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Ethnic and religious dimensions:
Chinese, the emperor of the market

By Amelia Hapsari

As soon as Amelia Hapsari set her feet for the first time in Balobaloang, Farida, a neighbor, already started with the first question. "Are you Japanese?" Amelia's skin was comparatively fairer than most of the women of Balobaloang, so she was immediately seen as non-indigenous. The intended question was not her nationality, but her ethnic identity. The questions continued on where did her parents come from. The people in Balobaloang were wondering whether she was a Chinese Indonesian.

Chinese Indonesians were Indonesian citizens whose ancestors came from China. Most of them had lived for generations in Indonesia. Their ethnic identity has been heavily politicized throughout Indonesian history. The Dutch had separated them from native Indonesians and granted them a position as the middlemen; one step higher than the third class indigenous population of Indonesia. Many Chinese utilized their middle position to trade with the higher class Dutch. During the period, many Chinese descents had accumulated more wealth than ordinary Indonesians.

Not only that the advantaged position of the Chinese during Dutch colonial period created jealousy among the indigenous population of Indonesia, the anti-communist campaign launched by Suharto regime in 1960s was also flavored with an anti-Chinese dimension. Suharto's 32 years in power had banned Chinese culture and barred Chinese Indonesians from joining the military and public service. His policy had further cornered Chinese Indonesians into the business and commercial sphere. He instigated suspicions that Chinese Indonesians controlled Indonesian economy so they were easily blamed for the poverty in Indonesia.

Several anti-Chinese riots and violence had broken out throughout Indonesian history. Discrimination and riots created a great distrust between the Chinese and the natives. Because they felt threatened and discriminated, some Chinese tended to keep only a circle of Chinese friends, and were not willing to mingle with their native neighbors.

There was no single Chinese Indonesian living in Balobaloang. The Chinese Indonesians that many people in Balobaloang knew were "bosses" who bought their marine products or commissioned Balobaloang ships to transport goods from one island to another.

In her article titled "Who is to blame? Logics of responsibility in the live reef food fish trade in Sulawesi, Indonesia" Celia Lowe argues that the live fish trade in Sulawesi has given "Javanese, Chinese and other urban elites" the highest commercial profit. Her research finds that indigenous population from various ethnic backgrounds in Sulawesi was only placed at the periphery of the lucrative business of live reef fish trade. Local fishers or fish farmers had to collect the fish, often using cyanide to meet demands, while the businessmen who connect the resources with the global market of live fish made the most money.

Lowe argues that the huge income gap between the fishers and the exporters is not justified by the responsibility that the fishers had to bear. The fishers are blamed for coral reef destruction and had to face the risk of being caught by marine patrols because of cyanide fishing.

Celia Lowe's research focuses on the live fish trade and cyanide fishery in Central Sulawesi, while Balobaloang people do not sell live fish. Sumanga people are only involved with dynamite, not cyanide fishing. However, her research provides some insights into the ethnic relations in the marine resource trade.

Questions on ethnic identity and power relations based on ethnicity, social status and wealth was very common in participatory projects that involved outsiders. These questions had to be faced by people working development works. Jay Ruby, in his book "Picturing Culture", suggested visual anthropologists to be reflexive on their power in relation to the community they were studying so that they did not abuse the power they had on the community. The power could originate from their race, ethnicity, image production capacity, access to information, or opportunities to advance their social status.

When Balobaloang were questioning Amelia Hapsari about her ethnic background, the questions could be interpreted as a prejudice against Chinese Indonesians. It was very important to understand the ethnic relations within the context of marine product trade. By understanding this relation, the filmmaker contextualized the questions and related the question to the project.

The questions were asked because Balobaloang people did not want to be exploited. Based on their experiences with Chinese business people in the trading sector (and possibly stereotypes enforced by Suharto regime), the people in Balobaloang were afraid that Amelia Hapsari would take advantage of their stories.

They would like to make sure that the access to stories and the participation that they contributed to the project would not be used for financial benefit of the filmmaker (who happened to be a Chinese Indonesian), or anybody involved in the project. After the people were assured on the purpose of the project, their role, and the potential of the project; ethnicity, religion, and other differences were no longer barriers to the project. At the end of the project, many villagers had a deep connection to the filmmaker and they could accept her as a Chinese who was not a businesswoman.  

In this chapter:
Ethnic and religious dimensions:
America, the evil empire

Also in this section :
The making of Sharing Paradise
The making of Sharing Paradise: An anthropologistís footnote
What is a participatory video?

Challenges:
Participation
Getting the fishermen involved
Sharing Paradise: Living in a tangled web of relationships

Patron-client relationships and the participatory process

Language dimension

Reflections by the filmmaker

 

 

 

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