A Reflection on Identity and Tradition

October 8, 2021, 12:25am

by Charles Kurniawan

As a Chinese Indonesian living in Singapore, I am often asked where I am from. People think I am a Chinese Singaporean based on my looks and they tend to speak to me in Mandarin. I always try to reply even if it is in my broken Mandarin, but when I am unable hold the conversation in Mandarin I will switch to English with my Indonesian accent. Then, the million-dollar-question always follows: where are you from? When I say I am from Indonesia, they switch their perception of me. Most people I have met seem unfamiliar with Chinese Indonesians. I was even once asked by a cashier in a convenience store whether I was Chinese or Indonesian just because I was talking with my parents in Bahasa Indonesia. It seems people have a certain expectation of what Chinese and Indonesian should be. However, identity is not black or white. Chinese Indonesian director, Fanny Bratahalim brings up this issue with her animation short, BANGAU (STORK).

Where I Belong

BANGAU reimagines the director’s journey of self-discovery as a Chinese Indonesian as she seeks a sense of belonging. The film starts with a conversation between the director and her grandmother who migrated to Indonesia from China. Migration is a common occurrence, but what makes it different here is the socio-political context in Indonesia in the 1960s. There was a ban on Chinese culture and Chinese Indonesians were obligated to change their names to more Indonesian-sounding ones. Despite that, most Chinese Indonesians tried to integrate their Chinese surnames with their Indonesian surnames.

In Indonesia, a Chinese-looking person stands out in a negative way and the term ‘Chinese’ is still being used in a derogatory manner. There are even rumors that certain politicians are made out to be of Chinese descent to discourage people from voting for them. BANGAU, however is more personal than political in its tone. Bratahalim creatively highlights the racial and cultural differences with a mixture of techniques. Characters are represented with hand-drawn animation and stop motion, while many of the locations appear to be real-life miniature sets.

Image still from STORK (BANGAU) (2021), dir. Fanny Bratahalim

A clash of cultures represents the character’s state of mind. Bratahalim starts with a distinct clash of elements unique to Chinese and Indonesian cultures. The parental figures are represented by a Chinese deity and an Indonesian wayang clay character. The elements gradually become less distinctive and blend together as she introduces the inner struggles of Chinese Indonesians to audiences. BANGAU reminds us that two cultures can coexist and influence each other, without being mutually exclusive.

Image still from STORK (BANGAU) (2021), dir. Fanny Bratahalim

Home

partitions by Vishal Daryanomel is a documentary about a Sindhi woman who migrated to Singapore after the Partition of India in 1947. Daryanomel goes up close and personal with this documentary. The shots are tight, filmed entirely in her HDB flat. We even see her family’s photographs and official state documents.

As we listen to an audio interview of the subject talking about her past, the visuals are fixated on the hands of another subject, preparing and cooking food. Her stories, including the memory of her late husband, seems to be immortalized in her memory just like the photographs and documents. It makes us contemplate. Should we continue to reminisce about who have passed? Or should we move on and focus on the present?

However, we do not see the face of the woman or any other family members in the film. We only see them through the photographs and official state documents. Based on the credits we can tell that the woman in the interview, the person who sings and the people who are seen cooking and passing by are all different. The relationship between them is not established and the people featured represent the community instead of individuals. Daryanomel keeps them anonymous during the film, where they are just like any Singaporean living their life.

We know the woman in the interview is a Singaporean through the official state documents. Inside the HDB flat where she lives, we see Hindu iconography, a worship altar, and statues. She is able to retain her identity as a Singaporean and a practicing Sindhi Hindu without compromising either. There is more to her than meets the eye, but we only get to know people when we try to make a personal connection with them.

Image still from partitions (2021), dir. Vishal Daryanomel

The Road Ahead

Russell Adam Morton’s choice of storytelling for Saudade is unconventional. He reimagines the life of Eurasians in the past in three different parts. He represents the song and dance of the Jinkli Nona as a performance on stage. The story of the shrimp farmer takes a realistic documentary approach. Morton plays around with folklore in a theatrical treatment for the encounter with the mythical Oily Man.

Image still from Saudade (2020), dir. Russell Adam Morton

Tradition and culture involve more than one person. People have to keep practicing and passing it on to the next generation. Morton shows the change in the tradition poetically. The loss of tradition does not happen suddenly; it happens gradually as people stop practicing them. He also uses the sunset as a metaphor for the end of a chapter. He shows that tradition and belief could be something made of mutual agreements. If a group of people collectively agree on something, it could be passed on. If they agree to stop talking about something, it will no longer exist.

The topics that Saudade discusses seem a bit distant from us, but it makes us reflect and rethink them. If they are relegated to the past and are not discussed, these issues will be forgotten.

With BANGAU, we see the result of forced assimilation. We see that the director’s surname is Indonesian sounding, and that she speaks with her grandmother in Bahasa Indonesia as most Chinese Indonesians do. We witness how Chinese Indonesians have lost their identity as most of them do not speak Mandarin and they do not have a Chinese name officially or unofficially because of past regulations. As a result of not being seen as a “real” Chinese or Indonesian, it creates confusion regarding one’s sense of belonging. With partitions, we see the result of cultural integration. I hope we can continue to keep our identity, continue the tradition, and pass it to the next generation wherever we go.

One way or another we will cross paths with people from different backgrounds, like the characters in BANGAU, partitions, and Saudade. Everyone has their own story. When people from different cultures and backgrounds live together, the cultures will dynamically intertwine. We could learn more from one another and preserve our traditions and identity.


About the Writer

Charles Kurniawan is a film programmer with interest in Southeast Asian cinema. He is an alumnus of various film programmes: NAFF BiFan Fantastic Film School 2019, SGIFF Youth Jury & Critics Programme 2020, Cinema without Borders Southeast Asia 2021 and CICAE Art Cinema = Action + Management 2021.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the
Asian Film Archive.