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Hidden Voices – An Exploration of Chinese-Indonesian Cinema11 min read

7 April 2020 8 min read


Hidden Voices – An Exploration of Chinese-Indonesian Cinema11 min read

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Media has always been a key way to bridge cultural differences and enable understanding, and it was surprising to find out that there was a lack of films by and about Chinese-Indonesians, despite their unique culture and storied history of discrimination in the country.

Being as media-obsessed as we are, we examine this troubled history through the lens of the medium; of why there is this silence and how it can give us a deeper understanding of our Chinese-Indonesian friends and colleagues.

We look to answer the question: where are the Chinese-Indonesian films?

The Numbers Don’t Add Up Anyway, Right?

Indonesia is home to over 300 ethnic groups, with 95% of native Indonesian ancestry. A 2010 census estimates that the Chinese in Indonesia only accounts for about 1.2% of its population.

That should be the answer to why there are no Chinese-Indonesian films around, right? Well, yes and no.

With its total population of 260 million, Indonesia is fast becoming one of Asia’s biggest markets. A growing middle class and further urbanization has shaped the country to be a strong market for films. Domestic productions have boomed in recent years as well. Joko Anwar’s hugely popular Satan’s Slave was a box-office hit both domestically and regionally, while action-thriller The Raid continues to be hailed as one of the best the action genre has to offer.

(Film still of ‘The Raid’ directed by Gareth Evans / Photo credits: PT. Merantau Films)

So yes, a film made by the Chinese, of the Chinese, and for the Chinese is far from the wisest financial decision given their miniscule demographic, and how they would be commercially dwarfed by films that are made by the majority for the majority and Hollywood behemoths (sounds familiar?). 

However, those economic reasons can only be mostly tied to domestic releases. There still exists markets beyond borders, while the commodification of film and technology has made it possible to tell stories without a large budget. A dive into Indonesia’s history, as reflected onto the media, would elicit a clearer picture.

Early Films and Their Cultural Blends

While there were definitely pioneers from diverse ethnicities that produced films at this time, the first three decades of the 20th century saw the ethnic Chinese own most of the movie theatres throughout colonial Indonesian – then known as the Dutch East Indies. The films of the Wong brothers and film producer The Teng Chun would have been common sights in these theatres throughout the 1930s. Off the camera, the Chinese were also known to be industry players as financial backers.

(Photo of Tan Teng Chun (centre) / Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Taken together, these films largely focused on the issues of the Chinese community but there were still stylistic and thematic elements that made them unique to the region. One example is 1930’s Si Tjonat directed by Nelson Wong (of the Wong brothers). The silent film is based on a Minahasan novel of the same name, and boasts a narrative that highlights the cultural blendings between the Chinese and the native Indonesians.

This blend can also be seen in similar early films, where directors infused Chinese theatre sensibilities into these local stories. Martial arts theatrics, for example, would be commonly found in these films even if they were essentially telling local stories. 

With the surprising popularity of these films amongst the majority, the films started to integrate both indigenous and ethnic Chinese actors providing their own mix of languages. This depth of reach to the locals can also be seen with how even films based on Chinese folklore, such as Teng Chun’s Ouw Peh Tjoa, were marketed and subtitled in Indonesian.

(Film poster of ‘Ouw Peh Tjoa’ / Photo credit: 

While these films looked to be inclusive, there were still definitely hints of discrimination and orientalism both with the films and the theatres they were screened in. The aforementioned Si Tjonat pitted an ethnic Indonesian villain against an ethnic Chinese hero. Historians have also noted separate admission prices and seatings between different ethnicities for early screenings, with films being comparatively more expensive for the locals. 

Still, it is disheartening to find out that most of them were lost with time, either because of the easily-flammable nitrate films that they were shot on or because of more nefarious reasons.

The Not-So-Short Answer: History Happened

Japan occupied Indonesia in 1942 and quickly disbanded Chinese organisations and businesses – including production studios. Instead, the Japanese gave job opportunities to the indigenous Indonesians. As with similar efforts with the rest of the indigenous population, the goal for the Japanese was to strengthen existing ethno-nationalist sentiments within them. One such way was with film, where they recruited and trained the indigenous to produce propaganda films for their army, sharing with them the political power of cinema.

(Film still of Japanese propaganda film ‘Berjoang’ directed by Indonesian Raden Ariffien / Photo credit: Indonesian Film Center)

One such filmmaker was pioneer Indonesian filmmaker Usmar Ismail, who would go on to direct the much celebrated Warriors For Freedom in 1960. The techniques and mindset that the Japanese shared were a sharp departure from the colonial-era films. This led to filmmakers such as Ismail to embrace nationalistic films as true authentic Indonesian films, and consider Chinese and Dutch produced films as nothing more than exploitative commercial films by foreigners.

While relatively short, this period would foreshadow a splinter between the ethnicities in both the media industry and society that continue to resonate today.

After a few years of return to Dutch colonial rule, the country declared its independence in 1949. Post-independence Indonesia under its first president, Sukarno, saw anti-Chinese sentiments and discrimination at a comparative low, given his plans to uphold a multi-racial state. There was a brief glimpse of resurgence of the Chinese in film. Two of the Wong Brothers returned to direct and produce films while Fred Young became one of the most prolific film directors of the 1950s. 

(Film still of ‘Saputangan’ (1949), directed by Fred Young / Photo credit: Bintang Soerabaja Film Corporation)

The following decades, however, would not be as kind. Nationalistic sentiments reached a fever pitch by the 1960s and inevitably infiltrated the film world – especially with the views imbued by the Japanese decades prior. Of the 131 films made between 1960 and 1965, only two films have been credited as by a Chinese filmmaker. 

Anti-Chinese sentiments were further perpetuated by how they were largely seen as communists and a threat to national security. While they were not the only targets, 1965 marked a dark period for Chinese-Indonesians with targeted large-scale killings and civil unrest – this period is sometimes termed the “Indonesian genocide of 1965-1966”. This led to the coup of 1965 which upended Sukarno’s presidency. The New Order that followed under President Suharto would be catastrophic for Chinese-Indonesians.

For the film world, heavy censorship kept the film industry from growing. For the Chinese, the silence was deafening. A policy in 1961 decreed the Chinese to replace their names with Indonesian-sounding ones. Despite still being part of the industry, Chinese-Indonesians were a minority in the media industry. If they did produce any work, their ethnicity would not even be recognised given their adopted names.

(Photo of Teguh Karya, a celebrated Chinese-Indonesian filmmaker from the 1970s and 1980s / Photo credit: Ministry of Information, Republic of Indonesia)

The discrimination would persist to the 21st century. During the 1998 riots sparked by the Asian Financial Crisis, the country’s ethnic chinese were prime targets, blaming them for the crisis due to the concentration of wealth with the Chinese. This led to looting, arsons, killings and rapes, and the exodus to neighbouring countries for those who could afford to.

Sea Change After The New Order

The riots eventually led to the resignation of President Suharto, marking the end of the New Order era. The attitudes and policies of the era, such as the mandated name changes, the lack of representation in media, and the closing of Chinese schools and publications, has left deep cultural scars for the ethnic Chinese. 

Those that grew up in this era find themselves unable to speak the language or its dialects due to the overwhelming necessity of the Indonesian language. And that’s not even factoring in the cross-cultural pollination with intercultural marriages and Westernisation throughout the decades. 

However, the decades following the New Order has brought a steady progress of democratisation, leading to a relaxation of censorship and the regrowth of Indonesia’s film industry. 

The end of the New Order in 1998 ushered in a relaxation of censorship and the regrowth of Indonesia’s film industry. Under the presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid between 1999 to 2001, he brought an end to Suharto’s discriminatory policies and paved the way for more Chinese-inclusive national discourse.

(Film still of ‘May’ directed by Viva Westi / Photo credit: Flix Pictures)

With these changes, there has been a growing number of Indonesian films emerging in recent years speaking on the issues of the Chinese community and of films by them. The 1998 riots is often overshadowed by the marking of the New Order’s end but there have been numerous dramas and films dedicated to remembrance. For example, Viva Westi’s May (2008) tells the story of an assault victim and the trauma she has to live with. 

Similarly, Jakarta hosted a screening of short films from Proyek Payung, a project commemorating the ten-year anniversary of the May 1998 riots – four of ten focused on Chinese Indonesian issues. 

When it comes to feature films, both 2018’s Pai Kau and 2019’s Susi Susanti: Love All have been indications of progress. Pai Kau featured a mostly Chinese-Indonesian cast while Susi Susanti: Love All is a biopic on one of Indonesia’s celebrated athletes. 

The films of Chinese-Indonesian comedian and filmmaker Ernest Prakasa have also been optimistic exceptions to the rule. His last four films have been box office smash hits, consistently ranking in the top 10 best-selling domestic films. While all of them aren’t necessarily infused with Chinese themes, they do prove that there is the possibility of cross-over success in Indonesia.

(Film still of ‘Kukejar Cinta Ke Negeri Cina’ directed by Ernest Prakasa / Photo credit: StarVision Plus)

In recent years, more Chinese-Indonesians have looked to revisit their heritage and pick up Mandarin. A study conducted in 2018 finds that Chinese-Indonesian youths do consume Chinese films and TV dramas – albeit largely preferring China-made media than those locally produced. 

There remains a lack of films made and starring Chinese-Indonesians but it remains to be seen if the current and next generation of youths would look to fill the gap with their stories, especially with a rekindling of their heritage. Plus, the growth of China’s presence in the country has also made Mandarin more of a growing benefit than a liability as in previous generations. 

So where are the Chinese-Indonesian films? Perhaps they’re all coming soon.

Read more:
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There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.
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