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by  Carl Walrond

In Indonesian batik designs, chrysanthemums and grapes signify the Dutch influence, bright filigree birds are of Chinese origin, and geometric patterns are Islamic. New Zealand’s Indonesians also represent such a blending of cultures: Dutch colonials, Javanese, Sundanese (from West Java), Sumatrans, and Chinese.


Considering the size of Indonesia’s population, relatively few of its people have chosen to settle in New Zealand. Among arrivals, there are three distinct groups: Dutch colonials, Indonesians (Javanese, Sundanese – Muslim people from West Java – and Sumatran) and Chinese Indonesians.

Early arrivals

For centuries Indonesia was a Dutch colony, known as the Dutch East Indies. The 1921 census records 13 New Zealand residents born in the Dutch East Indies.

In the late 1940s the first of several waves of Dutch settlers arrived in New Zealand. The East Indies gained independence from the Netherlands in 1949, and became the Republic of Indonesia. During this period, most Dutch immigrants came from Indonesia, rather than the Netherlands.

By 1951 the Indonesian-born population in New Zealand numbered 303. Most of these immigrants, such as the artist Theo Schoon, were Dutch colonials.

Later immigrants

By 1961 numbers of those born in Indonesia had grown to 1,317 and included non-Europeans. Some immigrants were students who had come to New Zealand under the Colombo Plan, or people who worked for the Indonesian Embassy in Wellington.

Chinese have lived in Indonesia for hundreds of years. Their success as businesspeople made them targets of resentment in difficult times. Chinese Indonesians first came to New Zealand between 1967 and 1971 as the result of anti-Chinese feeling in Indonesia.

Secret marriage

Rieke Graham came to Wellington from Indonesia in the 1960s as a student. Before returning to Indonesia alone, she secretly married a New Zealander. When her husband visited her in Indonesia, Rieke acted as translator between him and her parents. They married again in her country before returning to Wellington to raise a family. After nearly four decades in the antipodes Rieke still clung to her origins: ‘I always feel Indonesian, very much Indonesian’. 1

The 1990s

New Zealand’s Indonesian-born population grew only slightly during the 1970s and 1980s. It was not until the 1990s that there was a sizeable influx, mostly of Javanese, Sundanese and Sumatran migrants. A severe economic crisis in Indonesia in 1998, followed by civil unrest, contributed.

In 1998 some 1,500 Chinese Indonesians came to New Zealand, fleeing Indonesian riots. Around 800 overstayed their visas. Of these, two-thirds were granted residency, and the remaining third were sent home. Other Chinese Indonesian migrants included businesspeople who arrived during the 1990s in search of a more relaxed lifestyle. Many chose to live in the Auckland suburbs of Glenfield, Mt Roskill and Mt Eden.

The 2000s

Family reunification was an important reason for migrating, as was education. In 2013, 27.2% of residents with Indonesian ethnicity over the age of 15 were studying. Many young Indonesians came to New Zealand for short periods to study: in 2012 there were around 560 fee-paying students at educational institutions and another 50 on postgraduate scholarships to study renewable energy, agriculture, education and private-sector development.

Population growth

Numbers of people in New Zealand born in Indonesia are typically higher than numbers of those claiming Indonesian ethnicity. In 2013, 4,914 people were born in Indonesia, but 4,137 identified their ethnicity as Indonesian. During the 1990s the population of ethnic Indonesians in New Zealand more than doubled – from 861 in 1991 to 2,073 in 2001. By 2013 the figure had doubled again. Most lived in the Auckland (60%), Wellington (15%) and Canterbury (8%) regions.

    • Chloe Groser, ‘Homecoming for Indonesians’. Dominion Post, 6 November 2002. › Back



In 2013, 28.5% of people in New Zealand with Indonesian ethnicity were Muslim, 23.2% were Catholic and 11.9% belonged to Presbyterian, Congregational or Reformed churches. Another 11.9% had no religion. By contrast, in Indonesia most of the population is Muslim.


In 2013 most migrants from Indonesia could speak English. The majority were bilingual and spoke their own language at home. Of the hundreds of Indonesian languages, Bahasa Indonesia was the most commonly spoken in New Zealand. 

First to see the sun

In 1992 Victoria University’s original gamelan group was given the Javanese name Padhang Moncar, which signifies that it is the first in the world to see the new day’s sunrise.

Community organisations and events

The New Zealand Indonesia Association was established in Auckland and Wellington in the early 1960s to promote friendship between New Zealand and Indonesian people, and by the 2000s the Indonesia New Zealand Society, with similar aims, had been set up in Auckland. There are also Indonesian community groups in all the large cities, and universities have Indonesian students’ associations.

These organisations run events featuring wayang kulit (shadow puppetry), pantum (folk poetry), warong (food stalls), displays of batik (dyed cloth) and traditional dance and music performances. They also raise funds for Indonesian charities and disaster relief. Since 2010 there has been an annual Indonesian Festival in Auckland, and Indonesian film festivals are held periodically.

Whatever their religion or ethnicity, Indonesians gather to celebrate Indonesian Independence Day (17 August). The day signifies the end of Dutch rule in Indonesia.

Influence on New Zealand culture

There has been an Indonesian diplomatic representative in New Zealand since 1958, and the Wellington embassy and Auckland consulate promote economic ties between Indonesia and New Zealand.

Music also forges links between the two countries. A gamelan (percussion music) orchestra was established in the music department at Victoria University of Wellington in the early 1970s, when the Indonesian Embassy lent the university the pelog (major key) half of a large Central Javanese gamelan. Other gamelan orchestras have been set up at Victoria and Otago universities. Gamelan music has strongly influenced the work of New Zealand composers, notably Jack Body and Gareth Farr.

Bahasa Indonesia was taught at Rangitoto College, Auckland, from 1964, and by the mid-1990s was a subject at six Auckland secondary schools. There were university-level courses from the 1970s until 2000. By 2012, however, no New Zealand secondary students were learning Indonesian, and there were calls to boost teaching of the language in schools.

The Toko Baru Indonesian restaurant opened in Wellington in 1983, the first of a number of Indonesian restaurants in the main cities. Gado gado (salad with peanut sauce), nasi goreng (fried rice) and sate (skewered meat) have all proved popular dishes among New Zealanders.

Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Indonesia or its predecessor, the Dutch East Indies.

Dutch East Indies

  • 1921 census: 13


  • 1951 census: 303
  • 1976 census: 1,685
  • 2001 census: 3,792
  • 2006 census: 4,614
  • 2013 census: 4,914

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • Indonesian: 3,261 (2006); 4,137 (2013)

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Carl Walrond, 'Indonesians', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 May 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 8 February 2005, reviewed & revised 1 August 2015