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Carina with a red lantern in Singkawang
Carina with a red lantern in Singkawang

Chinese New Year and Field Trip to Singkawang

By Carina Lang

Dear reader, today’s article will be about Chinese New Year and more specifically about the way Chinese New Year is celebrated in Indonesia. To learn more about this local festivity and why people in Indonesia celebrate it, I went on a short field trip to Singkawang last week. This article is structured by some main questions that I asked myself and consequently tried to answer.

One thing that immediately struck me when I arrived in Indonesia were the red lanterns hanging in front of many houses and shops. Naturally I wondered about why so many people had their homes decorated with those lanterns. But not in a bad way, I really like the lanterns, which give the streets a certain, almost festive atmosphere, especially at night when they spread their red light everywhere. The more lanterns I discovered the more astonished I was: Those lanterns did not look Indonesian at all, but rather very Chinese, since many of them have Chinese characters written on them. I asked a friend who then told me the people had put Chinese lanterns in front of their homes and shops in order to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year? Here in Indonesia? As a matter of fact around 3 % of the Indonesian population has Chinese origins and therefore the Chinese New Year was introduced as a public holiday in Indonesia in 2002. Now, this originally Chinese holiday is celebrated all over Indonesia.

Carina (left) when took a field trip in Cap Go Meh event, Singkawang 2018
Carina (left) when took a field trip in Cap Go Meh event, Singkawang 2018

But why red lanterns? From what I found out, there is an old legend of a monster called Nian which threatened a village in China. To protect themselves from the cruel monster, the villagers put red lanterns in front of their houses, because the color red was the thing this monster feared most. Since that time, it is a tradition to decorate ones home with red lanterns during New Year to scare the monster away. Traditionally the firecrackers at midnight also play an important role in protecting the people from Nian, but they are forbidden in most parts of Indonesia.

But then why do the Chinese celebrate their New Year so late? The Chinese New Year does not coincide with the New Year in the Gregorian calendar (introduced by the Pope Gregor XIII in the 16th century) because China has its own traditional calendar. This so called Chinese calendar is based on a combination of lunar and solar movements. Even though the Chinese also use the Gregorian calendar nowadays the traditional calendar is still used to calculate the traditional Chinese holidays, like for example Chinese New Year. By the way, the Chinese New Year takes place at the same time as the beginning of spring and I was told several times that there can be no Chinese New Year without rain. The Chinese New Years celebrations last for 15 days (considering two days for New Year in Germany) but people start preparations for the festivities days before: They tidy and clean their houses to get rid of evil spirits, finish business that has not been finished yet and prepare food for New Years Eve.

So why do the Chinese even celebrate New Year and what do they do to celebrate it? The Chinese celebrate New Year to worship their gods in order to appease them and to prevent misfortune for the coming year. Also this event is a major opportunity for Chinese people to meet their families to eat and spend time with each other. From the Internet I could extract some more information: on New Years Eve the close Chinese family gathers to enjoy a rich dinner. This dinner consists mainly of traditional Chinese food with each dish having a certain meaning. In Indonesia, those Chinese dishes are often mixed with Indonesian food. Afterwards they visit a temple to pray, light candles and bring offerings to their gods. The main activity on the following that, the New Years Day, is visiting neighbors and more distant relatives, to wish them a happy New Year, giving them small presents and eating snacks together. During those days, children usually receive red envelopes containing money (so called Hongbao) from the older members of their family.

And why did you go to Singkawang? What does this have to do with the Chinese New Year? I went to Singkawang because the city accommodates one of the biggest Chinese communities in Indonesia and is therefore well known for its big public events during Chinese New Year. Since I have been to Singkawang towards the end of the Chinese New Years celebrations I could assist to a big parade. For this special event people from all over Indonesia would come to Singkawang.

For the parade, people dressed up in colorful traditional clothes and walked in small groups through the street. With the police on the left and right making sure the spectators will not disturb the festivities. Each group consisted of around 10 people, even kids walking with them, and were accompanied by music, usually by drums. The center of each group was a wooden throne which was carried by several man. On top of that throne there was one person, man or woman, wearing a huge headdress made out of different materials (like for example feathers). This headdress reminded me in some cases of the crown of Indian chiefs. Some of the people on the thrown were crazily twisting their eyes, smoking cigarettes and some of them even had their skin pierced by long metal needles. A friend of mine explained to me, that the bodies of those people were possessed by their ancestors ghosts. The night before, there was a big ritual during which the ghosts were taking possession of the bodies.

Therefore the people on top of the thrones did not feel any pain when their skin was pierced. Unfortunately I could not find out much more about this strange event. I would like to know why people even want to carry their ancestors ghosts through the city. I also wonder about how those people will get rid of the ghosts again, once the event is over.

I was surprised to learn, that even in Indonesia there are many people who celebrate Chinese New Year. In order to write this article I did some research on the Internet as well as asking my Indonesian friends about it. For me it has been a very interesting topic and I hope that other people might also learn something they did not know before about this big event from my article. * (Writer is an internship student in Pontianak from Hamburg University)

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