Finding Voice in Post-Authoritarian Era: Chinese Indonesians in Selected Contemporary Children’s Books

Finding Voice in Post-Authoritarian Era: Chinese Indonesians in Selected Contemporary Children’s Books

Herdiana Hakim

This study examines the portrayal of the Chinese Indonesians in selected children’s books published after the fall of Suharto, the ruler of an authoritarian regime in Indonesia. Analyzed through the lens of multicultural literature, I argue that the books offer potentials for giving voice to the previously silenced.

Comprising less than 2 percent of the total population of 250 million people, the Chinese Indonesians became one the social groups which was historically silenced under the Suharto’s supremacy that spanned more than three decades (1966-1998). They were stifled through various government regulations, one if which was the Presidential Decree No. 14/1967 that prohibited any manifestations of the Chinese culture, tradition, religion, and language in public. Consequently, the Chinese Indonesians were also nonexistent in children’s books from this era.

After Suharto was forced to step down, President Abdurrahman Wahid annulled the discriminatory regulations towards the Chinese Indonesians. The lifted oppression finds its way in the contemporary children’s books. Two books are selected for this examination: A picture book entitled Cap Go Meh (Sofie Dewayani, 2014) and a middle-grade fiction called Misteri Kota Tua (Yovita Siswati, 2014). Both have gathered recognition outside Indonesia and, interestingly, are not written by Chinese Indonesians, raising issues on cultural authenticity.

Cap Go Meh is a friendship story between two girls, Nisa and Lili, representing the majority Muslim group and the minority Chinese Indonesian. This SingTel Asian Picture Book Award 2013 nomination recounts Nisa and Lili’s debate on which of their cultures can claim Lontong Cap Go Meh – the girls’ favourite dish during their special holidays. Here, the Chinese culture is considered as natural part of the Indonesian culture, contrary to the fact that the new curriculum after Suharto’s fall still disregards the existence of the Chinese culture in school textbooks.

Misteri Kota Tua, a 2016 IBBY Honour List, presents an adventure in which the child characters try to solve a mystery surrounding their neighbor. The chapter-book format provides much room for the author to explore the dynamics of the Chinese Indonesians’ lives and the oppression they had to endure under Suharto. The story presents children as agents of change who bring relief to adversity faced by the minority, as well as strives to challenge and remedy negative stereotypes towards them.

Biographical information

Herdiana Hakim is currently doing her PhD in Education at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, fully-funded by the LPDP scholarship from the Indonesian government. Back in Jakarta, Indonesia, where she was born and raised, she has been working as author, editor and teacher. Herdiana also manages, an online platform dedicated to the Indonesian children’s literature. Previously, she earned her degrees in English Literature and Developmental Psychology from Universitas Indonesia, as well as Master of Education (Distinction) in Children’s Literature and Literacies from the University of Glasgow. Her research topic covers the representation of childhood in children’s literature and the discourse of tolerance in children’s books.