Mindful of a Turbulent Past, Wary of an Uncertain Future
Long resented in Indonesia as financiers of the powerful, and discriminated against in mainland China, overseas Chinese search for peace and place outside of Asia
THE quiet river coursing through this East Java market hub belies a chilling past.Skip to next paragraph
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During frequent explosions of anti-Chinese violence over the last half century, the Brantas River was choked with dead bodies.
So terrified were the Chinese that mothers were afraid to identify sons. Families sneaked out to recover relatives only after midnight.
Tulungagung today looks like a town that has shed its past.
In a commercial grid of storefronts and restaurants, ethnic Chinese shopkeepers prosper quietly.
They live separately but amicably with the Javanese who farm, work in factories, sell food on the street, and clean Chinese homes.
In deference to majority Muslims, Chinese no longer dance and party in public.
And in a concession to Chinese, the local Buddhist temple has been reopened and freshly painted.
But the Liu family in Tulungagung and other small Chinese businessmen across Indonesia cannot forget the terror of the past.
Unlike four siblings who left and earned college degrees, and now live in China, the remaining Liu brothers and sisters in Tulungagung were shut out of Indonesian higher education because they were Chinese.
They relentlessly pursue profits, indulge in few Chinese traditions, nurture a deep insecurity about their future in Indonesia, and aspire to send their children to the West. And despite their common Chinese heritage, differences continue to grow between the Indonesian Lius and their mainland relatives.
``I feel like a guest when I go back [to Indonesia,]'' says Liu Jinfeng, the oldest sister who returned to this town for the Chinese New Year in February and found herself at odds with the Indonesian Lius over her decision to invite along foreign journalists.
``They should have new ideas. But they still live as if it was 30 years ago.
``They should have gotten rid of those ideas,'' she says, referring to their concerns their safety.
Resented by Indonesians for decades as middlemen of colonial rulers, financiers of the corrupt and powerful, and symbols of vast wealth among millions of poor, the ethnic Chinese of Indonesia struggle to overcome the past.
Numbering more than 7 million in Indonesia, they are the second largest community of overseas Chinese in the world. Although a handful of tycoons control much of the economy through their wealth and political connections, the ethnic Chinese account for only 4 percent of Indonesia's 180 million people and are too small and vulnerable a minority to exert any political influence.
``In the past, Chinese were always playing in between. So many Indonesians still see us as Chinese first and Indonesians second,'' says Sofjian Wanandi, a prominent ethnic Chinese industrialist.
The history of overseas Chinese in Indonesia is the most tragic in Southeast Asia, for nowhere have more overseas Chinese been killed or persecuted in the last five decades. During the Indonesian war for independence, which lasted from 1947 to 1949, the Chinese were targeted for helping the Dutch colonialists preserve their hold on power.
As the Dutch departure turned colonial society on end, an indigenous political elite challenged the social and economic privilege of the ethnic Chinese. In the late 1950s, rising anti-Chinese sentiment and Javanese racism provoked the government to bar Chinese retailing in rural areas, forcing a Chinese exodus to towns and cities.
Economic deterioration, closer foreign ties to the Soviet Union and Communist China, and a powerful Indonesian communist movement set the stage for the holocaust of the mid-1960s.
In 1965, a failed coup of disputed origins touched off an anticommunist wave that left tens of thousands of party members, their sympathizers, and other Chinese dead or imprisoned. As the emerging regime of General Suharto blamed China for the uprising, the anticommunist campaign became a pogrom targeting Chinese, many of whom tried to flee to China.
``I suffered a lot. I went to prison so many times, I can't remember right now,'' says Huang Danji, an elderly activist in overseas Chinese organizations in East Java. ``They did not like me so they alleged that I was a communist. I was in prison because I devoted myself to ... the well-being of the ethnic Chinese.''
Today, Indonesian Chinese feel more comfortable under General Suharto's rule, which has calmed anti-Chinese fervor, reformed and revived the economy, and boosted the fortunes of influential Chinese businessmen. In 1990, Suharto restored relations with China over the objections of the military, Islamic groups, and businessmen fearing a flood of Chinese goods.
But for the Chinese, trepidation about their relations with indigenous Indonesians is just below the surface. The ethnic Chinese are still excluded from the armed forces, civil service, and all professions, and barred entry into leading universities. Chinese schools and Chinese characters on public signs are banned. Growing numbers of Chinese convert to Islam in a bid for more security.