The Chinese in the Collective Memory of the Indonesian Nation

Asvi Warman Adam

Indonesians of Arab and Indian descent have experienced few problems in their relationship with Indonesians of indigenous ethnic backgrounds. Up until now,  these relationships have run smoothly (despite recent allegations made by the United States that some Indonesians of Arab descent are involved in terrorism). As a matter of fact, they are even considered to belong to the ethnic group of the particular place where they reside. For example, Indonesians of Arab descent who have been living in Pekalongan for several generations are regarded as Javanese from Pekalongan. The same is not true for Indonesians of Chinese descent. Why are the Chinese considered an exceptional ethnic group despite their efforts to assimilate locally? Why are they always made the scapegoat in critical moments of Indonesian history? 1

This problem has roots that can be traced to the period before the arrival of the Europeans and especially to the colonial period itself (Lohanda 2002).  The Chinese question (Chineeche Kwestie) heated up from the 1900s, when a nationalist movement arose among the Chinese in Indonesia. The Tiong Hoa Hwee Koan (THHK) was founded on 17 March 1900 in Batavia and began establishing Chinese schools – 54 by 1908 and reaching 450 by 1934. Their initiative was followed by other ethnic groups, including the Arabs, for whom the THHK was a model for their Djamiat-ul Chair. In 1909 R.A. Tirtoadisuryo founded Sarekat Dagang Islamiyah in Buitenzorg (Bogor), using as a model the Siang Hwee, a chamber of commerce founded by the Chinese in Batavia in 1906. The establishment of Sarekat Islam (SI) in Surakarta was also influenced by similar associations founded earlier by the Chinese. SI’s founding father H. Samanhudi was initially a member of Kong Sing, a cooperative association that provided social and economic support for its Chinese members in Surakarta. Later Samahudi created Rekso Rumekso, a Javanese version of Kong Sing. 

The Dutch colonial government became alarmed when in January 1912, Sun Yat Sen proclaimed the Republic of China. Chinese organizations which had initially worked within the social-cultural field began to turn toward politics. Their objective was to eliminate discrimination against Chinese in the East Indies in the areas of education, law and justice, civil status, taxation, and restrictions on mobility and residence. In implementing the Ethical Policy, the colonial government tried to improve education in the colony, but the Chinese were not included in the program, despite the fact that they were subject to double taxation (both income and property tax). The income tax was otherwise imposed on pribumi (natives) who were not farmers, while the property tax (on houses, horses, carts, motor vehicles, and household appliances) was imposed only on Europeans and Foreign Orientals (including the Chinese). Restrictions on Chinese mobility were implemented with the passenstelsel (pass system). Since the massacre of the Chinese in Batavia in 1740, they were permitted to reside in certain places only. The wijkenstelsel (quarter system) encouraged the formation of Chinese residential areas or Chinatowns in a number of big cities in the East Indies.

The aim of the colonial government to prevent the interaction between pribumi and Chinese through the passenstelsel and wijkenstelsel was a blessing in disguise, as it resulted in the concentration of Chinese economic activities in the cities. When the world economy became industrialized, it was the Chinese who were most prepared as they had already specialized in the food and beverage, medicinal herb, household appliance, building material, spinning, batik, cigarette, and transport businesses.

Today we see the stereotype of the ethnic Chinese as “Ali-Baba businessmen,” particularly during the New Order, when people believed they colluded with government officials to get business projects, robbing pribumi businessmen of opportunities. Adding to this is the ghettoization of some Chinese in luxurious and exclusive residential areas in big cities, unwilling to associate with the relatively poor and deprived society surrounding them. There are many other traits of this kind which certainly apply to a small number of ethnic Chinese, but which are generalized to stereotype the ethnic group as a whole.  

What needs to be noted is that the ethnic Chinese perception of the pribumi is not congruent with the pribumi perception of the ethnic Chinese (Suryadinata 1984). This phenomena does not occur in the Philippines and Thailand, where the respective groups share mutual perceptions. Since Indonesia’s independence, negative perceptions of the ethnic Chinese have persisted, even among the national political elite. In contrast, there has been a heightened sense among the ethnic Chinese of their identity as Indonesians 

How do we bridge this gap in perception? In other words, how do we reconstruct the collective memory of the Indonesian people? There is an Indonesian proverb that says “we cannot love what we do not know.” We know Arab and Indian culture well and thus can accept their existence within the Indonesian culture. But Indonesians hardly know Chinese culture.

Arab culture is known through Islam, the religion embraced by the majority of people. Is not Al Quran, read so often by Muslims, written in the Arabic language? And the culture of India is represented by Hinduism and Buddhism, whose heritage can be seen in the Prambanan and Borobudur temples. These two temples have put Indonesia on the world map and have top tourist destinations in the country. But what do we know of Chinese culture except the lion dance and Chinese temples?

It is this ignorance that has prompted the masses in certain situations to destroy property belonging to the ethnic Chinese. People would certainly think twice before attacking something they know and even admire. This ignorance has contributed to the “permissive” conditions that allow the commission of violence (Sukma 2002), especially when the acts are tolerated by the elite and the authorities. This opinion is shared by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who said that to overcome the kind of savagery committed in the May 1998 riots, both the attackers and the victims need better information (Pramoedya 2000). Knowledge about the ethnic Chinese that is widely shared is not only scanty, but also misleading. This lack of information is one of the many reasons why the ethnic Chinese are still considered “the other.” As discussed in Roots of Violence in Indonesia, violence is mostly directed towards groups of people who are regarded as “the other” (Colombijn and Lindblad 2002).

Since 2001, the Department of National Education has been testing a new curriculum, “the competency-based curriculum,” in several schools. Included in the material taught at the junior and senior high school level are sections on the influence of Hindu-Buddhist, Islamic, and European cultures, yet absolutely nothing about Chinese culture is touched on. History textbooks for senior high school classes 1 through 3 – such as that written by I. Wayan Badrika and published by Erlangga – do not include a single mention of Chinese culture or a single historical figure of Chinese descent. Of the hundreds of national heroes recognized by the government of Indonesia from 1959 to the present, not one is ethnic Chinese.

Since 1970, the book Sejarah Indonesia Nasional (Indonesian National History), published by the Department of Education and Culture, has been used as the main resource for history textbooks. That book is now considered a scandal. Its rewriting is being undertaken by the Directorate of History (now under the Department of Culture and Tourism). Unfortunately, in the outlines proposed in a workshop in Puncak, West Java, at the end of August 2002, the role of Chinese culture was again not mentioned. I myself spoke on that occasion about the importance of the Chinese nebula. Professor Taufik Abdullah, who is the general editor of the book, promised to insert it into the third chapter (that discusses the coming of Islam to Indonesia). That chapter is co-edited by Azyumardi Azra and Hasan M. Ambary and the writers so far selected are from the Islamic National Institute (IAIN), Jakarta. As for the result, we need to wait until August 2004, when the book is to be published. 

Mie goreng, a Chinese cuisine completely assimilated into Indonesian mainstream cuisine.
Mie goreng, a Chinese cuisine completely assimilated into Indonesian mainstream cuisine.

The Role of the Ethnic Chinese in the Development of Science and Technology

 Chinese culture played a significant role in the development of science and technology in Indonesia, thanks to which Indonesians enjoy the comforts of their daily lives today. The late Professor Denys Lombard and his wife Dr. Claudine Salmon have analyzed this in great detail in many of their writings (see, for example, Lombard 1995). The Dutch initially paid little attention to agriculture in Java; it was the Chinese who developed rice cultivation. Every year, the many large wooden junks that came here to trade also carried 1200-1300 Chinese specifically to man the farms.

In the seventeenth century, the Chinese in Batavia cultivated sugar cane for the sugar trade. The pressing of the cane was done in a very simple way: two vertical wooden tubes were turned by a cow using a cogwheel and a 4.5 meter shaft. The sugar cane was inserted between them and pressed twice to produce as much juice as possible. Due to a shortage of combustible fuel, the sugar industry moved to central and east Java from 1815.

The Chinese never monopolized rice cultivation, but rendered the service of inventing new technologies, such as a system of rice hulling in 1750 which, using two or three cows, could process 500 tons of rice per day. This replaced the traditional system of manual pounding using a mortar that processed only 100 tons per day. The dissemination of this technology spurred rice production to overcome the food supply shortage in Batavia at the time. It was the Chinese who invented these simple devices for farming – the pedal pump, sugar cane press, coconut juicer, rice huller, and plow.

The Chinese also produced wine from fermented rice, sugar cane juice, and palm sap, having developed distillation from 1611. They cultivated crops such as peanut and indigo. Peanut was introduced in Batavia in 1755, probably from China, while indigo was indigenous to Indonesia, having been used as a dye under the local name tarum. The Chinese succeeded in cultivating vegetables and fruits, the best watermelon coming from Tanjung Kait. They also imported plants such as cotton and eggplant. A protein-rich crop introduced by the Chinese was the mung/soy bean, all the products of which have Chinese names: tauge (bean sprouts), tahu (tofu), and taoco (fermented soy beans). Ketchup is also made from one type of bean.

The Chinese were pioneers in the fields of metallurgy and mining. They worked in lead mining in Bangka and gold mining in West Kalimantan in the first half of the nineteenth century. The technique used by Chinese miners was very efficient for the time and originated from irrigation techniques: controlling the natural water flow to wash the mineral all along the surface of the slope.

Other things developed by Chinese effort were sewing needles – the fabrics sewn were also initially imported from China – and household items such as the clay pot. On the premises of the Jindeyuan temple in Jakarta is a clay pot measuring 1.2 meters in diameter dating from 1812 that is used to burn paper money. The Chinese also had a role in casting cannons in Aceh and Patani.

Chinese people have made contributions to marine technology as well. They were the ones who built the ships used by Pati Unus, the prince from Jepara, to attack Malacca. The deep sea fishing boat or perahu mayang used by local fishermen off the northern coast of Java uses waterproof partition material characteristic of Chinese ships. Apart from that, the Chinese were active in cultivating oysters, mussels, and fishponds. Salt-making techniques were developed by the Chinese, who did monopolize this industry before the nineteenth-century Dutch colonial government developed modern methods by taking possession of the large salt ponds in Gresik and Sumenep.

Finally, ethnic Chinese authors have played an important role in the development of modern Indonesian literature. Over the course of 90 years (1870-1960), this ethnic group gave rise to approximately 806 authors of 3005 books, while in the 50-year period from 1918 to 1967, non-Chinese authors of modern Indonesian literature numbered only 175 and produced around 400 books (not including translations). 2

The tin mines of Bangka Island almost entirely employed Chinese workers.
The tin mines of Bangka Island almost entirely employed Chinese workers.

Erased from the Collective Memory

All this time we never realized the size of the Chinese contribution to the development of technology – sophisticated at the time and seemingly simple today – that has been so important in improving living conditions and social welfare. Even some of our daily diet originated in culinary techniques developed by the Chinese.

The noodles eaten every day by many Indonesians came from China. The method of making noodles was then adapted by local ethnic groups so that today we have a variety of noodles, such as Binjai noodles, Belitung noodles, and Aceh noodles. The tofu we enjoy every day was developed by a Chinese settler in Sumedang in 1917. Today, Sumedang is known for its tofu. Other popular foods are bakpao and siomay. Many snacks originated in China, such as hunkue (gelatin made from mung bean flour) and kwaci (dried watermelon seeds). Some kitchen utensils from China are the cobek (mortar), ulekan (pestle), kuali (clay pot), and anglo (clay brazier). 3

These facts have been eliminated from the collective memory of our people by the New Order regime, which in its early years chose not to have relations with the People’s Republic of China and to forbid anything related to China. Chinese language books were forbidden, and even packages with Chinese characters were considered suspect and confiscated by the security forces. Diplomatic and other relations were neglected for thirty years, leaving us thirty years behind in our knowledge of China.

We should also not forget that the Chinese took part in fighting for the independence of this country. Naval officer Major John Lie was involved in smuggling from Singapore to generate funds for the republic (Lie 1992). Likewise, some centuries earlier in West Kalimantan, the Chinese fought against the Dutch colonial regime (Siahaan 1994).

Throughout the New Order, and peaking in the May 1998 riots, we have made the Chinese our scapegoats. Perhaps one reason is that we have no idea of the true contributions of the ethnic Chinese to our civilization. We believe they are nothing but brokers, usurers, middlemen, and people who monopolize our economy. 

Let Assimilation Work Naturally

Apart from Singapore, where ethnic Chinese form the majority, it is only Thailand and the Philippines within Southeast Asia where Chinese minorities are openly accepted as important elements in the history and civilization of the country. In other countries – for example, Indonesia and at a certain times Vietnam – after centuries of interaction and assimilation in customs, religion, and technology, the Chinese still feel socially and culturally ostracized, like a minority group that is refused full integration. Both Indonesia and Vietnam have tried to limit the activities of their citizens of Chinese descent.

The formation of Chinese culture began around the Huang Ho (Yellow) River and then moved to south China, finally reaching the coastal area. Up until the tenth century, these developments continued in the direction of the South China Sea. At the same time, Indian civilization, which developed far from the coast in northern India, expanded southward, reaching Southeast Asia.

 In Java, cultural osmosis had long been occurring and was able to accommodate these new elements. The immigrants married native women and some of them adopted local customs. In the fifteenth century, most Chinese living along the coast were Muslim.

Chinese networks became widely distributed around Southeast Asia and even around the world. This was a common practice as race, language, and shared experience caused diasporic Chinese everywhere to feel more comfortable doing business amongst themselves, as they built mutual trust easily. At the end of the nineteen century and the beginning of the twentieth, a network of Chinese rice importers was formed in Southeast Asia that even reached the United States.

Today, we need to make use of these Chinese networks to help the Indonesian economy recover and to become the motor of Indonesian trade in the future. Chinese expertise in business developed because restrictions left them no other choice. Therefore, they concentrated in this one field – they live and die by business.

Let us stop making them the scapegoat of all Indonesian problems. I agree that conglomerates involved in financial scandals, for example, BLBI (Liquidity Assistance from the Bank of Indonesia), should be taken to court and punished if found guilty. But we should eliminate negative stereotypes of the ethnic Chinese. They should be given the chance to pursue careers in other fields, such as politics, culture, military, and police. According to Siauw Tiong-djin [chairman of the Committee Against Racism in Indonesia, ed.], three things are needed to overcome the Chinese problem: a) Chinese political participatation, especially in the House of Representatives, to eliminate and prevent discriminatory regulations; b) Chinese participation in developing the country, especially now to aid national economic recovery; and c) integration and assimilation. There are bad people everywhere. Among the Chinese – as among other ethnic groups in Indonesia – there are thieves and swindlers who run off with clients’ money. But this should not be generalized into an ethnic characterization.

If we regard the ethnic Chinese as a national asset, then assimilation can occur naturally, as it has for centuries, without the forced assimilation seen in our recent history.

During Banten’s golden period in the seventeenth century, there was a wealthy businessman called Tan Tse Ko (Adam 1990). He managed to integrate into Bantenese society by declaring his conversion to Islam and changing his name to Cakradana. He was an exporter with global vision. It is recorded that he sent trading ships to Indochina in 1670, 1671, 1672, and 1676. Evidence of his business relations with European traders is contained in a letter seeking payment on his debt, which is held in a museum in Scandinavia. The document is written in Malay, the lingua franca of the period.

In mentioning religious identity here, I am not talking about faith, something known only to the individual himself. Whether or not Cakradana was a devout person is not mentioned in the historical sources. Nevertheless, he formally converted to the religion embraced by the majority of Bantenese at the time and this clearly enabled him to be accepted as the member of the community. Because of his close relationship with the king – it is not only now that a businessman can become an official – in 1677 Cakradana was made syahbandar (port master) of the port of Banten. Unfortunately, in April 1682, the VOC occupied Banten and banned the international trade it had long conducted in order to facilitate the Dutch monopoly.

Another method of assimilation is through the cultural media. This is obvious in Central and East Java, where the Chinese practice the local culture in their everyday life. They speak Javanese fluently, sometimes sounding more Javanese than the Javanese themselves.

Chinese Indonesians pray at a temple in Glodok, Jakarta, during Chinese New Year.
Chinese Indonesians pray at a temple in Glodok, Jakarta, during Chinese New Year.


  1. Collective memory will take a long time to reconstruct, as will the dissemination of the history and culture of ethnic Chinese throughout Indonesian society. Accounts of the influence and contribution of the Chinese to Indonesian culture, therefore, should be included in curriculum and history textbooks as quickly as possible.
  2. In the standard Sejarah Nasional Indonesia (SNI), there should be ample discussion of Chinese culture that is comparable to discussion of the Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic cultures.
  3. The new SNI is scheduled to be published in August 2004, but so far we have no clues as to what will be included on Chinese society. I suggest therefore that a book on “The Role of the Ethnic Chinese in Indonesian History” be written as soon as possible by an independent team. The book can be submitted to the Department of National Education as a resource book for the writing of the standardized history book and for establishing history curriculums.
  4. Chinese networks have spread throughout the world since the colonial period. Our country can use them to aid economic recovery and to improve the welfare of the people in the future.
  5. Assimilation of the Chinese with other communities in Indonesia continues to progress. Let it happen naturally through religious, cultural, and other approaches.

Asvi Warman Adam
Asvi Warman Adam is a researcher at the Center for Political Research, LIPI. This essay is a revised version of a keynote address presented at the seminar on “The Role of Chinese in the History of Indonesia,” held by the association INTI (Indonesia-Tionghoa) in cooperation with the daily newspaper Suara Pembaruan, at the Hotel Mercure Rekso, Jakarta, 9 November 2002. It was translated by Dhita Hapsarani and edited by Melani Budianta and Donna Amoroso.

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 3:  Nations and Other Stories. March 2003 



Adam, Asvi Warman. 1990. “Les Relations entre les Indes Néerlandaises et l’Indochine, 1870-1914.” Thèse de doctorat, Paris, EHESS.
Colombijn, Freek, and J. Thomas Lindblad, eds. Roots of Violence in Indonesia: Contemporary Violence in Historical Perspective. Leiden: KITLV Press.
Lie, John. 1992. “Dari Pelayaran Niaga ke Operasi Menembus Blokade Musuh.” In Memoar Pejuang Republik Indonesia Seputar “Zaman Singapura” 1945-1950, ed. Kustiniyati Mochtar. Jakarta: Gramedia Pustaka Utama.
Lohanda, Mona. 2002. “Perspektif Historis Anti Cina.” In Antara Prasangka dan Realita (Telaah Kritis Wacana Anti Cina di Indonesia), ed. Andreas Pardede.Jakarta: Pustaka Inspirasi.
Lombard, Denis. 1995. Nusa Jawa: Silang Budaya, jilid II Jaringan Asia. Jakarta: Gramedia Pustaka Utama.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer. 2000. “Rasialisme Anti-Tionghoa dan Percobaan untuk Menjawabnya.” A recollection in Yusiu Liem, Prasangka Terhadap Etnis Cina: Sebuah Intisari. Jakarta: Jambatan.
Siahaan, Harlem. 1994. “Konflik dan Perlawanan Kongsi Cina di Indonesia.” Ph.D. Diss. University of Gajah Mada.
Siauw Tiong-djin. [No date]. Penyelesaian Masalah Minoritas Adalah Bagian dari Reformasi Total. [Jakarta]: Emansipasi.
Sukma, Rizal. 2002. “Dimensi Eksternal Masalah Anti Cina di Indonesia.” In Antara Prasangka dan Realita (Telaah Kritis Wacana Anti Cina di Indonesia), ed. Andreas Pardede.Jakarta: Pustaka Inspirasi.
Suryadinata, Leo. 1984. Dilema Minoritas Tionghoa. Jakarta: Grafiti Pers.


  1. The writer agrees with A. Dahana’s view that it is best to address an ethnic group by the name it is comfortable with, and the majority of Indonesian Chinese prefer Tionghoa to Cina (Chinese). However, I use “Chinese” not in its negative sense, but for a practical reason: what is being discussed here is the culture of an ethnic group originating in China that has migrated to all parts of the world. Tedy Jusuf, chairman of Paguyuban Sosial Marga Tionghoa Indonesia (Social Association of Indonesian Chinese), told this writer that a difference was emerging between Tionghoa and Cina, with Tiongha referring to those with Indonesian citizenship and Cina to those with foreign citizenship. However, this difference is only applicable to post-independence Indonesia. What if we want to discuss the history of this ethnic group during the Dutch colonial period?
  2. Data from the KPG  (Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia) publisher, 2002.
  3. See the special edition of Intisari magazine, October 2002. This magazine also published a selection of short biographies of some Indonesian Chinese in Pelangi Cina Indonesia, Juni 2002.