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Chinese in East Timor: Former Portuguese colony a model of integration by immigrants from China

South China Morning Post - September 30, 2019

Randy Mulyanto – Fong Kui Kong, the head of the only Chinese temple in East Timor's capital, Dili, welcomes visitors who come seeking blessings for their children's health or the new business they want to start up. Known as Cina Maromak, the temple is a beacon both for East Timorese of Chinese descent and citizens with no ties to China.

Fong uses "fortune sticks", similar to those used in Hong Kong's Taoist temples, to forecast the future. The ritual of using numbered sticks, known as qiu qian in Chinese, to ask the gods for guidance is a Chinese tradition. He walks to the temple's main altar carrying a cylinder of numbered fortune sticks and prays to the gods.

Set before a table of offerings, including dishes of fruit and biscuits, the altar bristles with burning candles. While shaking the cylinder, he asks fortune seekers to burn incense sticks, pray, and add oil to the lamps to keep the candles burning.

When a stick pops out of the cylinder, Fong matches it to a numbered note, then translates the Indonesian and Chinese messages from the gods into Tetum, one of East Timor's two national languages.

The red-and-white-painted temple, with a green tiled pagoda-style roof, is close to the National University of East Timor in downtown Dili. Built in 1928, it has been under Fong's care since the 1980s.

East Timor, a tiny, predominantly Catholic nation with a population of about 1.2 million in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago, has attracted Chinese immigrants for centuries.

Mica Barreto Soares, a researcher on China-East Timor relations and contributor to the 2019 Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Timor-Leste, estimates that about 4,000 Chinese migrants live in the country today, running 300 to 400 businesses. They sell cheap goods and construction materials, and operate restaurants, hotels, brothels, internet cafes and petrol stations, among other activities.

One of the temple's Timorese visitors is David Baros de Jesus, who is at Cina Maromak with his wife. Whenever they have problems, he says, the couple come to the temple to pray in the hope of easing their burden.

"Before I was even born, my parents visited this temple," he says. "Our view on Chinese-Timorese people is that we are one."

The way de Jesus and many of his fellow Timorese citizens visit the Chinese temple for their fortunes to be read is indicative of how well the ethnic Chinese and their culture have been accepted by the society.

Also known as Timor-Leste, East Timor became an independent nation in 2002 after more than two decades of struggle. Portugal occupied the territory from the 16th century until 1975, so East Timorese did not consider themselves part of neighbouring Indonesia, which until independence in 1945 had been the Dutch East Indies.

When the Portuguese withdrew, East Timorese leaders declared independence; nine days later the Indonesian military invaded and occupied the territory. In 1999, a referendum on independence was held in East Timor, in which 78.5 per cent of eligible citizens voted to break away from Indonesia. After this the United Nations provided an interim administration for three years until full independence was achieved.

Agni Malagina, an independent researcher and writer on Chinese-Indonesian affairs who has also studied the Chinese-Timorese community, says Chinese migration to the island began in the 16th century.

Chinese traders came from the southern city of Canton (now Guangzhou) and nearby Macau (at the time also a Portuguese colony) to buy white sandalwood, which they sold to buyers in India and China to be made into furniture, Buddhist statues and fragrances.

A number of these traders settled in Portuguese-ruled East Timor between the 16th and 18th centuries, while others chose to live in the adjacent, Dutch-ruled West Timor, on the other half of the island.

Ricardus "Alip" Marselinus Tan, 53, still celebrates Lunar New Year and the Ching Ming ancestor worshipping festival. Originally from the Kefamenanu regency in West Timor, he lives in East Timor's capital and speaks Hakka, a Chinese dialect, with his Dili-born wife. His father's parents came from Guangdong province (formerly Canton province). His father was born in Kefamenanu and his mother in the East Timorese enclave of Oecusse.

Tan's father died when he was seven or eight, so he moved to Dili at the age of 12 to work at his uncle's shop.

A friend of his has bought land in a mountainous part of Kefamenanu to be used as a final resting place for ethnic Chinese in the area. Those who cannot afford a funeral will be included, he says, an indication of how close-knit the Chinese community is in Timor.

"If we want to help our fellow Chinese descendants, we don't give money," he says. "We buy a house for him or her after their death."

Tan, who still holds an Indonesian passport and runs a shop in Dili selling snacks and drinks, says he could live in a Chinese, Indonesian or Timorese community, depending on the circumstances. "I fit in," he adds.

The welcome extended to the Chinese in East Timor once extended to mixed marriages between immigrants and locals, which were sometimes arranged for strategic reasons. "Traders, for example those from Macau, married Timorese kings' daughters as a way of easing trade and getting a regular supply of white sandalwood," Malagina says.

Immigrants usually married Timorese women under the matrilineal system, she adds. Their children took the mother's Timorese surname, although some of these mixed-race descendants were given Chinese surnames so they could identify with their roots.

According to one research paper, between 95 and 97 per cent of Chinese-Timorese are of Hakka descent, while the remainder are Cantonese.

According to Malagina, ethnic Chinese on both sides of the island have assimilated in a different way from those living in other parts of Indonesia.

"Chinese-Timorese who have lived in Timor for many generations certainly rarely celebrate Chinese traditions," she says. "At most, only Lunar New Year. Even then it's perfunctory and has adapted well, with a mixture of local and Catholic traditions, food, fashion and cosmology concepts."

One thing all Chinese in the archipelago have in common is the persecution they faced in the latter part of the 20th century.

Researcher Soares says more than 10,000 ethnic Chinese were killed during the first few days of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor in 1975. (Other estimates of the death toll are lower.) Indonesian forces targeted ethnic Chinese residents because it saw them as open to the influence of China's communists and potentially subversive.

"China was suspected as one of the countries that supported Timor-Leste's independence bid in 1975," Soares says. Indonesia may have used this suspicion as a pretext to invade the territory that year, she adds.

Fong, the temple guardian, is seventh-generation Chinese-Timorese. He says his ancestors were exiled to East Timor from Macau and imprisoned by Portuguese authorities. The temple he presides over houses the ancestral tablets of his relatives, who died in East Timor and were buried at a Chinese cemetery in Dili.

After East Timor's 1999 vote for independence, the Indonesian military and pro-Indonesian militia members killed at least 1,400 people and destroyed vital infrastructure in a scorched-earth policy, but Fong says the temple was spared, and when he fled to Indonesia for three months for his safety, nothing was taken.

Originally from Lospalos, in the eastern part of the country, fourth-generation Chinese-Timorese Mimi Vong, 18, has two uncles and an aunt on her father's side now living in Australia. She says the situation in East Timor in 1975 was so unsafe her relatives were permitted to migrate under the country's refugee policy.

Vong's ancestors were originally from Macau. She still communicates with her extended family in the Hakka language.

Now studying Chinese in Lanzhou, northwest China, Vong says she gets along with the non-Chinese Timorese, although she has heard discriminatory remarks, such as "Go back to your country" and "You're Chinese, don't play with us".

Vong's family adheres to Chinese traditions – such as ancestor worship and praying to the gods – but she says Chinese-Timorese people her age are more wrapped up in secular matters.

She regards herself as "Timorese first", because she was born in the country, and is displeased when Indonesians "bully" and "insult" East Timor on social media. She does not like to hear that the country's economy remains dependent on Indonesia, or East Timor being ridiculed for choosing independence.

"As neighbours we must respect one another and work together so bilateral relations go well," Vong says.

Source: https://www.scmp.com/print/lifestyle/family-relationships/article/3030631/chinese-east-timor-former-portuguese-colony-model