Chinese Whispers: an artistic response to the context in which I live


CW1 for website I am creating a new performance piece, Chinese Whispers, involving Chinese-Indonesian women of Melbourne and their stories.

After months of attending bible study sessions and Sunday mass, where most Chinese-Indonesians meet and socialize, I finally ran two workshops in September-October 2013 with six Chinese-Indonesian women.

In the workshops, we asked ourselves the question: “If we could make a show about anything, what would we make it about?” The connecting thread between the myriad of answers was that of ‘difference’.

How did I get to this point?

Simply put, by wanting to understand the context in which I live, the context in which I came to be the way that I am and investigating how I can respond to this context within my arts practice.

For the first twelve years of my life I had a very strong identity rooted in the national pride of being ‘Indonesian’. But then the May 1998 riots in Jakarta, my city of birth, happened. Many (if not all) of the victims and the areas that were targeted were ethnic Chinese-Indonesian. The stories that floated to my 12-year-old ears were that of brutal sexual violence enacted upon women and girls who looked like me. That was when I realised that to many, I was considered to be Chinese.

This schism in my identity bred a lot of anger in me. Not to mention that following this, when I migrated to Australia, I was branded by a different stick: that of the unsatisfactorily bland and vague label of ‘Asian’.

It is a greatly transformative experience when your sense of self meets the self that others construct, and when the gap in between is as deep as that of a canyon.

It was only when I began my first tertiary studies in Social Work/ Arts that I decided to find out about the history of violence against Chinese-Indonesians. I do not profess to be an expert in any way, but I did discover three and a half centuries of the Dutch colonial tactic in using ethnic Chinese populations as a scapegoat for other ethnic groups’ dissatisfaction and unrest.

This is not to say that ethnic Chinese were always the victims within this colonial model of society, indeed they often enjoyed privileges not accorded to other ethnic groups. However, in relation to the May 1998 riots, I realized that the mass violence that I witnessed was but one incident amongst hundreds others in the course of three and a half centuries of Dutch colonial rule, followed by more discrimination enforced under the first two Indonesian governments.

So, I realized that I was part of a pattern. The self-hate and self-loathing I felt towards myself for being Chinese, following the riots, was not something of my own fault. I was never inherently hateful, or deserving of hate. I was a product of more than three and a half centuries of systemic racism.

IMG_7422-300x200In March 2014, after a 6-month hiatus, I picked up the threads of Chinese Whispers once again. Every week, I meet with Chinese-Indonesian women for one to two hour sessions. I like to begin with an introduction to myself and how the May 1998 riots shaped my identity. Then, I would ask these women how they perceive their identity and how this has been shaped by their experiences. I try not to assume that the May 1998 riots were as central to their lives as it was to mine.

Just yesterday, on my way to meeting one of my interviewees, I had a crisis of faith in this project. We live in a world of pervasive mass media, feeding us images and information of human pain at a mass scale, second by second. This inundation of human suffering sparked the following questions for me:

What if the May 1998 riots never mattered? The hundreds burnt alive inside shopping malls, dismissed as ‘looters’; the Chinese-Indonesian families who had to celebrate their children’s birthdays in the dark, in silence, surrounded by the violence brewing outside; the women whose bodies became sport for groups of marauding men; what if what they went through never mattered? The immunity that the perpetrators of this organised violence have continued to enjoy, even sixteen years on, certainly speaks to affirm this.

Wrapped in the autumn cool of Melbourne, these thoughts swirled like leaves in my mind: What if these stories, as one amongst billions of other sufferings, don’t matter? And on a personal level, if I was so shaped by these events, events that don’t matter, what does that make me?

I think that one of our jobs as artists is to make stories that have been deemed insignificant, (sometimes simply by the passing of time and the quiet practice of silence), significant once again. To provide the time and space during which these stories may be told and reflected upon.

My aim as a theatre-maker is to make work that attempts to redefine the context in which we live. At the very least, I aim to make work that questions the context in which we live. But first and foremost, we must have some understanding of that context, in order to be able to respond to it.

What context do you live in? What do you know of how you came to be the way that you are? And what do you feel needs to be done in response to this awareness?

Check out Rani’s online documentation of the Chinese Whispers workshops here.

Chinese Whispers Workshop 1 FINAL, 2013


Chinese Whispers Workshop #2

Rani Pramesti

Author: Rani Pramesti

Rani Pramesti is the Founder of RANI P COLLABORATIONS. Rani is a performance maker, an arts producer and an advocate for the arts. In all three roles, she builds bridges across cultures, generations and disciplines. Since 2015, Rani has been working as an Associate Producer at Footscray Community Arts Centre (FCAC). She is currently the co-producer of FCAC’s Emerging Cultural Leaders program. Rani is also the lead artist of Sedih //Sunno, a performance-installation that premiered at Next Wave Festival (May 2016) and Metro Arts (August 2016) to critical acclaim. Rani is a proud Board Member for the socially engaged youth theatre company, Western Edge Youth Arts.

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