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Chinese New Year, Balong style

At peace: Buddhists pray at the Tien Kok Sie Temple before Grebeg Sudiro starts in Surakarta, Central Java. Photo by Ganug Nurgoho Adi/The Jakarta Post

Publication Date : 13-02-2013

 

The Chinatown community in Indonesia is a neigbourhood of acculturation

 

Over a century in Balong — a Chinatown in Sudiroprajan subdistrict in Jebres, Surakarta — ethnic, cultural and religious assimilation has occurred, so that few gaps separate those of Chinese descent from Javanese, and there is wholehearted tolerance.

Both groups live in harmony in Balong, and intermarriage is common.

In Surakarta, such mixed marriages and the community that ensues are known as ampyang. “Nearly all residents in this kampung are of ampyang origin. It has lasted for a long time without any problem,” said Dalimo, the subdistrict chief of Sudiroprajan.

According to Surakarta Chinese community figure Sumartono Hadinoto, the term was adopted from a traditional snack called ampyang, which combines Javanese brown sugar and Chinese ground nuts.

Balong is located in the eastern part of Surakarta’s Pasar Gede market, with narrow alleys and small, closely built houses amid a hectic atmosphere. It is also a business area where residents offer electronics repair, sewing services, English courses and hairdressing, as well as homemade cookies.

“This is a neighbourhood of acculturation. The key to living in a pluralist community is mutual respect. A family can embrace various religions. I’ve always advised my children to avoid imposing their faith on others. Without fanaticism, religious conflict will never happen,” said Surip Slamet Rahayu, 49, a Javanese woman married to ethnic Chinese Oei Bing Kie, 59.

“My husband goes to the kelenteng [temple] to perform his religious worship, but he accompanies me to church or takes our children to the mosque. That’s how we educate them,” Surip said.

The Chinese and Javanese ethnic, cultural and even religious assimilation in Balong, according to Soedarmono, a historian at Sebelas Maret State University (UNS) in Surakarta, has taken place since the kampung was developed in the early 1900s.

“It has been a natural process of acculturation rather than the formation of a melting pot or the assimilation concept once promoted by the New Order government. Whoever wishes to learn about Chinese-Javanese harmony, should just visit Balong,” said Soedarmono.

Historical records show the cultural affinity between the Chinese and Javanese in Balong has remained despite 15 ethnic conflicts in Surakarta. When anti-Chinese rioting occurred in 1998, Balong youth from both ethnic groups protected the neighbourhood against raging masses.

Balong’s acculturation and harmony has become a model for other Chinese populated kampungs in Sudiroprajan like Mijen, Kepanjen, Samaan and Ngampil. The harmony has been even more pronounced at the annual Chinese New Year’s celebrations starting in 2007 called Grebeg Sudiro — a festival presenting Chinese and Javanese art, including lion and dragon dances, Java’s reog (mask) dance and a giant teapot.

Grebeg Sudiro took place last week at Pasar Gede in Surakarta, with 13 mountain-shaped piles of agricultural produce called gunungan and traditional snacks prepared by both ethnic groups paraded through the area. The procession left the Sudiroprajan subdistrict office for the Tien Kok Sie Temple to be blessed before marching from Pasar Gede and finishing in the same place.

On the eve of the event, residents hold a thanksgiving ritual called buk teko, marking the start of lunar new year festivities. Residents also carried gunungan along the major roads, lit by hundreds of lanterns, while singing traditional Javanese songs, inviting people to join their evening procession.

“Grebeg Sudiro is a symbol of cultural and religious harmony in Surakarta’s Chinatown. This tradition should be preserved because we all can learn many things from their way of living in tolerance. They are a true example of the beauty of diversity,” Surakarta Mayor FX Hadi Rudyatmo said.

In spite of major rain, thousands enthusiastically observed the procession. The peak of Grebeg was marked by a mass tussle for the gunungan. While the piles of vegetables and snacks should have been grabbed at Pasar Gede, spectators were so eager they thronged the food 200 meters from the finish line.

Grebeg Sudiro no longer belongs to the Sudiroprajan Chinatown alone. The annual carnival has become part of the cultural treasure of Surakarta, a symbol that reminds people of the growing peace and harmony between Chinese and Javanese.

“Grebeg further affirms the continuous Chinese-Javanese acculturation, not only the assimilation of individuals but also that of arts and culture. It’s just like ampyang, with the nuts representing the Chinese and the brown sugar the Javanese,” said chief organiser Sarwanto Harto Mulyono.

 

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