Ethnic Chinese find a place for Year of the Dragon celebrations in Indonesia

After the lifting of a decades-old ban on displays of Chinese culture, ethnic Chinese in Indonesia ring in the Year of the Dragon New Year out in the open.

Soldiers perform a dragon-dance in front of Tay Kei Sek temple in Semarang, Central Java January 23. The Lunar New Year begins on January 23 and marks the start of the Year of the Dragon, according to the Chinese zodiac.

Ekayana Buddhist Center in west Jakarta glows bright with the light of candles and red lanterns as hundreds of crimson-clad ethnic Chinese file into the temple for the Lunar New Year sermon. Across the city fireworks burst and banners celebrated the new year in Mandarin.

Such a scene was practically unheard of just 10 years ago, as Chinese-Indonesians struggled to overcome decades of discrimination and cultural repression under former strongman Suharto.

“The Chinese have been treated with hostility for some time,” says Myra Sidharta, a third-generation Chinese-Indonesian and one of the country’s most well-known researchers on ethnic Chinese culture and philosophy.

That attitudes have opened up toward ethnic Chinese in Indonesia is evident in the amount of people – openly – celebrating the Chinese New Year this year.  

In 2002, negative views toward Chinese-Indonesians started to change when former president Megawati Sukarnoputri recognized the Lunar New Year as a national holiday.

Now Indonesians of all ethnicities visit the city’s temples during Imlek, as the holiday is known here. Dragon dances and parades take place in cities around the country and red and gold billboards outside shopping malls advertise discounts along with new year wishes: “Gong Xi Fat Cai.”

“Everybody now is trying to participate,” says Desmaniar Nurdin, who is Chinese-Indonesian.

As a child Ms. Nurdin would accompany her mother to the coast in Jakarta’s north to pray for family members who had died. Then they would go to her grandmother’s home, where she would receive a small red envelope called ang pao with a little bit of money.

“We had to be very quiet,” says Nurdin, referring to the closeted nature of those celebrations.

A small fraction of Indonesia’s 240 million people, ethnic Chinese have long faced restrictions on their activities here, and around Southeast Asia. The hostility toward Chinese culture dates back even before 1965, when a failed coup attempt was blamed on the Indonesian communist party, which allegedly received support from China. Under Suharto they were banned from expressing their cultural heritage – in language or religion – and encouraged to adopt Indonesian names. However, when Suharto's anticommunist regime collapsed in 1998, it opened up a space for Indonesia's Chinese minority. 

“Now non-Chinese are more open with us. Not only are we allowed to celebrate, but they celebrate with us,” says Nurdin. And that, is a strong indicator that prejudices have really begun to subside.

Within her family things have changed too. Nurdin’s sister, Tina, married a man who speaks Mandarin and the couple calls their daughter by her Chinese name, Xiang-xiang.

 “Everybody now has to speak English and Mandarin, because China is developing very rapidly,” says Tina, who plans to enroll her toddler in one of the growing number of schools that teach both languages.

On the eve of the Lunar New Year Nurdin gathers with her sisters in-laws to eat dishes meant to usher in happiness and prosperity – thin rice noodles, glutinous cake, oranges, and peanuts. After that they head to Ekayana.

The temple, a glitzy building across town, draws celebrity monks and motivational speakers. Day-Glo dragons and spinning lanterns dangle from the ceiling. The shine and squeak of newly polished floors rivals the smoke and incense ash that blows around the ancient Confucian temple further north in Glodok. 

This area was hit hardest by the anti-Chinese riots in 1998 that followed Suharto’s resignation. Years of discriminatory policies that distinguished indigenous Indonesians from ethnic Chinese, coupled with resentment of Chinese-Indonesian economic dominance, came to a boiling point that ended in the death or assault of thousands. 

After the riots Nurdin, who describes her face as “Chinese looking,” says she was scared to go outside. “It was difficult for me because I’m half Indonesian and half Chinese, but I’ve always known myself as an Indonesian. It’s sad that people mark you like that.” 

Sidharta, the scholar, says pockets of negative hostilities do still exist. During a recent seminar she gave in the country’s east, one man stood and said he was very much against the Chinese culture. But she’s quick to stress that isn’t necessarily the overall opinion.

Ms. Nurdin says she too has seen a lot more openness in recent years, and she’s thankful.

“I’m happy that somehow we’ve been recognized.”

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