According to some sources there are 7.2 million ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. According to other sources they make up 1.2 percent of the population, which would mean there are about 3 million of them. One reason for the discrepancy is that has been a lot of intermarrying between Chinese and other Indonesian groups over the years and defining what is Chinese is not always clear (Is a Chinese a pure blood Chinese or one that is 50 percent or 75 percent Chinese?) . Like their counterparts in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, many are descendants of people from the southern Chinese province of Fujian who migrated to Southeast Asia at around the turn of the 20th century. Many Chinese are Christians. A smaller number are Buddhists, Taoists and Confucians.

Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “Chinese Indonesians, despite roots in Indonesia that stretch back centuries, have often been regarded as alien intruders by this overwhelming pribumi majority. A 2000 census, the last such comprehensive survey, put the number of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia at just 1.7 million — about 0.9 percent of the population — but the census asked people to identify their ethnic group, something that many Chinese would have been reluctant to do. Their real number is thought to be several times as high. About a third of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese are reported to be Christian. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, August 18, 2012]

Identifying someone in Indonesia as a member of the Chinese (Tionghoa) ethnic group is not an easy matter, because the physical characteristics, languages, names, areas of residence, and lifestyles of Chinese Indonesians are not always distinct from those of the rest of the population. The national census does not record the Chinese as a special group, and there are no simple racial criteria for membership in this group. There are some people who consider themselves Chinese but who, as a result of intermarriage with the local population, are less than one-quarter Chinese in ancestry. On the other hand, there are some people who by ancestry could be considered half-Chinese or more but who regard themselves as fully Indonesian. Furthermore, many people who identify themselves as Chinese Indonesians cannot read or write the Chinese language. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The policy of the Indonesian government by the early 1990s strongly advocated the assimilation of the Chinese population into the communities in which they lived, but the Chinese had a long history of enforced separation from their non-Chinese neighbors. The Chinese who immigrated to Indonesia were not linguistically homogeneous. The dominant languages among these immigrants were Hokkien, Hakka, and Cantonese. There was great occupational diversity among the Chinese in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but Dutch colonial policies channeled them into trade, mining, or skilled artisanship. In the twenty-first century, Chinese continue to dominate the Indonesian economy’s private sector, despite central government policies designed to promote non-Chinese entrepreneurs. *

Nonetheless, Chinese are not a monolithic group. Not all are rich and urban. They seldom share a common language besides Indonesian or Javanese. One of the historical distinctions among Indonesian Chinese in the 1960s and 1970s—between the peranakan (localborn Chinese with some Indonesian ancestry) and totok (full-blooded Chinese, usually foreign-born)—has begun to fade as fewer foreign-born Chinese immigrate to Indonesia. Although the distinctiveness and social significance of this division vary considerably from place to place in the archipelago, ties to the Chinese homeland are weaker within the peranakan community, and there is stronger evidence of Indonesian influence. Unlike the more strictly male-dominated totok, peranakan families recognize descent along both female and male lines. Peranakan are more likely to have converted to Christianity (although some became Muslims) and to have assimilated in other ways to the norms of Indonesian culture. They typically speak Bahasa Indonesia as their first language. *

History of Chinese in Indonesia

After the Dutch took over Jakarta in large numbers of Chinese seeking to make their fortune emigrated to what is now Indonesia. The Dutch tried to stem the migration but with little success. As times passed the Chinese became more numerous, their impact om the Indonesian economy became greater and Chinese gangs made trouble.

The history of prejudice against the Chinese goes back a long time. The Dutch placed the Chinese is a special class, ""foreign Orientals," and used Chinese traders as middlemen between colonial authorities and indigenous people, which aroused resentment among the local people. The Chinese were forced to live in ghettos, were not allowed to own land and never assimilated into the indigenous population. In the early 20th century, Muslim groups sometimes directed their anti-colonial feelings towards the Chinese.

The Chinese minority in Indonesia had long played a major economic role in the archipelago as merchants, artisans, and indispensable middlemen in the collection of crops and taxes from native populations. They encountered considerable hostility from both Indonesians and Europeans, largely because of the economic threat they seemed to pose. In 1740, for example, as many as 10,000 Chinese were massacred in Batavia, apparently with the complicity of the Dutch governor general. In the late nineteenth century, emigration from China's southern provinces to Indonesia increased apace with economic development. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Between 1870 and 1930, the Chinese population expanded from around 250,000 to 1,250,000, the latter being about 2 percent of the archipelago's total population. Chinese were divided into totok, first-generation, fullblooded emigrants, and peranakan, native-born Chinese with some Indonesian ancestry who, like blijvers and Eurasians, had a distinct Indies life-style. Overseas Chinese lived for the most part in segregated communities. During the early twentieth century, the identity of overseas Chinese was deeply influenced by revolutionary developments in their homeland. *

For nearly a century prior to 1919, Chinese were forced to live in separate urban neighborhoods and could travel out of them only with government permits. Most Chinese continued to settle in urban areas of Indonesia even after this “quarter system” was discontinued in 1919. In some areas, such as the city of Pontianak in Kalimantan Barat and Bagansiapiapi in Riau Province, Chinese even came to form a majority of the population. They began to settle in rural areas of Java in the 1920s and 1930s.

Later History of the Chinese

In the early independence era in the 1950s written Chinese and the teaching of Chinese in school were banned. Chinese who did not have citizenship were deported. Those that remained were given the choice of learning the Bahasa Indonesian or are being deported themselves.

In the 1960s the Indonesian government again prohibited the Chinese from exercising free choice of residence, requiring them to live in cities and towns. In 1960, Sukarno issued a decree banning "aliens" (Chinese) from doing business in the countryside. It was aimed at the Chinese engaged in the rural retail trade, long dominated by the Chinese. Nearly 100,000 Chinese were forced to shut down their businesses and return to China. Those that remained moved to the cities, where many struck it rich.

In the wake of the 1965 coup's failure, there was a violent anticommunist reaction. By December 1965, mobs were engaged in large-scale killings, most notably in Jawa Timur Province and on Bali, but also in parts of Sumatra. Members of Ansor, the Nahdatul Ulama's youth branch, were particularly zealous in carrying out a "holy war" against the PKI on the village level. Chinese were also targets of mob violence. Estimates of the number killed — both Chinese and others — vary widely, from a low of 78,000 to 2 million; probably somewhere around 300,000 is most likely. Whichever figure is true, the elimination of the PKI was the bloodiest event in postwar Southeast Asia until the Khmer Rouge established its regime in Cambodia a decade later. [Source: Library of Congress]

During the Suharto years, nearly all Chinese Indonesians obtained Indonesian citizenship, often at high cost and as a result of considerable government pressure. Popular resentment persisted toward Chinese economic success, however, and nurtured a perception of Chinese complicity in the Suharto regime’s corruption. Suharto placed rigid restrictions designed to wipe out Chinese identity on Chinese who chose to become Indonesian citizens. A 1967 presidential decree banned Chinese New Year celebrations and various Chinese arts. Despite this some wealthy Chinese businessmen prospered in the Suharto years presumably because they developed schemes in which the Suharto family were given large slices of the pie.

In May 1998, riots broke out in which hundreds of Chinese stores were burned and Chinese women were raped and murdered. When many Chinese Indonesians fled the violence, the subsequent capital flight resulted in further economic hardship in a country already suffering a financial crisis. By 2005 many had returned, but the economic and social confidence of many Chinese in the country was badly shaken by the experience.

The Suharto government’s program of assimilation for the Chinese began to be phased out in 1998. Long- discouraged symbols of Chinese identity such as Chinese-language newspapers, schools, and public rituals, and the use of Chinese names, are no longer subject to strict regulation.

Chinese Culture

Assimilation for Chinese has been particularly difficult in Malaysia and Indonesia where Islamic practices discourage marriages involving Muslims and non-Muslims. For local people marrying a non-Muslim is also seen as rejection of Muslim-based nationalist pride. Many Chinese have Indonesian names.

Hokkein, the Southern Min dialect of Fujian, is the primary dialect of many Overseas Chinese communities in Malaysia, Singapore Indonesia, and the Philippines whereas Teochew, the Southern Min dialect of Chaozhou is the primary dialect of the Overseas Chinese communities in Thailand.

More than 65 percent of Chinese Indonesians speak Indonesian at home. Since Chinese have traditionally been prohibited from speaking Chinese they have tended to study English. Peranakan Indonesian—a fusion of Indonesian, Javanese and Hokkein—is spoken in Indonesia.

Chinese influence in the visual arts can be seen along the entire north coast of Java from the batik patterns of Cirebon and Pekalongan, to the finely carved furniture and doors of Kudus in Central Java, as also in the intricate gold embroidered wedding costumes of West Sumatra. The Chinese minority of Java has also developed its own shadow puppets, combining Javanese and Chinese features. Chinese in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia have the custom eating any time they feel like it.

Potehi: Chinese Puppetry in Indonesia

Potehi puppetry, a kind of Chinese puppetry performed in Indonesia, is said to have originated on the Chinese mainland during the Shang Dynasty about 3,000 years ago, The word potehi comes from the words poo (kain/cloth), tay (kantung/pocket), and hie (wayang/puppet). The puppets, about 30 centimeters tall, have a similar shape to the unyil (children’s cartoon) puppets made from cloth. Each doll has an individual face. [Source: Lutfi Retno Wahyudyanti, Jakarta Post, March 20, 2009 |~|]

According to Jakarta Post: “There are darkly colored dolls with angry faces and brightly colored dolls with happy faces, which wear colorful dresses decorated with beautiful embroidery. The puppeteer manipulates the dolls from below using both his hands, yet can play two characters at the same time. He may have an assistant for more characters.” |~|

“Potehi has increasingly rare as few people are interested in maintaining the tradition. Puppeteers in Solo and Surabaya are ethnic Javanese, leaving only one puppeteer of Chinese descent, who lives in Semarang. If the Potehi puppets become extinct. It is mainly because of a 1967 presidential decree, which forced ethnic Chinese to integrate, costing them their Chinese identity. Under this law, Chinese New Year celebrations and various Chinese arts were prohibited. |~|

Chinese Puppetry Hangs on in Indonesia

Lutfi Retno Wahyudyanti wrote in the Jakarta Post: “In the middle of busy Semawis Market in Semarang, dozens of people stood staring, apparently transfixed by a red box, from which issued the sounds of traditional Chinese music. Before long, a golden puppet appeared, decorated with the picture of a dragon – the king. The Potehi puppet show had begun. Inside the box, 75-year-old Teguh Chandra and his assistant performed their show, accompanied by three musicians playing a range of traditional instruments. [Source: Lutfi Retno Wahyudyanti, Jakarta Post, March 20, 2009 |~|]

Teguh Chandra “got the chance to return to the stage after former president Abdurrahman Wahid revoked the 1967 presidential decree. Teguh’s first shows were performed in 1999 in the Ismail Marzuki Park at the invitation of Gadjah Mada University and the Kencana Solo University. The stage shows, although legal again, have lost their prestige and popularity and, as each show runs for three or more days, are finding it difficult to compete with television programs and modern entertainment. Furthermore, the long prohibition means interest in becoming a puppeteer has disappeared, and Teguh has never had a student. |~|

“Well before the performances were prohibited, who wanted to learn how to be a puppeteer?” asks Teguh, now the only person of Chinese descent running Chinese Potehi puppets shows. “Even now, among those who are on the stage, only a few want to continue because it is difficult to rely on this as a source of income.” |~|

Life of Chinese Puppeteer in Indonesia

Lutfi Retno Wahyudyanti wrote in the Jakarta Post: “Thio Tiong Gie, better known as Teguh Chandra, was born in January 1933 in Demak, where he taught himself his Potehi puppeteering skills. “A long time ago my father had a fabric shop in Demak,” he says. “We went bankrupt because the shop was robbed in 1942. My father even went to prison.” After that, the family Teguh is one of five children – moved to Kaligawe.“At that time we earned an income from selling snacks. My father bought newspapers to wrap the snacks.” In one newspaper was a pakem [a traditional puppet story] about the Potehi puppets.” [Source: Lutfi Retno Wahyudyanti, Jakarta Post, March 20, 2009 |~|]

“Teguh liked the story and memorized it. Some years later, he met a friend of his father who was recruiting puppeteers who could perform with the Potehi puppets. Because Teguh wanted a job he claimed that he had the necessary skills. He was the right person for the job, he said, because he liked history and was a good performer. He had a week to learn how to run a Potehi puppet show, before he was asked to go on stage in Cianjur. “This stage event was a big success,” Teguh recalls. “The audiences liked me and I was asked to perform again.” |~|

Teguh then started to seriously learn how to become a Potehi puppeteer. He had success in various places, especially along the north coast of Java, although he had only one play. Those who came to watch his Potehi puppet shows were from both the ethnic Chinese community and the indigenous Indonesian community. Eventually, word of his success reached the ears of a famous Potehi puppeteer called Tan Ang Ang. “I got a letter from him. He asked me to go to Blitar. There I was given 10 books of pakem for Potehi puppets. After that I started to perform various pakem.” |~|

“During this time, Teguh Chandra, a Confucian, also became a teacher of religion, being active as an itinerant preacher. He also ran services for those wanting a prayer ceremony or help with prayers for funerals. And so Thio Tiong Gie (as he then was) could no longer stage his Potehi puppet plays. He kept his dolls, some of which are hundreds of years old, in a big case, cleaning them occasionally to keep them in good condition. He also had to change his name to something more Indonesian and, following the Internal Affairs Minister’s Decree in 1978 allowing only five official religions, was forced to register himself as a Buddhist. Forced out of his job, the man now known as Teguh headed to Tegal, recalling from his stage shows that there were many welders working there. He tried to make doors and window bars and started a welding workshop.” |~|

Chinese and Business

In Indonesia the Chinese are regarded as hardworking and enterprising. One housewife from eastern Java told the New York Times, "They work harder. In a Chinese family you see the mother working, the kids working, everyone working. Sometimes we feel jealous. We think, why are we Javanese below the Chinese?"

Overseas Chinese controlled much of the commerce in Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Cambodia and Indonesia in the 19th and 20th century and were involved in businesses throughout the Asian-Pacific region in the same period. But while most ethnic Chinese are considered to be members of the wealthy merchant class, many are actually small-business men, shopkeepers or traders.

Under the Dutch, the Chinese were prominent merchants. Under Suharto, Chinese tycoons became extremely wealthy while ordinary Chinese prospered as small businessmen but were regarded with suspicion by many Indonesians. Today Chinese own shops, restaurants, hotels, banks, industries. Only a small percentage are very wealthy. Most are small business owners.

During the Asian financial crisis many Chinese lost their jobs and ways of making a living. After the crisis in 1998, many Chinese businessmen in Java left the island and opened up new businesses off of Java, being careful however not compete with local businesses. In Bali for example they opened up 24-hour mini marts, Internet cafes and small craft factories—businesses that hadn't even existed before.

Wealthy Chinese

By one estimate, the Chinese make up 4 percent of the population but control about 70 percent of Indonesia's wealth. Under Suharto, 27 of Indonesian's 35 largest private businesses were run by Chinese tycoons. The only ones that weren’t were run by Suharto's children, often in conjunction with Chinese businessmen. The Chinese have traditionally relied on political connections to prosper. They have also been a magnet for foreign investment, much of it from non-Indonesian Chinese in places like Taiwan and Singapore.

The success of the Chinese is widely envied and resented in Indonesia. Many Chinese have amassed their vast fortunes by exploiting Indonesian workers and laborers on plantations and in factories. One laborer in east Java told the New York Times, "We're being monopolized by the Chinese. The Chinese should be kicked out! Then we would be freed of them forever."

The Chinese have traditionally kept a low profile so as not to arouse to much resentment over their wealth. Most rich Chinese don't like to flaunt their wealth out of fear of upsetting the Muslim majority. Even so many live in spacious houses and have Indonesian chauffeurs and servants.

Ethnic Chinese tycoons were hit hard by the Asian financial crisis. Many remained technically bankrupt for a long time afterwards.

See Rich

Chinese-Style Business Practices

Chinese are known as risk takers. Their thinking sometimes goes that opportunities are rare and they must be pursued aggressively when they occur. Whole families will sometimes invest great sums of money on the chances of one member to get ahead. And, there is often an emphasis on getting rich while you can. Chinese businesses have been criticized for going after quick profits rather than looking out of the long term interest of their companies.Those that have become hugely successful have often done so by controlling supply chains in their business.

When starting a business Americans often go to the bank for a loan, Chinese go to friends and relatives, maybe getting the equivalent of $1,000 from one person, $2,000 from another person and maybe twenty thousand from a close relative. “We trust each other, so no interest. He know I do the same for him one day."

Many Chinese business owners like to run their companies on instinct and with total central control. They shun excessive meetings, don’t field questions, don’t provide explanations and don’t tolerate a lot debate. With a firm, centered hierarchy many Chinese feel that workers spend more time talking than working.

Family Style Chinese Businesses

In his book The Spirit of Chinese Capitalism, Gordon Redding wrote, "The Chinese family peculiarly effective and a significant contributor to the list of causes of the East Asia miracle." Chinese-owned companies are often family run and have family members, other relatives or family friends in all the management positions. This contrasts with Western corporation which generally rely on professional managers. One Chinese businessman told the Washington Post, "We mostly hire people because he family knows them, or because they're introduced by a family member. That way you can find someone you can trust. Chinese find it not so easy to trust other people."

Many Chinese companies are run by old patriarchs backed up by Western-educated sons and daughters. The Chinese family system is much more effective in simple organizations like shipping, real estate and the production of low-market goods such as shoes and electronic but is not as effective in sophisticated organization that spend a lot on research and development and design high-tech products.

Confucian thought adapts itself very well to the hierarchical management style. One of the key components of a Chinese family-run business is trust. The Chinese have a reputation of distrusting people outside their clan or circle. The advantages of the Chinese family system of business are that it keeps management size down and allows quick decisions to be made without lengthy meetings, which in turn allows companies to move quickly into profitable markets. The disadvantages of the Chinese family system of business are that favoritism keeps talent out and family feuds can bitterly divide a company especially after a patriarch dies.

Modest Chinese businesses like noodle restaurants and small shops. are run by husband and wife teams, with children providing labor. Women often play an important role in organizing the finances. Explaining how such a business gets started one Asian businessman told Stanley Karnow in Smithsonian magazine: "Americans make big investment, hire manager, technicians.” Asians “cannot afford that, but wife and children all work hard. At first I keep old job while wife and friend take care of store; later I quit to run business full time. Until last year we are here seven days a week, sometimes until 2 in the morning. Now we are doing OK, so we take Sunday off."

There are critics of the the Chinese family business model. One Chinese businessmen said that many Chinese businessmen suffer from “Chinese restaurant syndrome” in that “they are content with small-scale enterprises; they are happy to making a living. But Jewish people want to be the best and make a huge company.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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