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A unique group of Chinese Indonesian: Why are they still able to converse fluently in Hokkien after most areas have been "Indonesianized"?


Before visiting Medan, Indonesia, like many non-Indonesians who have never visited Medan, I thought that the local Chinese were highly Indonesianized, just like other parts of Indonesia such as Jakarta, Surabaya and Bandung. Therefore, when I visited Medan for the first time in 2009, I was deeply surprised by the fact that most of the local Chinese, including children, speak fluent Hokkien, as Hokkien is also my father's native dialect.

Medan is the fifth largest city in Indonesia, after Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung and Bekasi (a city in West Java). Medan is also the largest city in Sumatra.


Close relationship with Chinese in Northern Malaysia

Most Medan Chinese speak fluent Hokkien, not only because they are mostly Hokkien, but also because Medan is close to Northern Malaysia, especially Penang. It takes less than an hour to fly from Penang to Medan, and many Medan Chinese have relatives in Northern Malaysia. As we all know, Hokkien is the lingua franca of the Chinese in Northern Malaysia. Under the deep influence of the language and culture of the Chinese in Northern Malaysia, the Medan Chinese faced the forced assimilation policy even during Suharto’s reign (1966 to 1998), and still retain the ability to use the Hokkien language, unlike the Chinese in other parts of Indonesia, which have been highly Indonesianized and lost the ability to use the Chinese language.

However, the Hokkien language used by the Medan Chinese is mixed with some Teochew words, such as "gai" and "hiam", the former meaning "ge (quantifier)" ​​and the latter meaning "spicy", this is because Medan also has a large number of Teochew people.

According to the national census data released by Indonesia in 2000, the Chinese account for about 11% in Medan, but the local Chinese generally believe that the actual percentage of the Chinese population should be as high as 20% to 25%.

The ancestors of the Medan Chinese were mostly Chinese who departed from Fujian and Guangdong provinces in China in the 1870s and went to the tobacco plantations in Northern Sumatra to work as coolies; the gateway of Medan was also closely related to the large-scale tobacco planting industry. Therefore, the Chinese coolies are one of the heroes of Medan's port gateway. Many Chinese coolies stayed in the local business after breaking free, and regarded Medan as their new home.

During the Dutch colonial period and when the first president Sukarno was in power, Medan Chinese established many hometown associations, clan associations and Chinese school alumni associations, mainly to take care of each other and keep in touch with their hometown or alumni. The more active Chinese groups include Huizhou Association, Teochew Association and North Sumatra Medan Chinese Middle School Alumni Association. These Chinese associations hold Chinese cultural activities from time to time, and they also arrange for members to gather and connect with each other on festivals. Medan Chinese also founded a number of Chinese-language newspapers during this period, including 民主日報 (Democracy Daily),  民報 (Min Pao), 華僑日報 (Overseas Chinese Daily), 南洋日報 (Nanyang Daily) (later renamed 新中華報 (New China Daily)), 蘇島日報 (Su Dao Daily), and 新中國報 (New China Daily). Among them, Democracy Daily supported the Indonesian national independence struggle during the Indonesian Revolutionary War (1945-1949), and after the founding of the People's Republic of China, it devoted itself to publicising the Chinese government's policy on overseas Chinese affairs, defending the rights and interests of overseas Chinese in Indonesia, and promoting the friendly relationship between China and Indonesia.


Suharto adopted policy of assimilation

However, after Suharto came to power, the Indonesian government implemented a policy of forced assimilation of the Chinese. The Chinese were not allowed to openly celebrate traditional Chinese festivals and use Chinese language in public. If the Chinese associations want to continue their activities, they must transform into providing funeral services and engaging in charitable activities, Buddhist activities or groups focused on health and sports as well as having the obligation to change the groups names to non-ethnic names. In addition, the government has also closed all Chinese schools and most Chinese-language newspaper offices, allowing only the Chinese-language newspaper 印度尼西亞日報 (Indonesia Daily), which acts as the mouthpiece of the government, to operate. The newspaper Indonesia Daily is based in Jakarta. All news and articles published in the newspaper are translated from Indonesian to Chinese and are strictly censored.

Under this circumstance, all Chinese schools and local Chinese newspapers in Medan were closed. In order to continue their activities, many Chinese groups had to transform into groups that met the conditions set by the government. For example, the Huizhou Association was transformed to provide funeral services, and it became a group that served and focused on charitable activities, and changed its name to the Medan Angsapura Charity Foundation (Yayasan Sosial Angsapura Medan, or Yasora Medan for short).


Reappearance of Chinese activities

Therefore, Suharto's reign can be said to be a dark period for Indonesian Chinese culture. But this dark period came to an end when Suharto stepped down in May 1998. The post-Suharto regime, especially the Abdurrahman Wahid regime (1999-2001), revoked many decrees that discriminated against the Chinese and Chinese culture, allowing the Chinese to openly learn and use the Chinese language, openly celebrate Chinese traditional festivals, the establishment of the Chinese groups and the establishment of Chinese newspapers.

As a result, Chinese associations have sprung up all over Indonesia. There are more than 100 Chinese associations in Medan alone, including the ones that were closed before, which were transformed to provide funeral services and engage in funeral services during the Suharto period. Charity activities, Buddhist activities or Chinese groups focusing on health and sports, as well as two major Chinese associations in Indonesia - the Indonesian Chinese Clan Social Association and the Indonesian Chinese Association branch in Medan. These Chinese groups are mainly engaged in cultural, charitable, disaster relief and kinship activities.

It is worth mentioning that most Chinese groups in Medan hold meetings in Hokkien, and the minutes of the meeting are recorded in Chinese and Indonesian, which is different from many Chinese groups in Jakarta, Surabaya and other areas that only use Indonesian when meeting.

In addition, the Indonesian North Sumatra Chinese Community Charity and Education Association (referred to as Hualian), which is composed of dozens of Chinese groups and figures, established a private institution of higher learning in Medan in 2008 to provide a bachelor's degree in Chinese, namely Asian International Friendship College (Sekolah Tinggi Bahasa Asing Persahabatan Internasional Asia, referred to as STBA-PIA). The purpose of the school is to promote Chinese and Chinese culture, and cultivate Chinese talents. The funds come from a number of Chinese groups in northern Sumatra, and Malaysia's Sin Chew Media Group.

The school is assisted by South China Normal University to prepare teaching courses and provide teachers. In addition, the China Overseas Exchange Association and the Guangdong Overseas Exchange Association also assist the school in finding teachers, and the salaries of all Chinese lecturers sent to the school are paid by the Chinese government. In 2012, the school signed a memorandum of cooperation with Penang Hanjiang College to conclude sister colleges. Therefore, the establishment and operation of the Asian International Friendship College can be said to be the result of the cooperation between Indonesia, Malaysia and China.

So far, Asian International Friendship College is the only Chinese community private institution of higher learning in Indonesia that offers a bachelor's degree program in Chinese.

In addition, the Medan Chinese society established five Chinese-language newspapers after Suharto stepped down, including 印廣日報 (Yinguang Daily), 蘇北快報 (North Sumatra Express) (formerly known as 華商報 (Huashang Daily), 棉蘭早報 (Medan Morning Post), and 蘇北日報 (North Sumatra Daily)), 訊報 (Xunbao), 好報 (Haobao), and 正報 (Zhengbao). Among them, Yinguang Daily was suspended in December 2014 due to low sales and huge losses. However, it resumed publication under the name of Zhengbao in February this year, and became the sister newspaper of a mainstream Indonesian language newspaper run by Medan Chinese called Analisa Daily.

In other words, there are currently four Chinese-language newspapers in Medan, which is more than the number of Chinese-language newspapers in other parts of Indonesia. For example, there were four Chinese newspapers in Surabaya in the post-Suharto era, namely 龍陽日報 (Longyang Daily), 誠報 (Chengbao), 千島日報 (Qiandao Daily) and 泗水晨報 (Surabaya Morning News), but Longyang Daily and Chengbao sales were so low that it was discontinued several years ago. Therefore, at present, there are only two Chinese newspapers in Surabaya, Qiandao Daily and Surabaya Morning News.


Poor relationship with the indigenous people

However, many indigenous people and Chinese from other parts of Indonesia believe that the Medan Chinese are too shrewd and too competitive. In addition, the Medan Chinese are regarded by many indigenous people as an exclusive Chinese group because they often speak openly in Hokkien. Therefore, many indigenous people and Chinese in other areas are reluctant to associate with Medan Chinese. Many Medan Chinese moved to Jakarta in order to find more development opportunities, most of them gathered in the Muara Karang (Pluit) in northern Jakarta.

In this residential area, the Medan Chinese feel like they are in their hometown, conversing with each other in the most familiar Hokkien language and enjoying traditional Hokkien food, making their lives self-contained. They are also incompatible with the Jakarta Chinese who do not understand the Chinese language, so there is little communication between the two.

In addition, Judith Nagata, a professor of anthropology at York University in Canada, once pointed out that many indigenous people in Medan are suspicious and jealous because of the better economic situation of the local Chinese, in addition to be seen as an exclusive group, ethnic relations between the Chinese and indigenous people in Medan have always been poor.

In addition, there are many hooligans in Medan making it Indonesia's "rogue capital", so many Chinese businessmen often encounter hooligans who charge them protection fees. Medan is also the area where the first anti-Chinese riots broke out in Indonesia in May 1998. It is reported that local hooligans are suspected of launching anti-Chinese riots, attacking and burning down many Chinese shops. The anti-Chinese riots in Medan took place from May 4 to 6. By mid-May, more serious anti-Chinese riots occurred in Jakarta. Many Chinese shops were burned down, and many Chinese women were sexually assaulted.

In order to reduce the local indigenous people's suspicion of the Chinese and improve the relationship between the Chinese and the indigenous people, it is really necessary for the local government to actively address the problem of inequality between the rich and the poor, and civil organisations must also hold various inter-ethnic dialogues and activities to promote inter-ethnic understanding.

All in all, the Medan Chinese have always maintained their traditional Chinese characteristics due to geographical factors and their close relationship with the Chinese in northern Malaysia, which is very different from the Chinese in many parts of Indonesia. Therefore, if you want to understand the Chinese community in Indonesia, it is necessary to understand the differences between Medan Chinese and Chinese in other parts of Indonesia.


Reference 印尼華人裡的獨特群體:在大部分地區都已「印尼化」後,為何他們仍能用流利的閩南語交談?

Photo by raja meliala on Unsplash

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