Saturday, January 21, 2012

Chinese-Indonesians celebrate once-forbidden roots

A troupe of lion dancers jerk and sway down a busy Jakarta street to usher in the Chinese New Year, moving to the beat of traditional instruments and handing out red envelopes inscribed with good wishes in Chinese characters.

Such a scene would be unthinkable just over a decade ago, when former dictator Suharto ruled Indonesia with an iron hand and disallowed any expression of the Chinese minority's own heritage.

"If you opened a shop with Chinese characters on it, it'd be closed down," said Adrian Yap, 25.

In 1967, two years after a failed coup by the Indonesian Communist Party, Suharto cracked down on Chinese art, music, literature, language and other cultural expressions.

But since the dictator was ousted in 1998, these have flowered again in the world's most populous Muslim nation, where the mostly non-Islamic Chinese minority makes up only a small fraction of its 240 million inhabitants.

In 2003, the Lunar New Year was declared a national holiday and this year -- as the nation marks the 10th year of unrestricted celebrations -- nearly all of Jakarta's glitzy malls are festooned for the occasion.

Red-and-gold banners with Chinese characters decorate many shopping centres, and Lunar New Year parades are scheduled around the city.

Workers at Jakarta's upscale Plaza Indonesia mall greet shoppers in traditional Chinese clothes as Chinese music wafts from the speakers.

Across the city, passersby are greeted by colourful banners wishing them a happy "Imlek," as the locals call the holiday.

"When I was growing up the celebrations were all hush-hush, said Jevelin Wendiady, a 24-year-old university teacher.

"Everybody knew that during Imlek you would visit relatives at home. But you wouldn't go out to malls like you do now. You'd have no idea it was Imlek, it was like any other day," she said.

"Today when you walk around there is atmosphere, decorations, music. Outside, there are even fireworks at night."

The festive season is not only embraced by Chinese-Indonesians but also by retailers, who look forward to more business.

In the run up to the Lunar New Year newspapers have been filled with hotel and restaurant adverts, offering special new year's packages and deals.

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