Australia’s Indonesian Independence Movement: A past should not be forgotten

For the final research project, I worked with the Australian National Maritime Museum on the topic of Australia’s Indonesian independence movement – a past that shaped Australia’s national identity, but is not known to the Australian public. For the final project, I conducted an oral history interview and wrote a research paper based on the interview and other academic sources. Although the contents of my project are rather conventional, comparing to my fellow classmates’, the topic I discussed was not even a bit less fascinating.

It was in 1945, only two days after the Japanese Emperor announced its surrender, Indonesian nationalists declared the independence of Indonesia, after colonised by the Dutch for three and a half centuries. But the declaration of the independence was not enough, it took the Indonesians four years and countless casualties to achieve their independence. But they were not alone in their fight for independence. Across the Timor Sea, people in Australia were also fighting for Indonesian’s independence in Australia.

Australia’s support for the Indonesian independence movement was significant, not only for an independent Indonesia, but also for the construction of a modern multicultural and independent Australia. Activists in Australia’s Indonesian independence movement came from different cultural backgrounds – Indonesians, Indians, Chinese and Australians. They united together for a shared cause, a rare scene at a time when the White Australia Policy was still in place. In supporting the Indonesian independence, the Australian government under Prime Minister Ben Chifley went against orders from the “Motherland” Britain. This was an important event in Australia’s history, symbolising the separation from its coloniser, and the beginning of an independent Australia, over forty years after the foundation of the Australian Federation.

In order to discuss this past, I conducted an oral history interview with Anthony, an Indonesian Australian, who not only have extensively researched on this topic for over a decade, but also have a personal connection with it. Anthony’s father-in-law, Fred Wong, was a leader of Sydney’s Chinese Australian community in the 1940s, and organised the Chinese Australians’ support for the Indonesian independence movement.

In the research paper, I combined both personal history of Fred Wong and the broader political history at the time, argued that Australia’s support for the Indonesian independence movement was a significant event in Australia’s history that should be known to the Australian public.

Despite the significance of this past, few people – in the Indonesian, Chinese, or the Australian societies – know about it, even academic discussion around this topic is limited. Therefore, I suggested that given museum’s vital role in educating the public and constructing public memory, there should be a permanent exhibition on this past and the activists behind it in a major Australian museum.

Thank you to the Maritime Museum and my interviewee Anthony for introducing me to this fascinating past that is so important to our identity. Thank you to the History Beyond the Classroom unit for the opportunity to explore the world of history outside the university campus.

Chinese Australians and Indonesian Independence: Stories I Want to Tell

Located in Darling Harbour, Sydney, right next to the sea, the Australian National Maritime Museum – or the Sea Museum, as it’s more colloquially known – tells the history of our nation.

For people who are unfamiliar with the Sea Museum – such as myself at the beginning of this project – they will be surprised to find out about the complexity of knowledge that is on offer at the Sea Museum. As counterintuitive as it may sound, the Sea Museum is much, much more about ships and boats. Ranging from maritime archaeology, historic vessels, to ocean science, Indigenous culture, and migration, the Sea Museum has it all.

Among these vastly diverse topics, my project, in collaboration with the Sea Museum, particularly focuses on migration. How does migration and the Sea Museum link together? You may ask. Well, as a nation that’s mostly made up of migrants, it is important for us to know how did the early migrants come to Australia, and the stories happened along the way and afterwards. And the sea of course plays an important role here. Therefore, as one of the only six museums operated by the federal government, the Sea Museum bears the responsibility of educating the public the stories about the nation and the people who made up our nation.

Anthony at the Black Armada exhibition in 2015. Photo: Sydney Morning Herald

The stories I want to tell in my project are of Anthony Liem, and Fred Wong and Arthur Chang. Anthony is a Chinese Indonesian. Although he was barely three years old at the time, he remembers Indonesian people’s fight for independence vividly. Because of the anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia, he migrated to Australia and later married Helen Wong, an Australian-Chinese woman. But it wasn’t until somewhat three decades after they married, in 2005, did he discover the shared history between Helen and him.

Both Helen’s father, Fred Wong, and his friend Arthur Chang, were active members of the Chinese Youth League and the Sydney branch of the Chinese Seaman’s Union (disbanded in the late 1940s). Both organisations were made up of patriotic Chinese Australians who supported China’s fight against Japan’s colonial power, and were sympathised with, and actively supported the Indonesian independence movement.

Arthur addressing the crowds. A clip from “Indonesian Calling”. National Film and Sound Archive

Arthur, as a representation of Chinese seamen, spoke to a packed audience and appealed for the public’s support, which was captured in the documentary Indonesian Calling. Quoting the “national father” Dr Sun Yat-sen that China would support all oppressed nations to gain independence, Arthur chanted, “Long live the independence movement,” and in Cantonese, “Long live the national liberation movement (民族自由解放运动万岁)”.

Despite being awarded the Centenary Medal of Australia for services to the Chinese community by the Australian government, and presented with the “70th Anniversary of The Victory of The Anti-Japanese War Commemoration Medal” by the Chinese government, Arthur’s story – and Fred’s – was totally unknown to me and many others.

Arthur was presented the Commemoration Medal by China’s Consul General to Sydney in 2015, aged 96 at the time. Photo: Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China in Sydney

So, for my project, I will speak to Anthony to get to know these stories better. We will talk about his memory of the Indonesian independence movement, living in a “White Australia”, and his thoughts on Fred’s and Arthur’s activism. A research paper will be developed based on the interview and my research, the end product might be published on the Sea Museum’s quarterly magazine Signals.

When I was doing research for the project, and typed in the words “Chinese Australian” and “Indonesian independence”, I was surprised to see how few relevant results I got. Among the limited information I got, the ones that matched my interest – most of them, if not all – come from the Sea Museum. Let’s say, even if I had uncertainties about this project at the beginning – not saying that I had any – this discovery only made me more firmly believe in it. As historians, it is our responsibility to tell the stories of our predecessors.

Old soldiers may die, but they should not fade away.