Our boat’s engine roared above our voices, but Dhesly Salay got her message across: we were heading to the furthest village into the interior of Aru that she’s ever been. She’s just learned that it was the birthplace of her last living blood relatives native to this far-flung archipelago.
The Aru Islands—a group of almost 100 low-lying islands in Maluku, eastern Indonesia—are isolated; our boat was the only one humming for kilometres in any direction. The islands lie as far away from Indonesia’s capital Jakarta as Perth does from Sydney. In fact, its natural life and geology are more Australian and Papuan than Indonesian.
While considered isolated today, the population of Aru—numbering tens of thousands living in small villages—have for centuries participated in trade stretching as far north as Japan and as far west as Turkey. Its position as a node for trade has left its impact on the islands’ families, including Dhesly’s.
Dhesly’s genealogy resembles the impenetrably dense roots of Aru’s mangrove trees, mangled by national political moves related to race and identity.
The 34-year-old civil servant has lived her whole life in these islands, but never really felt like a native. She’s labelled a blaster, a mixed-race child of interracial parents. As far up her family tree as she knows, a Chinese man had, at every generation, sought out, married, and had a child with an Indonesian woman, drawing a family tree that spans across some of Indonesia’s most far-flung islands.
But it’s a hard-to-trace genealogy, resembling the impenetrably dense roots of Aru’s mangrove trees, mangled by national political moves related to race and identity. Working her way up the family tree has forced Dhesly to re-examine her parents’ demands: she’s forbidden from marrying not only anyone non-Chinese, but also non-Hokkien, the largest Chinese diaspora in Indonesia. As a woman in a patriarchal society, Dhesly’s genealogy would be discounted in her new family tree upon marriage. Her parents fear that, if she marries a non-Chinese man, her Chinese-ness will not only go unrecognised, but might actually be erased.
As our rickety boat glided across the dolphin-filled shimmers of water, we began to unravel the marriages of love and opportunity that produced this woman now trying to untangle the webs of gender, race, and identity in her life.
A history of patrilineal family trees
Dhesly asked her father years ago, while she was in high school, whether their family was really from Gorar village. Her family owns a farm in the village and travels there during the holidays. It wasn’t an unusual question, but she had never talked about it with her father before.
“[My father] was born there, he grew up there, he worked there, but he said he wasn’t from there. So I asked, where am I from?”
Things didn’t add up. She’d thought she was the sixth generation of Chinese immigrants to Indonesia, but didn’t have more information about her ancestors beyond that. Both her parents are mixed race; the children of Chinese and indigenous Indonesian marriages. Her mother’s mother was Aruese, but Dhesly couldn’t describe herself as Aruese—that classification could only come through her father’s family.
“If people ask whose child I am, or from which family I come, I can’t say my mother’s. My father’s family is more important,” she says. Under patrilineal social structures, an individual’s ethnicity follows from their father’s “bloodline”.
Across Indonesia, Chinese immigrants had travelled far for trade and stayed with, or sometimes for, the women they’d married on these journeys. Upon Indonesia’s independence, a series of measures began trying to regulate and fix racially defined identity, and these women in mixed-race marriage weren’t spared. Ariel Heryanto, a professor at Monash University, once described these women as “ethnic Chinese females”, almost a class within themselves.
“The result is not only racism and fascism, but a series of repressive measures against sexuality and marriages of female citizens,” he wrote in a piece for Tempo. “Their marriages to foreign men were seen as threats to purity, identity and the nation’s dignity. Since then, the second-class citizen category was born—Ethnic Chinese Females. Their fate was no better than other ‘ethnic citizens’.”
The three million self-identified Chinese Indonesians in the country form only a small part of the 270 million-strong population, but factor largely in the national imagination. Under Dutch colonisation, Chinese immigrants faced discrimination and sporadic violence from Indonesians due to their strong position in business and perceived closeness to the colonisers. After independence, Indonesia’s 17,000-island-wide effort to forge a nation and national identity grappled with the discrepancy between Chinese communities and Chinese-owned businesses, and the state-engineered image of a “real” Indonesian.
Generations of migrant men already within Indonesia’s borders were suddenly forced to adhere to the rules of a new country. In 1959, in a decree widely seen as anti-Chinese, non-citizens were forbidden from residing and owning businesses. Aru was hit hard. Other areas saw rogue law enforcement stuffing Chinese non-citizens into trucks and shipping them to camps.
Many of the traders found a solution: marry out of the problem and into citizenship. In places like Aru, Chinese men married native women, thereby securing citizenship. But the patrilineal society they lived in meant that their wives’ family histories would “fall” from their Indonesian genealogies. They would no longer be Aruese; these women would instead be categorised under “Chinese” alongside their husbands, or sometimes vaguely under “Ethnic Chinese Females”.
Dhesly’s family lived under anti-Chinese policies in the 33 years that President Suharto ran the country. He forbade Chinese schools, Chinese names, and all Chinese writing. Dhesly has no Chinese name. A part of her isn’t ready to be given one, especially since she doesn’t yet know the name of her future husband. Even if she were to have a Chinese name, she has no idea what it would be.
Setting off for Lorang
When Dhesly’s father answered her question, he said: “You’re from Lorang.” It was a place she’d never been before.
Traders used to travel thousands of kilometres around Asia for the natural wealth only Aru could provide. Small villages on the islands grew around pearl diving, exotic bird hunting, and freshwater springs. When the British explorer and biologist Alfred Russell Wallace came to the archipelago, he remarked that, of the five years he’d spent traveling, the months he spent in Aru were the ones he looked back on with the most satisfaction.
The flora and fauna Wallace found on the Aru Islands were unlike much of the rest of Dutch East Indies. There were kangaroos, cassowaries (emu-like flightless birds), birds-of-paradise, cuscus and mangroves that stretched for days’ worth of boat rides. But his memoir of the journey also describes people bound by trade “without the shadow of a government, with no police, no courts, and no lawyers.” It made him question his own country’s dependence on laws and government for order.
“I daresay there are now near 500 in Dobbo [Aru’s largest town] of various races, all met in this remote corner of the East, as they express it, ‘to look for their fortune’.” Roughly a generation after Wallace published these words, Dhesly’s paternal great-grandmother was born in the village that was our destination.
Dhesly didn’t know if she would have a chance to fill in the gaps of her family tree when we boarded the boat to Lorang. Our first stop was Benjina, a coastal village that, in 2015, had attracted international attention as a global modern slavery scandal grabbed headlines. Our new driver was there, waiting to take us on the next leg of our journey. Dhesly asked if there was a member of the Gaitedy family—her great-grandmother’s family—remaining in Lorang. One, he said, who likely knew her relative.
Meeting the Gaitedys
Lorang has become part of the Indonesian tourism office’s experiment in locally driven development, set up to counteract years of failed attempts from extractive companies to plant roots by destroying others’. The village of a few dozen families is pristine and colourful. There’s one church, one primary school. And not one, but two, descendants of the Gaitedy family.
Tetesaka and his son Ongo spent a day writing up all they knew about their family, signing it as if it were an official document, with the promise to update it when they remembered more. It was just an oral history, but was as close to a genealogical record as Dhesly can get. Despite the potential for the occasional contradiction or tall tale, it challenges her father’s determined efforts to keep the family line as “Chinese” as possible. Tetesaka, in his 70s (or above; he’s lost track), tells Dhesly her great-grandmother was named Rarkongan, a designation meaning “woman of Kongan”—almost devoid of individuality. The Chinese man who married her doesn’t fare much better. His name, according to Tetesaka, was “gold trader”.
Rarkongan’s siblings, including Tetesaka’s mother, also subsequently married Chinese men. Like Dhesly’s family, it seems like there wasn’t a single marriage between a man and a woman of the same race. Her father, descended from several interracial marriages, would like to control the next branch of the family tree to keep the family “Chinese”. But Dhesly’s says she’s starting to question what race really is, and whether it matters at all.
“I used to say ‘I’m from Dobo, my hometown is…’ I used to say Gorar, but now I know, it’s Lorang.
Marriage and race
Dhesly’s father has embraced decades of legally enshrined racial difference as fact. It’s not surprising: these legal and official classifications had been forced upon him and his relatives in the face of deportation and discrimination. But Dhesly, one generation down, feels caught in the middle.
“[My parents] say, if I can’t marry Chinese, [then] at least [marry] another mixed-race person. Surprising right?” she says. “I have a job, I’m done with schooling, I’m building my own house, but I don’t have the right to choose.”
Her parents’ efforts to ensure she marries a Hokkien descendant almost got her married to her own cousin. Only when they both saw her uncle did they realise that tying binds any closer may be problematic. On another occasion, a man earned her parents approval to marry her before she even knew him. She felt ambushed and immediately refused.
“They disqualified my choices, so I disqualified theirs.” She was lucky, she says. The candidate for marriage died a year later in a street brawl.
She draws inspiration by looking for possible love stories in her own family history. Her mother’s father had come to Indonesia’s southeastern islands with his own father to trade. They’d made their way to Aru by the time the ban on non-citizen business ownership was implemented in 1959. Dhesly’s maternal great-grandfather then demanded that his son return to China with him, like up to 100,000 others did at the time. But his son, Sun Pao Chom, had fallen in love with the Aru native Regina.
“They were like piano keys! Black and white,” Dhesly remembers her mother telling her.
Sun Pao Chom’s father, furious that his first son wanted to stay in this foreign land, chased him into Aru’s dense forests. They drew machetes in Regina’s hometown near Lorang.
“Don’t you dare try to marry an Indonesian!”
“Because they don’t know atur hidup—they get today and eat today. Life is just fleeting for them! We are different!”
Sun Pao Chom stood his ground and stayed. His father returned home, bringing with him his own Indonesian wife—a contradiction that stands in stark contrast to his opposition to his firstborn’s choices.
Sun Pao Chom and Regina tied the knot, sealing his citizenship, and Dhesly’s mother was born shortly after. With their marriage, Sun Pao Chom could stay in the country and keep the income that would have been illegal if he hadn’t married. It’s thus still an unanswered question: was Dhesly’s mother truly the product of a marriage of love, or a marriage of expedience?
Dhesly’s genealogy will likely be unacknowledged when she marries, but it controls her until she does.
Dhesly knows Regina, but her mother’s side of the family doesn’t suffice as an answer to the question “where are you from?” As with her mother, Dhesly’s genealogy will likely be unacknowledged when she marries, but it controls her until she does.
She’s still filling in the gaps, unearthing missing branches of the family tree that have been tangled by decades of laws created in a far-off capital and by men struggling to protect their trade as much as their identity. More relatives live in Aru, but she needs to find time to visit them. Aru’s seasons of powerful east and west winds mean traveling to the interior is hard to plan, even dangerous.
“I thought I was the sixth generation of Chinese immigrants. Now I know I’m only the fourth,” she told me after we returned. “But what does it matter?”
Ian Morse is a journalist based in Gorontalo and covering eastern Indonesia and Kalimantan. He tweets @ianjmorse.