Chinese Faces in Indonesian Football: Celebrated Past, Humble Present

The shorter, edited version of this article is featured at In Bed With Maradona, February 8, 2012.

Ramang vs Soviet

There are many meanings one can attribute to the word ‘achievement’. But in football there are only two. For behemoths, it’s trophy. For underdogs, it’s either that or making a top team suffer. Currently sitting 143rd in the Fifa ranking, Indonesia clearly belongs to the latter category. So as Brazilians recall of their glorious past by counting silverwares in their trophy cabinet, Indonesians can associate their greatest time in football with the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

One of the two games they played in the competition turned out to be the best page in the over a century-old book of Indonesian football. It was against the mighty Uni Soviet. Powered by the great Lev Yashin, team captain Igor Netto, and genius attacker Eduard Streltsov, this was Soviet’s golden string playing under Gavril Kachalin as coach. Indonesia played fearlessly throughout the match and managed to survive the opponents’ bombardment. They even nearly scored one themselves through Rusli Ramang, the country’s legendary forward. Yet, neither side conceded a goal.

Indonesian football story actually began long before that match. It began since the country was still referred to as the Dutch East Indies, involving a kind of players that have become rare today: the Chinese.

In the 19th century, with the technological advancement made possible by the industrial revolution and the implementation of liberal economy in the Dutch East Indies, more Dutch people came to the prolific soil to stay and do business. Most of them resided in the big cities, especially in the islands of Java and Sumatra, and built some kind of Western settlements. Nearing the end of the century, football was already flourishing in Europe and these resource-seeking Europeans brought it along with them to their new places.

The Dutch workers and soldiers played football for pastimes. The Indonesians and the Chinese, who had been around in the region since time immemorial, soon followed, though not without hindrance. There was a social stratification back then. The Dutch government regulated the Europeans to be regarded as first-class citizens, the Far Easterners (the Chinese included) second-class, and the Indonesian folks the bottom of the hierarchy. Thus at first, only the Chinese and upper-class Indonesians were allowed to play the game. Football spread among regular people soon after but, nevertheless, this stratification would still affect the initial development of this novel sport.

According to a football book by RN Bayu Aji, the first football club in the Dutch East Indies was Rood Wit, established in 1894 in Batavia (now Jakarta). Two years later, schoolboy John Edgar founded another in Surabaya, called Victory. In Sumatra, as noted in a research paper by Freek Columbijn, there was Padangsche Voetbal Club established in 1901 also by and for Dutchmen. But since the implementation of the Dutch ethical policy in 1900, which gave people wider opportunities to assemble and more accesses to many things, football clubs began to grow in number for both Chinese and Indonesians. Entering the second decade of the century, there had been many Chinese football clubs in big cities—there were Union Makes Strength (UMS) in Batavia, Young Men’s Combination (YMC) in Bandung, and Tionghoa in Surabaya just to name a few.

Shortly, football games began to apply attendance charge. For the Dutch, it was to finance the clubs. As for the Chinese and Indonesian teams, it was often for charity. They used football games to provide funding to develop education, aid their fellow citizens, or, for the Chinese, to help people back home in China. But no matter what, one thing is obvious: football had the potential to build togetherness and to raise a lot of money. Later on during the struggle for independence, football became a medium for the Chinese and Indonesians to fight for patriotic pride, showing that they were equal to the Dutch colonials, and for political campaign.

The first inter-city competition in the Dutch East Indies was held in 1914 in Semarang by the Dutch, engaging teams from four big cities, i.e. Batavia, Bandung, Semarang, and Surabaya. Then in 1919, the Dutch formed a football association called NIVB (Nederlandsch Indische Voetbal Bond). Benefiting from their higher position in the stratification, the Chinese were ahead of the Indonesians to emulate this example. They started an inter-city competition themselves in 1917 and inaugurated their own football association CKTH (Comite Kampioenswedstrijden Tiong Hoa) ten years afterwards. In 1930, CKTH was changed into HNVB (Hwa Nan Voetbal Bond) due to dissatisfaction from some of the members, particularly Batavia’s UMS, over the organization. Meanwhile in the same year, Indonesians set up a football association. It was called PSSI (Persatuan Sepakraga Seluruh Indonesia).

Therefore, there were no less than three football associations in the Dutch East Indies: NIVB representing the Dutch, HNVB the Chinese, and PSSI the Indonesians. Then, especially for the Chinese, football developed quickly both on and off the field. They regularly arranged a friendly match with another club, sometimes with one from abroad. Tionghoa Surabaya, for instance, once had a game versus Lo Hua from China, whom surprisingly they defeated.

At least in football, the Chinese and Indonesians began to stand equal to the Dutch. The three football associations cooperated with one another in arranging matches and competitions. But even so, the relationship was not without friction. One tension that was probably most interesting happened in May 13 1932. A book on football history in Java by Srie Agustina Palupi tells that having been sick of the Dutch’ unfairness for years, Chinese journalist Liem Koen Hian encouraged people to boycott a match held by the NIVB on that day and instead attend another match pitting Indonesia Marine versus a Chinese-Arab team. His effort succeeded. Not only were the NIVB embarrassed, they also suffered a big financial loss. The people allegedly enjoyed this much because it was one of the rare moments of screwing the authority.

Despite many obstacles such as racial segregation and the lack of football pitch even for training, the Chinese gradually made their name as the finest footballers in the Dutch East Indies. Tionghoa Surabaya might be the perfect model of a Chinese-Indonesian powerhouse. Since they were second-class citizens, they were allowed to join the Dutch competition held by the Surabaya Voetbal Bond (SVB) under the NIVB. And in 1939, they gloriously won a treble after coming first in the HNVB Cup, SVB Cup, and Java Club Kampion.

Time fleeted very fast since then. And stopped for a while in 1956.

One can find many ways to explain what happened in the game against Uni Soviet. Fortune obviously played a big part. Indonesia’s remarkable guts—the patriotic spirit that elevates a young nation according to Croatian legend Slaven Bilic—might be another factor. And there was also the involvement of Chinese-Indonesian players. In the line-up remembered for their “courage, tenacity and refusal to admit inferiority,” as journalist Bill Fleming of the Age wrote back then, there were not only indigenous Indonesians. Chinese-Indonesian Kiat Sek Kwee, Liong How Tan, Sian Liong Phwa, Tjiang Thio Him and Endang Witarsa aka Liem Soen Joe also played a big part.

Chinese-Indonesians had churned out good footballers again and again. We could tell about it by looking at the Tionghoa Surabaya team dominated the 1930s as well as the 1956 Olympic squad. So too when the Dutch East Indies was invited to participate in the first World Cup in 1938 in Paris, in which the national team included Tan Hong Djien, Tan Mo Heng, and Tan See Han. Moreover, Surya Lesmana aka Liem Soei Liang was a legend and among the first Indonesian players to ply their trade abroad when he signed a contract with a Hong Kong club in 1974. Knowing this, having only few of them today in their potentially giant talent pool probably does not sound good to Indonesia (the country is home to over 238 people, by the way).

There are still footballers of Chinese descent in the Indonesian leagues—really, there are two professional leagues running. You can bring up, for instance, Nova Arianto, Irvin Museng, and most recently Kim Kurniawan, whose grandfather was also a fine footballer who played for UMS. Their number and influence, however, are so modest compared to their predecessors’. Prominent players of Chinese descent have been virtually nonexistent for quite some time now. My friend, a contemporary Indonesian football fan, once said, “I can hardly remember the last time we had a Chinese-Indonesian idol.” True. But even so, Chinese-Indonesians have always been an integral part of Indonesian football history.

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