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In Indonesia: A Lion Dance, an Islamic New Year, and the Anniversary of a City

Evi Nurvidya Arifin
Aris Ananta

OPINION ASIA, 21 Dec 2009

It was in the morning of December 17th, 2009, when we received an email in Bahasa Indonesia from our Muslim friend living in Cirebon, West Java, Indonesia.

Albeit in broken English, the email stated “Peace be upon you, good morning and be prosperous for all of you. Today, there will be a Barongsay festival for the region of Ciayumajakuning conducted in front of the Tumenggeng Wiracula (Sam Cay Khong) graveyard, South Sukalila at to 3.30 pm. Shall we watch the festival together!!!”

Our friend told us that the Barongsay festival – Barongsay refers to the Chinese lion dance in Indonesia – was one of a series of performances on occasion of the 640th anniversary of the city of Cirebon. On December 18th 2009, the city celebrated its 640th birthday, ostensibly just another ordinary anniversary. However, the day also marked the first day of the Muharram month of the Islamic New Year (1431). In Indonesia, the Islamic New Year is a public holiday. This year it fell on Friday, meaning a long weekend!

The aforementioned email portended a number of themes that intersect fascinatingly in recent Indonesian history.

The Barongsay festival of Cirebon’s anniversary was in many ways evidence of a growing tolerance in Indonesia. A performance of Barongsay by the Chinese in Indonesia during the Chinese Lunar New Year, or Imlek would have been impossible during the New Order Regime (1966-1998) as Barongsay was banned in Indonesia for nearly three decades when almost everything related to Chinese culture was viewed with suspicion. Not surprisingly, this resulted in an unwillingness and lack of confidence among Chinese Indonesians to publicly identify themselves as Chinese between 1967-1998. So far, Barongsay had been performed only during Chinese New Year in Indonesia.

In fact, the Barongsay festival sought to commemorate not only the anniversary of Cirebon, but the wider Ciayumajakuning region (including the city of Cirebon itself, the regencies of Indramayu, Majalengka, and Kuningan)—a region proposed to form a new province, called the province of Cirebon, splitting from the current province from West Java. This proposal continues to be debated.

It was only after Gus Dur became the President of Indonesia in 1999 were the many discriminative laws against Chinese Indonesians abolished. Now, more than a decade after the fall of New Order regime, the legal and social-economic-political status of Chinese Indonesians have improved markedly and they enjoy much more freedom to celebrate their ethnic identity.

In addition, since 2005, a good number of Chinese Indonesians were democratically elected in local elections as mayors or regents. For example, the mayor of Tanjung Pinang, Bintan, is a Chinese Muslim lady. In October 2008, the Indonesian Army’s 63rd anniversary was celebrated with a dragon dance performed by the Wirabuana Military Command. As stated by Jemma Purdey in the article in Inside Indonesia “… it would have been unimaginable that the military would incorporate a Chinese cultural display into its sacred nationalist rituals.” Unsurprisingly, the Barongsay festival, attended by both Chinese and non-Chinese Indonesians, Muslims and non-Muslims, to celebrate the birthday of Cirebon represents yet another illustration of the improved state of affairs for Chinese Indonesians.

More specifically, the lion dance festival held in front of the Tumenggung Wiracula (Sam Cay Khong) graveyard, an old Chinese cemetery with only few tombs located at the bank of Sukalila River in Cirebon was a particularly significant. Aria Wiracula, was a successful Hokkien trader from China known as Tan Sam Cay Khong. He landed at Cirebon port in 1676. After conversion, he gave up his job as a trader and became a preacher. Loyal to the Sultan of the Cirebon Sultanate, he contributed to the social-economic development in the Sultanate. In recognition of his contributions, the Sultan conferred on him the title of Tumenggung. The tomb of Tumenggung Wiracula has been frequented by many visitors, regardless of religion, from many places in the provinces of West Java and Central Java. Locals recognise the tomb as a historical site of note.

What happened in Cirebon last weekend clearly reflects the deepening integration of Chinese culture into mainstream Indonesian and local politics, in addition to the continuing march of democratisation that continues to shape Indonesia. The Barongsay festival has been used for both a social purpose, to celebrate the anniversary of Cirebon, and a political purpose, to support the creation of a new province, the province of Cirebon. More than a decade after the reform movement opened opportunities for the Chinese Indonesians in particular, and all Indonesians in general, Indonesia continues to move purposefully to exorcise its New Order ghosts.


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