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'Chinese Whispers' Unpacks the Lasting Impact of May '98 Riots Through Women's Eyes

An English version of the multimedia project will be screened at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Indonesia this month.
October 5, 2018, 5:51am
All illustrations of 'Chinese Whispers' are by Cindy, or @cindysaja on Instagram.
All illustrations of 'Chinese Whispers' are by Cindy, or @cindysaja on Instagram.

Rani Pramesti creates art that wrestles with the complexities of identity. So when the artist, she's mixed Chinese/Javanese/Indonesian/Australian, decided to tackle one of the darkest chapters of recent history in Indonesia—the May '98 riots—she honed-in on the personal perspectives of the Chinese-Indonesian women who witnessed—and were the targets of—the riots firsthand.

Her digital multimedia comic Chinese Whispers first came out in 2014, debuting at the Melbourne Fringe Festival as a performance installation. The installation led audiences through a labyrinth of cloth, guided by a 40-minute audio composition, which was a personal response to the violence of the riots, a period that she experienced herself, told through her own eyes and those of other Chinese-Indonesian women she interviewed in Australia. Initially an explorative sensory maze experience, the project has morphed into a digital graphic novel that's been translated to English, and it's set to be featured at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival later this month.

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When the riots, which targeted Indonesians of Chinese descent, broke out 20 years ago in May, Rani was only 12 years old. Unlike the estimated 1,200 people who died in the riots and hundreds of women who were raped in the chaos, Rani and her family found relative safety. Soon after, her parents were able to send her and her brother to Australia.

But the terror didn't end there. I spoke to Rani, who is now in her 30s, about her memories of the violence, interracial tensions, and how Chinese Whispers is helping her heal and understand of the events that precipitated the riots.

VICE: What impacts did witnessing this kind of race-based, gender violence have on you as a child? You were only 12, so could you understand the complexity of it all? How did it make you feel?
One of my aims for making Chinese Whispers was to give an example of politically motivated racism. It had real, concrete emotional and psychological impacts on people, including children. For me, the May 1998 riots happened when I was twelve. Though I did not understand the full complexity, I internalized the hatred that was directed towards Indonesians of Chinese descent. There is actually a chapter in Chinese Whispers called "Inheriting Hate."

This kind of self-loathing only began to be undone when I started studying at the University of Sydney. I got a bachelor's degree in anthropology and social work. Some of the courses I did were deliberately about Chinese people in Southeast Asia. So I learned about how May 1998 riots were part of a bigger pattern of deliberately fostered Anti-Chinese sentiment, but it's also a part of racial segregation under Dutch colonialism in Indonesia. That gave me the political and historical framework to then understand what happened and that it wasn’t actually my fault.

A preview of the English language digital version of 'Chinese Whispers,' which will debut this month in Ubud.

I feel like racism that is political is different from interpersonal, structural, and institutionalized racism. Would you say that the incident had an interpersonal element to it?This is where it gets really complex because it's very clear that it was orchestrated. Time-and-time again, eyewitnesses say that truckloads of people who were well-built and had crew cuts were shipped into [riot] areas. The local people did not know who they were but they started the shouting and targeting of Chinese shops. It’s not just about a latent hatred of Indonesians of Chinese descent, it was deliberately tapped into.

Then there’s fact that there is interracial segregation and interracial mistrust, which you could say is the interpersonal part to the violence. What the pattern of violence showed was that it was organized and deliberately linked. That interpersonal hatred was called upon during May 1998.

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What did you hope to achieve through the English version of Chinese Whispers?
Chinese Whispers initially premiered as a performance installation in English. So this is actually the original audio. The Indonesian version was actually recorded after. When it premiered in Melbourne, in English, people from all kinds of cultural backgrounds were able to find ways to connect with Chinese Whispers. The aim was to create these communities that were willing to engage in conversations about these really complex, confronting, and really uncomfortable situations.

When we launched the Indonesian language version in May, we had similar intentions of building conversations and communities. We specifically targeted a younger Indonesian audience, and now with the Ubud Writer Festival the hope is that it takes the conversation into the international level.

What I would like to achieve is to inspire conversations and self-reflection. My hope is that my work triggers social change.

Have you seen anyone get really emotional after seeing this project?
The installation was hosted by a Chinese-Indonesian actress. She was there to hold space for people to debrief. People stayed for hours to talk about the stories, to be listened to, and to talk about how it connected with their own lives. That’s what we found and it's definitely been the same around the digital work.

If there are Chinese-Indonesian people in the audience, it actually encourages them to share their experiences which can be really full-on because they are sharing the worse memories in their lives. For me, I think that’s powerful because there’s denial that these events happened, especially around the sexual violence to Chinese-Indonesian women.

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There are still people in power today who deny that happened. People shared their experiences and how Chinese Whispers created a space where they felt that they could share. For me that’s core for inspiring conversations and reflections to contribute to social change.

Do you think the trauma of the event is going to impact younger generations?
Yes, without question. Chinese-Indonesian people say "Thank you" to me and my team for our work. Then they say, “Aren’t you afraid?”

That speaks volumes about where we are at, in terms of the international diaspora of Chinese-Indonesian people. Their parents perhaps sent them away because of May 1998. Recently the former Chinese-Indonesian governor of Jakarta was jailed. The message you get if you are Chinese is basically “shut up!”

When people ask me, "Aren’t you afraid?” it's because their parents are really afraid. One person told me that when they posted about Chinese Whispers on their Facebook, their parents immediately told them to take it down without necessarily offering an explanation. Whether or not people speak about it, there’s inter-generational trauma.

As the event is so traumatic, let’s shift to the reverse action: healing. What does healing look like to you?
It’s one thing that I keep coming back to and I need to credit my friend, Max Lane, a historian and writer of Indonesian history. He posed this question to me: “Can there be healing without justice?” To be quite frank, I don’t think there can be without justice.

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There’s still impunity, silence, denial, and the deliberate covering-up of the facts. There’s no momentum at all in investigating the events. Impunity is the absolute enemy of healing.

I’m a bit careful to say that it's intended to heal those wounds because I don’t think the scope of this work can claim that. For me, my craft is storytelling and the least I can do to contribute is to tell a story.

Chinese Whispers is told through 12-year-old Rani’s eyes. People find reflections of themselves in that and people find themselves validated in that. Complete strangers from younger generations reached out to me and told me how validated they feel about their questions. It's impacted their families and they feel less alone. I can’t claim that it's going to heal these wounds that continue to be open, but I can, at least, try to contribute to the story so that it's not silent. This is, at least, an acknowledgement of the pain. I think that’s part of healing—when you acknowledge that there’s pain.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The English edition of Chinese Whispers will be screened on October 27 at the Ubud Writers Festival. Find more info on the screening here.