Liem Koen Hian: The Fearless Journalist and Indonesian Nationalist


Liem Koen Hian’s life reads like a tale of defiance and determination. Born in Banjarmasin in 1897 into a merchant family, Koen Hian initially pursued education at the Hollandsch Chineesche School (HCS) and began his career in the business sector. However, his true passion lay in journalism, and he soon found himself in the bustling city of Surabaya, where his journey as a journalist began.

In 1915, Koen Hian started working at the newspaper Tjoen Tjhioe. Despite his initial enthusiasm, his foray into journalism was fraught with challenges. Two years later, he founded the newspaper Soo Lim Po, but its brief existence led to a period of self-doubt. Moving around, Koen Hian tried his luck in Aceh and Padang before returning to Surabaya, where he found his footing as the editor-in-chief of Pewarta Soerabaja, thanks to the trust of publicist The Kian Sing.

Koen Hian’s tenure at Pewarta Soerabaja marked the beginning of his transformation into a staunch Indonesian nationalist. Influenced by the ideas of Dr. Tjipto Mangoenkoesoemo, he began to see Indonesia as a homeland for all its people, transcending ethnic divisions. His shift from Chinese nationalism to Indonesian nationalism was groundbreaking, reflecting a broader, more inclusive vision for the country.

In 1925, Koen Hian became the editor-in-chief of Soeara Publiek, a position that would further solidify his reputation as a fearless critic of colonial rule. Under his leadership, the newspaper gained popularity but also attracted enemies. Soeara Publiek’s unapologetic support for Indonesian nationalism and its critique of the colonial government and pro-China nationalists led to financial struggles and eventual closure due to mounting debts.

Undeterred, Koen Hian continued his mission with the newly established Sin Jit Po. His editorial style was as combative as ever, attacking the Chinese elites who aligned themselves with the Dutch colonial authorities. His criticisms were not without consequence; he faced imprisonment multiple times but remained unbowed.

Koen Hian’s political activism reached new heights with the founding of the Partij Tionghwa Indonesia (PTI) in 1932. As PTI’s leader, Koen Hian advocated for Indonesian independence and opposed the racial school system. His radical stance often put him at odds with established Chinese organizations like the Chung Hwa Hui (CHH), led by H.H. Kan, who viewed PTI’s actions as betrayal.

The rivalry between Koen Hian and Kan was intense. While Kan and his supporters collaborated with the colonial government to undermine the PTI, Koen Hian’s defiance earned him the respect of many nationalists. Despite being under constant surveillance and house arrest, Koen Hian’s spirit remained unbroken. His establishment of a trade union that opposed existing Chinese labor organizations further showcased his relentless pursuit of justice and equality.

Kwee Thiam Tjing, a close associate and fellow journalist, captured Koen Hian’s indomitable spirit in his memoir “Menjadi Tjamboek Berdoeri” (2010). Thiam Tjing recounted numerous instances of Koen Hian’s fearless confrontations with authorities and his unwavering commitment to the nationalist cause. One such anecdote involved a confrontation with a Dutch store owner in Surabaya, where Koen Hian assessed the man’s strength before delivering a decisive punch—a metaphor for his strategic approach to battles both physical and ideological.

Koen Hian’s legacy is a testament to the power of conviction and courage. His life story is a reminder that the fight for justice often comes with great personal risk, but it is this very struggle that paves the way for change. Koen Hian’s unwavering belief in Indonesian nationalism and his fearless journalism left an indelible mark on the country’s journey toward independence.