Cornell University

SEAP Gatty Lecture Series: "Creole Chinese Crossings: Spirits, Ancestors and Early Postcolonial Indonesia’s Ethnic Boundaries"

Thursday, February 9, 2017 at 12:00pm to 1:30pm

Kahin Center
640 Stewart Ave, Ithaca, NY 14850, USA

Guo-Quan Seng, Post-doctoral Fellow, Department of History, National University of Singapore

Creole Chinese Crossings: Spirits, Ancestors and Early Postcolonial Indonesia’s Ethnic Boundaries


The fledging Indonesian nation-state was forged on the premise of overturning more than a century of Dutch colonial racial-legal-economic discrimination against the native (pribumi) population. While the revolution had expelled the resident Dutch and European groups, Indonesia's position on the much larger ethnic Chinese entrepreneurial minority was at once more nuanced and problematic: were the Chinese willing to take up Indonesian nationality, how could their dominance in the commercial sphere be restrained, to what extent could they be assimilated to Indonesian culture? 

While previous studies have explored the question of the "Indonesian Chinese in crisis" from the commanding heights of national politics (Coppel 1983, Heidhues 1975, Suryadinata 2004), this talk examines the ethnic Chinese socio-cultural experience of living through early postcolonial Indonesia from the bottom-up. It does so by engaging the Geertzian socio-cultural categories of the religion of Java - how did the ethnic Chinese navigate the pressures to assimilate at the intersection of the deep structures of the Hindu-animist Abangan, aristocratic Priyayi and Islamic Santri streams (aliran) of social differentiation? Using the case study of a wealthy West Java Chinese Peranakan family, I argue that the creole Chinese familial subject inhabited a marginal and contested socio-cultural space in the turbulent environment of early postcolonial Indonesia. Wealth and their creole connectedness enabled such families to make creative and subversive cultural crossings within the larger structures of ethnic identification on Java. What forms of cultural transformation do the ethnic Chinese undergo when families seek refuge and protection in Abangan mysticism through the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s? What does it mean to ethnic Chinese-ness when a Priyayi family name and genealogy (silsilah) is grafted onto patrilineal Chinese forms of identification?

This talk is drawn from a chapter in an ongoing book project, tentatively titled, "Creole Crossings and Connections: Kinship, Law and Gender in the formation of the Chinese Minority in Colonial and Post-Colonial Indonesia"

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Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, History, Southeast Asia Program


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SEAP Graduate Student Committee

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Guo-Quan Seng

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Post-doctoral Fellow, Department of History, National University of Singapore

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