The Magic Along Pontianak-Singkawang

I don’t keep a bucket list, because such list would be too long, but if I did then Cap Go Meh festival in Singkawang would definitely make it on the list. This year the stars finally lined up to clear me a path to West Kalimantan.

Cap Go Meh, the 15th Night, the first full moon on a New Year, marks the end of Lunar New Year celebrations for Chinese worldwide. Known also as the Lantern Festival for lanterns hung grandly in preceding days, it’s not to be confused with Mid-Autumn Festival that is sometimes also named the Lantern Festival.

What is so special about the festival in Singkawang, if any Chinese community worldwide would celebrate it? The answer lies on Dayak tribes, the native of Kalimantan, who have meshed with the Chinese immigrants since their arrival centuries ago. As the well-researched-anthropology-dissertation-turned-history book Cina Khek in Singkawang notes, trade routes between West Kalimantan and Fujian had been established prior to European traders’ discovery in 16th century.

The magical prowess of Dayak shamans, called tatung in the local dialect, makes the centerpiece of Singkawang’s Cap Go Meh festival. Their ability to withstand slicing and impaling, including having metals inserted through one body part and poked out of another body part, without leaving any trace of blood, is a spectacle on its own.

Magic, or black magic for that matter, is at work for the thousands of spectators to see. Some tatungs smashed objects onto their heads before walking off casually. To prove that the weapons were real, most tatungs would chop off random items on the street, like woodblocks or plastic bottles, before gingerly returning the variety of knives onto their own body. At some point, and I have the video posted on my Instagram account as proof, one tatung devoured a live chicken while standing on his blade-lined sedan chair.

Don’t you dare thinking that it was only a bunch of men in trance—tatung is an equal opportunity profession. While most tatungs looked downright Dayak, many looked Chinese or of a mixed race.  Female and children tatungs also walked with sharp metals hanging through their body. There were times when I was too stunned to record the sightings that I just plopped down on the sidewalk, trying to take it all in.

The Tatung Parade in particular may not be for everyone, but the Cap Go Meh Festival is. Before the hundreds of tatungs walked the main streets of Singkawang, a dozen dragon barongsai, some about 50 metres long, pranced about with their animated troupe members. There was one particularly jubilant barongsai in fuchsia operated by female-only troupe clad in pink that I think would’ve made a great addition to the Women’s March Parade in Jakarta two days after. A troupe of kuda lumping arts from East Java sent a delegation, just as the alliance of Malaysian Confucian temples did.

The otherwise sleepy town was sizzling thanks to 20,607 red lanterns, a national record validated by MURI and presented at the opening ceremony. Offices and residences seemingly competed to decorate, everyone was in festive mood. Even local Muslim women in hijabs cheerfully peddled souvenirs and the halal version of the town’s famed Chinese delicacies. That Minister for Religious Affairs Lukman Saifuddin opened the festival put a nice ribbon around the sentiments that the Chinese basis of the festivity, a factor often creating friction in Indonesia, was not an obstacle to include everyone in Singkawang in the celebration.

150 km away in Pontianak, where barongsai were burned the next day to end the long Lunar New Year rituals, the similar feeling was apparent. Locals in Muslim headscarves and peci brought their kids to watch the burning that included Confucian rites. Muslims work in many diners featuring Pontianak famed Chinese dishes, and every Chinese proprietor I asked happily answered or pointed to another diner when I asked for halal Chinese food. A sobering realization that Chinese and Muslim Malays can co-exist peacefully, a centuries-old fact that has been swayed in recent years as identity politics taking center stage.

Another realization dawned upon my travel mate who muttered, as he watched Chinese descendants working as parking attendant and street hawker, that Singkawang was the place to crush stereotypes of filthy rich Chinese-Indonesians. While that was true, one need not need travel that far to gain such sobering observation—Tangerang, an hour drive away from Jakarta, is dotted by old settlements that to this day are populated by low-income Chinese Indonesians. In fact, one of them works as a go-to handyman for my parents’ house.

The on-going friction may not go away easily or quickly, as plenty academic publications have surmised so. But I always believe in people’s own power to build a bridge between them, if only they walk far enough with hearts and eyes open to realize that being different is a norm that should be dealt with wisdom instead of suspicion. Every year when I pen this column around Chinese New Year, including last year upon seeing the inclusive Imlek celebration in Semarang, I voice out my hopes. This year the hope is renewed along the sizzling and sobering magic between Pontianak and Singkawang.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2018/03/10/urban-chat-the-magic-along-pontianak-singkawang.html

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