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For Chinese Indonesians, Path Is to Perth

Wealthy Asians who fear persecution in unstable homeland find refuge in city that was plagued by attacks on immigrants a decade ago.


PERTH, Australia — After anti-Chinese riots swept across Indonesia last spring, many middle-class Chinese Indonesians quietly moved to this isolated Western Australian provincial capital.

Much as Vancouver, Canada, became a safety net for affluent Hong Kong Chinese before the mainland took over their territory last year, Perth--remembered by many Americans as the venue for the 1987 America's Cup yacht race--has become a front-line refuge and second home for an estimated 8,000 mostly wealthy Chinese Indonesians who fear persecution in their unstable homeland.

Part of the reason for the migration is geographic. This Indian Ocean port is closer to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta--only three hours by air--than it is to Australia's capital, Canberra. But Perth also offers Indonesian families the protection of a Western legal system while permitting them to remain in the Asia-Pacific region where they do business.

The Indonesian Chinese follow waves of earlier ethnic Chinese immigrants from Malaysia and Vietnam. In just two decades, the ethnic Chinese population of Perth has grown from a few hundred to more than 100,000 out of a population of 1.2 million.

There is a potential for more migration from Indonesia, particularly if its economy and political system remain unstable.

Jamie Mackie, a Indonesia specialist at Australian National University in Canberra, estimates that as many as 200,000 Chinese Indonesians are actively seeking to establish residency outside Indonesia.

Indonesia has an estimated ethnic Chinese population of about 6 million.

But there is an irony to Perth being a refuge for Asian immigrants. A decade ago, the city was besieged by a neo-Nazi organization, the Australian Nationalists Movement, which mounted one of the most aggressive and violent anti-Asian immigrant campaigns in modern Australian history.

Headed by Australian Jack van Tongeren, the neo-Nazi organization plastered walls and lampposts in the city with posters proclaiming, "Asians Out or Racial War."

On Hitler's birthday in 1988, the Van Tongeren gang staged its own version of Kristallnacht, the night five decades earlier when Hitler's supporters attacked the homes and businesses of Germany's Jews. Only this time the targets were Chinese businesses. Several restaurants were firebombed by Van Tongeren and his followers.

Dr. Eric Tan, a prominent surgeon who comes from one of the oldest Chinese families in Perth, recalls being spit at in supermarkets.

"They were bombing restaurants, harassing and abusing people and, in general, inciting hatred," Tan recalled. "This was a time when the Chinese fabric of life was really being strained and tested here."

After Van Tongeren and his lieutenants were arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison nearly 10 years ago, the Western Australian Chinese Chamber of Commerce, of which Tan is a leading member, mounted an aggressive community relations campaign. The effort defused racial tensions by emphasizing the economic benefits of welcoming affluent ethnic Chinese immigrants.

Wilson Wu, manager of a Perth Citibank office where many Indonesians do business, estimates conservatively that the incoming Indonesian population has invested between $50 million and $100 million during the past 10 years.

"Most of these people," said Rob Hogarth, president of the Australia Indonesia Business Council, "are just interested in a safety route, an escape route for their families, but will continue to do their business in Indonesia."

However, others, such as a 31-year-old Indonesian plastics manufacturer interviewed in Perth, were so traumatized and disillusioned by last spring's anti-Chinese riots that they plan to cut ties with their former homeland and find a base abroad.

"My parents want to go to Hong Kong. I have my family here in Perth," said the plastics maker, who asked not to be identified.

"I will continue to watch things here and travel to our factory. But, longer term, we are talking about making our Indonesia operations smaller and moving out. Right now we are trying to set up an import-export business here."

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