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Historical data shows that immigrants from mainland China have visited and inhabited the archipelago for thousands of years. As the kingdoms in the archipelago developed, Chinese immigrants came for trade purposes.

However, the arrival of Chinese immigrants in large numbers to East Sumatra was only recorded in the 18th century, following the opening of tobacco plantations on a large scale by the colonial side. The continuous losses experienced by colonial entrepreneurs on the Java  island made them look at and then expand their business in East Sumatra. To solve a much-needed manpower problem, the manager of Deli T.J. Cremer Company (1871-1873) "imported" Chinese workers from Penang, which was indeed closer than Java. Accompanied by higher wages and a better future, thousands of Chinese workers who had been working in Penang and were called by the nickname lau keh also flocked to come. This explains why Medan Chinese and Penang have similarities in many ways, including language and culture.

The Deli Company also brought about 4,000 workers from Singapore to this area. The incessant promotions carried out by labor brokers made the workers in Penang and Singapore tempted to improve their fortunes in Tanah Deli.

There were two major waves of migration to Medan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, respectively. According to Wikipedia data, the first wave were Chinese and Javanese as plantation contract laborers. The second wave were Minangkabau, Mandailing and Acehnese who came to Medan to trade or become teachers and Muslim scholars.

Apart from Penang and Singapore, some of the Chinese immigrants who flooded into Tanah Deli came directly from mainland China. Among these included Tjong A Fie, who arrived in Medan from Guangdong in 1875 at the age of 15. The leader of the Chinese community in Medan who had the title Kapitan died in 1921, leaving his home on Jalan Jenderal Ahmad Yani and is now one of the icons of Medan City.

The Chinese careers as garden workers slowly shifted, after in 1880 the Dutch plantation companies stopped bringing them because many fled from their gardens and often rioted. The lax acceptance causes many workers from other countries to not have the skills and mentality as garden workers.

For the political interests of the colonial government itself, Chinese ex-garden workers were then encouraged to work as traders. Their position as garden laborers was completely replaced by the Javanese. Of course, not all Chinese people have the good fortune to become traders. Many of them then work in the informal sectors such as being coolies or construction workers. What is certain is that in the not too distant future, the Chinese traders will monopolize the entire transportation sector as well as the procurement and contractor businesses in the plantations.

The role of the Chinese people in the trading world cannot be separated from the role of the colonial government, which then placed them as intermediary traders and controlled domestic trade. The existence of ties of kinship with ethnic Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore made many Medan Chinese traders establish relationships with colleagues from the two countries, thus adding to their strong business network. The colonial government's policy of favoring Chinese traders indirectly hindered the development of other ethnic businesses such as Minangkabau, Batak, Acehnese and Bugis who actually also had trading talents.

According to anthropologist Prof DR Usman Pelly MA, entering the period of independence between 1950-1960, in Medan the four ethnic groups competed fiercely with the ethnic Chinese for elite trading positions left by the Dutch and other Europeans. Acehnese traders tried to dominate the export market for agricultural products, especially coffee, rubber and copra, and set up banks and convenience stores. The Minang people rose to dominate the textile and handicraft trade. Meanwhile, the Batak/ Mandailing/ Sipirok people set up a contractor/ leverage company.

However, the reality shows that the Chinese traders who have existed first thanks to the facilities provided by the colonial government are difficult to compete with. Government regulations aimed at helping "native" traders such as PP No 10/1959, which prohibits the ethnic Chinese from trading outside the provincial/ district capitals, did not bring the expected results.


During the New Order era, the Suharto regime also indirectly directed ethnic Chinese to become trade specialists. Various professions outside of being traders, such as being members of the TNI, Polri or civil servants, either openly or covertly, were closed or restricted to the ethnic Chinese. During this period, many "bumiputra" entrepreneurs emerged, especially in certain sectors. But the ethnic Chinese still dominate the retail business to this day.

Historical facts show that the social gap between the Chinese and other ethnicities has been a crucial issue from the past. This condition is made worse because the culture and religion adopted by the Chinese are different from the "native" population. This is very different from Thailand where the original population has the same culture and religion as the Chinese immigrants, so the fusion between the immigrant groups and the natives is almost unimpeded.

Anthropologist from America, GW Skinner, saw how anthropological variables, apart from economic problems, were very decisive in determining the process of assimilation of immigrant groups with the natives of a country. In the case of Indonesia, Skinner underlined several things, including the Buddhism/ Confucianism practiced by the ethnic Chinese, which is very different from Islam, which is predominantly practiced by the natives.

In the context of this area, Usman Pelly believes that religious and customary factors are not only a barrier to the assimilation process of the two groups, but also indirectly become the dividing line between the Malays and the Chinese.

Usman Pelly also saw that the diversity of the people of Medan City did not help the Chinese ethnic group much to assimilate with the local population. Medan City is indeed known as a multiethnic city, where there is no single ethnic group that acts as a dominant cultural group. Since more than half a century ago, the Javanese have the largest population, which is around 25%, but they do not have the advantage in the category of local economy and culture. In contrast to the Sundanese in Bandung or the Javanese in Surabaya, who are able to make themselves centers of acculturation for immigrant ethnic groups. Meanwhile, the Malay population as the host population has always been below 10%.

One of these factors may have caused the ethnic Chinese in Medan to "walk around" with their own traditions and way of life, while their counterparts in many areas on the Java island have integrated with the local population.

Photo by Halim Kosasi on Unsplash


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