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‘Chinese Whispers’ contemplates 1998 riots through digital graphic novel

Keshie Hernitaningtyas
Keshie Hernitaningtyas

The Jakarta Post

Makassar, South Sulawesi | Tue, May 8, 2018 | 11:41 am
‘Chinese Whispers’ contemplates 1998 riots through digital graphic novel

The homepage of the 'Chinese Whispers' website. (thechinesewhispers.com/File)

“We cannot heal what we will not face."

This key message of the Chinese Whispers (CW) digital graphic novel, which looks at how the May 1998 riots in several cities in Indonesia were triggered by political engineering that intentionally evoked racial sentiments, brought tears to some audience members during its launch at the Makassar International Writers Festival in Makassar, South Sulawesi, on Saturday.

Accessible on thechinesewhispers.com, the graphic novel follows the journey of actor and performance-maker Rani Pramesti, who feels her identity was split into two following the May 1998 riots: She is an Indonesian who was regarded as a Chinese. Born in 1986, Rani shared in the novel, narrated in her own voice, about her happy childhood in which her parents used to take her to explore different regions in Indonesia and instill a strong love for the country; but everything changed after the riots, which occurred when she was just 12 years old.

“CW was born from my personal experience during the May 1998 riots in Jakarta, where I was born. My mother was an activist at the time and I heard so many stories of how women, from children to adults, who look like me, were raped and persecuted. Several months after the incident, my older sibling was sent to Australia and I followed after in 1999. But I never forget that feeling of being an Indonesian but regarded as a Chinese. It became one of the factors that motivated me to start the creative process of making CW,” she told the audience of mostly students.

Adapted from her own original work in the form of a performance and installation held in Melbourne in 2014, where the audience was invited to enter a labyrinth-like installation made of fabrics while wearing headphones to listen to a 40-minute audio, Rani said it took her team five years to be able to present CW as an Indonesian-language digital graphic novel, which is set to be translated into English as well.

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Rani Pramesti shows a trailer of the 'Chinese Whispers' digital graphic novel to the audience at the Makassar International Writers Festival in Makassar, South Sulawesi, on May 5.Rani Pramesti shows a trailer of the 'Chinese Whispers' digital graphic novel to the audience at the Makassar International Writers Festival in Makassar, South Sulawesi, on May 5. (JP/Keshie Hernitaningtyas)

“I was frustrated with [the installation] as there were only around 300 people that enjoyed our work for over two years. Since 2014, I started to think of ways to spread CW’s key message,” she said, adding that the novel was introduced for the first time in Jakarta just a few days ago. “I don’t want to make an installation [in Indonesia]. This digital graphic novel form allows people to easily access it, and hopefully it can reach 135 million Indonesian people, which is reportedly the number of people who currently have internet access in this country.”

Illustrated by Cindy Saja last year, the graphic novel's launch coincided with a reflection on 20 years of the Reform Era and presents an engaging illustrations, audio, music composition and interview quotes from the perspective of women. “[The novel features the accounts of] human rights activists, journalist and writer, an Indonesian of Chinese descent who welcomed hundreds of refugees in Melbourne, a 19-year-old girl who shared how her family was broken following the riots, as well as my personal story.”

Indonesians, Australians and Americans are said to be among those making donations for the project through crowdfunding. Around Rp 200 million (US$14,261) has been raised.

As the issue is still considered sensitive for some people, the project was launched in collaboration with the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) and the Education and Culture Ministry.

“CW was born from three loves: the love for Indonesia, the love for storytelling and the love for the young generation of Indonesia. As a storyteller, we seek to spread the message so that people won’t forget [about what happened] and the young generation will know about the history.”

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