Today I rose at an ungodly hour, fought the deservedly notorious traffic in Jakarta, and arrived at 7am at the offices of MetroTV, Jakarta’s 24-hour news channel. I spent the day following the team behind Xinwen, Indonesia’s only Mandarin-language news show.
A Mandarin-language news show would be unremarkable in many countries, but in Indonesia, it’s an astounding achievement. In 1967, Suharto, the country’s second president, blamed Chinese Indonesians for many of the country’s problems and effectively outlawed Chinese culture — for the next three decades. Ethnic Chinese were forced — “encouraged with a stick,” says a politician I met last week — to adopt Indonesian names; “Lim,” for example, became “Halim” or “Salim.” Chinese languages were banned from use in public, Chinese schools shut down, ethnic Chinese were restricted to working only in business and trade, and holidays like the lunar new year could only be celebrated in secret.
Everything began to change for Chinese Indonesians in 1998, however. In the years following the May 1998 riots and the fall of Suharto, the ethnic Chinese regained their freedoms. New governments repealed the anti-Chinese laws, eager to mend fences with the ethnic group that drove much of Indonesia’s economic growth.
In 2000, Metro TV’s Xinwen program was born. Today it’s a 30-minute show, split between domestic and international news. Candy Jorian, a producer, tells me that when she was hired to start the program, her Indonesian bosses couldn’t even tell if her Mandarin was good enough for her to be an anchor (it was). A decade later, the Xinwen team is a well-oiled machine that cranks out a news show in about five hours each day.
But the team remains so short-staffed that they’re occasionally forced to send a non-Chinese-speaking reporter into the field. The journalist asks a question in Indonesian; the interviewee responds in Mandarin. Eventually, one of the few Chinese-speakers at Xinwen reviews the tape.
Sumi Yang, the show’s 26-year-old anchor, says she was thrilled to be able to have a media job; in the old days, the Chinese weren’t allowed to venture beyond business. “We are free now,” she says. And when she meets Chinese Indonesian students today, many come up to her and say they want to be TV anchors, just like her.