It’s been quite a week for the humble shuttlecock and thrilling comebacks. First, the Japanese women’s badminton team swept to victory in the Uber Cup to regain the number one ranking they have not held since 1981. Then, just one day later, the Chinese retook the top slot in the men’s event by beating the Japanese 3-1 to win a 10th Thomas Cup.

Phew! And whoever said badminton was boring? The two wins have pulses racing on the court side at the prospect of a new era in which Asia’s two most powerful nations battle it out for shuttlecock supremacy.

Yet not everyone will have been so thrilled. Watching from the sidelines, hoping for a thrilling comeback of their own, were the once indomitable Indonesians. Unfortunately for them, the biennial tournaments underlined just how far the once mighty Indonesia has fallen in the one sport in which traditionally it has truly excelled.

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The Indonesian men’s team, which can still boast of having won more Thomas Cups than any other nation (13), have not won the tournament since 2002. And the women’s loss in the quarter finals to host Thailand only served to underline how its stream of talent has been drying up since the heyday of Susi Susanti in the 1990s.

Even the presence of Susanti, who managed both Indonesian teams, could not inspire her countrymen in the way it once did, when the nation was transfixed by her brief-but-memorable rivalry with Huang Hua, the star of the Chinese team.

But Susanti can take comfort from an unlikely corner.

“Indonesians are born to play badminton … from their skill and game strategy, Indonesia is always the best,” says Susanti’s one-time on-court nemesis Huang, who has taken Indonesian citizenship.

“But the situation has changed now, the women’s singles are no longer ruled by one or two countries – now we have champions from Japan, Taiwan, India and Thailand. It’s better this way for healthier competition.”

Huang, from Guangxi, knows what she is talking about. She was part of the Chinese team that won the Uber cup in 1990 and 1992 and, along with Tang Jiuhong, was once touted as a natural successor to China’s badminton legends Li Lingwei and Han Aiping, who ruled the singles stage throughout the 1980s. (The Chinese women’s team has traditionally outshone its men’s, claiming 14 Uber trophies in total, compared with Japan’s six and Indonesia’s three).

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But among Indonesian badminton fans, Huang is chiefly remembered for being Susanti’s adversary. She was beaten by Susanti at the final stage of the All England tournament in 1990, and most importantly, in the semi-final of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 – when Susanti went on to win Indonesia’s first Olympic gold medal. Susanti’s now-husband Alan Budikusuma also came back from the games with a singles gold medal, earning the couple the “Olympic bride and groom” moniker.

The traffic was not all one way. From a dozen or so games, Huang defeated Susanti three times, earning the respect of her opponent.

“The way Huang played badminton was beautiful and great,” Susanti recalls. “Most Chinese [badminton] players rely on their speed and power, but her game tactic was more like a rally. Of all Chinese players then, I can say that I was closest to Huang, off the court, of course.”

Susanti and Huang’s rivalry served to highlight the absolute domination of the badminton world by Indonesia and China for much of the 20th century.

For instance, it was once common for players from the two countries to switch allegiance to the opposite side as coach after resigning as players. Huang’s long-time coach, Indonesia-born Chen Yu Niang, for example, played for Indonesia before she moved to Hong Kong to train China’s women’s national badminton team.

And Tang Xianhu, the legendary coach known as The Thing, trained both countries’ golden generation of badminton greats that included Li Lingwei, Xia Xuanze, Lin Dan, Alan Budikusuma, and Ardy Wiranata, among others.

Even so, few would have predicted Huang herself might retire early at 23 – during the peak of her playing career – before defecting to become an Indonesian citizen.

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“After the Barcelona Olympics, I suffered from a pancreas infection, so I was hospitalised for 40 days. I faced a difficult choice: to continue with my career as a badminton player, because China still needed me, or retire,” says Huang, now 48. “It was one of the toughest decisions I have ever made in my life.”

It wasn’t just the physical strain of the sport, but the mental toll of being away from family and friends while on the circuit. She was the last to find out about her father’s death in 1992, which came during the Badminton World Cup in Guangzhou.

“Events like that are what made me bow out early from badminton … the other players, even foreign players, knew about the news faster than me,” a teary eyed Huang says. “I couldn’t even see my dad on his deathbed.”

A year after she retired, Huang married Candra Budi, an Indonesian businessman who is also Niang’s nephew. The coach introduced the two after Huang completed the Indonesia Open tournament in 1992, which she lost to teammate Ye Zhaoying.

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“When I first met her I asked my aunt ‘who is Huang Hua?’” Budi says. “I didn’t know that Susi Susanti defeated her [at the Olympics], I saw the badminton matches but I rooted for Susi the whole time, so I forgot who her rivals were.”

Although she had regularly visited Indonesia for games since 1988, Huang says she still experienced “culture shock” when she first moved to Klaten, a small town some 40km from Yogyakarta, a Javanese cultural hub. But her years in the sport – she left her family at age 11 to train with Guangxi’s provincial badminton team – made her adept at adapting to new surroundings so it wasn’t long before she became used to Klaten’s rural way of life.

For Huang, life in early 1990s Indonesia was, however, very distinguishable from China. Under strongman Suharto’s rule, Chinese-Indonesians were prohibited for decades from celebrating their culture, such as lion dances during Lunar New Year.

Suharto also banned Confucianism and required ethnic Chinese to change their names to Indonesian-sounding names, a rule that was applied to Indonesian-born citizens like Budi but not Chinese-born Huang. These constraints did not escape even illustrious athletes such as Susanti and her husband, who became tangled in seven years of bureaucratic red tape to acquire the now-extinct SBKRI, or proof of Indonesian citizenship.

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“Us ethnic Tionghoa needed to have a certificate of Indonesian citizenship after we turned 17, and you know how it is here, this country tended to make things way more difficult for us,” Susanti says, using a byname for Chinese-Indonesian. “When I played international badminton games, I did not wear the SBKRI sign on my jersey, only ‘Indonesia’.”

The Southeast Asian country has moved away from its flawed history following the chaos of the Reformasi movement that forced Suharto to resign from power 20 years ago. The country has recognised Confucianism as one of its six official religions and made Lunar New Year a national holiday.

A 2008 law also bans discrimination towards minority groups such as Chinese Indonesians, although it has not fully reduced the racial and religious tensions that re-erupted in the past year.

“After more than 30 years of prohibition, we can now see Chinese lanterns and hear Chinese music in the malls during Chinese New Year, or learn Mandarin in school,” Huang says.

With this renewed patriotism in mind, Huang and other Chinese Indonesians in Klaten recently took part in the country’s first all-Chinese cast ketoprak, or Javanese opera, whose main message was to promote tolerance and showcase ethnic Tionghoa-Indonesian unity.

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Asked whether she still roots for her former country in international tournaments, Huang says that the current power dynamic in badminton, particularly in women’s singles, does not lean heavily towards China or Indonesia any more, as perfectly showcased by Japan in the Uber Cup this year. In other facets such as men’s doubles and mixed doubles, Indonesia still has the talent to prove it is one of the world’s strongest forces in badminton, Huang says. The one point that Indonesia scored during their defeat in the Thomas Cup semi-final against China last week was delivered by current world’s men’s doubles number one pair Kevin Sanjaya and Marcus Gideon, the 2017 and 2018 All England champions.

Indonesian women’s badminton players “are less focused and dedicated compared to [players] in the old days,” Huang says, adding that players now needed to be stronger, mentally and physically, to win tournaments. “A lot of things have changed in badminton.”■