Visual Cultures of the Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia

Visual Cultures of the Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia

by Abidin Kusno

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Visual Cultures of the Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia explores how visual representations shaped and were shaped by how the ethnic Chinese confronted the period of economic dislocation and radical social change during Dutch colonialism and the nationalist struggles in the decolonized Indonesia (including the post-1965 and 1998 social environments). How did the ethnic Chinese communities (re)present themselves to both their domestic and outside world under the changing regimes of representation? How did they visualize, symbolically, their place in Indonesian society? How did the visual shape the “ambiguities” of the Chinese, the perception of the “economic” identity, and the forgetting of their involvement in politics, cultures and histories of the nation? More broadly, how did the visual address the interconnectedness of domestic life, the urban cultural milieu, and ideologies of the state and the ruling class?

The book is a response to two paradoxical socio-political phenomena whose convergence is shaping the experience and conceptualization of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. On the one hand, the economic, technological and cultural forces of colonialism and globalization have created conditions for the formation of ethnic Chinese capital(ists), while on the other, the state generated identity and identification constituted the discourses of othering the ethnic Chinese as “foreign” minority.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783487585
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 10/06/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 218
File size: 14 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Abidin Kusno is a Professor at Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, Toronto, Canada.
Abidin Kusno is a Professor at the Institute of Asian Research and Director of the Centre for Southeast Asia at the University of British Columbia, Canada.

Read an Excerpt

Visual Cultures of the Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia

By Abidin Kusno

Rowman & Littlefield International Ltd.

Copyright © 2016 Abidin Kusno
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-758-5


The Riots

For almost two decades now, Indonesia has celebrated the May 1998 demonstration (known as reformasi) as a triumph of courage if not of democracy in the nation. To the amazement of the Indonesian people, the authoritarian and repressive regime of Suharto was toppled by a bold group of students together with a provisional, loosely connected "coalition" made up of frustrated middle-class families, calculating military figures, opportunistic ministers and bureaucrats, street hoodlums and the urban poor. Yet, in spite of such stirring success and solidarity, for many others, the May reformasi remains a forgotten tragedy. Riots, which took place for over 35 hours and in approximately 50 locations throughout metropolitan Jakarta, involved the state's security apparatus as it sought to create a basis for the declaration of martial law as a "final" strategy for saving the collapsing regime. Thousands were killed in the ensuing disorder – including hundreds of poor looters trapped in ransacked lots – and hundreds of women and girls were gang raped and tortured in these riots. The violence was directed, both systematically and spontaneously, at Indonesians of ethnic Chinese descent, whom many (including segments of the Suharto regime) deemed responsible for the nation's problems. The burning and plundering of Chinese property, as well as the gang rapes of ethnic Chinese women, were carried out by certain military groups and ordinary Indonesians who were transformed into a violent mob, often at the incitement of the Suharto army itself.

The targeting of Chinese Indonesians has been attributed to the strength of their economy, the weakness of their political position and the sense that Chinese Indonesians are not Indonesian enough – though few citizens would think of driving them out of the country entirely. The Chinese, simultaneously admired and disliked by the Indonesians, have been a frequent target of rioting. Indeed, anti-Chinese riots have taken place since the formation of Indonesian nationalism in the early twentieth century under Dutch colonial rule, and perhaps even before. Over time, such riots have become a familiar phenomenon, so familiar that the justification(s) for the anti-Chinese riots have never been clear even to those involved.

However familiar anti-Chinese riots may have been to Indonesians, the gang rapes of ethnic Chinese women in May 1998 were without precedent and went well beyond the recognizable framework of violence created by the long history of anti-Chinese activities. The gang rapes introduced new, more extreme and lasting violence into the vocabulary of anti-Chinese sentiment. Unlike previous anti-Chinese riots, which were forgotten after a few days by returning to "business as usual," gang rape does permanent damage that cannot be erased, replaced (like commodities) or simply put out of mind (like other, more recognizable forms of Indonesian riots). Stories of rape, as Siegel points out, continue to haunt the public through narratives of the victims' depression, disease, suicide, pregnancy and family rejection.

Though the gang rapes have generated immense outrage and shame at all levels of society, Indonesians have not yet found a language to respond to or articulate this new mode of violence. Silence perhaps constitutes the only language for these events, thereby enacting still further violence through the suppression of the stories themselves. Siegel sees this silence as a form of national trauma, an effect of the failure of the national community to cope with its own barbarism: this "failure appears in the lower class people who raped and in the upper class elements of the political class who allowed them to do it." Meanwhile, the majority of the victims still suffer from the event, and various new governments have kept quiet or denied its occurrence. The state hopes that the nation will arrive at a condition of normalcy by stifling the violent memories of past horrors. In the words of former president B. J. Habibie following his visit to the most damaged riot site at Glodok, a retail business centre known as the Chinatown of Jakarta, two weeks after the riots: "We should all quickly get out of this problem. We are all Indonesians and live in the land of Indonesia. We do not discriminate against any race, religion, and ethnicity. We do not have to worry about that." The rapes have profoundly shaped the ways in which the riots as a whole are understood, remembered and forgotten. Rudi, a Chinese Indonesian whose shop in Glodok was burnt out, indicated that "it is difficult for me to describe (the event) and furthermore, I don't want to remember what had happened. It is just too painful." The nation's government, the larger populace, including the Chinese Indonesians and the victims, are all variously involved in the suppression of trauma. They all share the difficult task of integrating the gang rapes that has marked the May riots into their own narratives of the past as well as the future.

This chapter centres on the relationships between memory and place, between identity formation and the change of social consciousness. In this sense, this project can be seen in terms of the growing interest in violence and collective memory. Over the past two decades, scholars in cultural studies in particular have focused on the ways in which individuals, groups and nation-states have remembered catastrophe, genocide and war through various forms of representation – be they monuments, memorials or public spaces and squares – as mnemonic devices that help to reflect on those events and regulate public memories. Yet it is crucial to recognize that most of these studies have their particular focus on a specific material object, such as a monument or memorial, constructed under an explicit programme and intended to represent events of the past. By focusing on the fact of commemoration, the studies in question rarely look at objects that were not built for a commemorative purpose but that are equally significant in registering, as well as forgetting, memories of past events. The everyday built environment, like monuments constructed for commemoration, enacts the dynamics of memory and forgetting, but it operates often without demanding a state of spectatorial concentration to gain effect.

It is precisely the everyday built environment, the changed cityscape of Jakarta, that brings the demands to represent trauma into visible relief even as it yields to the difficulty involved in such expressions. This chapter examines the spatial effects of the 1998 riots in the area of Glodok and the buildings recently erected to replace those that were ransacked and burnt down. My objective is to delineate the ways in which these new spaces both represent and avoid this trauma, enabling a play of remembering and forgetting that contributes to the efforts of ethnic Chinese to retrospectively cope with the violent events in the midst of a changing political environment. I then turn to an illustrated novel by the Indonesian writer Seno Gumira Ajidarma that depicts the most extreme events of the May riots: the gang rapes of ethnic Chinese women. If the rebuilt spaces of Glodok engage with these acts by way of suppressing them, Seno's story concerns the effect of that suppression and the ways in which it opens up certain political possibilities. Set in the year 2039, the narrative construction constitutes a temporal response to the difficulty of coping with the trauma of the May riots. By examining both the power and the problematics of such representations, this chapter aims to show their role in reformulating traumatized time and space, in reimagining identities, memories and political consciousness.


On May 26, 1998, about two weeks after the riots had killed hundreds of people and destroyed over 4,500 shops in the Glodok area, President Habibie visited the site of destruction and met with the victims. The president's visit, according to Abdul Kahfi Bakri, West Jakarta's vice governor for governmental affairs at the time, was significant as an effort to show sympathy to ethnic Chinese shop owners who had suffered from the disaster. It was hoped that the visit would generate a trust among them towards the government. Habibie's government knew perfectly well that the first step to revive the damaged economy of Indonesia was to build up Glodok again. It was clear to Habibie that the way Glodok was to be treated would have an important impact on the economy and the image of the country. Habibie thus remarked: "I suggest that we all work together to uphold peace, unity and work together to restore and upgrade the order of the economy that we had enjoyed before."

In recommending that the country return to the previous, prosperous state, Habibie also maintained a persistent and problematic image of Glodok as simultaneously the place of the Chinese and the centre of the well-being (or sickness) of the national economy. Such was the response of the Indonesian state. Yet what was the reaction of Glodok's residents to these proposals?

But how are we going to deal with the trauma, Mr. President? I don't understand how the looting could take place for two days in the daylight. We cried. But what we cried for was not even clear to us. The military commander and the head of the police had repeatedly said that they would guarantee security, but the looting still took place. How to build up a new image, a new economy in Glodok with an Indonesian spirit ...?

There are at least two elements of this response that deserve attention. First, the word "trauma" is spoken in English, indicating its foreignness to the Indonesian language. When used by this resident of Glodok, the term can be said to demonstrate the foreignness of the May riots and the unprecedented violence of the gang rapes that they contained. In this sense, trauma is also used to suggest the unrepresentable and incomprehensible suffering of the rape victims. Thus the voices that described the physical destruction of properties fray a path for the expression of the violence of gang rapes, as trauma cannot be assimilated into the Indonesian language. As I will show, this otherness, as well as the fear and confusion it causes, is registered in various modes of expression. The second element concerns an awareness that even the government, which had been traditionally relied upon for protection, could not guarantee the residents' security. Thus, the ethnic Chinese community found itself in an uncertain and potentially vulnerable position. The state could not be trusted; the Indonesian middle class and the frustrated underclass could not be counted on. The residents give us a sense that, by simply reconstructing the previous economic order, the Chinese in Glodok would remain subject to attack and racial prejudice. Instead of following the suggestion of Habibie to restore the economic order "that we had enjoyed before," Glodok's residents looked for the creation of a new image. To understand what kind of image the Chinese Indonesian created to cope with the aftermath of the riots, we need to examine the buildings recently constructed in Glodok to replace those that were destroyed. How is space reconfigured to reimagine a time of trauma?


Glodok Plaza, then the largest electronics and computer centre in Indonesia, was built in 1976, housing 600 shops. It was torched on May 14, 1998. A reporter recorded the event in this way:

Glodok Plaza stands at the center of Jakarta's commercial district, Chinatown. Muladi, a security officer, watched as more than two thousand people walked to the plaza at 4:00 p.m. Some carried bags of stones, others with tools to pry open the gates. A few carried gasoline bombs. The police fired in the air, but the mob ignored them. Eventually the police stepped aside. Glodok Plaza was ripped open and burned out.

Chinese Indonesians remembered the riots with an awareness that similar outbreaks might return. A year later, a small group of ethnic Chinese held a commemoration of the event at the ruins of the Plaza. With white cloths tied to their foreheads and candles in hand, the participants laid down a long white cloth, bearing the words, "we don't want to be victimized again," on the ruins of the building. This, however, is the only act of remembrance that has taken place at the plaza.

At the beginning of 2000, Glodok Plaza was rebuilt in a manner that intimates the dynamics of remembering and forgetting after the May riots. According to the general manager of Glodok Plaza, the rapidity of this reconstruction can be attributed to the name of Glodok, which is "already familiar in the mind of the people. Everyone knows Glodok locally and internationally. That is why, even though we have many new malls [in Jakarta], the prestige of Glodok has never faded away." The area of Glodok is remembered not for its recent social and political violence but rather for its long-standing distinction. As a private enterprise remade to rebuild their businesses, Glodok Plaza reappeared in a new form to strengthen this image of glory and prosperity (Figure 1.1).

A new design was laid out to cover the remaining structure. P. T. Airmas Asri, the designer of the new Glodok Plaza, pointed out that the company won the design competition because it was able to give Glodok Plaza "a strong image of a center of electronics and computers in the new millennium." The façade of the building projects this notion by way of decorative, colourful and festive features made of steel, glass and aluminium, all of which are visible from afar. Large billboards, facing the main street, exude a high-tech, transparent quality. The new façade is complemented by an inviting landscape that features greenery, fountains and open spaces leading to the entrance.

The main challenge, however, is not in the treatment of the façade but rather in the task of designing "a new interior space within the existing old structure." The new interior is guided by the principle of "brightness." To move the building, architecturally, from darkness to light is to open up the prospects for the future. This move, from the dystopian to the utopian, could only be authorized, of course, by a suppression of the past terrors embodied within the framework of its architecture. To eliminate the previous gloomy spaces, parts of the old structure were demolished, creating more internal open space and light. Several atriums were constructed throughout the building, allowing every shop to face an open atrium space and thus "erasing the impression of filth, darkness, and old and providing a sense of order. ... The subsidiary atriums will enable visitors to enjoy the moment of shopping in every part of the building. The tenants will also enjoy the same spatial effect no matter where his [or] her shop is located." These subsidiary atriums are all connected to an elliptical, main atrium at the entrance hall. Designed with careful attention to feng shui, this main atrium features a water fountain at its centre to cool down the element of heat believed to be embedded in the area of Glodok.

The conscientious concern for feng shui contrasts sharply with the attention granted to the commemoration of the riots. Indeed, what is remarkable about the design strategy of Glodok Plaza is the complete erasure of all traces of the old structure and, by extension, the memories of riots. While the existence of the new building certainly resulted from the May riots, and while it was rebuilt from the remaining structure, the principal architectural concept allows for no mention of the unrest itself. What have been exposed are architectural features that supposedly enable consumers to identify the building with the electronic and computer age of the new millennium. Glodok Plaza ostensibly celebrates a future electronic festival, not a past traumatic event. The building shows itself as cheerful and inviting. It reaches out through its billboards. It tries to offer a dream of the virtual world instead of the memories of the horrific and very real past. There is optimism that technology will bring "light" to overcome the darkness of the past. The structure of the old building that carries the trace of violence is buried under layers of new materials and, ultimately, by electronic accessories. Overlain by the imagery of the present and the future, the trace of the old structure is gone, though it ironically still supports the new building.


Excerpted from Visual Cultures of the Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia by Abidin Kusno. Copyright © 2016 Abidin Kusno. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International Ltd..
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Table of Contents

Introduction / Part One: The Visual Environment / 1. The Riots / 2. The Shophouse / Part Two: Public Eyes-Private Gaze / 3. Comics and Cersil (Martial Art Stories) / 4. The Film Gie / 5. Family Photo Album / Part Three: Visionary / (In)Visibility / 6. Developers / 7. Architects / Part Four: Epilogue / 8. The Lost Home / Bibliography / Index

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