On Sunday, 18 October 2009, 33 Chinese temple contingents paraded through the streets of Jakarta’s Chinatown in what was probably the largest Chinese religious festival to be staged in the city from even before the New Order. Hundreds of devotees formed teams to carry 38 palanquins bearing the images of Chinese deities. Accompanied by musicians, lion and dragon dancers, they formed a foot procession that stretched more than one kilometre long. Three police cars were in the vanguard to clear the way through the city’s perpetual traffic jams as the parade wound its way around a ten-kilometre circuit starting and ending at Glodok.

The Fat Cu Kung birthday procession was yet another sign of the renaissance of Chinese culture in a district that eleven years ago had been the scene of violent anti-Chinese riots. Staged amid growing assertions of the Islamisation of Indonesia, this Chinese religious festival (as against the communal celebration of Imlek or Chinese New Year), presented a commentary on Indonesian society where religious freedom is enshrined in the Constitution. The Fat Cu Kung parade was remarkable less for bringing together temple groups from all over Java, than for its inclusion, at the head of the marching column, bands of Muslim students and a contingent of dragon dancers from the Indonesian armed forces. Such an inter-communal display of unity was in contrast with news that I had covered in West Kalimantan this year.

Since 2000, Cap Go Meh, or the fifteenth day of Imlek has been marked annually in Singkawang, West Kalimantan, by a procession of spirit mediums. That was the year when the open celebration of Imlek was first permitted since the end of the New Order. Hundreds of spirit mediums take part in the Singkawang Cap Go Meh parade. This year, the parade was the biggest ever and featured more than 500 spirit mediums. The vast majority of the Cap Go Meh participants are Chinese, but there are Dayak and even a few Malay spirit mediums among them.

Last year, members of the FPI (Islam Defenders Front), descended upon the home of a prominent Malay spirit-medium and threatened to burn the place down should he participate in Cap Go Meh as he had done the year before. The police had to take the hapless spirit-medium into protective custody so that he did indeed miss the year’s parade.

In December 2008, I met Anand Krishna (of Anand Ashram) in Singapore on the sidelines of a conference on religion and politics in Southeast Asia. He told me how that June members of the FPI had attacked a pro-pluralism gathering at Monas (the National Monument in Central Jakarta). The gathering was held in order to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the Pancasila state ideology and to show support for the embattled Islamic minority Ahmadiyah sect.

Recalling Krishna’s distress as he described how people had been beaten with bamboo staves, coupled with the news of this July’s terrorist bombing of the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton, made me feel a little apprehensive about attending the October Fat Cu Kung parade. Indonesian friends however assured me that Indonesian Muslims were generally moderate and tolerant people and urged that I should not judge a society by the actions of a radical minority. So setting aside my fears I went to Jakarta.

While human attendees may flock to a Chinese temple celebration, for a birthday of a god, it is other gods who are the guests of honour. Among those who had come to celebrate with the deity Fat Cu Kung, were Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy, the red-faced Guangong, God of War and Jigong, the Vagabond Arhat.

Fat Cu Kung is portrayed in image as having a black face, staring eyes and a wild mane of black hair reaching to his waist. His cult hails from Fujian province in China, and has spread to Taiwan and Southeast Asia. The Chinese are a migratory people and their success in their adopted lands is largely on account of a tradition of mutual help. New migrants are received and resettled within the host communities by a network of organisations whose connections extend beyond country borders. Welfare groups, clan associations, trade guilds, schools and hospitals link together, but the loci of all social activities has always been the community temples, and the time when everybody gathers to meet and re-commit to fraternal ties has traditionally been the birthdays of the patron deities.

The Chinese practise image worship. A statue of a deity is the focus of devotion at temples. Additional and smaller images are always made, specifically for travel. This can be a short trip within the village. For example, when a member of the parish is very ill, a small image of the deity might be brought to the patient’s house to ensure that the sick person gets the full attention of the god.

Chinese gods enjoy outings. Devotees would dress the god image in travelling clothes and carry the image about. In this way, gods have moved from China to set up branch temples in new homelands. This is why the principal statues in temples of the Chinese diaspora are often small; they are the original diminutive images brought from the ancestral village. At a temple festival, the gods on parade form the main spectacle, but a less ostentatious ritual takes place simultaneously. This is the socially significant practice called fenxiang which translates as “dividing the incense”.

An elder from Po An Thian temple, Pekalongan Central Java, carries an image of their patron deity Hian Thian Siang Tee, while a helper protectively holds on to the statue, 18 October 2009.
Margaret Chan

When a branch temple is set up, ash from the main censer of the mother temple must be collected and brought to the branch location. While the images of the gods embody the cult, the dividing of incense ash represents a shared identity and destiny, and it is this spirit of brotherhood that joins Chinese around the world. When representatives from the 33 temples from all over Java gathered at the Fat Cu Kung temple in Glodok, each party brought along a small censer of incense ash. Placed together on a common altar table, the collection of censers presented physical and spiritual evidence of communal bonds that joined the temples in a mutual help network.

By bringing together temple communities from all over Java, the Fat Cu Kung celebrations represented an important event in Indonesian-Chinese communal relationships, and it wrote an important page in the history of the Chinese in Indonesia. According to several people I spoke to at the parade, including Maya Milyana, who reports on social events in the city for the Jakarta-based Sinergi magazine, the celebration was the grandest Chinese religious festival Jakarta had seen since the start of reformasi.

The Fat Cu Kung temple in Glodok is small. Its prayer hall is really the cramped front room of a private residence at the end of a cul-de-sac on Jalan Kemenangan, however by way of enthusiastic celebrations of their deity’s birthday, the little temple punches well beyond its size. It started observing the anniversary with a religious procession in 2006, and each year the celebrations have become progressively bigger.

The Indonesian word for Chinese religious palanquins is joli, and the homonym “jolly” described the exuberance that permeated through the Fat Cu Kung celebrations. From Saturday, continuing through to Sunday morning, palanquins were being trucked into Glodok from places like Jepara, Losarai Brebes, Semarang, Tegal and Cilacap in Central Java; Bogor, Kerawang and Purwakarta in West Java and Pamekasan Madura, East Java. The palanquins were the portable altars that were to be carried on parade by the devotees. Some were as large as the cab of the ubiquitous bajaj scooter-taxis of Jakarta. Elaborately-carved out of solid teak, the palanquins were so heavy that when I tried to help carry one, I had to give up within a minute of trying.

Instead I took photographs. But photos never quite convey the mood of an occasion. How do you capture on still images the frisson felt when a large drum was struck to mark the start of the parade? Several bands of musicians had immediately taken up the cue. Cymbals were clashed together and gamelan gongs were beaten as the palanquins were lifted onto shoulders. In the euphoria of the moment the devotees swung the heavy chairs mindless of the carrying shafts cutting into their flesh.

Psychologists might have described the mood as “flow”, a sensation that is felt when the mind becomes transfixed upon the activity at hand so that the whole being of the person is immersed into the experience. The united worship of the divine often stirs up such powerful feelings and flow is experienced as a tidal wave of emotions that moves through the congregation binding joint celebrants in a spirit of solidarity. Although the concept of flow had not been articulated a hundred years ago when sociologist Emile Durkheim set out his seminal studies on religion, Durkheim already knew of such possibilities for he described religion as the cement of society.

Durkheim wrote how at religious festivals, the individual sets aside everyday concerns to join in communal celebrations that reify their shared beliefs. This was how it felt at Glodok that Sunday. Although I was a guest, I was drawn into the collective effervescence so that I too felt a strong urge to dance. Durkheim was right; through the practice of religion, the individual moves from an atomistic existence into becoming a member of a community.

Caught in the excitement of it all I impulsively leapt upon a motorcycle to follow the parade. I rode pillion to Purnama (Yeong Fatt is his Chinese name) who perhaps not quite twenty, rode with the reckless abandon of youth; zig-zagging between cars riding up and down pavements. We planned to follow the procession part of the way along its route then outflank them to get to a vantage point where we could stop to let the parade pass by. The route began at the Fat Cu Kung temple on Jalan Kemenangan in the Patekwan district, leading on to Jalan Pintu Kecil, Jalan Kali Besar Barat, Jalan Kali Besar Timur 3, around Fatahillah Museum Square, Jalan Lodan, pass Plaza Glodok on Jalan Hayam Wuruk, Jalan Mangga Besar, then making a U-turn to head back up Jalan Mangga Besar to Jalan Gajah Mada before returning to Jalan Kemenangan.

Right after the vanguard of police cars, came the Guntur Naga Geni, a dragon dance troupe from the Yon Armed-11 Kostrad, a land artillery battalion of the Indonesian Army’s Strategic Reserves. Earlier on I had chatted with the soldiers while we waited for the start of the parade in the main hall of the Ricci Catholic School on Jalan Kemenangan. The soldiers were eating their specially-catered halal meal of curry and rice while I ate noodles prepared by volunteers of the Fat Cu Kung temple. Later when Sergeant Dedy Haryono, who led this dragon dance contingent, saw me standing in the middle of the road with my camera, he gave a signal to his men when they began dancing a set piece. The highlight was when the men climbed one upon the other to form a human pillar with a dragon head held aloft.

Those magnificent guys and their twin dragons were followed by three marching bands of high school youths. Two groups played on brass instruments and drums while the third comprised a band of girls wearing jilbabs and twirling large flags. I had heard that they came from Islamic schools from Kerawang but although I checked thrice with the parade organising committee I could not get a confirmation on this. What the organisers did tell me was that the military dragon dance team and the school marching bands had been paid a fee for taking part in the performance. I felt that this was as it should be, for I see in such pragmatic arrangements an opportunity for different communities to come together in peaceful solidarity in a society where ethnic and religious connections are still tenuous and being re-negotiated.

The tragic anti-Chinese riots of 1998 form a watershed in Indonesian social history for it marked an end to the assimilationist policies of the Suharto regime. Subsequent presidents, beginning with Habibie, have worked at reconciliation. In 2003, the highest ranking leaders of the state gathered at a forum to discuss how the Indonesian Constitutional motto, “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika,” “Unity in Diversity” might be realised. President Megawati Sukarnoputri, in her keynote address said that attempts to enforce the homogeneity of the Indonesian society would represent a grave violation of human rights, and that the way forward was not to see diversity as problematic, but instead as a source of strength. Durkheim had said as much a hundred years before.

He noted how members of homogenous societies can join in mechanical solidarity where similar values and norms would bind them in a common collective consciousness, but a plural society could not depend on a normative consensus for social cohesion. Such societies can enjoy organic solidarity when differences are capitalised upon with members each contributing uniquely to the well-being of the society.

Interconnected networks of trust produce what Robert Putnam in 1993 termed social capital, which pays off with economic success and social stability. This is why Chinese migrant communities work hard at renewing bonds of mechanical solidarity founded on their shared value of mutual help. In their 2007 study on ethnicised violence in Indonesia, David Brown and Ian Douglas Wilson report how material deprivation and despair of a fair civic society can get sublimated into a victim-perpetrator mentality where a sanctified “Us” is justified in striking out at a demonized “Other”.

Religion is primary to the Indonesian national identity for the first of the five fundamental values of Pancasila is the belief in God. Although about 90 percent of Indonesians are Muslim, Indonesia is not an Islamic state, but a plural society with six official religions; Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Religious pluralism can cause divisiveness for dogma prescribes particularistic visions. This is where organic solidarity can build networks of trust as demonstrated at the Fat Cu Kung procession. The festival in October brought together a tripartite of religious alliances. By adopting strategic working attitudes, the three parties managed to come together in functional cooperation notwithstanding their conflicting religious viewpoints.

First there were the Chinese devotees whose polytheistic belief system made them entirely accommodative of other religious ideas. This all-embracing openness was on display at the Fat Cu Kung temple. On the fourth floor of this private residence which houses the public Fat Cu Kung prayer hall, is a private prayer area where Chinese deities including Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy, are ranged alongside an Erawan (Thai four-faced Buddha) image, portraits of Indian guru Sai Baba, a large statue of Semar (the portly Javanese god of wayang fame) and a shrine to the Wali Sango (the nine saints of Indonesian Islam).

A second attitude was that of the priests and parishioners of the Catholic Church of St Maria de Fatima which is located opposite to the Fat Cu Kung temple on Jalan Kemenangan. Their view might be described as one of forbearance; where a group rejects the religious beliefs of another but does not allow this to stand in between social cooperation. The Fat Cu Kung temple people tell me that close ties do not exist between the church and temple, but nevertheless, the Catholic parishioners generously opened the Ricci School to be used as a gathering place for the parade contingents.

A third attitude is that of scepticism. Adam Seligman writing in 1999 on religious toleration proposes that scepticism should not be with regard to the beliefs of others, but should instead be directed at the group’s own ideas. Essentially the argument is that all religions depend on an act of faith, and since one cannot be certain of truth, one cannot also be sure of heresy. But monotheistic Islam does not allow for any doubt with regard to the doctrines of their faith. Against such an inviolable position, the place of the Muslim groups in the Fat Cu Kung procession offered a practical solution. The Muslim participation was strictly commercial and entirely divest of religious investment.

Religious festivals as communal enterprise profit tradesmen such as hawkers, tent-makers, wood carvers and florists. Muslim youths are regularly hired to carry banners or to play music at Chinese temple parades. When I met the Malay spirit-medium in West Kalimantan who had been set upon by members of the FPI, he was still working as a medium. When I asked him why, he replied, ‘How else can I earn money for my family?’

The pragmatic line involves a “sensible cynicism” that can shield against charges of heresy. How this works can be shown by the example of barong amin troupes that daily prowl the lanes of Glodok going from shop to shop to perform Chinese lion dance. Most of the troupes are made up of indigenous youths, many of whom must be Muslim. But religion does not come into the picture. If the Chinese will pay for perfunctory performances of lion dance at their place of business, then the youths see no problem in quite literally dancing to that tune.

Indonesian society today is a fragile coalition between ethnic and religious communities. The jihadists have shown how religious radicalism can violently rent apart peaceful solidarity, but polarisation can also come from the incremental encroachment of Islamic ideas into the civic laws of a society where religious pluralism is provided for in the Constitution. The October 2008, passing of a far-reaching anti-pornography bill despite protests that it discriminated against non-Muslim Indonesian communities including those in Bali and Papua, and the proposed controversial halal bill are reminders that inclusivism may just be a wishful ideal. On the ground the Chinese of Indonesia have re-grouped to re-assert a joyful presence by staging religious festivals. The celebrations are always communal involving the cooperation of several parties. The networking allows for the building up of trust and social capital. People can get together for all sorts of reason. It does not matter if the objectives are lofty or prosaic; the important thing is that they get together.

Margaret Chan (margaretchan@smu.edu.sg) is Practice Asst. Professor of Theatre/Performance Studies, School Social Sciences, Singapore Management University.