Conference: Beyond the National: The Regional and Transnational Trajectories of Chinese Indonesians

ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted the ‘Beyond the National: The Regional and Transnational Trajectories of Chinese Indonesians’ Conference at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute on 20-21 October 2016. The conference was co-convened by Dr Hui Yew-Foong, ISEAS Senior Fellow and Dr Charlotte Setijadi, ISEAS Visiting Fellow from the Indonesia Studies Programme.

ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute hosted the ‘Beyond the National: The Regional and Transnational Trajectories of Chinese Indonesians’ Conference at ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute on 20-21 October 2016. The conference was co-convened by Dr Hui Yew-Foong (Senior Fellow) and Dr Charlotte Setijadi (Visiting Fellow) from the Indonesia Studies Programme.


Thursday, 20 October 2016 – Twenty one scholars from fourteen countries convened at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute for a two-day conference that explored new critical questions to do with the socio-political, cultural and economic positions of Chinese Indonesians in the post-Suharto era. Moving beyond conventional notions of assimilation, integration, and national belonging within the framework of ethno-nationalism in modern Indonesia, the conference was intended to be an ‘update’ of the contemporary history and ethnography of Chinese Indonesians within the contexts of post-Suharto reforms and the rise of China as a regional and global power.

Dr Charlotte Setijadi delivering the opening remarks as one of the conference co-convenors. Seated with her are Dr Mary Somers Heidhues, an independent scholar, who delivered the keynote lecture and Dr Hui Yew-Foong, ISEAS Senior Fellow and Coordinator, Indonesia Studies Programme. (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

After opening remarks by Dr Hui Yew-Foong and Dr Charlotte Setijadi as the conference co-convenors, Dr Mary Somers Heidhues delivered the keynote lecture titled ‘The Long Half-Century of English-Language Studies of Chinese in Indonesia.’ Intended as a survey of Western scholarship of Chinese Indonesians over the past five decades, Dr Heidhues successfully set the scene for the conference by highlighting trends in studies of Chinese Indonesians so far, and pointing out the need for new theoretical frameworks to understand recent phenomena such as increasing cultural reorientation towards Mainland China among totok (‘pure’) Chinese, more diverse local and regional Chinese Indonesian identities, and greater transnational connections between overseas Chinese communities.

Session 1 grouped together three papers that explore transnational Christian Chinese identities in Indonesia. Analysing three different Christian denominations (charismatic, reformed and Roman catholic), the three speakers examined transnational Christian modes of identification as an alternative form of identity; one that not only provides a firm sense of belonging and (divine) security, but also one that legitimises the business practices of many Chinese Indonesian Christian entrepreneurs.

Moderator and speakers from Session 1 – Transnational Christian Chinese Identities (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

After lunch, Session 2 continued with the topic of religion, but more about the construction of Chinese Indonesian as religious subjects, and how Chinese religions such as Confucianism, Taoism and other popular religions are represented in the public domain. The three speakers showed how historical perceptions of Chinese Indonesians cannot be separated from how they have been constructed in religious terms.

Dr Ulla Fionna, ISEAS Fellow and Assistant Coordinator, Indonesia Studies Programme, introducing the speakers and moderating Session 2 – Chinese Indonesians as Religious Subjects (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Session 3 examined the controversial and often difficult topic of perceived differences between Chinese and non-Chinese (pribumi) Indonesians. The three speakers explored the linguistics and contexts and xenophobic speech, particularly the ways in which the language of ‘Othering’ shape Chinese-pribumi relations in the post-Suharto era.

The line-up for Session 3 – Othering the Chinese (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

As the last session of Day 1, Session 4 examined the history of regional ethnic Chinese identities during the early years of Indonesia’s independence as a nation. Focusing on ethnic Chinese communities in North Sumatra and South Sulawesi, the two speakers discussed the tumultuous time period and the contributions made by various regional Chinese Indonesian actors in the fight for Indonesia’s sovereignty as a nation. 

Moderator and speakers for the final session, Regional Chinese Identities in the Early Years of The Republic (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)


Friday, 21 October 2016 – The second day of the conference opened with Session 5 that examined ethnic Chinese intellectuals and writers both in the past and the present. The first speaker Dr Josh Stenberg (University of British Columbia) discussed the thriving world of Mandarin language literature in post-Suharto Indonesia while the second speaker Dr Taomo Zhou (Nanyang Technological University) discussed ethnic Chinese intellectuals who had close relations with the Chinese Communist Party in the 1950s and 60s.

Associate Professor Charles Coppel, Principal Fellow (Honorary), The University of Melbourne, Australia, introducing both Dr Josh Stenberg and Dr Taomo Zhou to the participants (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

As the largest session in the conference, Session 6 consisted of four papers that discussed various contemporary regional Chinese Indonesian identities, ranging from Peranakan (acculturated) Chinese from East Java to Medan and Surabaya Chinese that each carved their own unique cultures. The four papers reiterated the importance of understanding Chinese Indonesians identities as heterogeneous and extremely diverse.

Dr Leo Suryadinata, ISEAS Visiting Senior Fellow moderating Session 6 – Contemporary Regional Trajectories (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Session 7 changed the focus to how China’s expansion into Southeast Asia affects Chinese Indonesians and Indonesia more generally as a nation. The three speakers discussed the relationship between Chinese Indonesian business networks and China, the influx of Chinese labourers into Indonesia, and new communities of Hui Muslim Chinese in Indonesian cities. This last session brought to the fore the reality that, within today’s interconnected world, it is important to understand the position of Chinese Indonesian in relation to greater global trends and in particular China’s rise in the world.

Associate Professor Marleen Dieleman from Department of Strategy and Policy, NUS Business School, National University of Singapore giving a background of Session 7 – The Rise of China: The Movement of People and Capital  (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The conference ended with a Roundtable Discussion consisting of keynote speaker Dr Mary Somers Heidhues, Dr Charles Coppel, Dr Leo Suryadinata from ISEAS, and Dr Hui Yew-Foong and Dr Charlotte Setijadi as the conference co-convenors. The Roundtable was moderated by ISEAS Deputy Director Dr Ooi Kee Beng. After a productive two days, the Roundable panel discussed future research avenues that will enhance the scope and relevance of Chinese Indonesian studies.

Dr Ooi Kee Beng, ISEAS Deputy Director, moderating the Roundtable Discussion and closing the 2-day conference (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

More than 70 individuals participated in the conference over the course of 2 days. 

Participants at the conference (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Group photo with conference moderators and speakers, along with Professor Wang Gungwu, Chairman, ISEAS Board of Trustees and his wife, Mrs Margaret Wang (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)