No place like home

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am


Causeway Bay's connections to Indonesia go back much further than today's weekend crowds of (mostly Javanese) migrant workers in Victoria Park might suggest. Indonesian Chinese have had a significant impact on this district since the late 1940s.

During the 50s and 60s, thousands of Indonesian Chinese moved to China, mostly to escape anti-Chinese pogroms after Indonesian independence from the Netherlands, in 1949. A sense of loyalty to China, the ancestral 'homeland' that most had never visited, proved to be a disaster for many. All struggled - to some degree - to cope with the demands of a very different climate and society, and integrate with a community that viewed their cultural differences with a mixture of amusement and suspicion.

Sanitary habits were a major challenge. The perennial Indonesian-Chinese complaint - food and climate to one side - dwelt upon how filthy China and 'the Chinese' were in comparison to Southeast Asia. There, soap was plentiful and people washed their clothes regularly and bathed a few times a day. In China, people bathed infrequently, due to shortages of water and fuel to heat it, and soap could be hard to come by.

Social and political upheavals on the mainland in these years also affected Indonesian-Chinese migrants. During one political campaign they might be f?ted as patriotic returnees who had come back to help build the motherland, in the next, they might have been reviled for alleged former affluence and suspiciously 'foreign' connections. Many Indonesian Chinese, understandably, were bitterly disillusioned and came to feel they had lost their home and sense of belonging twice over.

By the 70s, even during the Cultural Revolution, it was a relatively easy matter for Indonesian Chinese to leave for Hong Kong if they decided they'd had enough of life in the New China. In most cases they only had to apply and exit permits were granted. Many subsequently settled in and around Causeway Bay; Tsuen Wan and Tsing Yi also have significant communities.

Most spoke far better Malay (or English or Dutch) than any Chinese dialect, and were culturally more comfortable in Southeast Asia than in China, which further added to their sense of alienation. Hong Kong Chinese tend to expect people with Chinese faces to speak Cantonese - or at least Putonghua - and are usually unsympathetic towards those who cannot manage a conversation in either dialect and instead have a European mother tongue. Hearing ethnic Chinese people whose lives were irrevocably changed by the twin forces of Chinese nationalism and Chinese cultural irredentism, moaning about 'the Chinese' and their less-appealing ways makes for interesting listening.

The passage of time combined with the overwhelming dominance of Cantonese culture in Hong Kong has gradually diluted Southeast Asian connections and associated cultural distinctiveness. Few younger members of former Indonesian-Chinese families speak any Malay, and most regard themselves as Hong Kong people before any other cultural identity. In most cases, only a lingering intergenerational fondness for certain foods sets them apart.

Small Toko Indonesia (Indonesian 'sundry shops'), which sell Southeast Asian food, can be found in various parts of Hong Kong. Such shops in Causeway Bay had a significant Indonesian-Chinese clientele for decades before Indonesian domestic helpers - the principal Toko customers these days - arrived in large numbers in the late 90s, and are among the best places in Hong Kong to buy high-quality, reasonably priced coffee beans. The coffee-drinking habit, now commonplace due to the growing popularity of American-style chains, has been an intrinsic part of Indonesian-Chinese life in Southeast Asia.

Chinese schools in Indonesia were shut en masse under Suharto's regime (1967-1998), and Chinese were forced to adopt Indonesian-sounding names.