Ethnic Chinese find a voice in Indonesia

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Jul 22 17:31:05 UTC 2008

Ethnic Chinese find a voice in Indonesia

Even after the lifting of a decades-old ban on displays of Chinese
culture, the ethnic Chinese minority struggles to integrate.

By Simon Montlake | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
from the July 22, 2008 edition

As the final power chords of the song fade out, Sushe Lie leans into her
microphone and begins her usual on-air patter: the name of the singer,
what's up next on the station, and the latest gossip from the tabloids.
Such banter would be standard fare for any commercial radio station in
Jakarta, Indonesia, except that Ms. Lie, an Indonesian of Chinese descent,
delivers her spiel in China's national language, Mandarin. Her
co-presenter, Rudy Xiao Wei, a seven-year veteran of the station who
learned Mandarin at home and studied it further in Taiwan, rattles through
some news items, slipping into Indonesian when his Mandarin runs dry.

Other daytime presenters on Radio Cakrawala also speak in Mandarin and
play music that is strictly Chinese, primarily pop songs and ballads from
Taiwan and China. In a country rife with ethnic, religious, and linguistic
diversity, vernacular radio should be an easy sell. But a decade ago,
broadcasting, printing, and teaching in Chinese were illegal.  Many
Indonesian nationals of Chinese origin, who comprise around 3.5 percent of
the population, adopted Indonesian names and downplayed their ethnicity.

The ban on public displays of Chinese culture dated back to 1966, when a
failed coup attempt was blamed on a communist party allegedly backed by
China. Amid bloody reprisals, General Suharto seized power, broke off
relations with Beijing, and accused Indonesia's cowed Chinese minority
which had long been vulnerable to popular resentment of their economic
success of divided loyalties.

The collapse of Mr. Suharto's anticommunist regime in 1998 opened up a
democratic space for Chinese-Indonesians, just as the West and other
Asians were scrambling to learn Mandarin and connect with a resurgent
China. In 2000, Radio Cakrawala hired its first Mandarin-speaking
announcer, an Indonesian educated in neighboring Singapore, where Mandarin
is an official language. Today, the station boasts 23 hosts who alternate
on daily broadcasts that include live calls and song requests conducted in
a mixture of Mandarin and Indonesian, depending on the caller.

Radio Cakrawala used to broadcast Mandarin pop songs that had been
rerecorded with Indonesian lyrics to evade the censors. After a
presidential decree in 2000 lifted the ban on Chinese broadcasting, it
switched to playing the originals and added Mandarin-speaking DJs. Station
manager Haryono insists that since Radio Cakrawala is primarily a
commercial operator, the shift to Mandarin was in part a marketing
decision. The tactic seems to have met success as the station's fan club
now counts 10,000 members and its audience may be several times larger
than that during peak hours. Advertisers include condo developers,
Chinese-language schools, and restaurants.

Mr. Haryono argues that Chinese songs strike a chord, even if listeners
haven't a clue what they're about. "Most people don't speak Mandarin. But
they like the songs," he says. "Most Indonesians don't speak English, but
they like listening to songs in English." Radio is not, however, the only
media platform for Chinese-language content. On weekday mornings,
Indonesians can tune in to private cable channel Metro Television, which
airs a half-hour-long news show in Mandarin called "Xinwen" (news). Three
daily newspapers also publish in Chinese. Meanwhile, the port city of
Surabaya in East Java boasts its own Chinese-language daily. Specialist
bookstores overflow with printed Chinese materials and private schools
tout Mandarin classes.

Teenage students who are interested in learning Chinese are the target
audience for Metro's morning news show, says Susy Ong, its producer. In
addition to regular news, the show reports on the social and cultural
activities of Chinese-Indonesians. Despite being frozen out of public
life, Mandarin never died in Indonesia.  Many ethnic Chinese spoke their
tongue at home and taught their children how to read. They also used
religious classes for Buddhism and Christianity rather than Indonesia's
majority Muslim faith as a cover for language lessons. Those who could
afford to, sent their children to study in Singapore or Taiwan. Today,
these returnees are in demand as private tutors.

Official discrimination may have subsided, but many Chinese still struggle
to mix with other Indonesians who harbor prejudices, says Ponijan Liaw, an
ethnic Chinese motivational speaker and politician. For his community,
learning Mandarin is "a kind of oasis" after the repression as well as a
leg-up to successful business dealings in Asia. "We have more freedom now,
but social tensions are still there," he adds.

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