Indonesia’s second-largest city, Surabaya, has chosen new Chinese cultural ambassadors in its East Java ‘Koko Cici’ competition, as the event’s significance grows for a community that only a couple of decades ago faced racially fuelled and fatal riots after years of state oppression.
The Nov 26 grand final of the contest was the culmination of a month-long search for two young people to be Indonesian-Chinese champions for the province.
Judges chose Renhard Sidik and Sherly Agelina, both 22, as this year’s Koko Cici winners from 24 finalists and around 130 initial contestants.
The competition is open to Indonesians aged 17 to 24, regardless of their ethnic or religious background, as long as they are bright and sociable and keen to preserve and promote Chinese culture.
There are around seven million ethnic Chinese people in Indonesia.
‘Koko Cici’ comes from the Hokkien for Koko (big brother) and Cici (big sister), words often used in Indonesia to address citizens with Chinese heritage.
Hokkien originated in China’s Fujian province and is also spoken by some Taiwanese people as well as by Chinese communities in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.
Koko Cici contests take place in 10 of Indonesia’s 38 provinces, mainly where ethnic Chinese are concentrated, with the competition’s roots going back to 2002 when Koko Cici Jakarta was the first of its kind in the country.
This year’s East Java male winner Sidik, a national wushu (Chinese martial art) champion, said he was ready to serve as an ambassador for the Chinese community.
“I’d like to work further on my Mandarin so that I can perform my role better,” he said.
“As an Indonesian-Chinese I will also do my best to put my best foot forward in representing my community within Indonesia’s pluralistic society.”
Contestants, who were not forthcoming on family background details, attended workshops in subjects including history, Mandarin, English and etiquette.
This year’s finalists were all of Chinese descent, with Sidik saying his Mandarin had improved during the contest.
His female counterpart, civil engineer Sherly Angelina, told judges she wanted to popularise not-so-visited tourist destinations in her hometown of Lumajang and set up a non-governmental organisation “to help improve literacy” in rural areas, “through free libraries or learning centres”.
The East Java contest was kicked off this year by Deputy Governor Emil Dardak, showing the government’s support of the event.
He said Koko Cici was a way to promote the “culture and tourism” of the region and was synonymous with “beauty” and “character”.
He was impressed “by the dedication” shown to society by successive Koko Cici winners and “by their commitment to Indonesia’s cultural diversity and the preservation of Chinese heritage”.
It has not been easy for those with Chinese backgrounds in Indonesia.
For around three decades from the late 1960s their lives were often hindered, including being forbidden to express themselves culturally, with a ban on Chinese names and the public celebration of Chinese festivals.
It was only after horrific riots in 1998 and the downfall shortly afterwards of President Suharto, followed by democratisation, that the ban was lifted, in 2000.
Agustinus Eko Susanto, from the Koko Cici Indonesia Foundation, said the door was then open for the Koko Cici contest, “an initiative by Indonesian Chinese to improve Indonesia’s international image”.
For it was “in tatters” after the riots, he said, with hundreds of people killed and scores of women raped, many of them of Chinese descent, over two horrific days.
East Java rolled out its Koko Cici in 2020, under the patronage of Javanese media mogul Dahlan Iskan, a former minister of state-owned enterprises. He has close links to the Chinese community, had a liver transplant in Guangzhou and has learned Mandarin.
Helena Aprilia, chair of Koko Cici East Java and a 2020 Koko Cici finalist, said the city of Surabaya had bucked the national trend by launching its debut contest when similar events were being wound down due to the pandemic.
The 25-year-old Indonesian-Chinese professional ballerina said the audition process took place online due to social distancing regulations.
“It may seem odd to launch at the height of the pandemic, but we decided it was high time East Java had its Koko Cici. We also wanted to give university students in lockdown something positive to do.”
The contest in the province is run by Indonesian-Chinese groups. They often hold social events for adults, including the elderly, to try to preserve cultural and familial ties.
Indonesian-Chinese Piniela Sutandi, 22, East Java Koko Cici 2021 winner who sat on this year’s organising committee, said her duties had included promoting small and medium-sized firms affected by the pandemic and attending charity events.
“Contestants need to be well-rounded in their social skills and mastery of general knowledge as well as specific knowledge about Chinese culture, customs and history.”
Runner up Gideon Feriyanto, 22, said this year’s Koko Cici had boosted his confidence.
“I wanted to be on stage from an early age and thought about entering various talent shows but didn’t feel I was good enough,” he said.
Audrey Hanley Wijaya, 22, another runner up, wanted to use the Koko Cici platform to promote Chinese heritage sites in East Java both nationally and internationally.
“As a student majoring in Chinese Literature I’d like to put my linguistic skills to good use as a cultural ambassador.”
Meanwhile finalist Adeline Ellicia Sutanto, a 20-year-old student, said that by focusing on Chinese culture and the contribution of Indonesian Chinese, “I hope to be able to foster better understanding” of them by other ethnic groups.
Freddy Istanto is chairman of the Surabaya Heritage Society and has Chinese heritage. He said events like Koko Cici play an important role in the conservation and development of local Chinese culture.
“In an increasingly globalised world, getting young people excited about our local Chinese heritage has become challenging.”
Other ethnic groups in Indonesia also elect cultural ambassadors. For example, to find representatives for Surabaya’s Javanese population, the city conducts its Cak Ning contest (‘big brother, big sister’ in Javanese).
Amid the celebratory mood at the East Java Koko Cici final on Saturday, national spokesman Susanto said the non-profit organisation is always mindful of its desire to help others.
To that end, it has been collecting money for people affected by the 5.6 earthquake that struck West Java on Nov 21. It killed more than 300, many of them children, and injured thousands.
Susanto is pleased to be able to openly help and be connected to his Chinese heritage. “I still remember growing up and not being able to express anything Chinese,” he said.
“I look at them [the contestants, who were born after 1998] and realise they have no memory of this, because things are different now.”
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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.