Goat Year brings hope for Indonesian Chinese


  • Letters
  • Sunday, 16 Feb 2003

By WONG CHUN WAI

IT’S Chap Goh Meh at Glodok, the Chinese-dominated area in Jakarta and the Taoist temple at Petak Sembilan is packed with devotees. 

The temple’s unique life-size candles, as high as 2m and weighing up to 300kg to burn for six months, are lighted by the faithful. 

Nearby, stalls lining the alleyway to the temple sell firecrackers, festive decorations and delicacies such as kuih bakul and ang koo alongside pornographic VCDs from Hong Kong and Japan. 

Also on sale are special dishes to mark the last day of the Lunar New Year celebrations: lontong (rice steamed in banana leaf), opor ayam (chicken cooked with coconut cream and spices) and lodeh (vegetables with coconut milk). 

The beginning of the Year of the Goat has been good for Indonesian Chinese - for the first time, the festival has been declared a national holiday. 

To celebrate Imlek, as the festival is called, shops in Glodok, Mangga Dua, Mal Kelapa Gading, Taman Anggrek and Plaza Senayan are decorated with Chinese banners. 

It’s a far cry from 30 years ago when Indonesian Chinese had to celebrate behind closed doors. 

When President Abdurrahman Wahid came to power in 1999, he repealed several laws aimed against the Chinese minority. 

He allowed Chinese New Year to be openly celebrated for the first time, making it an optional holiday for Chinese workers. 

Chinese characters began to adorn signs in Indonesian cities and Chinese newspapers resumed publication. It was a major reform because the Suharto government had been so obsessed with the threat of communism that any expression of Chinese culture was banned. 

Gus Dur, as Abdurrahman is popularly called, invited the Chinese to use their traditional names decades after they had been regulated into adopting Indonesian-sounding names. 

Suharto, who resigned in 1998, had forced hundreds of thousands of Chinese families to take indigenous names in a campaign of assimilation. 

It was also a racist campaign because until today, the Chinese are required to carry a document stating their ethnic origin. The government has claimed that it was aimed at distinguishing the local-born from the mainland Chinese. 

After Suharto’s New Order regime fell and the economy lay in shambles, Jakarta exploded into madness. 

The riots were worst in Glodok; thousands of Chinese were killed, shops looted and women raped in one of the country’s worst tragedies. Many families fled to nearby Malaysia and Singapore. 

Today, the ruins of burnt buildings are still in plain sight. With Indonesia struggling to rebuild its economy, many ordinary Chinese businessmen find it difficult to revive their enterprises. 

Amid the sign of the times, Amien Rais, the Speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly, dressed up in Chinese costume - minus the long beard of the God of Prosperity - to deliver a speech at a shopping complex calling for an end to discrimination against the Chinese. 

The politician, who aspires to be the next Indonesian President, was once accused by the Chinese of being a racist although his supporters claimed he was a moderate. 

No stranger to controversy, he was criticised by Malaysians when he expressed support for the reformasi campaign in Malaysia. 

In his speech, Amien likened the Indonesian people to lontong cap goh meh, a little bit of this and that to signify the country's diversity. 

At the nearby record shops, the songs of Rani, a 27-year-old Jakarta singer, blared from the speakers. 

But Rani is no ordinary singer. The daughter of a diplomat who grew up in Beijing, she sings in Mandarin although she doesn’t have a drop of Chinese blood. 

For many Indonesian Chinese, that’s certainly music to their ears and with the presidential elections due next year, the politicians are making sure their speeches and promises would be heard too. 

Wong Chun Wai can be reached at onthebeat@thestar.com.my  

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