Seamless Semarang, Seemingly

When you travel with the genuine willingness to soak in the atmosphere of the destination, there are almost no boundaries of what you can enjoy. That’s the quality I value more on travel mates—the ones who aren’t boxed in just a particular category, be it adventure, shopping, or culinary. Focus is useful, but doesn’t mean your itinerary should be dull. And that’s what Semarang served us up during our recent trip.

My friend Miss TamTam found out that we both had always wanted to see the Lunar New Year celebrations in Semarang, so we worked out our schedules to make it. Lying on the northern coast of Java, Semarang port has been bustling with regional trade for centuries and hence became one of the oldest settlements of Chinese immigrants on Java, shown by the city’s culinary pride loenpia (spring rolls) and the quaint Khonghucu temple Tay Kak Sie (circa 1746) that still stands elegantly to this day deep in Semarang’s Chinatown. 

The Chinese most associated with Semarang is perhaps Zheng He, often spelled Cheng Ho, a palace eunuch who rose to become admiral in Ming Dynasty and commanded sea voyages in much of Asia in early 15th c. His multiple arrivals in Sumatra and Java are well recorded, as well as his instructions to construct buildings attributed to Islam. A Hui native, one of China’s five main native groups, Zheng He was very likely born Muslim, or at least “strategically” converted to Islam that was flourishing during his career. With that demography it is no wonder that Zheng He remains well respected in this part of Southeast Asia, with the grand temple Sam Poo Kong in Semarang serves as perhaps his most resplendent memorial. 

Semarang residents and tourists flocked to Sam Poo Kong since the early hours of Lunar New Year to secure the best spots for the merry band of barongsai (dragon and lion dance) in their most ecstatic performance. While quite a handful of Tionghoa folks performed prayers in the housed altars separated by a moat, most of visitors who filled the central atrium and grand hall were of no Chinese heritage. Men, women and children clapped, laughed, and jostled to snap the best pictures that the performance had to be delayed and paused as announcer desperately tried to insert a semblance of control. Nobody threw a fiery sermon on how any Chinese was a greedy alien never to be trusted, like the ones unapologetically shouted off during recent street rallies in Jakarta. No government official accusing Imlek celebration to sway Muslims from performing daytime prayers, like the Bogor officials who treated their adult citizens like babies who couldn’t manage their own time. 

The street rally I saw was a parade on Semarang’s main avenues, an annual tradition sponsored by the local department store which was joined in hordes by cultural groups and school marching bands—many of whom were young ladies in hijab. Hijab-wearing women were also easily found in Pasar Semawis, the Lunar New Year night market in Chinatown—peddling batik and food, dining with their elderly Chinese bosslady like the Solo girls I shared the roadside table with, laughing along as a Tionghoa standup comic delivering racy jokes in local dialect, or nonchalantly getting temporary tattoo in dragon motif while her husband patiently waited. 

There had been a noise rising from Semarang in the weeks leading to Imlek regarding a certain pork-eating festival, voiced out by the usual culprit of Islamic hardliners. The matter was resolved rather quickly as the committee agreed to rename the festival into a non-descript “Semarang Culinary Festival”. I arrived too late to witness the festival, but I couldn’t help to notice how banal it was for the rabble-rousing hardliners to backtrack once the festival name amended. It’s all about shows and symbols, instead of essence and knowledge. I quietly asked around about the incident and most locals shrugged it off as yet another group of unemployed youths got caught up in religious fervor. 

Maybe Semarang could shrug it off, but Jakarta, with countless incidents already and the hardliners hell-bent on turning the on-going Gubernatorial election as a springboard of nationalism-veiled jihadism, is nowhere near that state. Getting more impossible as a couple of mosques announced they wouldn’t perform funeral rites, a fardhu kifayah (mandatory for the society) mind you, for deceased residents who’d been known to support candidate of different religion. Maybe Semarang, the seat of the Governor of Central Java, wouldn’t remain this calm should Tionghoa candidates ran on its next Mayoralty or Gubernatorial election. Would Semarang be the next of Singkawang or W. Kalimantan, another Tionghoa enclave in Indonesia, where Tionghoa candidates have been peacefully elected for legislative and executive positions?

Nobody knows. But until that happens, you and I can humor ourselves that, as displayed grandly and joyously during Lunar New Year, race and religions cards don’t seem to poison the soft-spoken people of seamlessly unified Semarang.

As published:


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