Traditional Chinese new year celebrations are longer than most people are probably aware…

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The Chinese community in Glodok greet the arrival of the new lunar with prayers and incense the night before Imlek under the great Bodhi tree at the Vihara Dharma Bhakti. It was under such a tree that Buddha received enlightenment. (Photo credit: Rayi Gigih/IO)

The lunar new year is essentially to welcome spring and it starts with the winter solstice and ends in April with Ceng Bing. Here is the Jakarta story of Imlek near Kota Tua or the Old Town.

Kwan Im the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion. (Photo: Tamalia Alisjahbana /IO)

IO – Imlek or the Chinese new year was celebrated on the 25th of January this year. Ibu Embot and Ibu Wawa are two middle aged ladies with a table by the river where people come to eat their traditional Kota Tua peranakan Chinese food. They invited me to come with them the evening before Imlek at 10 pm to visit four Chinese temples. After the traditional family reunion dinner many peranakan Chinese around Kota Tua or what was once the intramuros old town, visit the Chinese temples in the area.

At the oldest temple known as the Kim Tek Ie or Dharma Bhakti temple whose tuan rumah (host or main god/goddess) is Kwan Im or the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion many members of the Glodok community lit candles and joss sticks and prayed for a good and prosperous new year and waited for the sound of symbols or drums to welcome in the new year at 12 pm.

Jakarta governor, Anies Baswedan visited Kim Tek Ie and Toa Sebio temples. Here he places an angpao into the barongsai’s mouth. (Photo: Gigih/IO)

Included amongst them were Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan who is himself originally from the area around Kota Tua namely, the Pekojan or Arab sector.

At the Ma Tjo Po temple the faithful burnt paper boats to carry their prayers to the Goddess of the Sea. (Photo: Rayi Gigih/IO)

Meanwhile, at the Ma Tjo Po temple for the Goddess of the Sea in Jalan Bandengan Selatan people were purchasing beautiful, masted ships made of hand-folded gold paper. They said their new year’s prayers and then threw their golden boats into the great yellow oven standing outside so that they might carry their prayers to the Goddess of the Sea.

At Lamceng temple Kwan Kong’s war horse also receives offerings and prayers. (Photo: Rayi Gigih/IO)

More were gathered for prayers and to light candles and joss sticks at the Lamceng Temple dedicated to Kwan Kong the God of War. A dish of greens had been placed in front of the life size carving of Kwan Kong’s war horse as an offering.

Two pussy cats or male lions in front of Lamceng temple preparing for a lion dance or barongsai at midnight of the 24th of January to welcome in the lunar new year. (Photo: Rayi Gigih/IO)

Two barongsai or lion dancers with a small Chinese orchestra prepared to bring in the new year. There was a silver lion and an orange one. “They’re cats or male lions,” explained one of the musicians with pride. “You can see it from their catlike snouts. No lady lions or ducks. The lady lions have beaks like duck,” he added with a grin.

The God of Good Fortune with his gold ingot and sweets for children helps to usher in the new year at Toa Sebio temple. (Photo: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO)

Meanwhile, at the old Toa Sebio temple, just around the corner from Kim Tek Ie, the Sky Dogs are tuan tanah and here too the air was thick with smoke from joss sticks and candles as the good folk of Glodok sent their new years’ prayers heavenwards. A man dressed in the old fashioned clothes of the God of Good Fortune with a large gold- painted metal ingot in his hands and sweets for the children helped usher in the new year. It was a very busy and joyful event with fireworks and drumbeats at midnight: the Year of the Rat has arrived!  

2020 is the Year of the Rat and rat symbols abound in Jakarta’s China Town. (Photo: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO)

Most Chinese Indonesians originate from Hokkien or Fukien province and their ancestors spoke Hokkien and not the Mandarin that is now the official language of China and is based on the Beijing dialect. The old Hokkien province now falls partly in the People’s Republic of China and partly in Taiwan. Many of the ancestors of the Hokkien people who immigrated to Indonesia came hundreds of years ago. When they married local Indonesians and a new mixed culture began to evolve people began to refer to them as peranakan or mixed Chinese.

Lighting joss sticks and candles at Kim Tek Ie temple also known as Vihara Dharma Bakti. (Photo: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO)

The word Indonesians use for Chinese new year is Imlek. “It is a Hokkien word. Lek means calender and im means lunar. So, we are in fact referring to the lunar new year as opposed to the solar new year. The solar calendar is yang lek,” explained Musa Jonatans, a peranakan Chinese Indonesian of Hokkien descent.

Imlek celebrates the arrival of spring so plum blossoms are an important part of Imlek decorations. (Photo: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO)

“The Hokkien greeting at the lunar new year is Sin Cun Kiong Hi, Thiam Hok Thiam Sioe which means ‘Welcome to the new spring and may your happiness increase with your years’. I find it far more elegant then the Mandarin greeting Gong Xi Fa Cai which means ‘May you grow in wealth’,” explained the batik expert Hartono Sumarsono who is also a Hokkien peranakan

Sugiri Kustedja, a Hokkien peranakan who lives in Bandung added, “That is how the Hokkien peranakan community used to greet each other at Imlek but in the 1970’s President Suharto forbade the public use of Chinese words. It was only in the 1980s when he needed more foreign investment and began to encourage investment from Taiwan that he began to ease up on his anti-Chinese policies. Since relations with mainland China were forbidden Indonesian Chinese cultivated relations with Hongkong where they used the Mandarin expression and so people here became used to saying Gong Xi Fa Cai.”

There is a legend that a creature called the Nian was eating villagers until an old man managed to scare it away with firecrackers and red paper. Ever since the colour red is an integral part of the lunar new year. (Photo: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO)

In China the new year celebration is in fact a celebration of the coming of spring. It begins at the end of the previous year during the winter solstice. Last year that was the night between the 22nd and the 23rd of December when the year had reached the longest night and the following day the light lasted a little longer. This indicates the return of the sun and is the first sign that spring is on its way. The days will be longer and so there will be more positive energy. It is when people go to the temples and pray at their ancestral shrines. “In Indonesia they prepare the kueh onde or tung tze namely balls of glutinous rice which symbolize reunion,” reminisced Rusdy Tjahjadi a ninth generation peranakan Indonesian of Hokkien descent from both sides of his family. Pak Rusdy’s family used to live in the Meester Cornelis or Senen part of Jakarta but only his grandfather on his mother’s side could still speak Hokkien when he was a boy. Like so many he was raised speaking Dutch and Malay.

As the head of ICOMOS Indonesia and as he is involved with the big temple in Bandung, at Imlek Sugiri Kustedja has to answer all sorts of questions from journalists, students, inter-faith groups and government officials but he does it with a glad heart as he feels that it helps to spread tolerance and enrich the cultural mosaic of the nation. “Imlek represents the first sign of spring in the countryside.

Plum blossoms to celebrate Imlek. (Photo: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO)

This is why there are so many decorations of plum blossoms for this festival. However, one can really sense spring about 15 days after Imlek when most of the buds are bursting into green and that is when there is the Cap Go Meh celebration. Then in April when the weather is truly clement and the grass is green one goes to the graves of family and ancestors to clean them and offer prayers for the dead. That is the festival of Ceng Bing,” he says with a smile.

Cleaning the figures of bodhisattvas at Kim Tek Ie or Dharma Bhakti temple the Monday before Imlek. (Photo: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO)

About a week to ten days before Imlek or the lunar new year the peranakan Chinese in Jakarta prepare for it by cleaning their houses and white washing them. This is to sweep away any bad luck and to make way for the new good luck. The Chinese temples also did a spring cleaning on the 20th of January.

On the 20th of January flower water was prayed over and used to clean the statues of deities at temples all over Jakarta in preparation for the new year. This photo is at Kim Tek Ie or Dharma Bhakti temple. (Photo: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO)

In the courtyard large bowls of flower water were prepared and prayed over and then the water was used to clean the statues of the deities and their altars.

The Chinese temples in Indonesia are a mixture of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. In accordance with Tao beliefs during the week before Imlek the Kitchen God or Su Beng Tjiao Kun travels to heaven to report on the family where his altar is to the Jade Emperor or Giok Hong Siang Tee who rules heaven. He remains in heaven until the third day after Imlek. So, in the week before he leaves it is important to clean the house thoroughly and to pray both at the temple as well as at the altar of the Kitchen God. Houses where the families still follow the old beliefs will have an altar to the Kitchen God, an altar for the Jade Emperor and an ancestral altar.

An avenue of red candles at Lamceng temple. (Photo: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO.)
crabs and shrimp at the wet market in Glodok ready for the reunion dinner and Imlek lunch. Photo credits: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

During this time on the kitchen God’s altar the family will place certain foods namely the samseng which is food from once living creatures representing the three elements i.e. fish from water, chicken from the air and pork from the earth. This offering is accompanied with the prayer that the supplicant will prosper in this life which is represented by all the elements and must be accompanied by three glasses of red wine or arak. Some people also place three cups of tea with the arak.  There will be long, wet uncooked noodles with coriander leaves on top which are meant to provide the Kitchen God with a bridge to heaven. Included on the altar wil be local fruits such as bananas.

Jeruk Bali or pomeloes and bunches of bananas are important offerings at altars during Imlek. (Photos: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO)

The Hokkien word for bananas is sangchau which is like the word for wish in Hokkien. So, they symbolize wishes that will be fulfilled. Oranges represent good fortune while the mangosteen stands for longevity and sri kaya or sugar apples symbolize wealth (note that the word kaya or wealth is part of sri kaya. The word for the food chosen is often a play on words meaning wealth, good fortune etc). Rambutans which are like lychees bring happiness and pomegranates signify many children.

More kueh keranjang new year’s cake. (Photo: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO)

“At the head of the altar we have the words siu san hok hai which mean “a life as long as the southern mountains (the Himalayas) and good fortune as large as the ocean” and we symbolize these words with offerings in the form of a bunch of bananas, cakes like kueh mangkok, kueh wajik which is made of sticky rice and kueh ku ketan which is always in the form of turtles and of course, the Chinese new year cake known as kueh keranjang. Then we take a flat round shallow woven bamboo tray filled with joss papers that are gold in the centre and on top of these we place three papers with a picture of the spirit horse hun beh at their centre. These are then burnt on the tray and thrown upwards so that the Kitchen God may ride the horse to heaven. This is done in homes seven days before Imlek and at the temple six day before Imlek,” explained Pak Rusdy patiently.    

Bandeng or milk fish is the traditional Jakarta lunar new year dish for fish symbolizing prosperity. Traditionally, in the north of Jakarta there were many mangrove swamps where milk fish and shrimp bred. (Photo: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO)

On the evening before Imlek all the family gather and have a very special reunion meal together. This is considered the most important family meal in the whole year. The meal will include pork, chicken or duck and fish which is considered a homophone for surplus. In Jakarta that means pindang bandeng or milk fish stewed in soya sauce for there were always mangrove swamps in the north where the milk fish or bandeng spawns.

It is not just giant milk fish or bandeng but also giant bamboo shoots that fill the market at Imlek. Photo credits: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

The next day there is more food and guests come to visit older family and friends. “I get really tired cleaning the house for Imlek but once it’s done I feel so satisfied sitting down and relaxing, seeing the house in order and I feel happy meeting all my relatives,” says Rusdy Tjahjadi.

Three days after Imlek the Kitchen God returns and prayers are said again at the altar to welcome him back. The 9th day after Imlek is the birthday of the Jade Emperor. The Hokkien people have a special place in their hearts for him as the legend says that they escaped a massacre by hiding in sugar cane fields on his birthday so stalks of sugarcane are always placed at the legs of his altar. Fifteen days later is Cap Go Meh and a few months later Ceng Bing – but those are other stories.

Ibu Embot (furthest back), Ibu Wawa (middle) and their grandson, Tam Lay Sen with a friend. (Photo: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO)

Walking in Glodok the night before Imlek, visiting the four temples and seeing the families pray really brings home how many poor Chinese came to settle in Jakarta through the centuries and how hard they struggled to survive and build a better life here. Ibu Embot’s family have lived in the Kota Tua area for centuries and she calls herself Cina Betawi. At her table by the river she sells the traditional Chinese Batavia food for Imlek: milk fish, babi hong (pork cooked in the Betawi way) and roast duck. When there is enough money she provides free meals on feast days. Yesterday, she cooked 25 milk fish, 50 ducks and 45 kilograms of pork. She must have been exhausted but still she did the rounds of the temples and then went home to pray at the family altars. How can one not be moved… (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Wei Tho Po Sat or Skanda Bodhisatva gazes down at offerings of green pomeloes or jeruk Bali. (Photo: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO)