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The road to freedom: How my life and that of my family’s would have been different had we not come to Hong Kong?

By Meliana Rudyanto

The road to freedom is never toll free. It is littered with shards of broken dreams and ideals. Throughout history people have paid dearly to tread upon it. Many do not live to tell their stories. I am one of the lucky few and this is my story.


May 13, 1998. A day before, Indonesians were shocked by the untimely demise of university students who were shot to death during a peaceful demonstration against unaffordable prices of basic necessities of life. They were demonstrating in the courtyard of their own campus, which was not a kilometer away from my home. Police forces were positioned nearby to maintain order. As the students’ protests went unheeded, they grew angrier and rowdier. Police were forced to let out warning shots in the air. To everyone’s surprise, a few bodies fell, dying instantly from the bullet wounds. During the course of the investigation, the police denied the usage of real cartridge instead of the usual empty mortar. This incident, whether accidental or deliberate, sparked off unrest among the people. The nightmare began the next day when the angry student crowd was joined by a mass of people seeking to rob and disturb peace under the guise of riot.

For the following two days, my family and I stayed home and constantly watched the news of the situation. We were thankful that none of us was harmed although we had a close encounter with the unruly murderous mob the day before. From all over Jakarta, the journalists were reporting masses of angry people marching on the street, looting and burning properties of others. Jakarta had fallen into anarchy.

Two weeks after the riot, the city was eerie with silence. Thousands of Chinese fled to the airport, seeking an escape from this alien, inhospitable country that we called home for so long. However, my family did not join the crowd of frantic people seeking refuge outside the country; my parents decided that it would be safer for us to stay home rather than brave the dangerous road to the airport.

Wreckage of burned and upturned cars was visible in all the major roads of Jakarta. The economy was devastated and nearing collapse as foreign investors withdrew their money from the country. The outflow of funds further exacerbated the stark reality of the Indonesian economy after the 1997 Asian Monetary Crisis.

The flavor of Chinese culture in Jakarta was destroyed; our Chinatown was razed and set ablaze, leaving a blackened char of wizened old area still clinging to its glorious past. At that time, many Indonesian Chinese were dispossessed of their wealth; yet, it was not the worst blow that we suffered. The rape of Chinese women who were unfortunate enough to be within sight of the rioting throng of people was the thing we could not forgive or forget easily.

That was the day my youthful ideals died. Like many of my peers, I saw myself as an Indonesian through and through. Enrolled in an Indonesian school, I was taught to be a true Indonesian at heart. The only things that separated me from the indigenous population were my ability to speak a Chinese dialect and my lighter skin tone. The riot was to me a rude bucket of ice water that awoke me from my blissful ignorance.

I embarked upon the road to freedom, torn and bleeding, and arrived in Hong Kong as an international student in one of the Hong Kong universities. Although my parents remained behind for a purely pragmatic reason – to take care of our family business, they sent away their child to a place where the social and economic conditions were more favorable. Remembering my family ancient history, I find it ironic that my ancestors migrated from China to escape bleak poverty and here I am, three generations later, returning to Hong Kong to seek a better life away from socio-economic persecutions.

In the very same institute where I was studying, I came upon rich materials that answered my persistent questions that had arisen after the tragic riot in 1998. Believe it or not, for as long as the Chinese had been persecuted, both physically and economically since their first arrival in Indonesian soil, very few of us know the real reasons behind those old prejudices. The sources discussed and analyzed the identity crisis of Indonesian Chinese with a thorough and systematic objectivity which in turn, yielded a satisfying and liberating answer to my questions. Simultaneously, it is comforting to know that the international community is aware of and care about our plight; enough at least to write books and theses about it.

The conclusion that I drew from all my research freed me from the ignorance of the reasons behind the persecutions of my ethnic group. In a sense, I made peace with those enmities that resulted in our current social position because now I understand its origin. The stigma of my Chinese ethnicity ceased to hurt me personally now that I had become an observer, watching the phenomenon through the microscopic lens of a scientist. For this I have Hong Kong to thank, for had I not come to Hong Kong, I would have been enslaved to the fundamental rules that dictated the interaction between ethnic Chinese and the indigenous population.

For all its supposed restrictions on freedoms under the Communist rule, Hong Kong gives me plenty of freedoms and rights I could never get in my own country. Right to live in happiness instead of terror and the right to be treated fairly are recognized by laws in Hong Kong but were sadly unacknowledged in Indonesia. The Indonesian Chinese people who were looted, murdered and raped were never given justice. None of the rapists, murderers and looters was arrested, tried and sentenced in the aftermath of the Bloody May incident. In fact, Indonesian politicians were trying to downplay the scale of human rights violations by denying the occurrence of such atrocities. This denial of justice for Indonesian Chinese minority happened more than once throughout history. Instead of punishing the criminals, Chinese minority whose domains were set ablaze during riots in the past were given strict warning not to irritate and provoke the indigenous people further. Hence, the fact that Hong Kong recognizes and protects the most basic of human rights is something that I am thankful for. If anything, the contrast between the two realms taught me more than anything not to take freedom and rights for granted. One will never know when you will be deprived of them. Once again, I learned something which I would not otherwise have learned; had I not come to Hong Kong.

In addition, Hong Kong accepts us as we are. As long as the practice of our belief or culture does not hurt anyone, the government gives us the liberty to practice it. In contrast, Indonesia had been culturally persecuting the Chinese minority. History recorded the abolition of Lunar New Year and lantern festivals, the ban of Chinese minority from speaking Chinese dialects in public, the closure of Chinese schools and the subtle “urge” for the Chinese to adopt Indonesian-sounding names. These are attempts to completely assimilate the Chinese minority into the Indonesian society by eradicating their Chinese heritage and identity. Had I not come to Hong Kong, my future children would have suffered the loss of the rich culture of my Chinese heritage while my family would have been lulled into a sense of forgetfulness of our own legacy.

Psychological freedoms aside, there is a purely pragmatic benefit that my family and I reaped from my coming to Hong Kong. In the event of another racial riot, which is bound to happen in the future as historical facts could affirm, my family has somewhere else to go. They would not have been totally at the mercy of the volatile political climate of Indonesia.


There were people everywhere and most were in the state of near panic. They were whispering of the rumors going around that during the political campaign for the coming election, there would be another Bloody May incident. Rushing through the aisles of the supermarket, people were busily stuffing their trolleys with basic necessities. Everyone was preparing for the worst when the road campaign began. There were times when no one would dare to come out of their house; thus, the need to have a steady supplies of food to last them for a few days at least.

This may seem an exciting event for people who had never lived through it. It soon got tiresome and annoying, not to mention economically disruptive, for people had to brace themselves for the worst every time convoys of political party campaigners would pass by. By coming to Hong Kong, I could provide shelter for my parents to spare them the trouble of going through that entire terrible ordeal again.

Another reason for my family and me to thank Hong Kong is the opportunity it gives us to make a new beginning with clean slate. Being an international city with mixture of races from all over the world, Hong Kong learns to appreciate the value of cultural and racial diversity in its society. It provides a shelter where we are all accepted socially regardless of our race. A vibrant market economy, Hong Kong is forever thirsty for resourceful and highly enterprising individuals. Such a freedom to pursue economic success was, however denied to Indonesian Chinese back home. I recall several economic restrictions placed on non-indigenous Indonesians throughout history. Some examples included a ban for non-locals from acquiring farmlands during colonial times and from engaging in retail activities in East Java during 1967. All these restraints were implemented in order to obstruct the Chinese minority from prospering further. Although those prohibitions belonged to the past, they are still being practiced covertly and unofficially nowadays. Thus, I too would have been subjected to such unfair economic regulations that would rob me of my freedom to pursue wealth and happiness.

Finally, the most important reason for us to forever be indebted to Hong Kong is the inclusive environment it gives us to put the past behind and to heal us from all those bitterness and wounds. These, combined with Hong Kong’s commitment to uphold the freedom of its people to pursue economic success, are what I need the most to make something of myself. Indeed, it is most liberating to be able to forgive and forget the wrongs done to us, for in forgiving we are released from the hatred that imprisons us. Forgiveness sets us on the sure road to freedom.


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