Cleaning Up the Past: Chinese New Year Indonesia Style

Michael Vatikiotis
Feb 4th, 2014

Why has Indonesia adopted Chinese New Year with such enthusiasm?


One of the more remarkable manifestations of Indonesian identity is the relatively recent embrace of the Lunar New Year holiday celebrated by Chinese everywhere. 

Now an official national holiday, the enthusiasm with which Indonesians of all ethnic backgrounds embrace the Lunar New Year celebrations involving fireworks, lots of red lantern decorations, and lion dances says more about this country’s insistent assertion of pluralism and a collective desire for reconciliation for past racial purges than any real interest in Chinese culture and beliefs.

"Imlek", as the holiday is known locally, fell this year on Friday, so a long weekend ensued.  The national holiday was declared soon after Indonesia’s transition to democracy got underway in 1998, sending a strong message to the frequently persecuted Chinese minority. Today this means that wealthy Chinese families fling open their doors and hold open houses; they flock to restaurants for extravagant family meals, and the local lion dance troupes are in perpetual and exhausting demand.

Mass media also cashes in.  Flipping through the channels on New Year’s Day there wasn’t single show that wasn’t Imlek-themed and dripping with red.  Talk show hosts wore red jackets and shirts; variety shows presented Chinese singers, and slapstick comedians donned silk tunics and wispy beards, and teased buxom lasses in red cheongsans using Jakarta’s hybrid Chinese slang – “lu” and “gue” for “you” and “I”.  Not even Christmas gets such gala treatment.

As regular as this is has been over the past decade or more, Indonesians continue to be conscious of the change simply because it reminds them of a darker past when ethnic Chinese Indonesians were persecuted and forced to hide their identity.  No one of Chinese origin was permitted to use their Chinese names, and Chinese characters were banned.  All of this dated from the anti-communist pogrom of the mid-1960s, when the Chinese were suspected of disloyalty to the Republic and the great fear was that the Indonesian Communist Party, which is still banned, was a stalking horse for colonization by Red China.

Indonesians have perfected the art of inference.  Having endured more than thirty years of authoritarian rule that muzzled expression and stifled intellectual intercourse, it is often still hard for people to say what they really mean.  And then there is a basic cultural preference for artful misdirection to avoid offence.   And so possibly the embrace of Chinese New Year with such national gusto is also about something else, a darker exorcism of national ghosts.

One of the films nominated for this year’s academy awards is Joshua Oppenheimer’s disturbing and artful documentary “The Act of Killing”.   The film reveals with painful alacrity what successive governments in Indonesia have tried to smother – the simple fact that as many as million Indonesians were slaughtered on the flimsy grounds of communist sympathy.  Many were ethnic Chinese.   The educated, the literate – even those who wore spectacles – were selected for casual slaughter, often using simple wire garotting techniques – as demonstrated by one of the killers in Openheimer’s film.

The film has set off a frenzied hand-wringing over what should be done to atone for the collective sins of the past.  Weak, half-hearted attempts to establish mechanisms for accountability have fallen on stony ground.  Neither the residually influential military, nor the increasingly dominant Islamic establishment – both of which have the blood of 1965 on their hands – want to hear about investigations into the past with a view to calling those responsible to account.

So it is left to society at large to find a way of dealing with the burden of the past.  And if it makes the ethnic Chinese feel that they can at last be counted; and that their identity as Indonesians as well as Chinese is affirmed by turning the Lunar New Year into an officially recognized holiday; then so be it.  For now: Gong Xi Fa Cai.    




(main image from


Michael Vatikiotis
Last blog date: Oct 18th, 2016


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