For ethnic Chinese, the freedom to dance returns

For the first time in 32 years, the Chinese Lunar New Year is a legal holiday in Indonesia.

Chinese culture is exhausting Ronald Sjarif.

On Friday night, the eve of the Lunar New Year, he and his teenage troop of lion dancers performed in seven locations in 10 hours. Saturday, they crammed in 12 performances and Sunday they had three more, including two live appearances on Indonesian TV.

But he's not complaining. For 32 years, Mr. Sjarif an ethnic Chinese Indonesian, couldn't publicly perform - or even see a public exhibition in Jakarta of the barongsai, an acrobatic, bounding Chinese dance.

But Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri made this Imlek, as the new year celebration is called in the Hokkien dialect spoken by most of Indonesia's Chinese settlers, the first in Indonesian history to be a public holiday. As a result, Jakarta is now swept by New Year's mania, with the city's glitzy shopping malls vying with each other for the most lavish red and gold displays, dragon dances, and holiday discounts.

Megawati's decision is the high water mark for a Chinese cultural renaissance that began with the fall of the Indonesian dictator Suharto in 1998, and one of the clear signs that Indonesia's democratic era, despite its growing pains, is bringing more freedom to its citizens.

"I still have trouble believing this is happening, that we can honor our culture this way again," says Sjarif, whose Kong Ha Hong Foundation is reviving long-dormant Chinese traditions here like the flamboyant lion and dragon dances and the use of mandarin. "I'm just so grateful that the government has changed."

Discrimination against Indonesia's ethnic Chinese - who number about 10 million of the country's 220 million population - dates at least to the 17th century, when the Dutch ruled much of modern-day Indonesia. After anti-Chinese riots in 1740, most of Jakarta's Chinese were forced by decree to live in the city's Glodok neighborhood, which remains the center of Chinese culture today.

When the former General Suharto came to power in 1965 at the head of a virulently anticommunist counter coup, all ethnic Chinese were seen as likely communist sympathizers and potential enemies of the state. Suharto's government passed laws banning Chinese newspapers and books, Mandarin-language schooling, and the use of Chinese names in official documents.

But as the dictator's grip on power grew, he also allowed the Chinese to flourish economically, giving a select few monopolies on basic commodities such as wheat and cement in exchange for bankrolling his political machine. That economic strength, in turn, increased resentment felt by the country's largely poor ethnic-Malay communities.

"For us it was pretty clear: Business yes. Politics and just about everything else, no,'' says Herman Suryanto, a 60-year old rice trader and part-time caretaker of the Hian Thian Siang Tae Bio temple, which is one of Jakarta's oldest Confucian Buddhist temples.

Sjarif remembers what it was like to live with severe government surveillance. He was a good barongsai dancer in his youth and was part of a small group of community leaders who tried to keep the tradition alive even in the darkest years of the Suharto regime. He recalls secret practice sessions in warehouses around Jakarta during the 1970s.

"This was quite simply against the law, and if we danced in public, we could have gotten in a lot of trouble."

Since 1998, barongsai teachers have visited from overseas and Mr. Sjarif's dancers have traveled to Taiwan for competitions. He's happy with the progress, but notes that most of the anti-Chinese regulations, though ignored, remain on the books. "The government now has to make sure that all of its citizens have the same rights and responsibilities,'' he says. "That's going to make this a more prosperous and peaceful country in the long run."

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