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This building in Jember housed the shop run by the family of my future wife. (Photo provided by company)
My Personal History

Travel opened my eyes to Indonesia's great diversity: Mochtar Riady's story (10)

Meeting shop owners and seeing how business worked cooled my ardor for communism

| Indonesia

In 1950, I returned from Hong Kong to Malang, my home village on the Indonesian island of Java.

Imam Soekarto, the guerrilla leader I had become acquainted with during Indonesia's war of independence, vouched for my identity, and I received permission to return home. My father was waiting for me alone in Malang.

Indonesia had been recognized by the Dutch as an independent state at the end of 1949, and now it was embarking on efforts to turn itself into a modern nation.

I pondered what I should do. My studies had been cut short by the civil war in China between the Kuomintang-led government and the Communist Party, though I did not take part in the country's communist revolution.

After returning home, I set out on a long journey to see every corner of Indonesia.

I boarded a train in Banyuwangi in East Java Province and started traveling around the country, going anywhere my fancy took me. Wherever I went, I visited bicycle shops.

In those days, ethnic Chinese in Indonesia sold different kinds of products depending on where in China they had come from. People from my father's home village of Xinghua in Fujian Province (present-day Putian) earned a living selling bicycles and bicycle parts.

In bicycle shops across the nation, whenever I spoke the Xinghua dialect, the owners would extend their warmest hospitality to me. They put great value on connections with people from the same place as themselves.

At that time, there were few hotels in the country, and many of the bicycle shop owners I met allowed me to stay at their shops for free. In half a year, I had traveled to almost every corner of Java.

During my travels, as I saw firsthand how business operated in the real world, I gradually lost my ardent faith in communism.

I became increasingly sympathetic to the economic theory that Adam Smith described in "The Wealth of Nations," which I had read simultaneously with Marx's "Das Kapital."

I felt Smith's argument that the prices of goods are determined by the balance between supply and demand in the market was quite convincing.

My travels made one thing very clear to me: Indonesia is a country of great diversity.

Countless ethnic groups inhabit the country's many islands, each with its own language. This is the reason Indonesians are comfortable embracing people from all over the world.

Another thing these travels taught me was that when it came to the distribution of goods, all roads led to Jakarta. Products made across Indonesia were brought to the capital, where they were sold to customers.

There was also a wealth of imported goods available in the city. I became convinced that I had to go to Jakarta if I was to run a big business.

I was 22 and my father wanted me to get married and start a family as soon as possible.

My father saw a prospective bride for me in a girl named Chen who lived in Malang. He tried to arrange my marriage with her, but I told him I had no intention of marrying her.

My heart was set on Limei (Suryawati Lidya), whose letter to me while I was in Hong Kong had made me think twice about my plans to travel to Yan'an. Her letter saved my life -- a fire broke out on the ship that I was supposed to embark on, killing everyone on board.

But my father strongly opposed me marrying Limei, because both Limei and myself had the same family name. According to an old Chinese custom, it was taboo for two people with the same family name to marry each other. Since I did not want to upset my father, I decided to avoid talking about marriage in front of him for a while.

Limei's mother also opposed the idea of us marrying. She had heard how I ran around trying to support Indonesia's war of independence and was sure that I could not be a "decent person." She assumed that I was vulgar and rough-mannered, so I had my work cut out for me trying to persuade her to allow me to marry her daughter.

I mustered up the courage to go to Jember in East Java, where Limei and her mother lived, to do what I had to do.


Mochtar Riady is the founder of Lippo Group.

Click here to read Mochtar Riady's full "My personal history" series.

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