Identities Past & Present, Miriam Coronel Ferrer

Locating Ethnicity in Southeast Asian Studies, Shamsul A.B.

Lumad Training for Local Research and Self-representation, Albert Alejo

The Chinese in Sekadau, Chong Shin

The Subanen Guinguman, Ivie Carbon Esteban

M.A. in Southeast Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University


Past Issues
Search our Database
Subscribe to the e-Bulletin

The Southeast Asian Studies Bulletin is a bi-annual publication of the Southeast Asian Studies Regional Exchange Program (SEASREP) Council. Editorial Office is at Unit 7D One Burgundy Plaza, 307 Katipunan Ave., Loyola Heights, Quezon City 1108 Philippines.

For your comments and suggestions, please email


The Chinese in Sekadau: An Ethnolinguistic Overview
by Chong Shin, Ph.D. Student, Institut Alam dan Tamadun Melayu, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia


Although there have been many studies concerned with Chinese communities in Indonesia, according to Oetomo (1987:3 in The Chinese of Pasuruan: Their Language and Identity), not many linguistically based studies on the language of Chinese communities have been carried out. In addition, existing studies were usually carried out in urban areas. This can be seen in Oetomo’s study (1987) in Pasuruan; Makhamah’s (2000) in Surakarta; Rafferty’s in Malang; Bahren Umar Siregar et al.’s (1998) in Medan; and Dwi Agus Erinita’s (2001) in Pontianak. Studies about Chinese communities in rural areas and in small towns of the interior are lacking. Rural upriver locations are often neglected in academic studies. For example, the Sekadau area that is presented in this article was seldom mentioned in any academic works, except for some brief notes in colonial sources such as Enthoven (1903). The modern study of Sekadau only began when J. Collins conducted his preliminary research there in 1996. At that time, he “detected” that this place was worthy of further study. (More information can be found in his articles in Dewan Bahasa and SEASREP Bulletin, both published in 2001.)


Geographically, Sekadau is a small rural town located about 300 km upriver from the coast and from Pontianak, the provincal capital of Kalimantan Barat (see Map 1). This town is located at the confluence of the Kapuas River and the Sekadau River. It is connected to upriver and downriver areas by roads and by boat on the Kapuas River. It seems that the Kapuas River was the only transportation network until the late 1980s.

As the only important town in the Sekadau Valley, Sekadau town serves as the trading center for farm and forest products between Pontianak and the interior (upriver areas of both the Kapuas and Sekadau rivers). It is also a business center for services and goods for the citizens nearby. Sekadau is equipped with a rather complete infrastructure and support facilities. Public transportation smoothly links this town to the nearby rural interior and the downriver towns. Furthermore, Sekadau boasts of several schools (from kindergarten through senior high schools), diverse places of religious worship, modest hotels, government offices and a hospital.

The Populations

In fact, Sekadau and the surrounding river valley display a high level of multilingualism, even in a multilingual country like Indonesia. As such, there is a reservoir of undiscovered knowledge about language, society and economy. Research recently conducted with funding from the Southeast Asia Studies Regional Exchange Program (SEASREP) 2000-2002) demonstrated that the areas surrounding Sekadau are linguistically complex. Various kinds of languages are spoken there: at least 12 named Austronesian languages, such as Malayic languages, for example Mualang, Ketungau, Taman, Jawan, Benawas; and many Bidayuhic languages, such as Mentuka’ and Semeraway.

Generally, three ethnic groups, namely Dayaks, Malay and Chinese are settled in this valley (here, “Dayak” refers to diverse indigenous groups who are not Muslims). The Dayak (with different ethnic groups like the Ketungau, Menterap, and Mentuka’) are widely separated in the interior upriver areas, whereas the Chinese reside in Sekadau town or ancillary towns, such as Nanga Mahap, Nanga Taman and Rawak. Nevertheless, based on local information, some Chinese have also settled in very large Dayak villages such as Cenayan and Tembaga, Tapang Perodah and Kayu Lapis. Malays also usually live around the towns but also at most river confluences. The percentages of these populations within the lower reaches of the Sekadau River are shown in the bar chart below. In the upriver areas of the Sekadau valley, the Chinese population is much smaller than the two other ethnic groups, and there are somewhat more ethnic Dayaks than Malays.

The Percentage of populations in Sekadau Hilir District

The Chinese in Sekadau

In this article, I would like to give an overview of my ethnolinguistic research on the Sekadau Chinese. Statistics show that the Chinese in Sekadau Hilir (downriver Sekadau) district make up 1,775 households or 17.71% of the total population of this district. Among these households, 945 are located in or near the town. In the business center of Sekadau town, Chinese households are the majority, yet they have built up a plural society with their indigenous neighbors. Fieldwork with these Chinese who live in a multilingual society has yielded many interesting results and findings.

The majority of the Chinese are distributed in the center of the town and along Irian Road and Cong Kong Liaw Road. In town, they live in double-story shop houses. The upper story is used as the residence of the household; the lower level is used as business space usually operated by the household living above it. In general, a small “Chinatown” has formed in a part of the traditional multiethnic business center (see Appendix 1) and in years before the 1960s, three Chinese-medium schools (at primary level) existed in this town (see Appendix 2). Since the recent development of land transportation linking Sekadau with Pontianak and upriver areas, internal movements within the province has increased rapidly from nearby areas, for example Pontianak, Sungai Pinyuh and Sungai Ayak. This has led to new waves of Chinese migrants in Sekadau, who are now mostly distributed in the new shop houses along Sintang Road.

Economic life

As is the case with many overseas Chinese, they (the Sekadau Chinese) are mainly merchants. Various kinds of businesses and almost all of the retail trade, are owned by the Chinese. Some of the Chinese households with no shop lot, operate small-scale home businesses, for example, selling cakes, tofu, and other foods. The Sekadau Chinese also participate in certain areas of the service sector as lawyers, insurance agents, ticketing agents (for ship and land transportation companies), and traditional Chinese doctors. Yet, some of them, especially the youth, prefer to work in Jakarta, Pontianak, and even in Taiwan.

Cultural life

Previously, few sources described the cultural life of rural Indonesian Chinese. During my research period in Sekadau, by daily interacting with them and by sharing in various festivals celebrated by them, I was able to study some aspects of their cultural life. Although they live “side by side” with indigenous people – both Malays and Dayaks – they have maintained, to a certain extent, their own cultural life and customs; perhaps, as a way to mark their ethnic identity.

Like the urban Chinese, they celebrate the Chinese New Year, the Dragon boat festival, the Lantern festival and the “winter” festival. However, some aspects of indigenous culture have also been assimilated into their daily life. Common customs practiced by indigenous people in West Kalimantan deeply influence Chinese life attitudes, and they even practice these customs as their own. One of such custom is the touching of food offered to them without eating everything in order to avoid misfortune.

On the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar, the Chinese celebrate the Dragon Boat festival. This festival commemorates an ancient Chinese poet, Chu Yuen, who committed suicide by throwing himself in a river. This day is considered by many Chinese to be one of the worst days for evil influences in the whole Chinese almanac. Some Chinese have come to believe that the “evil ones” are also likely to be abroad on this day. The zero hour for this anti-devil campaign is noon (see Dorothy Lo and Leon Comber (1963), Chinese Festival in Malaysia). This festival is celebrated in different ways by the Chinese in different regions. In Malaysia, some activities are praying and exchanging special Chinese dumplings with relatives. In Sekadau, the Chinese of all religions, genders and ages have to bathe with water scented with fresh flower petals (mandi bunga) at noon time. They believe bathing will sweep away all the dangerous forces that surround them. This bathing ritual seems influenced by similar rites among the local Malays and the Dayaks.


Five organized religions are found in the Sekadau valley, namely Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Confucianism and Taoism. A small percentage of the Dayaks are still animists. Generally, Islam is the religion of the Malays. Most Dayaks are Catholic, though some are Protestant. The Chinese community includes adherents of four religions, namely Confucianism, Taoism, Catholicism and Protestantism. Majority of the Chinese youth are Christian (both Protestant and Catholic), whereas the elders (normally 35 and above) adhere to Confucianism and Taoism. According to Father Enzo Marini, pastor of the St. Petrus and Paulus Catholic Church, the youth tend to become Christians, maybe because they usually attend Catholic schools. In some Chinese households there are different religions; for example, the sons are Protestants or Catholics whereas the parents are Taoists or Confucians.

The Chinese linguistic repertoire

Within the Chinese community of Sekadau town, there are two sub-ethnic groups, Hakka and Hok Loh. These two major Chinese sub-ethnic groups that speak different Sinitic languages live in “one” society. Hakka is the dominant language and the lingua franca among them. My initial dissertation fieldwork in Sekadau (20 May 2002 to 20 August 2002) focused on many interesting sociolinguistic features among these Chinese languages.

During the daily conversations among the speakers of these two Chinese languages, Hakka was always used, even between two Hok Loh speakers within a larger group of Hakka speakers. Although the Hakka is the dominant language, ethnic Hok Loh still use Hok Loh, but only in particular situations; for example, between a couple of Hok Loh friends by themselves or in private conversations (among the Hok Loh). For example, in the Chinese house where I lived, the husband was Hok Loh but his wife Hakka; normally the dominant language in this family was Hakka and not Hok Loh. However, when the wife was out-of-town, the father and his son used Hok Loh until she returned.

Language choice in Sekadau, namely between Hakka and Hok Loh, is strongly related to social factors. In a Hakka-dominant environment like Sekadau, the children of a Hok Loh family reported preferring to speak Hakka not Hok Loh. However, in one case, an ethnic Hakka family used Hok Loh at home because a Hok Loh grandmother set the pattern of language choice in the preceding generation.

Although speakers of many Austronesian languages inhabit the Sekadau river basin, the dominant language is Sekadau Malay. During communication between the Chinese and the indigenous people, Sekadau Malay and, rarely, Indonesian are used. Although some Chinese also have competence in other Austronesian languages, such as Ketungau and Bidayuhic variants, their number is very small. And those who have such fluency seldom use those languages in town, even though they know that the audience is Dayak. The reason, they claim, is that there are many Dayak languages in the Sekadau River basin and they find it difficult to identify the sub-ethnic affiliation of their Dayak interlocutors. During daily contact with society, when the Chinese meet their indigenous friends – both Dayaks and Malays, they use Sekadau Malay, rather than Indonesian. Indonesian is only used in communicating with strangers.

Sekadau Malay is also the default language used by the Chinese who face difficulty in speaking Hakka properly. A Chinese man (32 years old) who had problems in his articulation, was considered by his relatives and friends unable to pronounce Chinese pitch and tone accurately, so Sekadau Malay was used as the only language with his family members and friends (Chinese and non-Chinese). For some Chinese families whose residential environment was near Malay or Dayak areas, for example the Munggu’ area, Sekadau Malay could be considered as the second home language (and Indonesian the third) used between parents and their children. Sometimes, although their parents use Hakka with them, children replied in Sekadau Malay. In another case that I observed (I later interviewed these participants), I found that young children (aged 4-6 years) who studied in kindergarten preferred to use Indonesian instead of Hakka.


In Indonesia, the Chinese community is neither small nor unitary. Stereotypes about the Chinese are always based on experiences with or observations of the urban Chinese. This ethnolinguistic study in Sekadau can be considered as a preliminary study on Chinese minorities in rural areas and it can contribute to “correcting” these stereotypes. Indeed, studies about rural Chinese who have been largely ignored are interesting in many ways, as noted earlier. The preliminary sociolinguistic research reported here should be followed up with research in other fields in both Sekadau and other rural small towns and villages.

Print this article