In the US, Chinese Indonesian Refugees Found a New Home and New Problems

In Philadelphia, home to the second largest Indonesian American population in the US, those who escaped the riots in May 1998 are living through a period of rising anti-immigration rhetoric.
May 24, 2018, 7:11am
Tjandra, who asked us not to show his face, sits on the front step of a home in Philadelphia. Photo by author

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.

Tjandra remembers the slurs. He remembers how neighborhood kids would pick on him because he was ethnically Chinese. But the kind of racism he dealt with growing up in the small Indonesian city of Malang, East Java, also had a more insidious—more invisible—side. It was the kind of thing that subtly shapes your everyday existence, whether you like it or not.

“You feel it,” he told me as we sat in my car on a street in Philadelphia. “But since you live it, it just becomes normal.”

Tjandra fled Indonesia 20 years ago, leaving his home during a time when anti-Chinese riots were spreading across the country, hitting cities like Jakarta, Medan, and Surabaya—a city only 58 miles away from Tjandra's home in Malang. Mobs of angry rioters tore through Chinese ethnic neighborhoods, looting shops, torching buildings, and, in hundreds of instances, raping women in a wave of violence that precipitated General Suharto's fall and the end of his New Order regime.

The riots of May 1998 caused as many as 100,000 Chinese Indonesians to flee the country, according to some estimates. More than 7,000 of them were granted asylum in the United States, settling in cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Another 5,800 arrived only to see their asylum claims denied by the US government.

In cities like LA, it's created a thriving food culture in a city with more than 20,000 Indonesian Americans and more recent immigrants. And in Philadelphia, home to between 6,000 and 8,000 Indonesians, it's created a tight-knit community that transcends some of the same divisions that caused so much trouble back home. During my time hanging around South Philly's Indonesian community, I met immigrants with mixed-race spouses and local church leaders who hold joint prayer events with their Muslim counterparts.

But it's also a community that has, in some instances, cut all ties with their old lives back home.

"Personally, I don’t really miss Indonesia," Tjandra told me. "I feel more comfortable here."

Tjandra never really experienced the violence of May 98 first-hand. The riots didn't engulf his hometown the way they did other places in Indonesia at the time. But he still saw it all on TV and, worst of all, he recognized the kinds of racism and ethnic strains that were behind the violence as an issue that wasn't suddenly vanish once the rioting stopped.

"Those things, they'll never go away," he told me. “I believed that [the violence] could possibly spread easily—and you don't want to wait.”

So, at the age of 34 and roughly three months after the riots ended, Tjandra, who asked that only his first name be used for this article, left his four siblings and his baking business behind and made his way to Philly, where he had a cousin already living in the city. He planned to scope things out in the US while his wife ran the bakery back home. He would send for her later if he liked what he saw.

The city Tjandra arrived in was worlds away from everything he knew back in Malang. Sure, it was his first time leaving Indonesia, and everything in the US was new and different. But it was the outward expressions of Chinese culture that struck Tjandra the most. Tjandra grew up in Indonesia during a time when public displays of Chinese dialects and cultural celebrations were prohibited by Suharto's regime. Chinese-Indonesians were even pushed to adopt new, more "Indonesian," names during the New Order as part of the country's assimilation policies.

But in Philly, the city's small Chinatown was awash in Chinese culture. As were the streets of South Philly, where a sizable Asian community has set down roots in the red brick row homes and narrow streets of South Philadelphia.

The city's southern end, once the home of Philly's Italian American community, is today a vibrant melting pot of cultures, from the old Italian enclaves around McKean and Passyunk, where fancy Mexican spots serve Tecate beers and vegan seitan tacos to hipsters, to the iconic Italian Market, where a new wave of Mexican American entrepreneurs has opened up legit Mexican restaurants next door to old-school white tablecloth red sauce joints.

But while Italian Americans and movies like Rocky might be the first things that come to most people's minds when they hear the words "South Philly," spend enough time down there and it's impossible not to notice the thriving Asian communities that also call it home. There's Chinese and Vietnamese strip malls on the north end along Washington Avenue, a Cambodian neighborhood in the deep south near Seventh and Wolf, and an Indonesian community spread across neighborhoods on the west side of Broad Street.

While only 7.4 percent of Philly's 1.5 million people are Asian, according to census data, Asian immigrants are among the city's newest residents. Out of the roughly 200,000 foreign-born residents living in the city, Asian immigrants make up the largest percentage of that group, at 39 percent.

It was this existing community of other recent Asian immigrants that allowed Chinese Indonesians fleeing the violence of 98 to take root, explained Dahlia Setiyawan, an independent historian and researcher who has studied Philadelphia’s Chinese Indonesian community for years.

"Most of the folks that came in 1998 came on tourist visas with the intention of working and tapped into an economy that was started by earlier immigrants from Vietnam and Cambodia,” she told me.

Tjandra told me that he initially arrived on a tourist visa, but he was eventually granted asylum and allowed to legally live and work in the US. Initially he planned to pick up baking again, but the economic realities of starting over in a new country meant that he had to take whatever jobs came his way. He worked a printer, for an "errands agency," and, today, he is flipping houses on the real estate market.

While the May 98 riots drove many Chinese Indonesians to the US, not all of them left the country that year. The riots were more of a sign of how things looked when everything went wrong than a singular event that made people pack their bags and flee. Ani, a Christian Chinese Indonesian who didn't want me to print her real name, left Indonesia one year later, when civil unrest hit her hometown of Balikpapan, in West Kalimantan. Yeni Lie left in 2002, not because of violence but because of the economic malaise that hung over Indonesia in those early years of the Reformasi movement that followed the New Order's end.

“There were a lot of jobs, but none of them [provided] good money,” Yeni told me. “That’s why we tried to come here.”

Yeni tapped connections with family members who were already living in Philly to find employment in a paper factory, working grueling 12-hour days to help make ends meet. But she told me that she felt much safer in Philly, where she knew her ethnicity and religion weren't an issue. Today, she is a stay-at-home mom of three children and a regular at the nearby Indonesian Mennonite Church.

Her pastor, Kilat Lembong, who leads the 50-member congregation, came to the US in 2008, spending his first year in California before moving to Philadelphia. Kilat, who was born in Pontianak but grew up in Jakarta, told me that he moved to the US because he was asked to lead congregations here, not because he feared for his or his family’s safety. Still, he, like many Indonesians, has a story from the 98 riots, but his was about people of different religions coming together, not spiraling into violence.

During the riots, as buildings near his church went up in flames, local Muslims formed a human barrier between the church and the rioters, saving it from the mobs, he told me.

“After 98, it got worse,” Kilat told me. “But we’re lucky because now we have a good president, Jokowi. The army and police are also very good—they protect the churches and catch the terrorists.”

He visits Indonesia often, and it was during his last visit, in December of last year, that he felt an ominous wind back home. Indonesia is currently in the midst of what's shaping up to be a prolonged election season, with regional elections this year and a presidential race next. The elections are proving grounds for the country's newly emboldened Islamic fundamentalist front to test their strength. Some politicians have resorted to coded language and dog whistles, while other groups have explicitly stated their intentions to target the country's Chinese Indonesian community.

And while anti-Chinese racism is still a thing in Indonesia, actual violence is more likely to occur because of someone's religion, not their ethnicity, today. Jakarta's former governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is both Chinese and Christian, and while the former played a role in some of the racist rhetoric coming out during the elections, it was the latter than lost him the election—and landed him behind bars on blasphemy charges.

And just this month, terrorists hit three churches in Surabaya, launching coordinated suicide attacks in the middle of Sunday morning services that left 18 churchgoers dead.

“They have real risks in Indonesia, real discriminations,” Andreas Harsono, the Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, told me via email, explaining that Indonesia still didn't have programs in place to assist the victims of ethnic or religious violence, and that many of those who were in power while such atrocities took place still hold sway and influence in the country.

Then there's the problems in the US. A George W. Bush-era policy that required all recent male immigrants from Muslim-majority countries to register ironically hit Philly's Christian Chinese Indonesian community pretty hard. They registered with the government, and then the undocumented ones found themselves targets of raids by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“If you came in on a tourist visa, that was the kiss of death," Dahlia told me. "So people started registering. And as you can imagine, that was a terrible time for the community as a whole. An 8,000 to 9,000 person community at the start of the decade experienced a major decline, and from 2002 onward the ICE raids started.”

Tjandra lost a friend to these deportations after his Greyhound bus was pulled over and searched as he was trying to travel from Philly to Rhode Island to register himself. He was locked up for three months, and then deported back to Indonesia.

Today, there's fear that the ICE will continue to use these lists to raid homes and businesses under the most anti-immigrant president the US has had in years. Some Indonesians have taken up sanctuary at churches in New Jersey to avoid deportations.

And others continue to struggle with issues that followed them from back home, Dahlia explained.

"Just because you pack a suitcase and leave for a new place doesn't mean you leave all your baggage behind," she said.

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