- Strangers at Home: History and Subjectivity among the Chinese Communities of West Kalimantan, Indonesia by Hui Yew-Foong
Studies of Indonesia are chock-full of superbly detailed local histories and insightful narratives on minorities. Those familiar with these works need not strain to match the names of scholars with the places or ethnic groups about which they have written. Often the two—regional history and minority studies—go hand-in-hand, as evidenced by the many works written about local Chinese communities. With Strangers at Home, a powerful account of the trials and tribulations of the Chinese communities of West Kalimantan, Hui Yew-Foong continues this rich tradition, melding regional history and an ethnic minority study in a way that recalls the best that Indonesian studies has to offer. At the same time, Hui breaks with a different tradition by contributing to a new and long overdue trend—the extensive use of Chinese-language materials in the study of Chinese communities, either at the national or local level. Beyond the violent and tragic history these communities have endured, Strangers at Home demonstrates with precision and alarming awareness the struggles these Chinese community members have experienced regarding their place in the making of their own history, and raises searing questions about ethnic identity, nationality, and nationalism that these communities have debated and deliberated, and which have torn them apart. This includes the Chinese community members’ confusion and instability of attachment to place as strangers from a distant homeland, China, while situated in the only home many have ever known, West Kalimantan, Indonesia.
In a work of this ilk, it is easy at the outset to lay claim to recognition of a community’s internal diversity, and the constructed awkwardness that the use of a single ethnic appellation brings with it, only thereafter, as the narrative progresses, to sloppily regress into some measure of primordialism by referring to the group in question as a monolithic or organic whole—in this case, simply “the Chinese.” Hui is at pains to avoid this all-too-common pitfall. At every turn he is agonizingly cognizant of ethnography’s limitations and the violence that writing can impart to the dizzying and messy array of experience and identity. Hui owns up to the cruel choices he was forced to make in the conduct of this research, and knows—but cannot do much about—that many communities and experiences gained no voice or attention despite his account. This concerns Chinese communities beyond the greater Sambas and Pontianak areas, where the bulk of the research concentrates, but also involves key sub-groups, whether delineated by a specific location (for example, the Chinese communities of Mempawah), political persuasion (those more pro-ROC [Taiwan], for instance), or class position (the rise of the super-rich Chinese under the New Order) within the greater Sambas and Pontianak Chinese areas.
The first two-thirds of the book is brilliant. Chapters 2 through 5 are gripping. They lead the reader on an epic roller-coaster ride of pain, suffering, elation, angst, loss, consciousness-raising, and hardship. There are passages that show historical anthropology at its best.
Chapter 6 is an excellent ethnography of local Chinese religion in Singkawang, but sits, however slightly, at odds with the main thrust of the book, caused by an apparent [End Page 131] abrupt turn in target audience, from scholars of Indonesia to those of Chinese religion, as if an anthropological account of Chinese communities must have a chapter on religion. Chapter 7 is a solid survey of post-Suharto political developments in West Kalimantan that lacks the emotional ruptures of the historical chapters (2–5).
In many respects, Strangers At Home is an event-centered history. And, fortunately for Hui, over the past decade or more, there has been a fair amount of historical work done on West Kalimantan that, when considered altogether, lays the foundation for Hui’s own investigations. But Hui does not merely follow in footsteps. He breaks new ground by bringing fresh Chinese-language sources, both...