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Golddiggers, farmers, and traders in the 'Chinese Districts' of West Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Golddiggers, farmers, and traders in the 'Chinese Districts' of West Kalimantan, Indonesia. By MARY SOMERS HEIDHUES. Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 2003. Pp. 309. Maps, Plates, Notes, Bibliography, Index. doi: 10.1017/S0022463405210184

Since the completion of her Cornell dissertation entitled 'Peranakan Chinese Politics in Indonesia' in 1965, Mary Somers Heidhues has continuously published a number of well-documented works about Chinese communities in different parts of the archipelago, contributing admirably to a multifaceted understanding of their social and economic histories. The book under review can be seen as a sequence to her Bangka tin and Mentok pepper: Chinese settlement on an Indonesian island (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1992) in that it also focuses on the 'unwritten story' of the rural and mining Chinese population on the periphery of Indonesia from a historical perspective, with an aim of challenging the 'prevalent image of Chinese as economically successful businessmen' (p. 11).

Golddiggers, farmers, and traders is mainly concerned with three main themes in the history of the Chinese in West Kalimantan from the eighteenth to the end of the twentieth centuries: their changing relationship with Malays and Dayaks (the other two major ethnic communities in the territory) as well as the Dutch colonial regime and the Indonesian state; the role of strong social and cultural institutions in sustaining Chineseness and helping the Chinese tackle external threats; and their transnational linkages with the ancestral homeland and counterparts elsewhere, such as Singapore and Sarawak. The first chapter establishes the setting, highlighting the external environments and demography of the Chinese in West Kalimantan, who were composed of gold miners, farmers or petty traders, and craftsmen and laborers; the majority of them have been Hakkas who 'are defined by their language, but also by their apparent hardiness, clannishness, and willingness to take on back-breaking tasks in mining or agriculture' (p. 37).

The second and third chapters concentrate on Chinese gold mining, Chinese sociopolitical organizations, and the relationship with the Dutch. After 1740, the Malay rulers imported large numbers of Chinese labourers to mine gold and kongsis (syndicates) emerged as the most important Chinese institution prior to the mid-nineteenth century, incorporating elements of commercial, social and religious entities to control and govern sizable territories. As the only 'state' on the West Coast of Borneo, the major Chinese kongsi federation wielded considerable powers in the region's political and socioeconomic life. Inevitably, kongsis posed a major challenge to the Dutch in their attempt to establish and consolidate their foothold in the territory after the early nineteenth century. It was only through three periods of the so-called 'Kongsi Wars' (1822-24, 1850-54, and 1884-85) that the Dutch colonial state was able to finally defeat its true rivals.

The subsequent two chapters analyse the demographic/economic changes and political activities of the Chinese communities between 1860 and 1940. Heidhues contends that the Chinese occupied a 'key position' in the modern export-oriented economy, which was, and has been, 'predominantly agricultural and extractive, dependent on the export of raw materials' (p. 128). With the end of the kongsi era, the Hakkas moved to the interior and many were transformed from gold miners to settlers and traders. This not only brought them into direct (some times hostile, sometimes harmonious) contacts with the Dayaks, but also reinforced the critical role of the British colony of Singapore as the focus of West Borneo's export and import trade. On the other hand, the Dutch strengthened their control over the Chinese population by employing Chinese officers as intermediaries, and implemented the policy of 'tax[ing] the Chinese as much as possible in order to meet the administrative costs'; taxes thus became 'the nexus of Dutch-Chinese relations' (p. 174).

Heidhues then examines closely the role of Chinese schools, associations and temples in giving form to the community, arguing that it was these institutions that 'most effectively governed and unified the Chinese communities in West Borneo'. She suggests that Chinese cultural development was related to 'the centrifugality of the residency's economy. Batavia was distant, and for Chinese traders in West Borneo, irrelevant. Their ties were with Singapore, where Chinese was the first language and English the second, and with China' (p. 189).

Following the chapter detailing the impact of the Japanese Occupation and the Indonesian Revolution upon the Chinese community, Heidhues discusses its changing fate at the time of emerging nationalism and the ascending nation-state during the Sukarno and Suharto eras. Here the trajectory of the Chinese in West Kalimantan appeared to be in tandem with their counterparts in other regions of the country where the policies of forced assimilation led to the closure of almost all Chinese schools and other institutions and the banning of Chinese in rural retail trade following a 1959 Presidential Decree. While the percentage of Chinese speaking Indonesians and those who obtained Indonesian citizenship increased significantly, their Chineseness persisted, thanks in part to the strong economic and cultural linkages with the Chinese communities elsewhere.

Heidhues concludes that throughout much of the past two-and-a-half centuries, 'the Chinese minority in West Kalimantan have remained a distinctive group, both within Kalimantan and in comparison with other Chinese minorities'. Attributing the preservation of the ethnic and cultural identities to community organisations in the social, religious, economic and political fields, she argues that 'spatial isolation and economic specialization are probably more important than "Hakka culture" itself in explaining the tendency of West Kalimantan's Chinese to retain their ancestral culture' (pp. 264-5). In the meantime, they have developed an Indonesian national consciousness and 'are Indonesians and see themselves as such, although they are Chinese, too'. At the turn of the twenty-first century, 'they hope to work for their own interests within the Indonesian framework, as do other Indonesians. An elaboration of Chinese community organization would not alienate them from this framework' (p. 270).

Heidhues has given compelling answers to the three central themes raised in the introduction, and this study will be valuable for those interested in the history of Chinese Indonesians and their multilayered interactions with other socio-political players in both the national and transnational frameworks. This book is meticulously documented, relying on Dutch and Indonesian archival materials, accounts by Western visitors, some Chinese secondary sources and interviews. However, in view of the centrality of institutions in the history of the Chinese communities and for the book's key arguments, if the author had included some primary sources from the perspectives of these institutions (such as publications of Chinese schools and associations), her interpretations about the preservation of Chineseness and the changing strategies would have been more convincing.


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Author:Liu, Hong
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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