Chinese Whispers: The Art of Reflection

By Rani Pramesti

I was twelve years old when the May Riots of 1998 ravaged Jakarta, my city of birth. I recall climbing to the top of my home’s water tower and watching as large plumes of smoke climbed their way to the sky from different points in the city.

The stories that floated to my ears were those of brutal sexual violence enacted upon women and girls who looked like me. That was when I realised, for the first time in my life that to many I was not Indonesian, rather, I was considered Chinese.

What is Chinese Whispers?

My name is Rani Pramesti. I am an actor and a performance maker based in Melbourne.

I was fortunate enough to receive the VCA and MCM and Arts Victoria Graduate Mentorship Scholarship to fund my current creative project, Chinese Whispers, an installation-based performance.

For Chinese Whispers, my creative team and I are building a maze that audiences enter into, in pairs, whilst wearing headphones.

Through these headphones, they will come to hear the interviews that I have conducted with predominantly Chinese-Indonesian women from all walks of life, as I try to answer the question, “How does racial violence happen?”

Inside each room of the maze, there will be objects for you to play with, to touch, to explore, as you navigate your way down these dreamlike corridors…
Newspaper clippings of the May Riots of 1998 folded into elegant origami pieces, a forest of green foliage to comfort you as you listen to at times devastating detail about the violence and a warm cup of tea to share with Fanny, our resident actor, who will greet you when you emerge from the maze.

The Mentorship

Since 2013, I have been working very closely with Chi Vu, a Vietnamese-Australian theatre maker, playwright and director. The scholarship has meant that our relationship has been sustained until Chinese Whispers reaches a presentation stage.

My relationship with Chi has been one of the most valuable ones that I have had in my early career. As my mentor, Chi has offered me guidance in terms of the creative realisation of Chinese Whispers, but additionally, our conversations have also given me greater insight into how to approach my career as an artist in the long-term.

Importantly, our cultural backgrounds, whilst different, also has a shared understanding of how mass violence can affect entire societies and ethnic groups collectively- Chi and her coming to Australia due to the Vietnam War, and myself, for coming to Australia following the May Riots of 1998.


Why the May Riots of 1998?

Chinese Whispers takes a particular focus on the May Riots of 1998, which decimated Chinese-Indonesian quarters, violated Chinese-Indonesian women as well as killed hundreds of generally economically poor people across several major cities in Indonesia: Palembang, Solo, Surabaya and Jakarta, where I was born.

I did not intend to make this work.

In 2013, when the seeds of Chinese Whispers began to grow, I thought that I was on the way to making a fairly conventional theatrical play. I began running theatre workshops with Chinese-Indonesian women with the intent to tell the story of our identity and our migration to Australia.

I wanted to steer clear of any real delving into the May 1998 Riots. This reluctance to look at these violent events came from the fact that all of the perpetrators of violence and the masterminds of the riots, continue to enjoy full impunity to this day, which has meant that there is still a real risk attached to publicly examining the May Riots of 1998.

During some of my interview process, women who spoke at a normal volume when we were discussing their daily lives, their church communities here in Australia, and so on, would suddenly drop their voices when we spoke about the May Riots of 1998. They would not notice that they had done so, until I drew attention to it.

What is behind that sudden Whispering? What is that fear? The fear of being overheard talking about this? The fear of saying something wrong? The fear of wanting to know about what happened?

My hope is that Chinese Whispers will contribute to a long-term journey of opening up these conversations about race, violence and “the dark spots in our history”, as one interviewee, Dewi Anggraeni called it, which are necessary in order for us to continue to grow as a society, in Indonesia, Australia and elsewhere.

Why a Maze?

Earlier this year, I took some time to reflect on the journey that I had started through the making of Chinese Whispers.

It struck me that the search for finding out who I was (was I Chinese or Indonesian? Or neither? Or both?) and finding out what this performance was, was very much like entering into a maze.

I had no idea who or what I would encounter next, what I would come to see, what I would come to hear. In other words, it was blind corner after blind corner and yet I pressed on.

Chinese Whispers asks you to stay with the discomfort of not knowing and thereby, begin the process of “dismantling the frame” of our own ignorance.

See the trailer for Chinese Whispers here

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.