Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ox Rox

The 26th of January will herald Chinese New Year's celebrations across the country. This year's beast of providence comes in the form of the ox. People born in ox designated years are supposedly, if you believe in this kind of thing, reliable, logical and honest, although with tendencies towards stubbornness.

Personally I believe all forms of horoscopy and astrology to be a load of tummy rubbish and so when people ask me my zodiac sign I tell them that I'm a cross between a Leo and a Capricorn, which makes me a leprechaun. Chinese New Year is about so much more than dubious beliefs in anthropomorphized animal characteristics however. The celebrations herald the arrival of spring, important in a highly agricultural country like China, and are accompanied by a riot of colour, noise, movements and some damn fine food.

There are fireworks, of course, as well as lanterns, Barongsai dances, plenty of feasting and stylish Cheongsam for the ladies. In effect, Chinese New Year resembles nothing so much as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year all rolled into one.

In Indonesia, Chinese New Year is known locally as Imlek and is currently enjoying a revival after a pretty rough few decades for the Chinese Diaspora here. In 2001, the then President, Gus Dur, always the inspiring pluralist, made the highly symbolic decision to allow Chinese New Year celebrations in Indonesia. After old Gus was hounded from office his immediate successor, Megawati Sukarnoputri, went a step further and declared Chinese New Year a national holiday. Last year, President S. Bambang Y. was even seen attending Imlek celebrations himself.

The position of the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, currently estimated to comprise between one and two percent of the population, remains the subject of much controversy. During Suharto's New Order regime, itself launched on the back of a huge anticommunist and anti-Chinese massacre, Indonesia's Chinese population suffered great discrimination. They were politically disenfranchised and found their culture, their language and even their very names subject to tremendous repression. President Suharto deprived the Chinese of their civic rights in return for business breaks for a lucky few who subsequently became some of Asia's wealthiest men.

This system, basically a rather shabby protection racket, broke down catastrophically in 1998 when Suharto was toppled and an incandescent wave of anti-Chinese rage and racism boiled over into all manner of atrocities. The perceived wealth and arrogance of the ethnic Chinese here was the catalyst. Indonesian Chinese author, Richard Oh, remembers this time well and recalls that, "In May 1998 I looked around and thought that maybe I don't belong."

During the last decade it's been a slow slog for Indonesia's Chinese population as they struggle for their rights and pit themselves against the implacable force of Javanese hegemony. Despite new antidiscrimination laws, ethnic Chinese still faced the deep rooted Pribumi suspicions of indigenous Indonesians. As such it can still often be hard to acquire passports and permits or to enroll in state universities or the civil service. In addition, Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese have still not, for whatever reasons, established their own political party.

Celebrating Chinese New Year with wild abandon should be encouraged then. Let's banish the forces of darkness with a firework display that will illuminate the very heavens above. Head up to Kota (if it’s not flooded) or the park around the national monument Monas and experience the whole spectacle for yourself. Gong Xi Fa Chai dear readers.