Benny Setiadi was no taller than his father's waist when his parents told him about the magical barongsai, the traditional dance of Chinese acrobats cloaked in lion costumes. They said the barongsai brings good fortune. But the rituals of his Chinese ancestors had been banned by the Indonesian government shortly before his birth, and Setiadi could glimpse the dance only on foreign television broadcasts.
So when a pair of barongsai lions leapt on stage this evening to the clatter and crash of drums and cymbals, Setiadi's eyes opened wide. Now 32, this was the first time he had ever seen these glorious pink and white "beasts" with their shimmering coats of fur and sequins in person.
"We feel full of joy. It's a sign of the new openness," he said, standing beneath a string of delicate red lanterns at a street festival for Chinese New Year celebrations, which began today.
This year marks the official coming out of Indonesia's Chinese minority, whose culture was forced underground during more than three decades of repression by former president Suharto. As recently as five years ago, Chinese New Year was celebrated quietly in private homes, if at all.
Since Suharto's ouster in 1998, the Chinese have increasingly raised red lanterns for the lunar New Year, called Imlek, and the storied barongsai and liong dragon dancers have gradually returned to the streets. But this year, President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared Chinese New Year a national holiday.
Ritchie Tan, 40, a marketing executive, is just old enough to recall the barongsai and the dragon dancers from his childhood. They would emerge from the Buddhist temple in the old downtown neighborhood where he was raised and prance through the streets. Tonight the memories came streaming back.
"I never expected to see this day," Tan said as a long, golden dragon bobbed and undulated above the cobblestones, propelled on poles by 10 young men. "We feel great that the general public can accept our culture and we can express who we are."
During his 32-year rule, Suharto imposed policies of forced assimilation for the Chinese minority, claiming that the group could become a fifth column for communist China. He banned Chinese newspapers and closed their schools, prohibited any public use of Chinese characters and outlawed the import of Chinese books and traditional medicines. The Chinese were pressured to adopt Indonesian-sounding names, and most did. The community was even forbidden to practice the Chinese exercise tai chi.
The ethnic Chinese were also barred from the senior ranks of the government and military and severely limited in attending universities. As a result, many went into business, where they were allowed to flourish in return for bankrolling Suharto, his cronies and officials.
"The Chinese were confined to doing business to be milked and to being scapegoats if necessary," said Bob Widyahartono, an ethnic Chinese economist at Trisakti University in Jakarta.
Their domination of the country's commercial life engendered a resentment among many indigenous Indonesians that erupted in savage riots in 1998 that killed hundreds of Chinese. The bloodshed, looting and rapes of Chinese women horrified many Indonesians, making them more open to the renewal of Chinese culture, according to experts on the Chinese minority. Coupled with a society-wide campaign to restore democracy to Indonesia after Suharto's fall, the violence set the stage for a partial lifting of the long-standing strictures on the Chinese, who make up less than 5 percent of Indonesia's population, or about 10 million people.
As a boy during the dark days of Suharto's rule, Suherman secretly studied the Chinese rituals of his ancestors at the Wihara Dharma Bhakti temple, a tranquil complex of Buddhist shrines surrounded by narrow, back streets bustling with motorized rickshaws and vendors peddling bananas, pineapples and caged birds. The elders instructed Suherman on how to maintain the traditions and taught him to read and write Chinese.
"During Suharto, Mandarin Chinese characters were not allowed even inside the temple. You would be arrested if they found out," recalled Suherman, 30, who works at the temple in Jakarta's Petak Sembilan quarter and like many Indonesians uses just one name. "So many years passed without enlightenment that people no longer remember the deeper meaning of the rituals."
For the Year of the Goat, Jakarta's modern shopping malls are adorned in red and gold. Thick bunches of faux red firecrackers hang like chili peppers from the ceilings alongside paper lanterns. Potted pussy willows and bamboo trees festooned with traditional red envelopes for gift money are offered for sale. Department stores that a month ago blared "White Christmas" and other carols are now serenading patrons with Chinese music.
In the tarpaulin-covered markets of the Glodok neighborhood, long the center of Chinese life, tables are heavy with holiday treats, including wrapped candy boxes, pomelo fruit and cakes made from sticky rice and red sugar.
Nor is Chinese culture relegated solely to this annual festival. In recent years, five new Chinese newspapers have hit the streets and a Chinese-language radio station has begun broadcasting.
But discrimination continues. Ethnic Chinese are still described on their birth certificates as "foreign Orientals," according to Eddie Lembong, general chairman of the Chinese Indonesian Association.
And though the government has ordered that all citizens be treated equally, ethnic Chinese must still apply for a certificate stating their parents were Indonesian citizens. The process can take years and repeated bribes. Without the certificate, it can be impossible to obtain a passport, business license or admission to a university.
This issue burst into public view last year when Hendrawan, Indonesia's top badminton player and the 2001 world champion, complained to the media that he was having trouble getting his citizenship certificate despite being born in the country, as were his parents, because he was ethnic Chinese. His disclosure caused a furor in Indonesia, where badminton is considered the national sport, and Megawati personally intervened to secure Hendrawan's documents.
Despite Suharto's fall, many Chinese remain deeply uneasy about their place in Indonesian society and are wary about a possible backlash if their New Year celebrations are too extravagant.
"I hope the Chinese will not overact or be overjoyed because this can be a boomerang," said Harry Tjan Silalahi, an ethnic Chinese and an expert on political and social affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. "But otherwise, this can be a very good situation. The Chinese community is emancipating itself."