Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Studying the Chinese in Indonesia: A Long Half-Century

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Studying the Chinese in Indonesia: A Long Half-Century

Article excerpt

This is an exemplary survey, not a comprehensive one or a bibliographic essay. It looks at the changes in studies of Chinese in Indonesia over time, both in English and in some other Western languages. Taking a chronological approach, it chooses especially scholars whose work has influenced others and emphasizes the succession of topics that have preoccupied researchers. English dominates because it has dominated research and publication since Indonesian independence; Indonesian-language studies are, unfortunately, outside the scope of this brief article. But even this brief review shows how scholars have approached Chinese Indonesians, from outside or from within, how they have changed their approaches, how Indonesia has changed, as have Chinese Indonesians, and how research centres and research topics have moved on. It also reveals some possibilities for future research.


Not many know that probably the first work on Chinese in Indonesia submitted to an American university after 1945 was a brief master's thesis undertaken at Stanford University by George McT. Kahin (1946), who later wrote a path-breaking study of the Indonesian Revolution (1952). Kahin relied in preparing that thesis on published Dutch sources, but his interest set the stage for Cornell University's Modern Indonesia Project to look more closely at Chinese Indonesians (G. McT. Kahin 1989; A. Kahin 2007). (1)

G. William Skinner

Beginning in the 1950s, the work and the influence of anthropologist G. William Skinner set new standards for a post-colonial approach to Chinese Indonesians, although he never published a monograph drawing on his research in Indonesia. Skinner had learned Mandarin while in the American military during the Second World War, but China, where he began a study of Hakkas in Sichuan, closed its borders to him in 1950. His research on the Chinese in Indonesia in the late 1950s may seem to be a mere interlude between his two monographs on Chinese in Thailand (Skinner 1957 and 1958) and his work on marketing and social structure in China (Skinner 1964, 1965a and 19656), but it influenced much subsequent writing.

A major project on the Chinese minority in Indonesia, sponsored by the Cornell Modern Indonesia Project, took Skinner to Jakarta from 1956 to 1958. Of his resulting publications, in my opinion, the compact survey in the HRAF Press volume on Indonesia edited by Ruth McVey is especially useful (Skinner 1963). (2) Skinner firmly rejected the term sinkeh for totok. The distinction between totok and peranakan was not, he argued, merely an accident of birth in China or Indonesia, but one related to a complex of cultural factors including language, descent, education, and so on. On Java, this "bifurcation" of Chinese society meant that these two groups spoke different languages, attended different schools, and often socialized separately. Nonetheless, peranakans were not like the assimilated descendants of Chinese immigrants in Thailand. They had acquired many cultural traits from their Javanese environment without melting into local society.

Skinner's interest extended to communities outside Java, where different influences were at work. He visited sites from Bagan Siapiapi on Sumatra to Bali and Kalimantan. There, he concluded, Chinese might be less peranakan than "locally rooted", partly because they continued to speak Chinese dialects. Skinner, in an unpublished work (1962), also addressed the different political attitudes among Chinese in Indonesia--pro-China, pro-Indonesia, or adhering to the Kuomintang government on Taiwan--that compounded divisions by language, education and regional origins. These findings underlined the complexity of the minority.

As others have pointed out, Skinner's differentiation of Chinese Indonesians into peranakan and totok, and his extension of this paradigm to some communities outside Java, may have been appropriate in the past, but the categories are less useful today. …

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