Chinese immigrants to the Indonesian archipelago almost entirely originated from
ethnic Han groups of what are now the
Guangdong provinces in southern China, areas known for their regional diversity. Large numbers of Han Chinese, the largest ethnic group in the world, live in Southeast Asia. Nearly all Chinese Indonesians are either
patrilineal descendants of these early immigrants, or new immigrants born in mainland China.
As the first group of Chinese people to settle in large numbers, the
Hokkien of southern Fujian became the dominant immigrant group until the middle of the 19th century. Their maritime-mercantile culture comes from their trade occupations whilst in Indonesia. Descendants of Hokkiens are the dominant group in eastern Indonesia,
East Java, and the western coast of
Teochews, southern neighbors of the Hokkien, are found throughout the eastern coast of Sumatra, in the
Riau Archipelago, and in western Borneo. They were preferred as plantation laborers in Sumatra, but have become traders in regions where the Hokkien are not well represented.
Hakka, unlike the Hokkien and the Teochew, originate from the mountainous inland regions of Guangdong and do not have a maritime culture. Owing to the unproductive terrain of their home region, the Hakka emigrated out of economic necessity in several waves from 1850 to 1930 and were the poorest of the Chinese immigrant groups. Although they initially populated the mining centers of western Borneo and
Bangka Island, Hakkas became attracted to the rapid growth of Batavia and
West Java in the late 19th century.
Cantonese people, like the Hakka, were well known throughout Southeast Asia as mineworkers. Their migration in the 19th century was largely directed toward the
tin mines of Bangka, off the east coast of Sumatra. Notable traditionally as skilled artisans, the Cantonese benefited from close contact with Europeans in Guangdong and Hong Kong by learning about machinery and industrial success. They migrated to Java about the same time as the Hakka, but for different reasons. In Indonesia's cities they became artisans, machine workers, and owners of small businesses such as restaurants and hotel-keeping services. The Cantonese are evenly dispersed throughout the archipelago, and number far less than the Hokkien or the Hakka. Consequently, their roles are of secondary importance in the Chinese communities.