Posted by: mel | February 12, 2009

Cap Go Meh Draws a Crowd

Jakarta Globe | Titania Veda

Through the window grilles, children watch the street below them. Families and youths flock to the sidewalk. People spill out of storefronts. Motorbikes and their riders park at the mouth of side streets, blocking traffic.

All are out to see the elaborate lampion , or paper lantern, parade of dancing dragons snaking their way through the main street, followed by pick-up trucks with waving beauty queens and gyrating men adorned with body piercings. Drumbeats and the clanging of cymbals are constant. Six thousand red lampions hang from main streets and houses, flooding the area with a crimson light.

This is the buzzing atmosphere of the town of Singkawang, in West Kalimantan Province, toward the climax of Cap Go Meh, the 15th day of the Chinese New Year. The town has the highest population of Chinese descendants in Indonesia, most of whom speak the Chinese dialect of Hakka.

Preparations for Cap Go Meh, one of Singkawang’s main tourist attractions, began in April 2008. Aside from the lengthy lampion parade, the festivities include a barongsai , or lion dance, and tatung or body piercing,  rituals. This year the Ministry of Culture and Tourism listed it as a national event, according to Bong Cin Nen, a member of the secretariat of the Cap Go Meh committee in Singkawang.

The tatung rituals, which involve the piercing of men’s faces and bodies by weapons in order to banish evil spirits, are the main attraction and play a major part in the celebrations. However, this year they are also a cause for concern.

“Preparations have taken a long time because there were a lot of factors to consider, such as the involvement of underage tatungs, the possibility of a tatung accident and tatungs from other religions, like Islam,” Nen said.

Cap Go Meh has been a Tionghua, or Chinese-Indonesian, tradition in Singkawang since the Dutch era. But people from other ethnic backgrounds are also involved in the preparations, Nen said. There are also tatungs from the Dayak and Malay tribes.

Before and during Cap Go Meh, Singkawang’s hotels rooms, often at double their normal rates, are fully booked with tourists from Jakarta, Pontianak and Malaysia. The town does not sleep for three days leading up to the Feb. 9 event.

At an outdoor food stall, three Fulbright scholars from America sit, eating local delicacies amid the hubbub.

“I am here to see people stab themselves and do crazy things,” said Kevin Connell, a Pontianak-based English teacher, of the tatung rituals that have become synonymous with Cap Go Meh.

By mid-morning, tatung groups are packed inside the stadium. Banners and flags from each group fly high and proud. With the discordantly hypnotic drumming and the scorching sun, it looks like a preparation for battle.

Standing by a wooden prayer altar on the grassy, open field is Lie Jan Leung, in a red T-shirt and cap, a Singkawang native who has not attended a Cap Go Meh festival in his hometown since he moved to Jakarta 30 years ago, but has come back just to see the festivities.

Lai Se Chang, a spectator, explains that Cap Go Meh is exciting for her children. She bounces a baby in her arms while her two toddlers peek from behind her pink-clad legs and Dayak tatung pass by in their roughly-hewn hemp costumes with feather headdresses and a ring of skulls.

In the center of the field, a man sits cross-legged with two rods, each holding 10 oranges. He licks off his dripping saliva and requests a drink from his helper. He has to support the rods with both hands. Following the official opening of the ceremony, the tatung are lifted onto their seats and the parade makes its way out of the stadium and back to the town center. The crowd follows in its wake.

Weaving their way between the cars are a group of men and women wearing yellow shirts, printed with “Hasta Tour Cap Go Meh 2009” in black. Octavia, in her 20s, is one of the tour operators. She explains that her group consists of 29 individuals from Bandung, mainly in their 50s and 60s, who have come to see Cap Go Meh in Singkawang and Pontianak. The six-day tour began on Feb. 7 and costs about Rp 2 million ($170) a head.

Nearby, Hartati, a restaurant operator, is preparing lunch for the patrons of Warung Sate Vita, a small eatery on the side of a street. She says not all indigenous Indonesians have accepted the celebrations, but it is undeniably a part of the culture of the local Tionghua.

“At least we have tourists so people can make some money.”

Photo: The tatung, or pierced men, being carried through the town on elevated seats, as onlookers follow behind. (Titania Veda, JG)

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