After Three Decades of Silence
People in Hong Kong spoke Cantonese to me when I roamed around its alleys in Kowloon, while those in Singapore expected me to talk Hokkien or Mandarin when I was in that city-state. As a matter of fact, I cannot speak any of those languages as I was born in Bandung, the capital city of West Java in Indonesia.
Most of the Indonesian-Chinese in Java born after the1960s cannot speak the Chinese language nor really understand its sophisticated culture since Chinese language schools were banned by the old government regime. Even public use of the Chinese script and signboards that give a distinctive character to Chinatowns elsewhere were discouraged and absent here. An effect of the years of restriction is that only those having parents or grandparents who came directly from China or those who have studied the language in Beijing or Taiwan speak the Chinese language. The government-imposed policy regarding the Chinese language was finally revoked in the year 2000, after three decades of silence.
The majority of us in Java, including myself, have also converted to Christianity so the Confucian traditions left in our blood are only such rudimentary customs as the work ethic, frugality (some), respect for elders and a strong attention to education. Many Indonesian-Chinese parents save a lot of money just to enable their children to study in various universities abroad, especially in North America, Australia and Singapore. Since the 1960s, Indonesian-Chinese churches as well as other organizations, endeavored to establish educational institutions from kindergarten to high schools and universities, even though neither the Chinese language nor culture were included in the curriculum.
In the year 2000, when the new Indonesian government allowed Chinese culture to breathe freely again, a brand new experience was created for Indonesian-Chinese youth. Many of us saw the real Barongsai (Chinese Dragon Dance) for the first time that year. Beforehand, we only saw such things in imported Hong Kong movies or when we went abroad.
In 2003, Imlek, the Chinese New Year, was designated as an official national holiday for the first time in Indonesia's history. It created a "red hysteria" as most big cities' shopping malls and hotels soon had their interiors designed with the typical Chinese bright red color and ornaments weeks before Imlek. Meanwhile Barongsai has become a very popular folk performance even in kampung (villages) and small cities.
The excited feeling of something grand and new taking place had been filling the air for weeks throughout the whole country. A few days before Imlek, the Indonesian media reported an exhibition, in the city of Solo in Central Java, of a giant Chinese cake weighing 3.2 tons. This cake, listed by the Indonesian Record Museum as the biggest one ever made in the country, was shared with the people attending the Barongsai performance. It was significant because Solo was known as a city where harsh racial conflicts between Indonesian-Chinese and the local Javanese exploded in the early 1980s and in the late 1990s.
In order to experience a better sense of Chinese culture, I visited Jakarta's Chinatown and its oldest Chinese temple on the eve of Imlek. This was my first time visiting such a temple during Imlek.
Motivated by the "red hysteria" of the shopping malls, which heightened the festive tone of the celebration, I could not resist going. Moreover, this "Dharma Jaya" temple located in Chinatown's Petak Sembilan Street is unique and historical since it is one of the earliest centers of worship for the Chinese in old Jakarta. Founded around 1650, it was dedicated to the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin.
It turned out I was not alone in my curiosity. A horde of tourists, both local and international, numerous members of the press, as well as many, many beggars thronged the temple, and joined the real worshippers, making it difficult even to enter the place of worship.
Hundreds of beggars gathered outside the temple's gate where there was a large aluminum bowl filled with a high heap of bank notes, closely guarded by the temple's security guards and even police officers. Soon after midnight, these bank notes were thrown into the air and became a money rain fought over by the beggars. I thought it was a bit inhumane since some old female beggars could easily have been injured from being trampled over by the young male ones, but the guard said it was a long-awaited and very necessary tradition.
Inside the gate, hundreds of worshippers lit their incense sticks from lines of giant red candles. Some of these candles were standing two meters high and caused the temple to look both ancient and romantic.
The worshippers carrying their incense sticks entered the temple to pray; however, proceeding inside was a real struggle, since there were too many people trying to do the same thing. They had to raise their hands as high as possible while holding the sticks so other people walking through the temple's door would not be burned by the glowing ends.
I had joined this mass procession out of curiosity, but soon had second thoughts as I could hardly breathe nor open my eyes because there was too much incense smoke. Some experienced worshippers were very creative and used swimming goggles or hospital masks in order to perform the ritual comfortably. I finally managed to get out, but my eyes were red and teary, and my hair was covered with residue from the sticks. "It's a sign that you are repenting for your sins," joked a friend who became my guide for this special trip.
Nevertheless, it was a very cheerful night, especially when the clock struck twelve and people merrily shouted "gong xi fa cai" (happy new year) to each other. Some elderly aunties were hugging in tears as, finally, they could again experience the freedom and dignity of worshipping their belief.
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Published on 7/6/03