Chinese Indonesians: a rose by any other name
About thirty years ago, the Indonesian Chinese community was rocked by a New Order government recommendation that advised the replacement of Chinese names with indigenous ones. w The change was not compulsory, however the adoption of new names was promoted as a mechanism for assimilation into the broader community. Indinesian names themselves were not privilegedd: any name was suitable except ones of Chinese origin.
That was when the famous and popular Shakespearean citation _ A rose by any other name – became a useful exprssion for some Chinese-Indonesians.
There were many arguments for and against the proposal. I was pro name-changing. Indonesian names had been adopted e by many people in the past. They were simple names, like for instance perak, picis or gobang, names for coins in colonial days. A picis was a small silver coin, the neme was selected for girls with a refined appearance. A gobang was a big two and a half cent piece made of a metal that gradually turned dark over time. Parents of Children are unlucky to be born darker and bigger than usual, sometimes bestowed the name gobang on their offspring.
Besides, traditional Chinese change their names several times, like when they when they were recognized as scholars. I remember that my grandfather had a name given to him by his colleagues when he was honored by his office for longstanding service. They always used that name in correspondence and in conversations. Moreover, I have always found it awkward to write my family name first and then my own name, although this is usually done in telephone books. But my husband who had been writing in scientific journals found that the scientist had no inkling of the composition of Chinese names. So his name Sie Pek Giok would be written “Giok, Sie Pek”. But even worse, he remained unknown, because nobody knew that the two names referred to the same person.
My children were also excited, because I gave them the freedom to chose their own name. They consulted dictionnaries of names, wayang books and other sources for inspiration. . Even my son, who was only three and could write a few letters found himself a name and did not want to accept other suggestions. It was the only name that he could write and that should be his name.
However, my friend Ai-Ling dared to challenge Shakespeare. She said that he was obsolete, because with new theories in philosophy and psychology, we now know that certain words evoke certain associations and if a rose was called durian, it would not smell as sweet as a rose, but more like a durian. So she was not going to change her name. “My name is given by my parents and we should honor that,” and she added: “For the men, these names have been fixed centuries ago and may have been written on the ancestral tablet of the founding father or in genealogies. They are usually taken from poems or adages, so they have meanings for the family. The second part of the three syllables of a Chinese name is usually the generation name of the family, so people with the same surname would know whether they are related and to which generation they belong.”
What if we used names that are translations of the old names? That of course could be a solution. And that was exactly what Ah Fu did. He changed his name into Untung, which also meant luck in Indonesian. He went to temple to ask for approval, but the temple said the name was incomplete and suggested an addition of Sukirno as middlename. Now, Kirno was often used by people who wanted to criticize the name changing as an acronym of mungkir Cino (denial of being Chinese). But Ah Fu accepted the name because it was recommended by the temple.
With his new name Ah Fu or rather, Untung did very well. Not being able to continue his education in a Chinese school, which was closed down 1965, he went to Taiwan to learn technology and when he returned, he opened a television shop in the Glodok complex. He did so well that he opened a second shop and then a third and was planning a huge fourth one in a giant shopping mall in West Jakarta the events of May 13 happened. All his three shops were looted and burned. His dreams were shattered.
Desperately, he came to me and asked me what Shakespeare really meant. “I have translated my old name, thinking that my rose would have the same smell, yet it turned out to be different. For thirty years I had thought that I had contributed to the assimilation process and yet I was still discriminated against. “
“Look.” I said, “I am not a Shakespeare expert but I think that he meant that the scent of a rose is not in its name, but in the essence of being a rose. And you Ah Fu, or Untung or whatever, your luck does not depend on your name, but on your Chinese legacy. It is the tenacity and sense for business that you have inherited from your ancestors has brought you luck. Don’t think of the past, pick up the odds and ends and open a new a shop. The temple elders may be able to tell you where the best location is.”