I recently revisited my application for this Fellowship to check in with myself, if I was indeed doing what I said I wanted to do. Sometimes it was easy to lose my bearings as I was knee deep in finding aids, with hundreds of bookmarked pages on my web browser, my Zotero file becoming unwieldy, with each new item bringing up ideas for other splintering topics that I would jot down and file away in my mind as a future project, realizing that I could probably do this work forever. In my Zotero file I had close to 60 items that I identified as potential archival items for the exhibit, how was I to choose just 10 of these items ?
Excerpt from Fellowship application:
My goal would be to put Southeast Asian stories and the Indonesian community within the context of a larger group of Asian immigrants and diaspora, as we fight a political climate where immigrants are being used as scapegoats.
The archival item that has been my guide throughout this research process is the oral histories of Asian Americans, but none of the stories were from Philadelphia, so I searched again in the finding aids to see if I could find something. I hadn’t seen it before, but in the HSP archives, I saw a book titled Chinatown Lives: oral histories from Philadelphia’s Chinatown. A-ha! I read the description and realized that I had this book on my coffee table, halfway down the pile of books. I don’t remember when I bought it, but I think I decided that I had to have it when I found the story of Iwan Santoso, an Indonesian immigrant and the owner of the Indonesia Restaurant located in Chinatown at that time. When I moved to Philadelphia in the early 2000’s and found that there was an Indonesian Restaurant, I was ecstatic. In finding this book, I thought to myself; someone Indonesian in a book about Philadelphia? I have to own this. But Iwan Santoso was not the only Indonesian in the book. “L.D.” also told the story of their immigration story, not revealing their real name due to their immigration status, a fear that is too real for many of us who have lived as ‘orang gelap.’
That is how rare it is to find mentions of our people in America, that at any documented evidence, we hold on to it to remind ourselves we exist here.
Excerpt from Fellowship application:
When I was undocumented, I was terrified of speaking out and being visible, I lived in the shadows. I have found courage in the activism of the young DACA activists, and their fearlessness, their courage in speaking out, knowing there might be dire consequences. Through witnessing that, I realized that our community can demand change, we don’t have to stay silent, we can imagine a new future for all us, where all humans can live in dignity regardless of their health and work status. I want to tell the stories of people who live in the shadows.
As I searched for ‘Asian immigration’ and ‘undocumented stories’ in the finding aids, I came across a book published by Temple University Press in 2000 called “Paper Son: One Man’s Story” by Tung-Pok Chin and Winnifred Chin. I hadn’t known what the term meant before, but I remembered coming across it in the Asian Americans book. I found the term “Paper Son” in the index, which directed me to page 5. The footnote at the bottom of the page said:
“A series of Chinese exclusion acts were passed as early as 1882, which made it very difficult for many Chinese to enter the country. Some purchased falsified documents which showed they were children of the Chinese fathers already in the United States; thus the term “paper son.”
Tung-Pok Chin wrote this autobiography of his life in America with the help of his daughter Winnifred, who provided context for the political situation during his life. He wrote of his life on “Gold Mountain,” the nickname for America among Chinese immigrants. He wrote of his childhood, his arrival in “Gold Mountain” in 1934 and of his life until his retirement as a laundry man in Brooklyn in 1978. He wrote about hearing that in Gold Mountain, the streets were paved with gold (many Indonesian immigrants also imagined America as a very wealthy country, a notion that was quickly dispelled upon their first day in the country). Chin wrote about agents visiting his business (which was also his home) to try to find evidence of his true identity, pressing him on whether he was a communist, asking him why he was publishing his poetry in the local Chinese newspaper, whose owner was suspected of being a communist. His wife, Wing Fong Chin was a seamstress in New York’s Chinatown and became active in the union for garment workers and was honored for her role as an advocate for Asian American women and workers’ rights. Chin wrote of his experience as a Paper Son during McCarthyism, and it made me think about the fact that it was in this same era that the US started to be wary of Indonesia’s President Sukarno and his communist leanings. Reading Chin’s experience gave me an understanding of the atmosphere in the US at that time towards China and Communism, I think one can draw a line between McCarthyism and the genocide that would happen in Indonesia in 1965 that resulted in a purge (read: murder) of Chinese Indonesians, Union Organizers, leaders of women’s organizations and suspected communists.
In looking at the pictures in the book of Chin’s identity certificate, I was reminded of my own papers. I have always found it absurd that my liberation was based on a piece of paper that legitimized me. I would stare at my social security card that said “Not Authorized to Work” and fantasized about ways that I could magically erase that from the paper. I coveted that American passport, it would be my Golden Ticket, as I called it, having watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as a child in Indonesia. I’m one of the lucky ones; now that “I’ve got a Golden Ticket,” I can travel freely, no longer confined to borders. People say open borders are not possible, but the truth is, a borderless world already exists for a lot of people, you just have to be lucky enough to be born in certain countries, or get the proper papers. I dream of a world where anyone can exercise that most human urge, to explore, to migrate, to move throughout the globe to seek better conditions for themselves of their own free will.
As Indonesians, growing up, so much of our country’s history has been obscured from us. We were fed propaganda, we only had one version of the story that we were given, because a lot of people have been silenced. There is a theme that I think runs through many Indonesian families; it’s that we don’t know much about our own family’s histories, let alone our country’s history. In the diaspora, we are learning about our homelands from afar. There is a lot of hesitation to speak. Silence is the default. Memories wiped out and suppressed. It comes from fear of living in an authoritarian country. Living in that system, it is an act of bravery and resistance to tell your story because by speaking out, you can be disappeared.
The common theme throughout my research has been, ‘what is missing from the archives,’ and to me what is missing is Indonesian stories. As I read through the oral history books, it solidified a path forward for the archive item that I wanted to contribute to these archival institutions: Our Stories. I started by engaging the Indonesian community in Philadelphia, and reaching out to the Indonesian diaspora across the country and abroad to document their oral histories. I have been inspired by everyone who has decided to tell their story, to encapsulate it for future generations. I hope that by telling our stories, we can come out of our silence.
Is there something we can share with the world to warn them? Our families have lived through genocide and the rise of a dictator, surely we have something valuable to share with Americans? I feared the rise of autocracy during the Trump presidency. I saw so many familiar things that I grew up with in the dictatorship. Seeing the slide to autocracy and authoritarianism in democracies around the world has been chilling. In conversations with other Indonesians, we would joke that Trump was only a ‘baby wannabe dictator’, whereas Suharto was the real deal. As a naïve immigrant, I thought that America had institutions that would protect the people and its democracy, but I’ve changed my mind. The events that happened in America in the last twenty years, seeing the draconian measures enacted after 9/11 and the wars in the Middle East, witnessing the 2016 elections, and seeing the January 6th Insurrection; these and many more events have led me firmly to believe that it can also happen here.