A woman lights incense sticks during Lunar New Year celebrations at Dharma Bhakti Temple in Jakarta on Jan. 28, 2017. (Reuters Photo/Darren Whiteside)

History and Diversity of Chinese New Year Celebrations in Indonesia


FEBRUARY 16, 2018

Jakarta. Right now, red and gold are the common colors of lanterns, we see in public places. Shops in "Chinatowns," such as Glodok in North Jakarta, and most shopping malls have been selling paraphernalia, such as lanterns, for the Chinese New Year celebration, or Imlek, on Friday (16/02).

In China, Imlek is originally a celebration of spring season after long, cold months of winter. It is a 15-day celebration culminating in a festival called Cap Go Meh. The essence of the celebrations is the same everywhere, which is to welcome a new year of joy and good fortune.

However, looking at the history, there is always a high price to pay for good fortune.

Years of Social and Cultural Discrimination

Chinese Indonesians are now free to celebrate the new year, but their cultural expression was restricted in the past, and it reflects the discrimination they have faced as a community over the years.

According to Agni Malagina, a sinologist at the University of Indonesia, the Chinese community had it worst during the colonial era. In 1740, the Dutch used mass murder to ethnically cleanse Batavia in what became known as "Chinezenmoord" or "Chinese Murder," which resulted in the death of more than 10,000 people.

Though there were no mass murders, Chinese Indonesians also experienced cultural restrictions during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in 1942-1945. Agni said there were 100 batik entrepreneurs of Chinese descent in Pekalongan, Central Java – a city still famous as one of Indonesia's batik centers. The Japanese occupiers forced the batik makers to produce "Hokokai Batik" using patterns that included big butterflies and flowers, which are considered very Japanese.

It was Sukarno, Indonesia's first president, who first introduced Chinese New Year as a national holiday. In fact, he issued a regulation in 1946 that declared Chinese New Year, the birth and death of Confucius, and Ceng Beng (Chinese Memorial Day) as national holidays.

During the New Order regime, Suharto released Presidential Instruction No. 14 of 1967, which confined Chinese New Year celebrations to temples and private homes. Decorations had to be kept inside, while cultural performances, such as barongsai (lion dance) and wayang potehi (glove puppetry), were only allowed to be shown in closed spaces to members of the Chinese community.

A wayang potehi performance, called 'Soen Pin Ban Kwan,' held at Gereja Kristen Indonesia in Sidoarjo, East Java. (Antara Photo/Umarul Faruq)

In his book "Ethnic Chinese in Contemporary Indonesia," Leo Suryadinata mentions that "Chinese schools were closed down, Chinese mass media were banned, and ethnic Chinese organizations were dissolved."

The government also ordered people of Chinese descent to change their names to Indonesian. All of these efforts were part of an attempt to assimilate Chinese Indonesians into the pribumi culture, which means native or indigenous – a term that usually causes heated debate.

"To become members of this 'indigenous nation,' Chinese Indonesians were expected to abandon their 'Chinese-ness.' To a large extent, a large number of Chinese Indonesians have been Indonesianized, if not indigenized," Leo said.

The discrimination against Chinese Indonesians culminated in the 1998 riots, which resulted in many of those living in Jakarta being raped, killed and their property looted.

It was Indonesia's fourth president, Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid, who lifted Suharto's "Assimilation Policy" and allowed Chinese Indonesians to celebrate their important days, as well as freely express their culture.

He also made Chinese New Year a facultative holiday, and it was his successor, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who turned it into a national holiday in 2003.

Different Meanings to Different People

Throughout the years, Chinese traditions have evolved in Indonesia. Such changes have drawn criticism even in the beginning of the 20th century.

A Cap Go Meh parade in Bitung, North Sulawesi. (Antara Photo/Adwit B Pramono)

In 1923, an article titled "Sintjia," published by Semarang, Central Java-based Perniagaan newspaper, compared the new year celebration at that time to 20 years earlier and claimed that it was less festive because there were fewer parades.

The writer, who chose to go by the initials O.K.H., also criticized the fading traditions because many of the Chinese who married the Dutch had lost touch with their roots.

Agni said in that era, there were complaints about the Chinese who converted from Confucianism to Christianity and refused to go to the temple during Chinese New Year.

"There was already criticism towards [Chinese] women who wore European dresses instead of the Chinese cheongsam, and people who refused to learn Mandarin," Agni said.

Such criticisms still exist and there are many sides to it. People whose cultural orientation is of mainland China usually value re-Sinification and demand that Chinese Indonesians go back to their roots by learning their ancestral dialects, wearing traditional clothes and listening to traditional music on Chinese New Year.

But all this criticism actually reflects the diversity of the Indonesian peranakan culture.

"We see from afar that Chinese Indonesians are this one group, but they are actually heterogeneous, with different religious and cultural orientations," Agni said.

Those who still view Chinese New Year as a religious celebration will still follow all the steps that form part of the ritual, including praying to the gods and ancestors using incense, as well as giving offerings at the shrine.

But those who view it as merely a custom – usually people of Chinese descent who do not subscribe to Confucianism – focus on getting together with the family and exchanging angpau (red envelopes).

However, in some cases religion and culture meet. There are churches that hold special mass for Chinese New Year, such as Gereja Kristus Raja Ungaran in Ungaran, Central Java, as Beritasatu.com reported two years ago.

Cheng Ho Mosque in Surabaya, East Java, and Lautze Mosque in Central Jakarta host several activities for Muslims, including prayers, Koran recitals and social work to welcome Chinese New Year.

The fusion of Chinese and local cultures is also common, such as at Ling Gwan Kiong Temple in Singaraja, Bali, which uses Balinese gamelan to accompany the new year rituals, as reported by state-run news agency Antara.

In parts of Jakarta and Tangerang, Banten, the Cap Go Meh celebrations are often accompanied by gambang kromong musical ensembles. There is also a carnival, known as Grebeg Sudiro, which is held in Solo, Central Java, a few days before the new year.

Residents participate in the Grebeg Sudiro Cultural Carnival at Pasar Gede in Solo, Central Java. The annual carnival is held to welcome the Lunar New Year. (Antara Photo/Mohammad Ayudha)

For that reason, Agni said malls that use the occasion to promote sales are often criticized because they commodify Chinese New Year for profit and create stereotypes, as if every celebration in Indonesia involves Mandarin music and stylish cheongsams.

"And almost all malls do the same thing, so there's no uniqueness," Agni said.

Chinese New Year certainly means different things to different people. For some, it has religious significance, while for others, it is only about togetherness and celebration of their Chinese identity. Sometimes it is not event about identity, because anyone of any background can share in the excitement.