Selamat Tahun Baru Imlek 2556!
Or, if you speak Mandarin, Gong Xi Fa Cai! Or, if you speak English, Happy Chinese New Year! Today is yet another holiday in Indonesia, so we don’t have to go to work. We think that the number 2556 means the year 2556 after the birth of the Buddha, but we’re not sure.
What we do know is that it’s very cool that Indonesia officially celebrates Chinese New Year now. This is only about the fifth year or so that they have. Under Soeharto and Soekarno, Chinese culture was heavily suppressed by the government. So this is a big deal.
Because we’re not sure how much most people know about "overseas Chinese," we’ll give a little review. Overseas Chinese as a term specifically refers to the descendants of Chinese traders and farmers who settled throughout Southeast Asia, from Burma in the West to the Philippines in the East (an area known as "Nanyang" in Chinese folklore and history). So Chinese in the West are considered rather different, both by themselves and by Chinese in China. Chinese traders have been plying the South Seas for at least three thousand years, but starting in around the 15th century farmers, peasants, and traders from southern China began to spread out and actually settle in Nanyang. Most of them, ethnically, are Cantonese, Fukienese, Hakka, Hokkienese, or Teochow, and to this day in some areas of Southeast Asia like Singapore and Malaysia individuals continue to recognize their background as one of these subgroups. From the perspective of the peoples living in the regions where they settled, though, they have largely just been lumped together as "Chinese."
There is an old cliche among students of Southeast Asia that overseas Chinese are the "Jews of Asia." Like lots of other cliches, it’s a cliche because it describes reality so well. The experience of these Chinese settlers has differed widely across the countries where they settled. In Thailand, ethnic Chinese have been assimilated very well, such that there was a law that Chinese residents had to take Thai names. In Cambodia and Vietnam, ethnic Chinese made up a large portion of the urban population–many of the so-called "boat people" from Vietnam in the late 1970s were actually ethnic Chinese Vietnamese fleeing communists who did not take well to people they thought of as unrepentant capitalists. In Indonesia, they persist in making movies where one of the hardest things for a Chinese family is for one of the children to fall in love with a non-Chinese Indonesian, or the other way around.
So why the "Jews of Asia"? Well, we can list some of the stereotypes that we find in Indonesia, at least (we’re not making these up, they come from academic books we’ve read on the subject). We have things like feelings of being superior to other Indonesians, always interested in profit, being opportunistic, refusing to adopt the native religion, living together exclusively in urban areas, and being a threat to the nation because they have "other loyalties." Sound familiar? There’s a saying in Indonesia that Chinese are always screwed when it comes to politics. If they participate as dissenters, they are undermining the country. If they try to go along with the dominant political group, they are being opportunistic. If they do nothing, they are being opportunistic too because they are just jumping on with whoever wins. Our favorite case of the "Jews of Asia" is the example of what the Indonesian government calls an "ethnic group" and what is a "race." All Indonesians are the same race (ras), but are just of different ethnic groups (suku). That includes Papuans, Sumatrans, Mollucans, Javanese, Balinese. The only other ras in Indonesia are ethnic Chinese.
Under Soeharto, ethnic Chinese had a Faustian bargain. It is widely accepted that an ethnic Chinese Indonesian could never hold political office. Many ethnic Chinese also fear (quite rightly) the outbreak of anti-Chinese violence. So, Soeharto made a bargain. He’d let many Chinese get fantastically rich so long as they stayed out of formal politics. In return, he’d keep them safe. Oh yeah, and they had to give him presents too and form businesses with his military cronies and his kids. For example, Soeharto’s friend Liem Sioe Liong, a small-time trader from Semarang while Soeharto was stationed there in the 1950s, was worth 50 billion US dollars by 1998. Compared to the average per capita income in Indonesia at the time, that’s like Bill Gates being worth one trillion dollars. That’s not to say that most Chinese Indonesians had it good. Under Soeharto, every Indonesian of Chinese descent had a special KC (Keturunan Cina–Chinese descendant) stamped on his/her identity card. Confucianism was not recognized as a religion. Signs in Chinese characters were illegal.
The end of Soeharto’s power in May 1998 was among the saddest days in Indonesian history. After 32 years of autocratic repression, regular Indonesians in cities reacted to the army shooting four students by rioting in Chinese districts. No one is really sure why, but the idea is that ethnic Chinese had become a symbol of the illegitimacy of the Soeharto regime. The low end of the estimates are at least 1000 dead, and hundreds of thousands Chinese Indonesians fled overseas. Remember, "Chinese Indonesians" may have lived in Indonesia for four hundred years–although Chinese Indonesians did not actually become citizens of Indonesia until the mid 1960s.
So for this reason, it’s quite exciting that Chinese New Year is a real holiday now, and that you can find Indonesians of all ethnic groups celebrating it. Even regular folks working at the supermarket are dressed up in red clothing and all. Very cool.