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The Construction of Chinese Christian Identities in the Mandarin-Speaking Churches in Surabaya

  September 6th 2021

Samudra Church – the first Chinese totok Church in Surabaya. The picture on the left side was taken on June 3, 1953.
The photo on the right side was taken on June 7, 2019.


Written By: Linda Bustan

ICRS Alumni, Batch 2015



My study observes the dynamics of Chinese Christians in Surabaya in the post-New Order era to capture the heterogeneity within Chinese communities. The research focuses on Surabaya due to its long history of Chinese Christian communities, especially in regards to the totok Chinese. Nevertheless, Chinese Christians in Indonesia are relatively understudied (Hoon 2016, 228). Consequently, common perceptions of the Chinese do not reflect their complexities. Moreover, anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia still continues (Setijadi 2017, 4; Suryadinata 2005, 69).

In Surabaya, Chinese Christians who migrated from mainland China, Fujian, and Guangdong provinces were part of the third wave of Chinese immigrants who arrived in the first four decades of the 20th century. They were members of various denominations in their homeland, including Baptist, Presbyterian, Reformed, and Methodist. Dialectically, they were Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Fuzhou, and Hinghwa. They founded houses of worship based on their dialects. In 1928, with the support of the Episcopal Methodist Church, which had served them since 1909, they established the first Chinese church in Surabaya, named the Tiong Hoa Kie Tok Kauw Hwee (THKTKH). Nowadays, THKTKH Surabaya has become two independent synods, Gereja Kristus Tuhan (GKT, Church of Christ the Lord) and Gereja Kristen Abdiel (GKA, the Abdiel Christian Church). These churches still hold services in Mandarin or bilingual (Mandarin translated into the Indonesian language). Hence, this article utilizes the term Mandarin-speaking churches to refer to those churches. 

For immigrants, religion plays a significant role in constructing meaning that gives people a sense of self-awareness in finding out who they are (Kim 2011, 321). Therefore, Chinese Christians' ethnic and religious identities in Surabaya cannot be separated from the church. The interaction within the group (among the members that consist of four dialects: Hokkien, Canton, Fuzhou, and Hinghwa), and out-group (government, mission institutions, charismatic religious leaders, and local Muslims as the biggest population in Surabaya) has formed the ethnic and religious identities of Chinese Christians in Surabaya.

The Construction of Ethnic Chinese Identity

Within in-group interactions, three important aspects are kinship, marriage, and language. First, the aspect of kinship. According to Lawler (2014), the identity of non-Western peoples is based on kinship ties. Lawler quoted David Schneider saying that kinship could go through the order by blood (children and parents, siblings, cousins) or the order by law (spouse, in-laws). However, for Chinese Christians in Surabaya, the meaning of kinship was not only by order of blood or law but expanded to the people who had a significant contribution to their life. For this reason, some may have two family names: their father’s family name and a given name that belonged to the host who adopted and helped them in Surabaya. Therefore, for the older generation of Chinese Christians in Mandarin-speaking churches, kinship is considered important, and they tend to give preference to working within the frame of their kinship. It is different from the younger generation that selected business partners in terms of their competency rather than kinship. However, Koning (2011, 36) argued that family ties within the Chinese community were still stronger as compared to those of locals.

Second, on the aspect of marriage, there are differences between the older and younger members of the totok Chinese churches in retaining marriage as their ethnic identity marker. Due to the fact that there were some stereotypes against certain dialect groups, the older generation perceives that couples should come from the same dialect or ethnic background. On the other hand, for the younger generation marrying someone from the same dialect group is no longer an important criterion placing more emphasis on the person whose personality fits with them. Nevertheless, it can affect the chances of getting the parent’s blessing in marriage. 

Third, in regards to language, Hokkien, Cantonese, Fuzhou, and Hinghwa have their own dialects. Before Mandarin became the national language accepted as the lingua franca in China, these groups did not understand each other’s dialects, even though all dialect groups were Chinese. For totok Chinese, other dialects seemed like foreign languages (Nio 1961, 16). They preferred to use the Javanese language, Malay, or Indonesian in their daily communication with other dialect groups. Language and culture are factors in shaping ethnic identity (Jenkins 2008). It can be seen in the older Chinese generation that prefers using Mandarin in church services, in which they perceive the Chinese characters have depth of meaning and feel more comfortable using the language. The Mandarin services and Chinese New Year (Imlek) were still maintained in the Chinese church's background during the New Order regime, which stipulated Chinese culture not be displayed in public. According to the interlocutor, it was possible because Mandarin and Imlek was held only for existing church members, not for the public. Nevertheless, according to Nio (1961), after the second generation, people of Chinese descent would not have the ability to speak Chinese anymore. Most of the younger generations in the Mandarin-speaking churches cannot speak Mandarin any longer. The younger generations prefer to use the English language rather than Mandarin in their fellowships. Some of them take Mandarin courses but not as Chinese identity markers but to connect in a global world. 

Religious Identity Construction

Religious identity is used here to refer to an individual’s self-concept formed by their knowledge of membership in a group and the value and emotions attached to that membership (Montgomery in Rambo and Farhadian 2014, 165). At the beginning of the church’s establishment, they were ministered by the Methodist Church. Nowadays, in their teaching bulletin, the Mandarin-speaking congregations consider themselves Reformed churches, referring to Calvin's doctrines, which focus on the intimate relationship between God and humans and bring divine transformation into the world. These churches emphasize a “back to the Bible” approach, including a focus on spreading the gospel. However, there are different emphases in the teachings between the Mandarin-speaking churches and other Reformed churches in Indonesia, especially the teaching of being “born again” that follows John Sung’s teaching, a prominent charismatic leader of Chinese churches across the world. Nevertheless, they cannot avoid Chinese tradition or Confucian influences. For example, Confucius’ teachings are quoted as sermon illustrations and the practice of filial piety (xiao or hauw in Hokkien dialect) as family values. One of the practices of xiao is Ceng Beng, ancestor veneration conducted at home or the graveyard. However, they practice Ceng Beng in a new way in which they did not use josh sticks and food as a part of the Chinese ritual but praying in Christian tradition.


In the construction of Chinese Christian identities in the Mandarin-speaking churches in Surabaya culture, language, and origin (Kim 2011) and also in-group and out-group interactions are employed (Jenkins 2008). The dynamic interactions have affected continuity and changes of the meaning of being Chinese Christians. In-group and out-group interactions influence how the old and young generations perceive themselves as Chinese Christians. By opening up a space for the possibilities of new meanings in practicing Chinese traditions with Christian values, it shapes their ethnic and religious identities in “the in-between spaces,” creating a characteristic of “neither … not” that is called hybrid identity.