Posted by: mel | January 30, 2012

When cultures collide, what do Chinese do?

The Chinese New Year is here and Jakartans of all ethnic backgrounds, not just Chinese, celebrate the event openly, in marked contrast to when the holiday was largely a closed-door private affair 15 years ago. This and the articles on page 22 look at what has changed, based on reports prepared by Amahl S. Azwar, Anggi M. Lubis, Corry Elyda, Dhenok Pratiwi, Fikri Z. Muhammadi, Hans Nicholas Jong, Muhammad Rizqi A., Nadya Natahadibrata, Pras Gustanto, Satria Sambijantoro,  Tassia Sipahutar and Yuliasri Perdani.

Devoted: A woman burns incense while saying prayers to mark the Chinese New Year at the Kim Tek Ie Temple in Glodok, West Jakarta. JP/Fikri Z. Muhammadi

Devoted: A woman burns incense while saying prayers to mark the Chinese New Year at the Kim Tek Ie Temple in Glodok, West Jakarta. JP/Fikri Z. Muhammadi

Eko Heryanto sees the Chinese New Year as an opportunity for a family get together. This year, he hosted the festivities for his core family at his home in Kelapa Gading, North Jakarta, where lanterns and an angpao (money) tree greeted the coming of the Year of the Water Dragon.

“I like the freedom that we have in celebrating the New Year now. We don’t need to conceal this from the public anymore,” Eko, who runs a software company, says.

However, he says he does not care so much about the spiritual aspects of the Lunar New Year, and is even prepared to debunk some of the myths that come with it.

He cites the superstition that if one sweeps the floor the night before the New Year, it brings bad luck.

“I would sweep the house if it’s dirty,” Eko, who doesn’t have a Chinese name or speak the language, says.

“We don’t even buy new clothes for the occasion,” says Eko, who is married to a woman named Asthri, with whom he has an 8-month-old child named Kayana.

He admits that he is not a devout Buddhist and rarely visits the temple for prayers, sometimes in defiance of his father’s advice.

“I only do what I think is practical,” Eko says.

Corry, a 24-year-old visitor at the Taman Anggrek Mall, also sees the Chinese New Year as a time for family gatherings and does not see any spiritual values in the event.

“It’s a time for angpao and to have fun,” she says.

Her family has converted to Catholicism and stopped observing the full rituals of the Chinese New Year since her grandmother passed away. There are no ornaments in her home and the family never says prayers at the temples.

“I was fully raised in the Catholic tradition,” she says.
Respecting elders: Tan Kho Tjiang, the 93-year-old patriarch of the Tanfamily, greets one of his descendants during a family gathering in CentralJakarta on New Year’s Day. JP/Tassia Sipahutar

Respecting elders: Tan Kho Tjiang, the 93-year-old patriarch of the Tanfamily, greets one of his descendants during a family gathering in CentralJakarta on New Year’s Day. JP/Tassia Sipahutar

Tan Kho Tjiang, 93, also stopped observing many of the rituals when he converted to Catholicism six years ago. During his family’s Chinese New Year dinner, this patriarch, who heads four generations of the Tan clan that numbers more than 100, led the event with prayers to thank Jesus Christ for all the blessings they have enjoyed.

Gone is the tradition of paying respect to the ancestors on Chinese New Year, but this did not stop the family from using the gathering to show their respect and reverence toward their patriarch.

In Bekasi, Darsono Salim, 51, says his Buddhist prayers with his wife at their home on the eve of the Lunar New Year. None of their three children, who are already married, join them because they have all converted to Christianity.

“It’s just the two of us now,” Darsono says.

Changing attitudes among Chinese about their traditions and cultures come largely with their conversion to one of the organized religions.

For the three decades under Soeharto, not only were the Chinese denied the right to express their cultural identity, they were also required to join one of the five recognized organized religions: Islam, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

In 1999, then president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid added Confucianism as the sixth religion recognized by the state. However, many Chinese had already converted.

Although some converts practice Confucianism along with the teachings of their new religion, others see Chinese traditions and Confucian teachings as clashing with their new faith.
Smoke gets in your eyes: Smoke from burning incense covers the Boen Tek Bio Temple, the oldest Confucian temple in Tangerang, as Chinese Indonesians bring offerings and say prayers to mark the Chinese New Year. JP/Hans Nicholas Jong

Smoke gets in your eyes: Smoke from burning incense covers the Boen Tek Bio Temple, the oldest Confucian temple in Tangerang, as Chinese Indonesians bring offerings and say prayers to mark the Chinese New Year. JP/Hans Nicholas Jong

Eveline, 58, came to the Dharma Bakti Buddhist Temple on Chinese New Year because her husband wanted to take photographs. She did not burn incense like most other visitors. She just sat there watching

Eveline, who lives in Glodok, West Jakarta, says she could not see herself joining the prayers because it goes strictly against her Christian faith. “I cannot say pagan prayers. That would be turning my back on Christianity,” she says.

Au Bintoro, who hosted a gathering of four generations of the Xie clan at his mansion overlooking the Rancamaya Golf and Country Club in Bogor, says that the majority of his family members have converted to Christianity.

The clan, however, insists that the eldest son of each Xie generation must remain a Buddhist to continue family traditions and preserve the values and teachings of that religion.

This year, Hartawan, the eldest of the 27th generation of Xie, led the ceremony and made sure that the rituals and values of the Chinese New Year were fully observed.

His uncle Au Bintoro says everyone took Hartawan’s lead despite their religious beliefs. “When he says prayers for our ancestors, we pray with him.”

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