keep their names, and speak their languages. You might say, well this is a good thing! They kept the culture alive, although racial interaction isn’t a big thing.
Amongst the three groups, English is the lingua franca. The Malays didn’t think them worthy enough of being assimilated. Chinese are not allowed to have Malay names (unless they convert). The 3 races are separated not only by color of skin but also by religion: Christianity/Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. Then we throw in the language factor. Despite being born and raised in Malaysia, many Chinese and Indian Malaysians don’t speak Malay because they went to schools that had their respective languages as the medium of instruction. Or if they do have Malay as their instructive language in school, they don’t cross associate very much. This makes them become unbelievably rusty, to the point of losing the ability to speak Malay. It’s a really complicated history, and all very touchy, so if I missed something, please give me mercy.
Until the present day, my Chinese cousins in Malaysia along with their Indian countrymen continue to be second class citizens. They are proud Malaysians separated by segregation of both language and culture.
Finally in 2001, the “No Chinese Allowed” Policy in Indonesia was annulled and since then life has improved for everyone. Our national Gross National Happiness has grown. Every country has its story.
R.I.P Government Sanctioned Racism