Our Existence is our Resistance

Katherine Antarikso

My initial research question was, “Who were the first Indonesians in Philadelphia?” The archives gave some possible answers, but it also generated more questions. Who gets to be a refugee? Who gets to be an immigrant in the US? Who gets to be a citizen? Have you ever considered the absurdity of papers legitimizing your existence? These items connect Indonesian immigration to larger themes of European Imperialism, Settler Colonies and the Indigenous population; ways the fear of Communism in the US affected the course of Indonesian history; Asian immigration to the United States and immigration laws; and how Asian immigrants navigate those laws.

“Map of the Dutch East Indies,” in Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, or, The True and Incredible
Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History

Giles Milton, undated
Free Library of Philadelphia

Nutmeg. Maybe you put it in your pumpkin pie, eggnog, or mulled wine; maybe you think of it as the quintessential autumn spice. But did you know that nutmeg is native to the tropics? The Banda Islands were the only source of nutmeg in Medieval Europe.

The Europeans’ desire for this exotic spice, one of the most coveted luxuries and believed to have powerful medicinal properties, was one of the reasons for wars between nations as the British and the Dutch battled for control of the Spice Trade.

If it weren’t for a tiny group of islands in the Banda Sea that held all of the world’s nutmeg at that time, Manhattan would still be New Amsterdam. In the Treaty of Breda in 1667, the British agreed to give up Suriname in South America and the island of Run in the Banda Sea in return for New Amsterdam, which they had taken over and renamed as New York. This treaty gave supremacy to the Dutch East India company in the archipelago, and its successor, the Dutch Empire, went on to colonize the East Indies for some 350 years.

The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference; Foreword by Gunnar Myrdal

Richard Wright, 1956
Library Company of Philadelphia

While in Paris in 1955, expatriate Richard Wright, African American writer and author of Native Son, picked up a newspaper article that read, “Twenty-nine free and independent nations of Asia and Africa are meeting in Bandung, Indonesia to discuss racialism and colonialism (p. 11).” He immediately felt compelled to attend the meeting, writing, “A stream of realizations claimed my mind: these people were ex-colonial subjects, people whom the white West called ‘colored’ peoples… I’m an American Negro; as such I’ve had a burden of race consciousness. So have these people …”

The Asia-Africa Conference, also known as the Bandung Conference for the host city in Indonesia, was held April 18–25, 1955, and was a pivotal moment in world history. The 29 nations from Asia and Africa that participated in the conference were newly independent and sought to be free from the influence of the United States and the Soviet Union.
In his opening speech, President Sukarno of Indonesia declared, “This is the first international conference of colored peoples in the history of mankind!”

In Indonesia, Richard Wright met with Indonesian writers, intellectuals, and journalists and saw solidarity in the Indonesians’ struggle as fellow “colored people.” The account of his time in Indonesia during the conference was published in the book The Color Curtain.

One of the goals of the conference was to consider problems of special interest to Asian and African peoples, issues of national sovereignty, and of “racialism and colonialism.” These independent nations met to forge new ways of cooperation with each other. At the end of the Bandung Conference they released the Dasasila Bandung, a 10-point declaration on promotion of world peace and cooperation.

The “Spirit of Bandung” has lived on in the United States. The idea of the solidarity of the oppressed peoples coming together to fight colonialism and imperialism inspired African American and Asian American activists in civil rights struggles long after.

Even though I spent many weekends as a child in Indonesia in Bandung, my mother’s hometown and where my grandfather was a university professor, I never knew about the Bandung Conference until 2011, when I went back to Indonesia after 23 years away. Imagine, 29 countries trying to find an independent path forward. I started wondering why I never learned this in school.


Question for the Reader:

How can “The Spirit of Bandung” inspire people from the Asian and Black communities today to find solidarity with each other as marginalized people in the United States?

Pages from Chinatown Lives: Oral Histories from Philadelphia’s Chinatown (2004)

Asian Arts Initiative, Lena Sze, and Rodney Atienza
Free Library of Philadelphia, Social Sciences & History

Benedict Anderson wrote of nation states as “imagined communities.” America is an imagined community built on the idea of the American Dream, and that anyone is invited to take part in it. America’s founding fathers believed that anyone is free to leave their home country to seek a better life.

Formerly independent kingdoms before colonization, the archipelago now known as Indonesia became one country in 1945. It is currently the fourth most populous nation in the world with 234 million people. Indonesia comprises 17,000 islands and is one of the most ethnically diverse democracies in the world today, with 300 ethnic groups speaking 700 different languages and dialects. Indonesians created a language to unify more than 300 ethnic groups with their own languages, so they could fight for freedom from their oppressors. Their shared identity is one of being an oppressed people. The motto of Indonesia is “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” which means “Unity in Diversity.” Indonesia is a concept just as much as America is a concept.

After the fall of Suharto’s New Order Government in 1998, thousands of Indonesians left the country and started to settle in Philadelphia. Many were Chinese Indonesians who became scapegoats and targets of ethnic violence during the riots that followed the protests in 1998. Iwan Santoso was the owner of the first Indonesian restaurant in Philadelphia. Like many other Chinese Indonesian families, his family had to change their name after the 1965 genocide in Indonesia. L.D., also an Indonesian, chose not to show their face; as an undocumented immigrant, it is likely they were afraid for their safety in disclosing their status.

Philadelphia became a popular destination for Indonesians after the May 1998 riots because it was affordable, there were jobs available, and there were other Indonesians here. But Indonesians soon felt the effects of draconian orders enacted after 9/11 called the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (also known as NSEERS) that 

required all males aged 18 and over from Muslim-majority “terrorist” countries to register with the government. Even though Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world, the irony is that most Indonesians in Philadelphia were Christians fleeing the religious and ethnic violence of the New Order. Complying with NSEERS resulted in the deportation of many Indonesians from Philadelphia, and the community is now estimated to number around 5,000 people, down from 10,000 in the early 2000s and before the deportations.

Questions for the reader:

Do you see any parallels between Indonesia and the United States in terms of our multi-ethnic makeup?

What can we learn from both Indonesia and America about how to unite people from all different backgrounds and languages?

“Comparative Table of Existing Quotas,” in A New Immigration Proposal: A Fact Sheet on S. 3043 Introduced in the United States Senate on March 21, 1962

American Immigration and Citizenship Conference
Nationalities Service Center Records, Temple University Libraries Special Collections Research Center.

Who gets to be a refugee? Who gets to be an immigrant in the U.S.? Undocumented immigrants may hear Americans say: “My grandparents came here legally, you all should do it the same way, too.” But the ancestors of those Americans were living in a United States with different laws.

Only 100 people from Indonesia could immigrate to the United States in 1962 while 3,336 people were allowed from the Netherlands. Only 205 people from China were allowed in the United States at the time of the proposal of this act in 1962. The Immigration Act of 1965 opened the way to Asian immigration to the United States, but the fear of America becoming multicultural was codified into these laws.

Asian American Experiences in the United States : Oral Histories of First to Fourth Generation Americans from China, the Philippines, Japan, India, the Pacific Islands, Vietnam, and Cambodia (1991)

Joann Faung Jean
Free Library of Philadelphia

This book is a collection of oral histories of first to fourth generation Asian Americans, from stories of Chinese immigrants in the South, to the loss of native languages in Hawai’i, to stories of hate crimes against South Asians, and stories of interracial relationships. Reading these stories made me feel less alone because so many others have gone through what I have gone through.

I think about what is not in the book, the story of Indonesian immigrants to the United States, and it’s understandable because Indonesians are one of the most recent immigrant groups to the United States, with most arriving after the May 1998 riots in Indonesia. Prior to that, most Indonesians in the United States were students who were here temporarily. After the fall of President Suharto and his New Order government, Indonesians left the country to seek a better life, one of better economic opportunity, and one free of religious and ethnic persecution. They came for the American Dream.

The story of Indonesian immigration is similar to but also very different from immigration from other Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, or the Philippines. The U.S. did not fight a war with Indonesia or colonize Indonesia. What the U.S. did in Indonesia was only recently revealed; the International People’s Tribunal at the Hague held in 2016 found that Indonesia was guilty of crimes against humanity in the mass killings in 1965 and that the U.S, the U.K., and Australia were all complicit in the crimes. It wasn’t direct and explicit enough to allow Indonesians to be able to immigrate here. It was hard for Indonesians to gain asylum even after the ethnic and religious violence that happened in the ’98 riots. Because of this, many Indonesian immigrants became undocumented.

As I read through the book and ruminated on the American Dream, I came upon this fitting excerpt on page 53, in a chapter attributed to the oral history of Charles Ryu, a Korean American who immigrated to the United States at age 17:

“The biggest disillusionment I had was that the American Dream is a lie … all the promises of America are more of a dream and well orchestrated hoax than reality, for most Americans, even. America is not a freedom-defending democratic country, but simply a capitalist imperial force that does whatever it wants to do for its profit.”

“We have a right to know our own histories and to be proud of being Indonesian.”
- Katherine Antarikso

Pages From Paper Son: One Man's Story (2004)

Tung Pok Chin and Winifred C. Chin
Temple University, Special Collections Research Center

Tuk Pong Chin was a laundryman, 
Lai Bing Chan, a poet
One was a Gold Mountain Man, 
one was a Paper Son 
They say on Gold Mountain, even the streets are paved with gold
Paper Sons go to Gold Mountain to be Gold Mountain Men 
They toil on their adopted land, never to return
Meanwhile, back in the motherland,
Gold Mountain wives parade their jewels and gold nuggets. 
These Gold Mountain men, these Paper Sons, 
did not have the heart to tell the truth, 
that in Gold Mountain their dreams of prosperity disappeared,
they had to play their part in the mythmaking of the American Dream. 

On May 6, 1882, The Chinese Exclusion Act was signed by President Chester A. Arthur, prohibiting the immigration of Chinese laborers into the United States, and banning Chinese women from immigrating to the country. These restrictive immigration laws led many Chinese immigrants to file for “Paper Son” documents for children that were born back in China. They then sold these documents to fellow Chinese immigrants to gain passage to the United States. The “Paper Sons” would have to assume the identity of the person listed on their certificates. 

Tung Pok Chin’s autobiography tells his life story from growing up in China and becoming a “Paper Son.” Chin was a laundryman in Brooklyn, and FBI agents routinely visited Chin during the McCarthy era, as many Chinese at that time were thought to be communist sympathizers. 

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.

Resistance rooted in


Interested in more stories about migration, or about anti-colonial, anti-imperialist movements? Check out the work below:

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