Jakarta – As the Chinese New Year approaches on 10 February, Indonesia has an opportunity to reconsider what really defines its national identity.
Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim population and the largest archipelagic country in the world, comprises many different ethnicities, including the Chinese, who have been a part of the country’s diversity since the 15th century (even before Indonesia became a country by declaring independence from the Dutch in 1945).
Before 1965, when Indonesia was led by its first president, Soekarno, the Chinese New Year was celebrated openly by people across the country.
I remember the Chinese New Year in Indonesia from my childhood. Weeks before the holiday, restaurants, shops, markets and streets were decked with lanterns, banners and posters. Wherever you went, shades of red, in different shapes and forms, engulfed you in garish merriment.
Gongxi Gongxi, the standard Chinese New Year song, filled the air. Its drumbeats were evocative of the anticipated festivities. The night was sporadically interrupted by firecrackers and fireworks. At home, women pressed triangle wafer crisps similar to fortune cookies for the occasion, and baked an assortment of cakes.
But under Soeharto, who became the president between 1965 and 1999, there was an attempt to create a unified Indonesian identity by banning Chinese language, celebrations and even names.
Flash forward to 1999: the newly elected president, Gus Dur, reinstates Chinese Indonesians’ right to celebrate Chinese New Year. Then five years later, in 2004, President Megawati officially pronounced the Chinese New Year a national public holiday.
But by the time the laws against cultural expressions of the Chinese were lifted, much had been lost. Those growing up within this span of time had largely abandoned their ethnic cultural background, with only some surviving fragments of the population in Medan in North Sumatra, an island in the east coast of Sumatra called Belitung, and Singkawang in West Kalimantan still holding on to the vestiges of the heritage.
Today, I worry that my children and grandchildren may never experience the Chinese New Year festivities that I experienced as a child. They may never experience houses coming alive at the crack of dawn or the New Year songs with their perennial strains, red envelopes ceremoniously passed to both kin and neighbourhood kids who sheepishly knocked on the door, everyone dressed in their best outfits. There was never any strife during such an auspicious occasion. Good cheer and geniality were the general inclinations of the day.
What was lost can hardly be attributed to the pride of a streamlined national identity. A thread of the colourful fabric of Indonesian national identity was lost. In a nation that boasts a myriad of ethnicities, Indonesia can very well benefit from hybridity rather than impossible homogeneity.
Yet there is still hope for the future. Perhaps we may see a return of the social clubs from which Chinese Indonesians would learn to read, cook, sing, play music and craft the delicate paper arts. Perhaps there are still elders who can help pass on to their children the important facts of their family history, guide them through the rigmaroles of a ceremony and teach them home-brewed remedies.
More importantly, perhaps we will see a return to the family reunions, the collaborative efforts to organise the New Year’s Eve dinner and invitations to neighbours to share these festivities.
If Indonesians are able to experience the celebrations of their diverse fellow citizens, perhaps it will spark curiosity among Indonesian youth, our children and grandchildren, to know the country’s rich culture.
Finally, with emancipation comes equality, and with equality, social integration of Indonesia’s many ethnic groups. This fact is clearly seen in the carefree mingling of Indonesia’s diverse populations on campuses, in workplaces and in residential areas.
And, given time, who knows, perhaps we may see those home-made triangle wafer crisps again.
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