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Thien Ie Kong temple is a historic landmark in Samarinda, the capital of East Kalimantan. Photo: Resty Woro Yuniar

How ethnic Chinese shaped the home of Indonesia’s new capital on Borneo

  • The decision to relocate Indonesia’s seat of government from Jakarta to East Kalimantan has sparked concern about cultural friction between local residents and new settlers
  • But the area’s ethnic Chinese, pointing to their history of integration with the native Bornean tribes, say they are confident social unity will prevail
Robin Jonathan had not yet been born when Japanese imperialists killed his grandfather and uncle in Indonesia’s province of East Kalimantan. The two men, both of Chinese descent, were executed for helping Indonesian fighters in their struggle for the country’s independence.

Robin, now 70, recalled the tragic events as his family’s most notable contribution to the fight to defend the “homeland” during the tumultuous years under Japanese rule.

Japan occupied Indonesia from 1942 to 1945 before it was defeated by Allied troops in World War II.

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Tionghoa had a role in the fight to gain and uphold Indonesia’s independence, be it directly or indirectly, such as by distributing food supplies,” Robin said, using the colloquial name given to Indonesians of Chinese descent.

“My grandfather was seen as a fighter by the Japanese soldiers because he belonged to a Tionghoa organisation that supplied food to guerilla fighters in East Kalimantan.

“After he was caught in 1945, [he was] sent to Banjarmasin [the capital of South Kalimantan province] where he was beheaded. My uncle was sent to Sanga-Sanga village in Kutai Kartanegara. He was killed there.”

Robin Jonathan (centre) says Japanese imperialists killed his grandfather and uncle. Pictured with him are Nara Indra Halim and Iwan Tirtanata from the Dharma Bhakti Foundation, a Tionghoa organisation, in Samarinda. Photo: Resty Woro Yuniar

Chinese-Indonesians in East Kalimantan – the recently announced host province of Indonesia’s new capital city – have enjoyed a largely good relationship with native Bornean tribes since they first came to the resource-rich island in the 14th century to trade rattan, resin and other resources.


History has shown that the Tionghoa in the province, like elsewhere in Indonesia, also helped with the gruelling fight to gain independence in the 1940s, as shown by Robin’s elderlies, when the Dutch tried to keep the colony despite the country’s declaration of independence.

Things became worse in the 1960s, a few years after the authoritarian Suharto clinched power, when Chinese-Indonesians were required to abandon their roots, such as their three-part Chinese names, in order to be recognised as citizens.

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In East Kalimantan, the Veterans’ Legion of Indonesia in 2012 awarded the title of independence combatant to two Chinese-Indonesians, Go Sek Lim and his father Go Sian Kwan, in national recognition of their roles fighting for independence.

According to local historians, Sian Kwan helped guerilla fighters escape Dutch colonialists by hiding them in his house, while Sek Lim was the first in the province to fly Indonesia’s red-and-white flag upon hearing news of the nation’s independence in 1945.

Former president Sukarno, pictured here in 1940, led Indonesia’s independence movement. Photo: AFP

Sukarno, who led the independence movement and became the country’s first president, announced a new nation on August 17, 1945. At the time, news travelled slow in regions outside the island of Java, due to newspaper bans and the seizure of radios by Japanese soldiers. The residents of East Kalimantan heard about the announcement a month after it was declared in Jakarta.

“People in East Kalimantan heard about independence from a Javanese doctor who worked here, that’s when schools started to raise the Indonesian flag, including Go Sek Lim’s elementary school,” said Muhammad Sarip, a Samarinda-based historian and the author of six books about the province.


“When his father Go Sian Kwan was interrogated by Dutch soldiers, he told them that Indonesian extremists didn’t go through his street, although he actually hid them in his house. The Dutch trusted him because he was Tionghoa, he wouldn’t lie as Tionghoa had been given more facilities by the Dutch than native Indonesians.”

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As local legend has it, when the sail of a Chinese trading ship was damaged in the 14th century, the traders prolonged their stay and repaired it on a hill – which is now called Jaitan Layar, or “the stitch of the sail”. This historic hill was the site of the Kutai Kartanegara sultanate, which still exists today.


“When they stayed to fix the sail, the Chinese traders had a deal with a local king to turn over all of their belongings when they lost a bet. They requested an extension, but they fled at night after the ship was fixed,” Muhammad said. “The king’s army chased after them, and they had to hide in the hinterland. According to folklore, those Chinese traders were the ancestors of what is now known as the Dayak Basap subtribe.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo wants to move the country’s capital. Photo: AP

Ancient jars and ceramics – traces of the heavy traffic of Chinese traders in the region – are now on display at the Mulawarman Museum in Tenggarong, the capital of Kutai Kartanegara regency. This good partnership with local traders was, however, disrupted when Dutch colonists sniffed out an enticing revenue opportunity in the province around the 19th century.


This was also about the time Robin’s ancestors landed in the port city of Samarinda, via South Kalimantan, from Yongchun county in southeast China’s Fujian province. Robin, whose former name was Tan Tien Li, is part of the family’s fourth generation to live in the region. His parents gained Indonesian citizenship in 1955.

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There were 13 Chinese clans in Samarinda, he said. “They came here in 1850 to escape the Qing dynasty conflicts in China,” said Robin, general secretary of the Dharma Bhakti foundation, a Tionghoa organisation in Samarinda. “Chinese people who came to East Kalimantan typically earn money from trade or oil and coal mining.”


The Dutch later employed their infamous “divide and rule” strategy to split the races across Indonesia, including in East Kalimantan. Under the imperialist system, the Tionghoa were put in a higher position than native Indonesians and clustered in Samarinda’s Chinatown, which is located strategically near its busy port.

In the early 20th century, Samarinda was the meeting point between traders from Borneo’s hinterland and those from overseas. The Tionghoa’s good treatment by the Dutch helped boost their economic power, at the expense of local traders.

To counter this, the traders formed a union in the 1910s called Handel-Maatschappij Borneo Samarinda, then shaped an alliance with Sarekat Islam (Islamic Union) in Java, the country’s first nationalist political party. The tie-up worked to level the playing field between Tionghoa and Indonesian traders in the province, according to Muhammad, the local historian.

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After independence, some Chinese-Indonesians in Borneo married people from the Dayak, Banjar and Kutai tribes, a practice that likely started in the 1950s, according to Robin, who is married to a Dayak woman.

Before the 1950s, Indonesian Tionghoa were likely to marry other Tionghoa as they shared the same religions and traditions, but, as assimilations sped up during the first few years after independence, the Tionghoa and other races then opened to assimilation through marriage. At that time, Sukarno emphasised unity in a country of thousands of races and tribes.

However, the racial dynamic was upended again during the CIA-backed mass killings of 1965-1966, after an anti-communist movement turned into anti-Chinese sentiment, with Beijing accused of promoting the much-feared ideology in Indonesia. At the time, Tionghoa in Samarinda, Balikpapan, and other places in the province were hunted and suddenly “disappeared”, according to historian Muhammad.

A construction site for the Balikpapan-Samarinda toll road in Kutai Kertanegara regency, East Kalimantan. Photo: Reuters

Under the three-decade rule of Suharto, Indonesia’s second president, Chinese-Indonesians were required to change their Chinese names to Indonesian ones and apply for citizenship, and were barred from publicly practising their culture or religion. They were also prohibited from working in the military, as teachers or as civil servants, limiting their livelihood to trade.

“In 1965, Tionghoa schools were closed. We couldn’t resume education in non-Tionghoa schools if we hadn’t got our citizenship yet,” said Nara Indra Halim, 68, who was forced out of school as a teenager. “I continued my education after I changed my Chinese name to an Indonesian name.”

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Things took a turn for the better for Chinese culture after the dictator was ousted in 1998 and the nation embraced democracy. Samarinda now plays host to an annual mooncake festival, launched from a monastery, which counts non-Buddhists and non-Chinese among its list of attendees.

Indonesia’s decision to relocate the capital to East Kalimantan has sparked concern of potential cultural friction between local residents and new settlers. The province’s Tionghoa community, however, expects that the relocation will not rattle social unity in the diverse region.

“Social problems are likely to appear in the new capital city, but I hope there won’t be any groups that play up racial and religious issues like in the old capital,” Robin said. “Us Tionghoa in East Kalimantan have blended in since we were children. We are flexible, we can play with anyone.”