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Chap Goh Mei festivities in Indonesia's Kalimantan a testament to Chinese tradition

Chap Goh Mei festivities in Indonesia's Kalimantan a testament to Chinese tradition

Davis Jhonson has passed on his knowledge to others, some of whom will perform with him in Singkawang's Chap Goh Mei 2020 Festival. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

SINGKAWANG, West Kalimantan: Dressed in a warrior suit and golden helmet, Mr Davis Jhonson held a cutter. 

To prove that the blade was sharp, the performer used it to slice a plastic cup. However, when he scraped his nose with the knife, there was no bleeding.

“I have supernatural powers,” he claimed.

Born and bred in Singkawang, a coastal city that is often dubbed the Hong Kong of Indonesia as the majority of its residents are of Chinese descent, the 44-year-old will be performing on Saturday (Feb 8) along with about 1,000 other performers. 

The Singkawang event is said to be the largest Chap Goh Mei gathering in Indonesia marking the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. It is also significant as an occasion showcasing the culture and tradition of the Chinese diaspora.

The highlight of the event is the participation of Tatung, or people who claim to have supernatural abilities. Some even say they can be possessed by spirits.

About 15,000 spectators from other provinces are typically expected to flock to the city of about 200,000 people.

Indonesian Chinese offer prayers while Tatungs parade during the Chap Goh Mei parade to mark the closing ceremony of Chinese New Year festival in Singkawang on Feb 11, 2017. (Photo: Adek Berry/AFP)

Among those who arrived in Singkawang was Ms Vania from Bandung, who goes by one name.

The woman, 30, said: "I have never seen the festival before ... Singkawang is well-known for its Chap Goh Mei festival. There are videos of it on Youtube, so I want to watch it in person.  

"I'm curious to see the Tatungs."


The people of Singkawang are proud to host the annual Chap Goh Mei festival, which also sees performers from neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore.

The festival is a testament to the city's rich history and how Chinese culture has assimilated with indigenous Dayak and Melayu culture.

More than 200 years ago, Chinese workers were invited by sultanates in West Kalimantan to become gold miners in Monterado, east of Singkawang. This came after Chinese miners were successful on Sumatra’s Bangka island.

Singkawang's Chap Goh Mei Festival spans over a few days before the fifteenth day of the first month in the Lunar Calendar. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

The miners were of Hakka origin and sailed from China through the Natuna waters, eventually landing in Singkawang where they rested before continuing their journey to Monterado.

READ: Commentary - Indonesia’s high-stakes stand-off with China in the South China Sea

As the mining ventures became profitable, more came from China. Many eventually settled in Singkawang.

They named it Singkawang or San Khew Jong in Hakka language, meaning a town in the hills near the sea and an estuary.

It also is often referred to as "the city of a thousand temples" because many temples can be found in Singkawang.

Since more than 70 per cent of its population is of Chinese descent, the Chap Goh Mei festival has always been an integral part of Singkawang culture.

Tatung men, whose members include ethnic Chinese and Dayak tribespeople, hold a traditional ritual one day ahead of the Chap Goh Mei festival in Singkawang, West Kalimantan on Feb 18, 2019. (Photo: Daddy Cavalero/AFP)

But Chap Goh Mei was only widely celebrated after the fall of Indonesia’s second and longest-ruling president Suharto in 1998, who during his 31-year regime did not allow public Chinese New Year celebrations.

Singkawang resident Dien Marli, 32, said the Chap Goh Mei parade is interesting.

"It is beautiful because it is about old culture. And it's still being performed every year to revive Singkawang's tradition.

"Unfortunately, I won't be able to watch it this year as I have to work," the salesman told CNA.

The Chap Goh Mei festival is held over a few days. This year, it takes place from early February until Saturday. 

About 70 per cent of Singkawang's population are Indonesians of Chinese descent. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

The main event is the parade by the Tatung and other performers on Saturday. In the lead up to the big day, the streets have been adorned with red lanterns.

Mr Bong Cin Nen, who is the organiser of the festival said: "We have been really busy organising this the last three months and we try to make it different every year by using different routes for the parade”.

Mdm Erniwati, 78, travelled from Bandung to Singkawang this year with her children and grandchildren just to watch the Chap Goh Mei festival.

"I want to know how the celebration here is. I have never seen it before," said the woman who goes by one name. 

Her granddaughter Jeanifer Cornelia, 21, wanted to watch the parade despite the Tatung who some consider scary.

"I'm curious. And it all depends on your personal belief," the university student told CNA. 

Indonesian Tatungs participate during the Chap Goh Mei parade to mark the closing ceremony of Chinese New Year festival in Singkawang on Borneo island on Feb 11, 2017. (Photo: Adek Berry/AFP)

Prior to the carnival on Saturday, Singkawang had a pageant contest, music performances by Indonesian celebrities and a lantern festival on Thursday night. On Friday, the Tatung took part in a ritual to bless the city.  

Singkawang's lantern festival normally attracts thousands of spectators. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

When interviewed by CNA, Mr Supardiyana, who is Singkawang’s tourism chief, said the event has benefitted the city's economy. He noted that it has been listed as one of Indonesia's top 100 events. 

Asked if he expects the novel coronavirus outbreak to affect tourism arrivals this year, he said there has been little indication of the impact, as the travel agents have been kept busy. 

The mayor has inspected the hotels and can assure the public that none of the Chinese visitors in Singkawang has been tested positive for the virus, said Mr Supardiyana who goes with one name.

READ: Indonesian women arrested for spreading coronavirus hoax


For many performers, their participation in the festivities is a source of pride.

Mr Jhonson said he first performed at the festival when he was just 14 years old. He believes that the performances will ensure nothing bad happens in the new year.

When CNA visited Mr Jhonson at his house in southern Singkawang a few days before the performance, his team was busy making final preparations such as sharpening blades and painting their accessories.

Mr Jhonson, who works as a healer, said he was mentored by 28 masters from different Indonesian ethnicities such as Chinese, Dayak, Bugis, Batak, Toraja, Suku Laut, Nias and others.

READ: Balancing faith and tradition: Indonesia's Chinese Muslims mark CNY in their own ways

His friend had just finished painting a wooden sedan chair, its grips made of long knives. There was also a 1m sharp knife attached to the back of the chair. 

After carefully assessing the knives, Mr Jhonson sat down on the chair. “I don’t feel anything and it doesn’t hurt,” he claimed. 

Liu Jau Sen believes Singkawang's Chap Goh Mei Festival needs to be preserved and passed on to the next generation. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

For Mr Liu Jau Sen, 38, he will take part in the parade on Saturday along with his siblings and uncles.

He claims that he can be possessed by spirits, such as his ancestors or ancient gurus.

When he is in a trance, he would normally give advice in Singkawang’s Khek language, a form of Hakka.

READ: Cute and harmless: Exotic rodents charm visitors in Selangor petting zoo this CNY

The parade usually starts with a ceremony led by the leader, followed by the Tatung giving offerings to the god of prosperity.

Once done, the Tatung will show off their best performances.

All this is old culture that needs to be preserved, Mr Liu argued. “Because this is our culture for generations and we need to preserve it. No matter what, it will be inherited by the next generations,” he said.

Indonesian people watch tatungs parade during the Chap Goh Mei parade to mark the closing ceremony of Chinese New Year festival in Singkawang on Borneo island on Feb 11, 2017. (Photo: Adek Berry/AFP)

A Singkawang high school student, who only wanted to be known as Yiphing, also hopes the festival will continue to thrive.

She said it has always been part of how she marked the Chinese New Year. 

"I will definitely watch it this year. It is about Chinese culture and as a person of Chinese descent, I will definitely watch it to enliven the event." 

Source: CNA/ks(aw)


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