Desiree Tay – Straits Times Indonesia
Glodok was once the vibrant heart of this capital city’s Chinese community. Yet, a full decade since Chinese New Year became a public holiday in Indonesia, Jakarta’s historic Chinatown is a faint shadow of its once-bustling self.
To be sure, there are splashes of festive color to be found in the area’s Petak Sembilan and other nearby streets. Bobbing crimson lanterns went up at sidewalks more than a week before Chinese New Year, known here as Imlek — after the local Hokkien pronunciation of ‘yin li,’ or lunar calendar. Eye-catching hues of scarlet, gold and orange from buntings and other New Year decorations in shops add to the celebratory mood.
But the gaudy displays and tinsel are surrounded by drab grey buildings and the soporific air of traditional Chinese medical halls and provision shops.
Quizzical looks and replies in Bahasa Indonesia met this reporter’s greetings in Mandarin to the young Chinese adults standing in front of one shop. The Chinese language is still spoken but it has been all but lost among the generation born during the Suharto years.
From 1966 to 1998, the Chinese language and many expressions of Chinese identity were driven underground as the Suharto government, driven in part by fears of communist China, pushed its policy of assimilation hard. The teaching of Chinese and use of Chinese script in public were banned, and Chinese Indonesians were urged to take on Indonesian-sounding names.
But the ethnic character of a place is harder to shift, and thus Glodok preserved its make-up, as it had since the early 1600s when the Dutch East Indies authorities encouraged the Chinese, who were already familiar with the region, to settle just south of Batavia, the colonial city that is now Jakarta.
Today, more than 80 per cent of the 12,000 residents of the 38ha Glodok ward are of Chinese descent, according to city government data.
Medical hall worker Zhu Qiu Mei, 58, has lived in Glodok for more than 20 years, since her family moved from Palembang.
Asked about the muted Chinese New Year celebrations, she responds with two words: “Si chen” (dead city).
This sentiment is echoed by other Chinese Indonesians in the area. The turning point for them was 1998.
In May that year, political turmoil sparked by the Asian financial crisis saw mobs of rioters take to the streets in parts of Jakarta, targeting businesses and properties owned by ethnic Chinese.
Chinatown was particularly badly affected. Several buildings were burnt and scores lost their lives. Thousands of Chinese Indonesians fled the only country many had known to be home.
Since then, many have returned but the harrowing memories remain. Chinese Indonesians today make up just under 4 per cent of the country’s population of around 240 million, according to the 2010 census. Most live in major cities. Many in Glodok speak fondly of Abdurrahman Wahid, also known affectionately as Gus Dur. After he was elected president in 1999, he acknowledged the Chinese community’s place in Indonesian society and lifted the ban on the Chinese language and public displays of Chinese culture.
In 2002, his successor Megawati Sukarnoputri declared Imlek a public holiday from the following year.
Ten years on, Imlek has become an occasion for Indonesians to demonstrate, as well as take stock of, their commitment to pluralism. Articles in newspapers and air-time on TV are given to explaining the festival and Chinese traditions to the wider Indonesian community.
As Vidhyandika Perkasa, a researcher with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, observes: “The holiday has been promoted as a national celebration, in which citizens from various ethnic groups enjoy lion dance performances, paper lantern festivals and the red decorations that brighten the milieu of shopping malls across big cities as a manifestation of the merriment.”
Chinatown gets its share of visitors in the run-up to Imlek.
And its residents are happy to speak about the Chinatown that they remember.
Liang Qi Chao, 82, and a lifelong resident of Glodok, recalls reunion dinners being small family affairs during the Suharto years. There was no setting off of firecrackers or fireworks. Nor was there any lion dance performance or banging of drums or clashing of cymbals.
Cheongsam seller Chen Ben Sa, 54, likens it to being stuck in a tight box.
But now that the community is free to celebrate as it wishes, what accounts for the lack of grand street parties to mark the occasion?
“We don’t want to attract attention to ourselves,” says Lim Ming Sheng, 62, a shopowner who has lived in Glodok since he was born. “We don’t want other Indonesians to get upset because they think we are flaunting our wealth.”
“We’d rather keep to ourselves and celebrate as we always have, in our own homes.”
The highlight of Chinese New Year celebrations here is the Chap Goh Meh procession that takes place on the 15th day of the new year. But even that grand finale takes place in the afternoon, not at night as its name suggests.
Asked why, Huang Lan Mei, 62, a shopowner, says simply: “It is safer in the day, when other people are too busy doing their own things.”
It seems that even though they are now free to embrace their culture, the Chinese people in this part of town still carry with them a tinge of wariness about being too openly different in an ethnically diverse country where they remain a visible minority.
Unlike Liang, Huang recalls a time before the curbs of old, when Chinese New Year in Glodok was the highlight of the year for her. During those days under then president Sukarno, Chinese New Year was a festive occasion for the entire area.
‘I would be so excited as a child, with my new shoes and new clothes… and on the first day of Chinese New Year, we would all be freshly showered and eager to roam the streets, where it was like a big party and this party would carry on into the night,” she reminisces.
“But it’s so different now. Nobody sees Chinese New Year like that any more.”
Indeed, those looking for a festive buzz in Jakarta these days are better off at one of the modern steel-and-glass malls, where large-scale dragon figurines and lanterns dot the atriums, and staff are decked out in red or yellow Chinese costumes, complete with Mandarin collars and pig-tail caps.
The shift is yet another aspect of the evolution of the Chinese community here: The younger Chinese want to blend in as part of the larger, modern melting pot that is Indonesia, yet they also appreciate the need to cherish parts of their cultural tradition. As they move out and move on, the enclave that is Chinatown feels their absence.
Though it may have lost its significance as the centre of Jakarta’s Chinese community, Glodok retains a special attraction for many, especially when it comes to making festive buys.
“Here, Chinese New Year is celebrated through shopping!” chuckles Lin Lang Yuan, 60, who has been coming to the shops here since he was young.
“We may not celebrate Chinese New Year much here any more,” he adds. “But look at how many people come here to shop, which kind of counts as a celebration too, if you think about it.”
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia. To subscribe to Straits Times Indonesia and/or the Jakarta Globe call 021 2553 5055.