Chinese New Year Celebrations in Indonesia
Most Chinese festivals, whether based on seasons, myths about gods or ghosts, or a combination of these, stem from a belief in worshipping the gods to appease them and prevent misfortune. The biggest celebration is the beginning of the Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year's celebrations in Indonesia, known locally as Imlek, incorporate customs, beliefs and practices brought to Indonesia by Chinese immigrants who still follow the practices handed down from their parents.
Although Chinese New Year was not a national holiday on the Indonesian calendar for many years, beginning in 2002, Chinese New Year became a national holiday, to the pleasure of millions of Chinese Indonesians.
Chinese New Year is a time to show respect for those that have passed away and to reunite with family members. Departed relatives are remembered with great respect because they were responsible for laying the foundations for the family's fortune. Although customs may vary across the archipelago and even from family to family according to social position, many customs or versions of them are still observed by the ethnic Chinese community in Indonesia today.
Within the ethnic Chinese community there are immigrants from many regions throughout China. Distinctively different Chinese communities are found in Pontianak for example, when compared to Medan or even Jakarta. Each of these immigrant communities brought the unique traditions of their hometowns to Indonesia. This diversity in origins explains the diversity in the way Chinese New Year is celebrated by communities throughout the Indonesian archipelago.
History of Chinese New Year
There are several theories as to the origins of the Chinese New Year. The Chinese calendar is based on a combination of lunar and solar movements. Each lunar year is represented by one of 12 animals. This calendar is also called the Chinese Zodiac. The current Chinese lunar calendar was developed during the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907), with a lunar cycle of 29.5 days. The Chinese insert an extra month once every two to three years to compensate for the differences between the lunar calendar and the solar movements, similar to adding an extra day for leap year. This is why the Chinese New Year falls on a different day each year.
Chinese New Year's celebrations start with the New Moon on the first day of the year and will end on the full moon 15 days later. It is also sometimes referred to as the Spring Festival or the “Beginning of Spring.” Although known as Chinese New Year the Lunar New Year is actually celebrated by others besides the Chinese.
The word 'Nian' meaning 'year' in Chinese is also the name of a monster that preyed on people the night before the beginning of the New Year. A popular myth describes Nian as having a large mouth, able to swallow people whole. Villagers in China were all scared of the Nian monster. One day, an old man confronted Nian and said, “I hear that you are capable of eating all the people but they are not worthy opponents for you. You should swallow other beasts of prey.” The monster heeded the old man's advice. He stopped harassing the villagers and went after other beasts of prey instead, forcing them to retreat into the forest in fear of Nian.
The old man turned out to be an immortal god. Before he left he instructed the people to put up red paper decorations on their windows and doors at the year's end to scare away Nian if he should come back, as red is the color Nian feared the most. From then on, the tradition of observing the conquest of Nian has been carried on in Chinese communities around the world. It is also thought that setting off firecrackers would scare away Nian. Although many ethnic Chinese in Indonesia may have forgotten the origins of these customs, they still celebrate the holiday with red decorations on their homes and use firecrackers to add to the excitement of the celebrations.
Preparations for Chinese New Year
Preparations for Chinese New Year festivities in Indonesia begin well in advance of the actual date. As the year draws to a close, ethnic-Chinese tie up loose ends and put things in order in anticipation of beginning the New Year with a fresh start and a clean slate. Business people balance their books and collect or pay debts that are owed.
Those who cannot afford to pay off their debts spend the pre-New Year season evading creditors, hiding in temples or hidden in their homes. In ancient China, debt collectors would seek out debtors using a lantern up until the midnight hour. It is considered vulgar to mention debts on Chinese New Year's so these matters have to be settled prior to the holiday. If unfinished business can be resolved before the coming of the New Year, then one is left with a bright and optimistic start for the coming year.
An important part of the preparations for the holiday is the thorough cleaning of the family home. This is important not only as preparation for the many guests who are expected during the holidays, but also because it is symbolic of sweeping away the evil sprits that might be lurking in dark corners or behind heavy pieces of furniture that are rarely moved. The windows are washed and repainting is done and in traditional homes they would paint the window frames and doors red to prevent evil sprits from entering and to bring good fortune to the inhabitants.
All cleaning and sweeping must be completed before New Year's Day, with the brooms and brushes out of the house prior to the dawn of the New Year. Otherwise the family believes they will have bad luck and a year of work and drudgery. Sweeping cannot be done on New Year's Day for fear that good fortune would be swept away.
In some very superstitious families it is believed that sweeping is allowed on the second day of the New Year, however the sweeping of the dust must be done towards the center of the room. Then, the collected dust must be put into the corners of the room and not taken or thrown out until the fifth day of the New Year when it can be thrown away via the back door. If the dirt is discarded in this way, no harm will befall the family. At no time should this dust be trampled on, as it will cause bad luck. It is thought that if you sweep dirt over the threshold you will also sweep one of the family members away.
Shopping is a major part of the pre-celebration preparations. Historically, New Year's Day was one of a few days in the year when the hard working Chinese peasants allowed themselves a day of rest. Since it was everybody's day of rest, including the shop owners, all shopping had to be done prior to New Year's Eve. In Indonesia, most shop owners observe the Chinese New Year by closing their shop for 3 or 5 days. The normally vibrant Chinese business districts in cities across Indonesia become quiet, with shuttered shops the norm. Shop owners would never close for 4 days as this number, when verbalized, sounds like the Chinese word for death, therefore bringing their business bad luck.
It is common to exchange gifts during the holiday season, so many ethnic-Chinese go on a buying frenzy in preparation for the gift exchange. The gift and its value depend on the social status of the giver and the receiver. Costly or exotic foods or a specially prepared food that has some symbolic meaning are common gifts.
Flowers are also considered an auspicious gift, as they brighten the house of the recipient. The Chinese know that without flowers there would be no formation of fruit, so it is very important to have flowers and floral decorations in the home during the holiday season. Flowers are thought to be the emblems of the reawakening of nature, and are intimately connected with superstitions and with the wish for happiness during the ensuing year. Blooming plants are also a symbol of rebirth and new growth. Small tangerine or orange trees symbolizing abundant happiness, and white Jonquils or Narchssus are favorite gifts within the Chinese community in Indonesia.
Paper decorations are also bought and used to decorate the house. Pictures of ripe fruit or healthy smiling babies are common. Banners with gold Chinese lettering on bright red backgrounds are sold. These banners would be pasted on either side of the front entrance to Chinese homes with another banner above the door. The writing on the banners expresses wishes for good fortune, long life and many friends. Classically they would be poetic in composition. Some examples of common poems are: 'May you enjoy continuous good health' or 'May the Star of Wealth, Star of Longevity, and Star of Happiness shine upon you'.
Chinese New Year's cards are sent to family members who live far away and are unable to join the traditional family gathering. The cards are predominantly red with images of the upcoming year's animal zodiac sign, gold coins or money, cherry blossoms, or fish, all of which are objects that represent good luck and fortune.
According to tradition, families should wear new clothing during the festivities. Chinese believe that the appearance and attitude of a person on New Year's Day sets the tone for the coming year. People often choose to wear red clothing, a bright and happy color that will ensure the wearer a bright future.
New Year's Eve
On New Year's Eve family members gather to observe the customs and share a traditional meal. Family members come from across town or across the Indonesian archipelago to welcome in the New Year together, usually at the home of the eldest family member.
According to custom, the male head of the family leads the family in making offerings to various house gods and family ancestors. Respect is paid to the god of wealth and the gods of the well, bed, hearth and other gods who the family wants to remain on good terms with. The offerings are usually a variety of foods, cakes and fruits placed on an offering table, placed outside the house. While holding the incense in both hands, each family member would 'pai-pai' (bow down) three times to show respect and honor for the house gods. Then the incense is placed in a holder on the offering table and family members bow again to show respect and ask permission to enter the house.
An offering table or ancestral table is also set up inside the house, if there is a member of the family who has already passed away. A picture of the deceased is hung above the table. In wealthier family's homes an entire room might be used as an ancestral hall complete with altar and tables for each generation. Small offerings are placed throughout the year to honor deceased family members. On New Year's Day, however, the table overflows with a beautiful display of food, flowers and the special dishes once enjoyed by the deceased during his/her life.
Family members are expected to show respect to their ancestors by lighting incense and bowing in front of the offering table. It is even more respectful if one kneels down in front of the table. Only after respect has been paid to the ancestors can you continue with the evening's festivities. Chinese around the world believe that the spirits of the loved ones are in attendance during the evening's celebrations. When ancestor worship rites are complete, the family gathers for the biggest meal of the year.
Significance of Traditional Foods
More food is consumed by Indonesian Chinese families during the New Year celebration than at any other holiday. As it is considered bad luck to cook on New Year's Day itself, food is prepared the day before. Chinese believe that what you do on New Year's Day will reflect on your life in the coming year, so most housewives do not want to take a chance of being 'chained to the oven'. The large number of traditional dishes prepared is also meant to symbolize abundance and wealth for the household.
Most traditional dishes served on Chinese New Year are chosen for the significance of their name or appearance. One required dish is a whole fish. Fish in Chinese is 'yu' which sounds similar to the word meaning surplus or abundance. A whole fish must be served as this represents family togetherness. Oysters are also a favorite. In Cantonese the word oyster sounds like the word that means 'good business.' In Cantonese shrimp is pronounced 'ha', which to the Chinese sounds like laughter so it also often included. Clams are another favorite, as they open up when cooked, symbolizing the opening of new horizons.
Indonesian Chinese whose ancestors come from Shanghai serve egg skin dumplings which are thought to look like gold ingots and glass noodles are thought to resemble silver chains, which earn them a place at the festive meal. Bean sprouts are another favorite. They are said to resemble a traditional scepter-like art object called 'ruyi', which means 'to your heart's content', symbolizing a great way to start a New Year. The word for black moss seaweed sounds similar to the word for 'exceeding in wealth'. Lotus seeds are believed to signify having many male offspring, which is much desired in a Chinese family. Chicken is considered a symbol of prosperity. The chicken however, should be presented with the head, tail and feet to symbolize completeness. Noodles are also considered a necessity but should be uncut as in this state they represent long life.
Ethnic-Chinese who have immigrated to Indonesian from the northern part of China serve 'jiaozi' or meat-filled dumplings. The pronunciation of this word sounds like a word meaning 'meeting of the last hour of the old year with the first hour of the new'. In the southern regions of China, 'nian gao' is an important part of the festivities. Indonesian Chinese from these regions serve this sweet rice pudding for their New Year's festivities. Another popular delicacy is 'Zong zi', glutinous rice wrapped up in reed leaves. Some celebrants place stalks of sugar cane behind their doors, as the height and section-upon-section construction of the sweet stalks represents the family's hope for a ladder-like ascent to new levels of glory in the coming year.
A candy tray is considered a necessity on the coffee table of any Chinese home, for visiting family members and expected guests. The tray should be circular or octagonal in shape and is called the 'Tray of Togetherness', symbolizing the family's sweet start of the New Year. Items on the tray are intentionally chosen for symbolic good fortune. Candied melon is symbolic of growth and good health. Melon seeds are dyed red to symbolize joy, happiness, truth and sincerity. Lychee nuts are thought to ensure strong family relationships. Kumquat represents prosperity while coconut symbolizes togetherness. Peanuts are thought to represent long life. Longan are believed to bring many good sons and lotus seeds many children. In very traditional families after taking several pieces of candy from the tray, adults place a red envelope containing money, ang pau, in the center of the tray to wish good fortune for the family.
Just as some foods are always served on New Year's Eve, there are other foods that are to be avoided for their perceived bad meanings. One of them is tofu. Chinese believe that white is the color of death and misfortune, so tofu is never included in the New Year's Eve meal as it might cause bad fortune to fall upon family members.
After Dinner Festivities
After dinner family members stay up late playing games, drinking wine, singing, joking and telling stories. Families strive to make the evening happy in hopes of setting the pattern for the incoming year. Mahjong and card games are popular ways to pass the time before midnight. According to superstitious belief, all the lights in the house must stay on throughout the evening. If the house is dark the god of good future will not be able to see it and will pass by.
Some families spend part of the evening going to the temple to light candles and pray to the gods such as Kwan Im, the goddess of love and mercy. In Indonesia, most of the temples hold midnight prayers. On Chinese New Year hundreds of candles burn in the temples, as adherents believe that candlelight symbolizes a bright future. Congregants donate huge candles, up to 6 feet tall and three feet in circumference, which will burn for several months. In the Jakarta area, these celebrations can be viewed at the oldest Chinese temple in Jakarta, Wihara Dharma Bhakti located on Petak Sembilan in the Kota district, Jakarta's Chinatown. Other temple celebrations can be viewed in Mangga Besar, Pluit as well as in the Boen Tek Nio Temple in Tangerang.
At midnight firecrackers are lit, not only to scare away Nian and other evil sprits, but also just to add to the excitement of the occasion. In traditional families every door and window in the house is opened to allow the old year to go out and good luck to come in with the New Year.
New Year's Day
Most families awaken early on New Year's Day as sleeping late is believed to make you lazy in the coming year. It is very important to look your best on this day as not only will you be meeting many family members and guests, but also because your appearance and attitude reflects on the upcoming year. Everyone makes an effort to wear new clothes that are predominantly red. The first person one meets and the first words heard are significant as to what one's fortunes will be for the coming year. So, children pai-pai to their parents and wish them “Gong Xi Fa Cai” meaning 'Wishing you prosperity'. Parents give their children ang pao, a small red envelope containing money. Ang poa is also given to children of close relatives and unmarried family members after they have wished an elder Happy New Year. Once you are married you are considered to be a giver of ang poa and no longer receive it. It is unlucky to greet anyone in a bedroom so everyone, even the sick, should get dressed and sit in the living room.
Although Chinese want to look nice on New Year's Day, it is considered unlucky to wash you hair on that day, as doing so will wash away your luck. Consequently, hair salons are extremely busy on New Year's Eve, with some salons in Indonesia doubling their prices. Customers are expected to pay the inflated prices, and hairdressers also expect ang poa. In Indonesian salons with a large Chinese clientele, this practice can continue throughout the 15 day celebration.
After the greetings of the New Year have been given to the immediate family members, families proceed to the house of the oldest family member. Traditional families may even consult a Chinese Almanac to determine the best time to visit and even the direction in which they should leave their home.
New Year's Day is filled with family gatherings. While New Year's Eve celebrations are normally for the immediate family, on New Year's Day you should visit neighbors and distant relatives. According to tradition, people check on family and neighbors to make sure that the evil Nian monster had not eaten them. Superstition holds that women shouldn't go out to visit on the first day after New Year's because the household luck might go out with them. In some areas the second day is the day wives go to their parent's home, taking their children to see their grandparents. In Indonesia, the practice of visiting family and friends is more a sign of respect than due to belief in a monster. Most Chinese Indonesians spend the entire day driving around to visit family members; these visitations are a sign of respect that is highly valued in the Chinese community. If it is impossible to visit all the people that you want to see in one day, it is acceptable to visit any time during the next 15 days.
When family and friends visit during the New Year's holiday, it is important to serve food or snacks that bring good fortune. The word for cake 'goa' sounds like a word which means 'exalted or 'lofty' and when preceded by the word for year 'nian' it sounds like a term that means 'to advance in an upwardly fashion year by year'. So, Indonesian Chinese often serve 'kue lapis', an Indonesian layered cake, to their visiting guests. The layers of the cake symbolize the ladder to achievement during the coming year. Many Indonesian Chinese bring a gift of oranges or tangerines and enclose ang poa in the bag. Tangerines with leaves intact ensure that one's relationship with others will remain intact. For newlyweds this also represents the branching of the couple into a family with many children.
Due to past government policies which discriminated against the Chinese community, which makes up approximately thre to four percent of the Indonesian population, no public display of the Chinese New Year celebrations have been permitted since 1967, when the Chinese bore the brunt of shifting political regimes. It is only recently, after 1997 and the end of the Suharto regime that some of the discriminative policies, both written and unwritten, have been revoked or changed. Previously any display of Chinese signage on buildings or Chinese public celebrations were forbidden by the Indonesian government. Although the government now officially allows public celebrations, most Chinese still feel more comfortable and secure celebrating the New Year festivities privately in their homes. It is also popular amongst well-to-do Indonesian Chinese to travel to Singapore or Hong Kong where they feel free to observe the holidays fully.
Barongsai, the Lion Dance
Barongsai may be commonplace on New Year's Day in other Asian counties, but they are normally called to private homes or private parties for viewing in Indonesia. Barongsai is a large dragon-like puppet measuring between four to six meters that is manned by three or four dancers. The dancer that controls the head of the Barongsai must be well versed in Kung Fu as many of the steps in the dance resemble Kung Fu movements. Performers must have great strength and endurance when using the larger dragons as they can weigh up to several hundred kilograms.
A Barongsai troop, consisting of at least 10 people, will arrive in a truck and the accompanying orchestra can be heard long before the arrival. Drums, bells and symbols provide music for the dance. Families are happy to be visited by Barongsai because they feel it will bring them good luck. At the completion of the dance the spectators place ang pau in the mouth of the Barongsai in appreciation for the performance. Depending on the organization backing the troop, most of the money collected is used for social work. With increasing freedom to celebrate their traditional customs, Indonesian Chinese can now even find special promotions in some Jakarta shopping malls during the Chinese New Year season which may include a barongsai performance.
Chinese New Year Celebrations in Bali
Many of the ethnic Chinese of the island visit local Klenteng's or Chinese temples to burn incense, paper money, and have their fortunes predicted for the new year that lays ahead.
The Lantern Festival
The Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the New Year marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. In the past, each family would construct a paper lantern used on this night to help see the gods. In many parts of China today, the lanterns take on a variety of elaborate shapes and styles and are displayed in public exhibitions. The Lantern festival is another reason for inviting guests to your house for a large dinner. Although it is not on the same scale as the New Year's celebration, it is still considered an important meal. After dinner the men parade outside carrying colorful paper lanterns, which have slips of paper with riddles written on them hanging from the lanterns. Guests guess the answers to the riddles and a drum is sounded when the riddles are correctly answered.
While New Year's customs vary throughout Chinese Indonesian communities in the Indonesian archipelago, the sprit underlying the celebration of Chinese New Year is the same; a sincere wish for peace, happiness and prosperity for family members and friends.
Hotels in major Indonesian cities typically offer special Chinese New year themed meals around the holiday. Check out the hotel/restaurant promotions in Jakarta on What's New Jakarta.
Last updated November 7, 2019.