Indonesian Chinese pioneers lauded

Few Indonesians are aware that many Chinese Indonesians were involved in the struggle for independence, or that ethnic Chinese naval commander John Lie played a key role in getting arms past the Dutch blockade to freedom fighters.

Chinese communities have also been established as far afield as Aceh, Kalimantan and Maluku for more than 500 years.

A new museum in Jakarta dedicated to the history and contributions of the Chinese in Indonesia seeks to highlight these and other facts, 15 years after restrictions on Chinese language and cultural expression were lifted.

Opening the Indonesian Hakka Museum yesterday, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono thanked the community for its contributions to Indonesia, from before independence and throughout the nation-building process, saying that there was no room for discrimination against any group.

"Museums are important in memorialising the contributions of our pioneers for future generations, and I am confident this will tell their stories and highlight our collective effort to improve the lives of the people of Indonesia," he said.

The three-storey museum's name was, however, a reminder that the Chinese community remained split: Hakkas make up some 40 per cent of the Chinese in Indonesia, and were the most eager to raise funds for and to back the effort. But its second floor is called the Indonesian Chinese Museum and focuses on the wider Chinese community, while the third floor focuses on the Hakka community and culture.

The museum is situated in a corner of Taman Mini Indonesia Indah, a sprawling park in east Jakarta that features exhibits on various provinces and ethnic groups in Indonesia.

Construction of the museum, designed in the shape of a tulou, or round Hakka earthen building, started in 2012.

Museum committee chairman Iwan Mahatirta said a key reason for the museum is that many younger Indonesians, both Chinese and non-Chinese, are not aware of the contributions of earlier generations to the country.

Part of this was because the New Order of former president Suharto, who came to power after a failed coup plot blamed on the Communists, suppressed not only the use of Mandarin but also expressions of interest in Chinese identity.

His regime saw Chinese Indonesians shoehorned into doing business, and helped feed the stereotype among wider society that ethnic Chinese were focused on making money, which still persists in some quarters today.

"We hope to change that perception," Mr Iwan told The Sunday Times.

Chinese bookstore owner Yoza Suryawan, 81, said: "This museum shows that we, too, played our part in the struggle for an independent Indonesia and were not just good at making money."

Historian Asvi Warman Adam said the museum is important for all Indonesians to see that their fellow Chinese citizens also sank roots, like other ethnic groups, and have influenced everyday life through language and food.

The museum recounts the history of the Chinese in the archipelago and what they did during the colonial years. It also highlights prominent individuals, such as Olympic badminton gold medallist Susi Susanti.

There are also sections devoted to food, culture and Hakka practices, as well as a display on famous Hakkas that includes Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, former Thai premiers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, and the late Chinese leaders Sun Yat Sen and Deng Xiaoping.

Hakka Association chairman Sugeng Prananto said the museum does not set out to be exclusive, but to explain the diverse traditions of the Chinese and Hakkas.

He awarded Dr Yudhoyono the title of honorary life chairman of the Indonesian Hakka Association, saying that his inclusive leadership over the past decade has enabled Chinese Indonesians to grow alongside other groups.

This article was first published on August 31, 2014.
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