Ethnic Chinese find a voice in Indonesia

Even after the lifting of a decades-old ban on displays of Chinese culture, the ethnic Chinese minority struggles to integrate.

Simon Montlake
Back on the air: Sushe Lie hosts a Mandarin-language radio show in Jakarta where vernacular broadcasting is popular after a long ban.

As the final power chords of the song fade out, Sushe Lie leans into her microphone and begins her usual on-air patter: the name of the singer, what's up next on the station, and the latest gossip from the tabloids.

Such banter would be standard fare for any commercial radio station in Jakarta, Indonesia, except that Ms. Lie, an Indonesian of Chinese descent, delivers her spiel in China's national language, Mandarin. Her co-presenter, Rudy Xiao Wei, a seven-year veteran of the station who learned Mandarin at home and studied it further in Taiwan, rattles through some news items, slipping into Indonesian when his Mandarin runs dry.

Other daytime presenters on Radio Cakrawala also speak in Mandarin and play music that is strictly Chinese, primarily pop songs and ballads from Taiwan and China.

In a country rife with ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity, vernacular radio should be an easy sell. But a decade ago, broadcasting, printing, and teaching in Chinese were illegal.

Many Indonesian nationals of Chinese origin, who comprise around 3.5 percent of the population, adopted Indonesian names and downplayed their ethnicity.

The ban on public displays of Chinese culture dated back to 1966, when a failed coup attempt was blamed on a communist party allegedly backed by China.

Amid bloody reprisals, General Suharto seized power, broke off relations with Beijing, and accused Indonesia's cowed Chinese minority – which had long been vulnerable to popular resentment of their economic success – of divided loyalties.

The collapse of Mr. Suharto's anticommunist regime in 1998 opened up a democratic space for Chinese-Indonesians, just as the West and other Asians were scrambling to learn Mandarin and connect with a resurgent China.

In 2000, Radio Cakrawala hired its first Mandarin-speaking announcer, an Indonesian educated in neighboring Singapore, where Mandarin is an official language. Today, the station boasts 23 hosts who alternate on daily broadcasts that include live calls and song requests conducted in a mixture of Mandarin and Indonesian, depending on the caller.

Radio Cakrawala used to broadcast Mandarin pop songs that had been rerecorded with Indonesian lyrics to evade the censors.

After a presidential decree in 2000 lifted the ban on Chinese broadcasting, it switched to playing the originals and added Mandarin-speaking DJs.

Station manager Haryono insists that since Radio Cakrawala is primarily a commercial operator, the shift to Mandarin was in part a marketing decision. The tactic seems to have met success as the station's fan club now counts 10,000 members and its audience may be several times larger than that during peak hours. Advertisers include condo developers, Chinese-language schools, and restaurants.

Mr. Haryono argues that Chinese songs strike a chord, even if listeners haven't a clue what they're about. "Most people don't speak Mandarin. But they like the songs," he says. "Most Indonesians don't speak English, but they like listening to songs in English."

Radio is not, however, the only media platform for Chinese-language content. On weekday mornings, Indonesians can tune in to private cable channel Metro Television, which airs a half-hour-long news show in Mandarin called "Xinwen" (news). Three daily newspapers also publish in Chinese. Meanwhile, the port city of Surabaya in East Java boasts its own Chinese-language daily. Specialist bookstores overflow with printed Chinese materials and private schools tout Mandarin classes.

Teenage students who are interested in learning Chinese are the target audience for Metro's morning news show, says Susy Ong, its producer. In addition to regular news, the show reports on the social and cultural activities of Chinese-Indonesians.

Despite being frozen out of public life, Mandarin never died in Indonesia. Many ethnic Chinese spoke their tongue at home and taught their children how to read. They also used religious classes – for Buddhism and Christianity rather than Indonesia's majority Muslim faith – as a cover for language lessons. Those who could afford to, sent their children to study in Singapore or Taiwan. Today, these returnees are in demand as private tutors.

Official discrimination may have subsided, but many Chinese still struggle to mix with other Indonesians who harbor prejudices, says Ponijan Liaw, an ethnic Chinese motivational speaker and politician. For his community, learning Mandarin is "a kind of oasis" after the repression as well as a leg-up to successful business dealings in Asia. "We have more freedom now, but social tensions are still there," he adds.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.