Socio-religious affinities, economic dominance

Socio-religious affinities, economic dominance: Chinese diasporic institutions and networks in Northeast Sumatra, c. 1920-present

Hui Kian Kwee (University of Toronto)


Together with the Europeans and Indians, the Chinese from Fujian and Guangdong were among the largest groups of emigrants in the world during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (McKeown 2004, Hatton and Williamson 1998). The coastal stretch from Pangkalan Brandan, Medan to Tanjung Balai – or what was then the Residency of East Coast of Sumatra (Oostkust van Sumatra) under the Dutch colonial rule – experienced one of the most intensive flows of Chinese immigration. Characteristic of diaspora and post-colonial studies, the historical literature on these migrants and settlers has tended to portray them in a victimized light. They are usually described as poor and indentured coolies who came to work in European-owned plantations, encountering inferior treatment as coloured people under the Dutch administration and continue to suffer discrimination as non-indigenes in contemporary Indonesia (Chen 1940, Coppel 1983, Breman 1987, Suryadinata 2008).

In spite of these commiserable images, Chinese individuals from the northeastern part of Sumatra have emerged as prominent tycoons in history and in the present day. They included Zhang Bishi and Zhang Rongxuan who invested heavily in transnational commerce, steamshipping and railway construction in the Southeast and East Asian regions during the early twentieth century (Godley 1981, Yen 1984). Many of the Chinese migrants, after leaving plantation work during the 1920s and 1930s, could also move with relative ease into occupations such as traders, shopkeepers, artisans and market gardeners (Thee 1977, Pelzer 1978). Notwithstanding legislation intended to curb their commercial influence during the Sukarno and Suharto regimes, this minority group – constituting about 11 percent of the population (Heidhues 1997) – continues to prevail over the economy of Medan and its surrounding regencies. Together with the state-owned enterprises, cukongs (Chinese conglomerates) such as Sukanto Tanoto are the key investors in the region’s foremost economic sectors of oil palm, rubber and pulp production (Forbes.com 2010). In my field trip to northeast Sumatra in summer 2011, I also observed that Chinese businessmen are the main importers, manufacturers and distributors of construction materials, foods, services and general amenities in the cities and towns. Even in the rural areas, many Chinese are operating as shopkeepers, home-industry owners and smallholders. In the lattermost case, rather than doing the cultivation work themselves, they often employ the Bataks, Malays, Javanese and other pribumi (indigenous) labourers instead.

This research project examines the socio-economic developments of the Chinese diaspora in northeast Sumatra from the 1920s to the present. It primarily seeks to delineate the historical trajectory and reasons of how and why many of these migrants-settlers have come to dominate the commercial and other economic sectors in this part of Indonesia from the early twentieth century. In particular, this project aims to determine how far the “symbolic capital” (Bourdieu 1977) of these migrants and their descendants – that is, socio-religious institutions specific to the Chinese including temple-cult affiliations, native-place ties and surname bonding – has helped facilitate their economic activities and other aspects of their lives. The hypothesis is that these affinities have enabled Chinese small and medium entrepreneurs to link up with urban-based merchants and also obtain diverse sources of credit, business networks and market information, ultimately allowing for greater upward mobility among the Chinese compared to other groups in this part of Sumatra. The third objective of this project is to trace how these temples and other socio-economic institutions have undergone modifications and re-adaptations in the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, especially with the regime change from the Dutch to the Indonesian government, and with the involvement of the officials from China and Taiwan and other regional entrepreneurs in the political economy of northeast Sumatra.