A troupe of lion dancers jerk and sway down a busy Jakarta street to usher in the Lunar 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 Indonesian leader Suharto ruled the country 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,” Adrian Yap, 25, said.
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.
However, 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 centers 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 colorful 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,” she added.
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.
“Every store usually comes up with different schemes, just like during Christmas and Eid al-Fitr holidays,” said Fetty Kwartati, spokesperson for Mitra Adi Perkasa, the company that operates such stores as Debenhams, Seibu and SOGO.
“Every festive season, including the Chinese [Lunar] New Year, we boost retail sales,” Kwartati said.
“But the volumes are not as high as during Eid-al-Fitr,” she added.
For Mandarin teacher Fifi Effendi the newfound acceptance of Chinese culture has made it easier for young Chinese-Indonesians to rediscover their roots.
“I had to go to China to learn Mandarin in 1997 when I was in my 30s. I had seen how [badly] Chinese were treated here and I was searching for my identity,” the 47-year-old said.
Now, young Chinese-Indonesians have much easier access to their own culture. Mandarin classes and even lessons for traditional Chinese musical instruments are offered as electives at some schools.
“When I started teaching Mandarin in 2000, no one taught it and no one knew how to teach it,” she said. “Now, everyone is able to open Mandarin-language centers and the language is in hot demand.”
Student Meliani Xu, 21, decided to go to Shanghai to pursue her mother tongue and immerse herself in her lost heritage.
“My parents felt very strongly about Chinese culture,” she said, adding that she and her siblings “want to preserve our culture for our children as well.”
Xu said she was not alone.
“I met so many Indonesians over there [in China], so it’s definitely a growing trend,” she said.
Yap said that while he grew up understanding a Chinese dialect he is thankful for the public Lunar New Year celebrations, because it is the only time he feels “Chinese.”
Fifi Effendi said that non-Chinese have been so impressed by displays of Chinese culture that they now want to emulate it.
“They’re attracted to Chinese culture, they say we work hard. They want to know our culture and our language now,” she said.
“It makes me happy. We’re now part of Indonesia,” Effendi added.
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