Mapping Chineseness on the landscape of Christian churches in Indonesiaby Chang-Yau Hoon

Asian Ethnicity


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Mapping Chineseness on the landscape of Christian churches in Indonesia

Chang-Yau Hoona a School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University,


Published online: 20 Jan 2015.

To cite this article: Chang-Yau Hoon (2015): Mapping Chineseness on the landscape of Christian churches in Indonesia, Asian Ethnicity, DOI: 10.1080/14631369.2014.1001161

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D ow nl oa de d by [N ew

Y or k U niv ers ity ] a t 0 0:4 1 1 2 M ay 20 15

Mapping Chineseness on the landscape of Christian churches in Indonesia

Chang-Yau Hoon*

School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University, Singapore

Scholarship on the Chinese Indonesian community has largely been concerned with the tensions between the community and the majority non-Chinese (or pribumi). The fault lines were usually examined against the background of Suharto’s assimilation policy, the 1998 anti-Chinese riots, the stark imbalance of the nation’s wealth within this minority group, and Chinese loyalty – or chauvinism – in the time of nation-building, and in the face of the rise of modern China. Little attention has been given to

Christianity as offering a shelter for the inconspicuous propagation of Chineseness; particularly in terms of the conduct of services in Chinese, the teaching of the language, and business-management leadership. The network of Chinese churches locally, and extending internationally beyond Indonesia, represents a rich field for further scholarship. This article sets out an epistemological map in the service of such research.

Keywords: Chinese Indonesians; Christianity; Indonesia; Chineseness; identity; religion

Interest in the study of Chinese Indonesians grew during Suharto’s New Order period (1966–1998) owing to the discourse on the ‘Chinese Problem.’ Scholars researched on the history of the Chinese in Indonesia and the community’s response to the New Order assimilation policy. The role of the Chinese in the nation’s economy also came under scrutiny because much of indigenous resentment centered on the concentration of wealth within the minority group. Interest in the study of the Chinese Indonesians was renewed after the 1998 anti-Chinese riots when the research focus shifted to issues relating to violence,1 politics,2 identity,3 and, in the wake of the rise of China, to the post-Suharto renaissance of Chinese culture, language, media, and religions. This author proposes that the lack of scholarly attention paid to the study of Chinese Christians in Indonesia is conspicuous for the importance of the subject with regard to the notion of Chineseness in the Chinese Indonesia community. Chinese conversion to Christianity is a rich field for the study of identity politics.

During the New Order, the Suharto administration actively promoted religious affiliation to prevent the re-emergence of Communism. Many Chinese considered that joining an officially recognized religion afforded them the best protection against persecution.

Christianity was a most suitable choice because the religion did not bear the stigma of being Chinese. Indeed, for the Chinese minority who were subjected to forced assimilation and oppression of their culture, Christianity offered a new identity.4 Consequently,

Christianity experienced a boom with the mass conversion of ethnic Chinese.5 Chinese *Email:

Asian Ethnicity, 2015 © 2015 Taylor & Francis

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Y or k U niv ers ity ] a t 0 0:4 1 1 2 M ay 20 15 churches, however, have maintained a very low profile in their expression of Chinese identity because of the assimilation policy. Soleiman and Steenbrink argue this reticence is a reason why there never was a development toward a ‘truly contextual Chinese

Christianity,’ although, ‘a Chinese ethnic identity cannot be concealed, and ethnicity remains a very important factor in Indonesian society’.6 This partly explains why

Chinese Christianity has not attracted much scholarly attention.

According to the 2000 Census, approximately 35% of Chinese Indonesians are

Christians (both Protestants and Catholics). This figure comes only after Buddhism that accounted for around 54%.7 Remarkably, the Chinese Christian population increased to almost 43% in the 2010 Census,8 most likely because of conversion in PentecostalCharismatic churches, the fastest growing denomination in Indonesia. Despite almost half of the Chinese population in Indonesia are Christians, there is a tendency not to view Christianity as a Chinese phenomenon. This is because Christianity is not naturally considered indigenous to the ethnic Chinese compared to ‘traditional Chinese’ religions such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and the Tridharma (Sam Kauw – a syncretism of