Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

New year, new hope for Indonesia’s poor Chinese

Most people do not realise this, but the biggest concentration of Chinese outside of China is in Indonesia. More than 7.7 million Chinese reside there today forming the biggest overseas Chinese community in the world. I am not sure how this reporter got the rather understated number of 2.3 million.  “Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese community – making up 2.3 million of the country’s population of about 230 million – is more often stereotyped as wealthy, bankrolled by big business and living in gated communities.”

– – –

New year, new hope for Indonesia’s poor Chinese
Stereotype of country’s rich Chinese masks plight of the community’s poor

By Lynn Lee, Indonesia Correspondent and Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, Indonesia Correspondent
Source – Straits Times, 20 Feb 2010

Mr Oey Kim Lin with his wife Thio Pian Nio and their daughter Tina outside their wooden home in Teluk Naga, a town near Jakarta. He earns the equivalent of S$1.80 every three days when he sells his 'loot' which he scavenges from the streets. -- ST PHOTOS: LYNN LEE

MR OEY Kim Lin is a garbage collector. He scavenges for plastic items on the streets and behind the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, 20 minutes away from his home in Teluk Naga town.

As he smokes a cigarette and skulks in a corner of the family’s front yard, his wife Thio Pian Nio displays his day’s find, a sack full of dirty plastic cups.

The couple are ethnic Chinese, around six generations removed from immigrants from China who settled in Indonesian coastal cities like Jakarta and Semarang.

The life stories of couples like them are rarely told.

Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese community – making up 2.3 million of the country’s population of about 230 million – is more often stereotyped as wealthy, bankrolled by big business and living in gated communities.

Some would take it even further.

The ethnic Chinese – known here as Tionghoa – are more money-minded than indigenous Indonesians, they mutter.

Not Mr Oey, 52. He earns about 12,000 rupiah (S$1.80) every three days when he sells his ‘loot’, says his wife, outside their home. It is a two-bedroom dirt-floor shack with faded cloth in place of bedroom doors.

‘Things have worsened for us,’ says Madam Thio, 54. She gestures at her scaly and swollen left ankle. ‘We are old and fall ill easily and everything is expensive. Rice costs 7,000 rupiah a kilo.’

Teluk Naga’s Chinese community makes up at least 10 per cent of the town’s population, says resident Tjong Wei Siong. About 500,000 people are said to live in the town.

‘If you look at our Chinese community you will realise that not all Chinese are rich,’ he says.

‘Here, we are rice or fish farmers, labourers and small traders.’

Mr Tjong works for a building contractor and is an official at the Kong Tek Bio Taoist temple.

Two weeks ago, the temple distributed 6,000 packs of necessities including rice, instant noodles, cooking oil and soap to needy families ahead of Chinese New Year last weekend. These were sponsored by wealthy businessmen from Jakarta.

‘We may not be able to speak Mandarin, but traditions like celebrating Imlek are important to us,’ says Mr Tjong, using the Indonesian term for Chinese New Year.

It is only in the last decade that the Chinese community has been able to embrace its cultural and religious traditions openly.

During the 32-year reign of strongman Suharto – which ended in 1998 – the community was forced to assimilate with the indigenous population.

Chinese-medium schools were shut down, festivals had to be celebrated quietly behind closed doors and regulations forced ethnic Chinese out of rural areas and into cities in the 1960s.

Their concentration in urban areas, along with the visible wealth of some Chinese, could have led to the misleading stereotypes, says Asian studies academic Hoon Chang Yau from the Singapore Management University.

‘There are pockets of poor Chinese… but I’d say most Chinese are middle class,’ says Dr Hoon.

Jakarta is home to about a fifth of the country’s ethnic Chinese.

Its many malls have been trussed up in red and gold decorations for the holiday. Restaurants offer sumptuous 10-course reunion dinner packages replete with abalone and bird’s nest.

Some prominent members of the community have said these festive trimmings could highlight more starkly the gap between the rich and poor.

Yet, others are not aware that such commercialisation might foster ‘anti-Chinese resentment among the wider Indonesian community’, says Dr Hoon, in an academic paper published last year.

This debate is lost, though, on the residents of Teluk Naga.

For many, the Chinese New Year is eagerly awaited.

It is a time to visit relatives and enjoy simple fare together, including kueh keranjang (nian gao or ‘sticky cake’), says Mr Chai Hian Choi, who works in a goldsmith shop.

For Madam Thio, it is a time to ask for a better lot in life.

A used wooden desk, its white paint scrubbed down to a pale grey, occupies the pride of place in her home.

It belongs to her 13-year-old daughter Tina, she says proudly.

‘Every Imlek I pray that the new year will be better than the last,’ she says.

‘My hopes are that we have good health, we can continue feeding ourselves and that our daughter can go to school every day.’


Filed under: Chinese overseas, Culture, Indonesia, Overseas Chinese

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