Back in 2016, after a distant relative reached out, Albert Julistyo, then a Chinese-Indonesian student in Indonesia, learned for the first time that he had relatives living in Hainan, the southernmost province of the People’s Republic of China. A year later, after finishing university, Julistyo traveled to the province to study Mandarin. 

The 24-year-old remembered meeting his uncle, an academic who spoke no Indonesian, as well as his cousins and other relatives. The family had split at some point in the 1950s, with some members traveling to the Indonesian city of Makassar to escape conflict and poverty. The Indonesian side of the family regularly sent rice back to China throughout the 1960s, and Julistyo said his uncle carried “a sense of guilt” over relying on this charity as a child. In the mid-2010s, the man had decided to trace the descendants of his extended family, believing that, with China’s economy booming, he could return the favor. 

Julistyo, now an entrepreneur in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, still stays in touch with his family in Hainan through the Chinese messaging service WeChat, but he said his experience would be “very difficult” to replicate, as it would be “rare” for Chinese-Indonesians to connect with extended relatives in China — if they can even find any. 

Many ethnically Chinese people in Southeast Asia still maintain links, either direct or cultural, to their ancestral homes in Southern China. However, comparatively few Chinese-Indonesians do so, the result of being consciously severed from their history by decades of official discrimination, most notably during the New Order regime of President Suharto, which lasted from 1967 to 1998.

Under Suharto, Chinese-Indonesian organizations and public expressions of Chinese culture were banned. Ethnic Chinese-Indonesians, many of whose families had lived in the country for hundreds of years, were effectively forced to adopt Indonesian-sounding names. In 1998, hundreds of ethnic Chinese-Indonesians were killed in mob violence across the country. Although this official discrimination has ended, it left many people detached from their roots, not even knowing their Chinese names, which had been passed down for generations.

Now, Huihan Lie, a 42-year-old, Dutch-born, Beijing-based entrepreneur of Chinese-Indonesian heritage, is trying to deploy technology to reconnect Chinese diaspora communities all over the world to their pasts. His company, My China Roots, is digitizing tombstones, ancestral tablets, and other artifacts that can help people of Chinese descent trace their ancestors.

“Technology … can bring together millions of pieces of information that is still fragmented,” Lie said. 

The foundation of MCR’s approach is Chinese genealogy books (族譜), known as zúpǔ, which contain family trees dating back thousands of years. These enormous tomes are held in libraries across China and stored by clan associations — international groups of ethnic Chinese who share the same surname, which are common and influential across Southeast Asia.

Many of these books have already been digitally scanned by professional collectors, but in instances when they haven’t, Lie’s company takes high-resolution images of them and uses optical character recognition technology to extract Chinese characters. MCR employees also photograph gravestones and ask members of clan associations around the world to do the same.

Users can enter an ancestor’s name into MCR’s online database and find a list of books with that name in it. For an annual subscription fee of $150, they can build an online family tree, which alerts them if another user identifies a common ancestor. The company has acquired more than 15,000 zúpǔs in digital format, each containing 10,000 or more names. Around a third of the books are linked to the coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, where most ethnic Chinese people in Indonesia trace their ancestry. Lie expects to have a database of 100 million or more names digitized within a year.

Lie, whose parents migrated to the Netherlands from Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, in 1949, knows that simply making these records available may not be enough to prompt Indonesians to go in search of their history. Chinese-Indonesians “take longer to get personal, to talk more openly and freely,” he said.

“It’s nothing conscious, it’s just that you feel that there’s more of reluctance again to talk about anything emotional, psychological,” Lie said. “It’s definitely linked to being conditioned to not be outwardly Chinese, being conditioned to just keep a low profile.”

That conditioning persists, even years after the discriminatory policies were ended. Indonesia now permits Mandarin language education, and the Lunar New Year is an official public holiday. 

The Suharto government was backed by the West during the Cold War and was publicly paranoid about the perceived threat of communism in Southeast Asia. Its policies sought to portray ethnic Chinese-Indonesians as disloyal and “guilty by association with the Chinese Communist Party,” according to Taomo Zhou, assistant professor of history at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and author of the 2019 book Migration in the Time of Revolution: China, Indonesia, and the Cold War.

At the end of what Charlotte Setijadi, assistant professor of humanities at Singapore Management University, calls “one of the worst cases of discrimination” against Chinese people in Southeast Asia, the community was deeply scarred. “The Indonesian government spent over 30 years making sure that the Chinese don’t identify themselves as Chinese,” she said.

“It’s definitely linked to being conditioned to not be outwardly Chinese, being conditioned to just keep a low profile.”

One of the impacts of this is that Indonesia’s demographic statistics no longer reflect the real makeup of the population. The country’s latest census, in 2010, reported that there were some 2.8 million ethnic Chinese citizens — about 1.2% of its then-population of around 237 million. Setijadi said that the accepted figure among scholars is roughly twice that. “The census figures don’t accurately reflect the actual number of those who can be regarded as ethnically Chinese,” she said. “It’s based on self-identification, right?”

There are, however, signs that this is turning around. Candra Jap, vice secretary-general of the prominent Chinese-Indonesian organization Perhimpunan Indonesia Tionghoa (Perhimpunan INTI), said that a growing percentage of the community is expressing pride in their roots, learning Mandarin and publicly using their Chinese names. “The euphoria of the rise of China economically does make them feel more willing to find their roots again,” he said.

Setijadi of SMU said she “would not be surprised” if more and more younger Chinese-Indonesians become interested in their family histories. “One day, you were told that you can now open that box,” she tells Rest of World. “For many Chinese families, knowledge about their families has been kind of erased or at least forgotten for one or two generations. … Once that door is open again, there has to be a little bit of curiosity, at least among some people, right?” 

Lie said that he believes technology will also help older Chinese-Indonesians by reconnecting them with suppressed memories. “If you show them pictures or you show pieces of interesting information to an older person … it frees them up; it triggers their minds to start reminiscing,” Lie said. 

“It was gone; it was taken away from you for so many decades,” he said. “That’s why I feel strongly about My China Roots. Now I feel we can give the tools back to ourselves. We can take more ownership of our roots because technology allows us to get informed by traces that we previously did not have access to.”