Pai Kau, a new drama about a Chinese Indonesian wedding gone wrong, is meant to break racial stereotypes, according to its director Sidi Saleh. But in all its efforts, it doesn’t quite succeed.
Instead, what the award winning director does is lump all the most saliently outrageous modern “Chindon" stereotypes into a caricature. Massive display of opulent wealth in metropolitan Jakarta? Check. References to the criminal underworld? Check. Dynastic-like family ties rife with love-hate tension? Check.
So what should we make of Pai Kau? Is it breaking stereotypes or perpetuating them? Is it a satire inspired from the reality or a misguided representation of Chindon community at large? Why does the film bother me so much?
Sure, the fact that this film exists at all is laudable in spirit. Saleh, who’s not Chinese Indonesian himself, told me that he consulted with all the Chinese Indonesian film crew in this project who all gave him their blessing to tell this story. I can’t remember the last time I watched an Indonesian film with characters who look like me. And as much as I hate how the film perpetuates stereotypes, some of them are true. I mean, some of them are even applicable to my own upbringing.
Much like the characters in the film, I grew up listening to Mandarin-accented Indonesian and Indonesian-accented Mandarin, going to Chindon eating houses and lavish Christian Chindon weddings, as well as learning about complex family and business affairs that hid all sorts of intrigue and scandal.
Koh Liem, the patriarch in Pai Kau, reminds me of my own dad: overprotective, overbearing, overindulging. In one scene where he threateningly tells his in-laws-to-be that nothing else matters more in life than preserving family ties and dignity, I cringed in sympathy. I’ve heard that before, more times than I could count. In another scene when he mentions how Koh Jun, the assassin-bodyguard who has protected his daughter Lucy since childhood, I’m reminded of all those burly bodyguard-types who drove me to my elite, predominantly Chindon Catholic school when I was little. They all had tattoos and a prison record, but unlike Koh Jun, they were mostly Eastern Indonesians.
The film gives me a sense of comfort and familiarity. But what it doesn’t have is context. This film is a caricature in isolation—a portrayal of strong Chindon cultural elements divorced from its historical, political, and economic contexts. The “gangsterism,” the display of wealth, the clannish family-business structure are all portrayed like a copy-paste of a Hong Kong mafia story set in Jakarta. It’s lacking a meaningful portrayal of the interracial, symbiotic relationships between Chinese and non-Chinese that enabled all these Chindon stereotypes to develop in the first place.
For a long time, the Chinese diaspora in many Southeast Asian countries existed as “pariah capitalists.” This is a term that was coined by sociologist Max Weber to describe European Jews circa World War I, but now it broadly refers to any immigrant minority group that rises to economic prosperity, but never fully integrates into the political and socio-cultural fabric of their host society. “Pariah capitalists” are allowed to achieve economic success, but not political power or social status, so some of them make their fortunes from economic opportunities that don’t fit in comfortably under the legal purview of their nation state.
I reached out to Karen Teoh, the associate professor of history and the director of asian studies at Stonehill College for more perspective. “Historically the Chinese had been used by colonial powers as ‘middlemen’ to manage illicit industries like gambling or opium dens, thus creating a socio-economic framework for ethnic Chinese groups to dominate underground businesses well into the postcolonial age,” she said in an email.
I mean, stereotypes exist for a reason, and they are true—to a certain extent. It’s true that some of Chinese diaspora across Southeast Asia operate in the criminal underworld. Just look at the Chindon “dragon” mafias who control the red-light districts in Jakarta. But don’t forget about the military generals and politicians of other ethnicities and religions who have profited from Chinese shadow businesses since the Dutch colonial times. And then there's all those other illegal industries run by ethnically indigenous Indonesians too.
Yes, some of the family drama is true too. In a world where business and family are one and the same, it's common enough to find marriages that serve more than one purpose. Just the other day, my friend told me about the strategic pairing of her sister with the son of a family who owned a rival business. But, again, this isn't unique to Chindon families. Just take one look at the family dynasties in wealthy neighborhoods like Menteng, and you can quickly see that this is something that a lot of Indonesia's rich and powerful do, regardless of their ethnicity.
So how do I feel about the whole thing? Well, I guess some representation is better than no representation at all. But the stories and characters presented in Pai Kau don't define us all. Where are the Chindons who speak with a thick Javanese or Sundanese accent? How about the ones from working class families? The countless ones who work in legal businesses? The Chindons who were successful in politics, academics, or athletics?
When there are so few Chindon stories in Indonesian cinemas, why do we need to mine the same stereotypes again and again? I asked Saleh about his thoughts on some of these stereotypes. He told me that the Chinese Indonesian characters in his film aren't just victims or involved in side stories They're badasses with guns and agency. And most of all, they have mass appeal.
“This is an entertaining film intended for a commercial audience,” he told me. “But with tight storyline, quality acting and fine cinematography.”
Stereotypes presented out of context are dangerous. No matter how we play with them, they will perpetuate the one-sided story of a multifaceted community. If the point of bringing Chindon stories into the Indonesian cinema is to elevate our status from the “pariah-capitalist other” into fully respected members of the Indonesia, then we need more films about Chindon stories that don't paint us all as gangsters.
Pai Kau may not break any stereotype about Chinese Indonesians in Indonesian cinema, but it's better than nothing, so I'll take it for now.
Pai Kau hits Indonesian theaters on February 8.