There are roughly two million ethnic Chinese people living in Indonesia, as a result of centuries of migration. Under the late dictator Suharto, the ethnic Chinese were discriminated against and banned from performing certain traditional rituals. They were also prevented from celebrating the Lunar New Year as they pleased. After Suharto’s demise in 1998, Chinese Indonesians gradually regained their rights and tried to revive their festivals.
Every year, Indonesia's ethnic Chinese community celebrates the Lunar New Year
Chinese festivals are once again being celebrated in style after being banned during the Suharto era. In the city of Semarang in Central Java, for example. Semarong’s New Year festival was set up a few years ago and has become one of the city’s most popular cultural events.
Every year, the festival, which is called “Pasar Imlek Semawis,” attracts visitors from all over Indonesia and the world. The festival director, Benita Ariani, is especially glad about the opportunity to revive the Chinese night market tradition:
“We want to bring people closer to this tradition. Chinatown in Semarang has many characteristics, which live on in the population. Before we had this New Year market, we had another more local night market once a year around New Year -- Ji Kau Meh.”
Ji Kau Meh means on the eve of the 29th. Traditionally, the Chinese population of Indonesia would meet at the night market and celebrate New Year together.
This year too, the local Chinese population has been busy preparing for the festival, cleaning and decorating the temples, polishing the statues and praying for health and happiness in the coming New Year.
Repression under Suharto
Although Chinese culture is now a firm part of Semarang’s cityscape, it was different ten years ago. Under the ex-dictator Suharto, who ruled from 1966 to 1998, everything to do with Chinese tradition was suppressed.
In 1967, Suharto passed a decree restricting the freedoms of the ethnic Chinese population in Indonesia. The use of Chinese names and characters in public was banned.
Tio Tek Gwan is an activist of Chinese origin -- he has bad memories of the Suharto era: “When we went to the temple to pray at New Year, we were watched. Certain religious rituals were banned. Anything to do with Chinese culture, stories for example, was forbidden. We had to have Indonesian names on our identity cards. There was psychological repression. We weren’t allowed to own books and documents about Chinese history -- almost 75 percent of such existing documents were burnt.”
Chinese customs and culture had been part of Indonesian history for centuries but under Suharto they almost died out. Haryanto Kusuma Halim is the head of the Chinese society for tourism in Semarang. He explained that only a few people had passed on their traditions to their children under Suharto.
“In my family, we would prepare a meal of sweet potatoes and mussels on New Year’s Eve to honour our ancestors. I still do it today -- I put sugar cane behind the door and flowers as well as money. The gesture is important to me,” he said.
Suharto was forced to resign in 1998. In 2000, the decree against the ethnic Chinese was lifted. However, many ethnic Chinese in Indonesia continue to complain of discrimination. They say that administrative processes often take longer than they should.
However, in some parts of Indonesia, life has got distinctly better for the ethnic Chinese population. In Semarang, for example, they often make the most of their newly-regained freedom to celebrate traditional customs and rituals.