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A man prays during Lunar New Year celebrations at a temple in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Reuters

‘Cina’ to ‘Tionghoa’: why do Indonesians use English to talk about the Chinese?

  • Usage of ‘Tionghoa’ became official in 2014, but it needed a presidential decree amid considerable controversy to replace the derogatory former term
  • But modern usage trends towards using the English word, a sign of an increasingly popular linguistic transition among the Indonesian middle class
When President Joko Widodo in February extended his best wishes to Indonesia’s Chinese community for Lunar New Year, he referred to them as “Tionghoa”. The word is now used in the Southeast Asian nation to describe its Chinese ethnic minority group, yet it was only officially adopted in 2014 – and it needed a presidential decree, amid considerable controversy.

It is not often that a language becomes the reason for a public debate. Yet this is what happened in Indonesia that year, following a plan to formalise the terms “Tiongkok”, for China, and “Tionghoa”, for Chinese, to replace the word “Cina” in Bahasa Indonesia.

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At the time, “Cina” was being used for both China as a country as well as the Chinese people and their culture. But throughout Indonesian history, the word had also been used derogatorily to imply that Chinese Indonesians were foreigners. The decree from then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was seen as the logical next step in protecting the rights of the community – which make up between 4 and 5 per cent of Indonesia’s 270 million people – after Lunar New Year was first declared as a national holiday in 2003.

But things took an unexpected turn as linguists debated whether the Indonesian language should bow to what many viewed as political correctness. It did not help that the government of China was also seen to be wading into the debate.

“The Chinese embassy in Jakarta tried to pressure both our government and media into abandoning the public use of the term ‘Cina’. Our media, with the exception of Tempo – which still uses ‘Cina’ or ‘China’ interchangeably today – in the end capitulated,” said Yos Wibisono, a language historian and former journalist at Radio Nederland.

In 2014, it was reported in the Indonesian media that Tan Qingsheng, at the time a senior officer at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had said: “The word ‘Cina’ evokes bad memories for the Chinese people. During the Japanese occupation [of China], they used it to call us names [a reference to the archaic Japanese term ‘Shina’, which is now seen as offensive].”

Representative groups such as the Indonesian Tionghoa Alliance (INTI) and the Indonesian Chinese Clan Social Association (PSMTI) have long campaigned for the use of the Hokkien-derived “Tiongkok” and “Tionghoa” as opposed to “Cina”. Many Chinese Indonesians are descendants of immigrants who came from mainland Chinese provinces such as Fujian and Guangdong, who contend that “Cina” carried both stigma and trauma associated with discriminatory practices against Chinese Indonesians.

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The historian Asvi Warman in a 2014 interview confirmed this aspect of the word’s usage, particularly during the rule of President Suharto from 1967 to 1998. During this period, Chinese Indonesians were obliged to change their names to Indonesian-sounding ones or risk not having their citizenship recognised. The use and study of Mandarin was also discouraged, nor was Lunar New Year allowed to be celebrated in a “conspicuous” manner. It was not till 1999, after the fall of Suharto, that President Abdurrahman Wahid revoked the ban on the festivities.

Close to two decades after the official adoption of “Tiongkok” and “Tionghoa”, use of the terms is still not widespread among Indonesians. Aware of the potentially offensive use of “Cina”, especially when Chinese Indonesians are present, many educated middle-class Indonesians opt for the English word “Chinese” instead.

Fonny Sutrisna, 43, a Chinese Indonesian, prefers that those who are not from her ethnic group use the word “Chinese” to describe her community.

“It sounds much more pleasant than ‘Cina’ or ‘Cino’ [in Javanese],” she said.

Fireworks light up the sky during Lunar New Year celebrations at the Pak Pie Hut Cou temple in Medan, North Sumatra. Photo: EPA

Fonny’s stance is indicative of a growing trend among Indonesians, especially among the burgeoning middle class, to turn to English in a bid to make certain words or expressions more genteel.

“Take the word ‘sopir’, which is fast dying out in urban areas,” said language historian Wibisono. “It was adopted into Indonesian during the Dutch colonial era from the word ‘chauffeur’, but many people today prefer to use the English word ‘driver’ in everyday conversation.”

Asked why “driver” is more socially acceptable these days, homemaker Linda Anggraini, 43, opined that “sopir sounds rude to those in the profession” – helping to explain why Indonesians have been adopting new proper nouns, often in English, to give a certain status to occupations deemed as being menial.

“Here in Manado, most people now refer to their workers [in shops and factories] as ‘helpers’ so that we don’t appear to denigrate the people at the bottom [of the social ladder],” Sutrisna said.

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But the gentrification of the Indonesian lexicon through English may be part of a wider trend to embrace foreign languages. Many schools, especially private ones in big cities such as Jakarta and Surabaya, offer bilingual or even trilingual curricula incorporating English and also Mandarin. Some of them emphasise English, in which they require papers and projects to be written, over Bahasa Indonesia, though the latter is retained as a subject by law.

Indonesian linguist Ivan Lanin believes the adoption of English words in everyday speech is a recent phenomenon.

“I think it started with the millennial generation and was then taken up by Generation Z. I was once taken aback when a youngster asked me if there was an Indonesian word for ‘fingerprint’,” he said.

According to Lanin, globalisation through the internet plays a big role. “Young people, especially in the big cities, often use YouTube, social media and writings they find online as points of reference, and these things are often in English.”


Andra Widjaja, a 38-year-old tax consultant, thinks that social prestige is another strong motivator.

“People want to sound cool and educated, so they use English words. Many people say ‘merid’ [a bastardised form of married] instead of ‘nikah’. I hear ‘breakfast’ said more often than ‘sarapan’ these days.”

These phonetic renditions of English words are popular with Indonesians, such as the now-popular greeting “Hai, gaes” – from “Hi, guys” – which was started by local celebrities and vloggers.

The pervasive use of English in Indonesia’s urban culture is exemplified by the brand Damn! I Love Indonesia, which sells T-shirts and other merchandise patriotically proclaiming “love in the motherland” – mostly in English.

Clues as to why this trend is growing can be found in history. Language historian Wibisono believes that Indonesia’s status as a melting pot for diverse ethnic groups meant that it was never an ideal place for linguistic nationalism.

“Unlike the British or the French, the Dutch didn’t try to teach us their language until 1914, when the first Dutch-language public school for locals was opened,” he said. “So we all spoke our own local languages [of which Indonesia has around 700]. Meanwhile, the Dutch dealt with the local rulers and native Indonesians in Malay.”

Bahasa Indonesia, based on Malay, was adopted as the national language by youth independence activists in 1928. The Javanese, who at the time comprised about half the population, were willing to accept it as a gesture of compromise instead of insisting that Javanese be used as the national language.

With the advent of Dutch education in the early 20th century came the birth of Indonesian urban culture pioneered by young locals schooled in Dutch.

“People would insert Dutch words or expressions when they spoke to appear classy and intellectual as it was the language then,” Wibisono said. “I suppose we are witnessing the same thing today, only that they do it with English, especially American English.”