23 Februari 2010

» Home » The Jakarta Post » View point: The ‘Barongsai’ Syndrome

View point: The ‘Barongsai’ Syndrome

A few days before Imlek — what we call Chinese New Year in Indonesia — I decided to check out the scene in Glodok, the shopping district in Jakarta’s Old Town that is the biggest Chinatown in Indonesia.

In fact, with an amazing 500,000 square meters of shopping space, it’s apparently one of the biggest in the world!

I imagined Glodok would be abuzz with activity at this time of year, full of people and shops selling various needs related to Imlek (which actually just means “lunar calendar”: Xin Nian is the Mandarin name for New Year).

Glodok is famous for electronics and hardware, but I targeted shops that sold Chinese paraphernalia as I had a somewhat more eccentric shopping list: a retractable (plastic!) tai chi sword (no home should be without one), a Chinese exercise board, some three-legged toads for feng shui purposes (of course), and some dodol Cina — the Chinese toffee-like “cake” made from glutinous rice flour and caramel sugar that is traditional for Imlek.

Dodol Cina is sweet and sticky, so you eat it hoping that your life will be sweet and that you stick (stay close and loyal) to the family, as family is a big thing for the Chinese. And for most Indonesians, for that matter.

Strangely enough, dodol Cina are also traditionally made at Idul Fitri, the Muslim festival after the fasting month of Ramadhan. This has long been a custom of the Betawi, Jakarta’s own indigenous ethnic group, perhaps because their culture has a heavy dose of Chinese influence.
Other ethnic groups throughout Indonesia have also made their own versions of dodol adding brown palm sugar, and coconut milk. Perhaps they too know that family relations tend to be “sticky” if not always sweet!

I was somewhat disappointed with Glodok, because I didn’t see the throng of activity I had expected.
Of course the shopping center I went to was awash with red lanterns, red Chinese jackets and tacky fake plum blossom trees, and I could hardly move without treading on dodol Cina, the ground was plastered with the soft, round banana-leaf-wrapped things.   

But Glodok really wasn’t all that different to all the other malls and shopping centers across Jakarta.
These are also festooned with red lanterns, pink plum blossoms, Gong Xi Fat Choi (Happy New Year) signs and sales attendants wearing red Chinese jackets and Mandarin hats.

So, looks like the Chinese can go anywhere for their Imlek shopping, not just Glodok. Does that mean that after decades of discrimination Chinese culture has finally been truly integrated?

Yes, if one is to believe one’s eyes… but that is something one should never do, especially given that retail businesses will never let a hot sales opportunity go by. Don’t confuse commercialization with the real thing: genuine ethnic and religious pluralism.

Take Christmas for example, another big opportunity for sales. Yes, fake snow, fake Santas and (still more) red outfits abound, but that doesn’t mean Christian churches are safe from bombings and attacks (like the recent case in Bekasi: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2009/12/19/residents-attack-church-be...) or cancelled church building licenses.

Well, what can you expect when some ulema pass fatwas stating that Indonesia’s ancient religious pluralism is haram (forbidden)?

They don’t seem to grasp that, regardless of their pronouncements, Indonesia is already de facto pluralist. They should embrace that, because it makes us strong and very, very interesting as a nation and people. But they don’t.

The ulema may be out of touch with reality, but they are certainly in touch with Indonesia’s long history of institutionalized cultural intolerance.

It’s all about politics of course. A brief rundown on how it affects Chinese culture: in 1965 president Sukarno issued the 1965 presidential decree which included Confucianism as one of six officially recognized “religions” in Indonesia.

After Soeharto took over, anti-Chinese policy became official, with the Presidential Instruction No. 14/1967 effectively Chinese “cultricide”.

Between 1967 and 1990 the status of Confucianism was buffeted by conflicting laws at different levels, and it was not until 2000 that the government finally allowed Chinese Confucians to officially practice their beliefs.

It’s great that the Soeharto-era bans on the public celebration of Imlek and the public display of Chinese culture are gone, but the underlying prejudice and bigotry die hard.

My tai chi teacher says that the barongsai dragon dance, usually performed during Imlek and other auspicious occasions (weddings, for example), is now done by non-Chinese, like a sport.

There are even barongsai competitions. That’s nice, of course, but someone should tell the ulema in Aceh, where there’s now a barongsai ban. It’s a cultural event, boys, not a religious one! And even if it were religious, what right does anyone have to ban it?

The truth is that the ulema get away with it because anti-Chinese sentiment is still strong in Indonesia, and is constantly manipulated to win public support. Just read our cheapo scandal-mongering newspapers some time.

They love running stories about the Chinese as troublemakers, reminding the public about the Bibit/Chandra case, where two Chinese businessmen, brothers Anggodo and Anggoro, are accused of bribery in a conspiracy to bring down the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).

And they emphasize that Bank Century is Chinese-owned, as is the Omni International Hospital with its celebrated Prita case.

And then they ask why the government bailed out Bank Century, and why is it now clashing with Aburizal Bakrie, an indigenous pribumi entrepreneur, chasing his unpaid taxes?

The implication is clear — the same old racist story: the Chinese are the root of all corruption.
Hey folks, wake up!

It’s a simple matter of demographics: the majority of corruptors are pribumi, true-blue Indonesians, born and bred here!

So, the idea of making former president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid the “father of pluralism” is surely a tad premature! We’ve still got a lot more work to do as a nation before pluralism becomes more just than an excuse for shopping centers to redecorate.

In any case, if anyone is to be called the “father of pluralism”, surely Sukarno with his Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) was waaaay ahead of Gus Dur.

So if barongsai dances at malls are touted as a symbol of nondiscrimination in Indonesia, it’s a pretty hollow one. At this rate, shopping will end up Indonesia’s seventh official “religion”!

Julia Suryakusuma, The writer (http://www.juliasuryakusuma.com) is the author of Julia’s Jihad.

Opini The Jakarta 24 Februari 2010