A troupe of dragon dancers jerk and sway down a busy Jakarta street to usher in the Chinese New Year, moving to the beat of traditional instruments and handing out red envelopes inscribed with good wishes in Chinese characters.
Such a scene would be unthinkable just over a decade ago because Chinese New Year was not a national holiday on the Indonesian calendar for many years.
In 2002, Chinese New Year became a national holiday, to the pleasure of millions of Chinese Indonesians.
As the nation marks the 10th year of unrestricted celebrations, nearly all of Jakarta’s glitzy malls are festooned for the occasion. Across the city, passersby are greeted by colourful banners wishing them a happy “Imlek,” as the locals call the holiday.
Chinese New Year is a time to show respect for those that have passed away and to reunite with family members. Departed relatives are remembered with great respect because they were responsible for laying the foundations for the family’s fortune.
Although customs may vary across the archipelago and even from family to family according to social position, many customs or versions of them are still observed by the ethnic Chinese community in Indonesia today.
Preparations for Chinese New Year festivities in Indonesia begin well in advance of the actual date. As the year draws to a close, ethnic-Chinese tie up loose ends and put things in order in anticipation of beginning the New Year with a fresh start and a clean slate.
An important part of the preparations for the holiday is the thorough cleaning of the family home. This is important not only as preparation for the many guests who are expected during the holidays, but also because it is symbolic of sweeping away the evil spirits that might be lurking in dark corners or behind heavy pieces of furniture that are rarely moved.
The windows are washed and repainting is done and in traditional homes they would paint the window frames and doors red to prevent evil spirits from entering and to bring good fortune to the inhabitants.
Shopping is a major part of the preparations. Historically, New Year’s Day was one of a few days in the year when the hard working Chinese peasants allowed themselves a day of rest.
Since it was everybody’s day of rest, including the shop owners, all shopping had to be done prior to New Year’s Eve.
In Indonesia, most shop owners observe the Chinese New Year by closing their shops for 3 or 5 days. The normally vibrant Chinese business districts in cities across Indonesia become quiet, with shuttered shops the norm.
New Year’s Eve
On New Year’s Eve family members gather to observe the customs and share a traditional meal. Family members come from across town or across the Indonesian archipelago to welcome in the New Year together, usually at the home of the eldest family member.
An offering table or ancestral table is also set up inside the house, if there is a member of the family who has already passed away. A picture of the deceased is hung above the table.
New Year’s Day
On New Year’s Day, however, the table overflows with a beautiful display of food, flowers and the special dishes once enjoyed by the deceased during his/her life.
More food is consumed by Indonesian Chinese families during the New Year celebration than at any other holiday. As it is considered bad luck to cook on New Year’s Day itself, food is prepared the day before.
Seven Must-have Foods on Chinese New Year in Indonesia:
- Chicken should be presented with head, tail and feet – symbolize completeness
- Fish – symbolize abundance
- Tangerines with leaves – symbolize prosperity
- Noodles – symbolize longevity
- Ducks – symbolize loyalty and obedience
- Pumpkin seeds – symbolize fertility or having male offspring
- White carrots – symbolize good luck
A candy tray is also considered a necessity on the coffee table of any Chinese home, for visiting family members and expected guests. The tray should be circular or octagonal in shape and is called the ‘Tray of Togetherness’, symbolizing the family’s sweet start of the New Year.
Just as some foods are always served on New Year’s Eve, there are other foods that are to be avoided for their perceived bad meanings. One of them is tofu. Chinese believe that white is the color of death and misfortune, so tofu is never included in the New Year’s Eve meal as it might cause bad fortune to fall upon family members.
New Year’s Day is filled with family gatherings. While New Year’s Eve celebrations are normally for the immediate family, on New Year’s Day you should visit neighbors and distant relatives.
‘Nian Gao’ Cake
When family and friends visit during the New Year’s holiday, it is important to serve food or snacks that bring good fortune. The word for cake ‘gao’ sounds like a word which means ‘exalted or ‘lofty’ and when preceded by the word for year ‘nian’ it sounds like a term that means ‘to advance in an upwardly fashion year by year’. In my country the ‘nian gao’ cake is called ‘kue kranjang’ literally means ‘basket cake’
New Year’s Gifts
Many Indonesian Chinese bring a gift of oranges or tangerines and enclose Ang Poa in the bag.
Tangerines with leaves intact ensure that one’s relationship with others will remain intact. For newlyweds this also represents the branching of the couple into a family with many children.
Barongsai, the Dragon Dance
Barongsai may be commonplace on New Year’s Day in other Asian counties, but they are normally called to private homes or private parties or in the shopping malls for viewing in Indonesia.
Barongsai is a large dragon-like puppet measuring between four to six meters that is manned by three or four dancers.
The dancer that controls the head of the Barongsai must be well versed in Kung Fu as many of the steps in the dance resemble Kung Fu movements.
Performers must have great strength and endurance when using the larger dragons as they can weigh up to several hundred kilograms.
HAPPY LUNAR NEW YEAR! – THE YEAR OF WATER DRAGON