The Indonesian government has added another cultural event of its ethnic Chinese community to its official list of top attractions in a bid to lure more domestic and international tourists.
Chap Goh Mei marks the end of the Chinese New Year period, and the most lavish celebrations take place in Singkawang, a coastal town of roughly 240,000 in West Kalimantan on Borneo. About 40% of the town’s residents are of Chinese descent, but the celebration itself is a fusion of Chinese, indigenous Dayak and Malay cultures, laden with mysticism and supernatural power.
The highlight of the annual festival is the parade featuring Tatung, or people who are believed to have supernatural powers because they are possessed by the spirits of their ancestors or deities.
Dressed in the colorful garb traditional Chinese and Dayak warriors, more than 800 Tatungs from Singkawang and neighboring towns, as well as from Malaysia and Australia, thronged the town’s main streets on the last day of the celebration on Feb 8.
Spectators lining the parade route watched in awe as marchers demonstrated their supernatural abilities by having their faces and bodies pierced with sharp metal objects. Some were hoisted wooden chairs, but instead of soft upholstery, the seat, backrest, and armrest contain rows of sharp blades and arrows.
“We are proud that Chap Goh Mei in Singkawang is included again in the tourism ministry’s annual top 100 calendar of events, and has become one of the top festival destinations for tourists,” Mayor of Singkawang, Tjhai Chui Mie said prior to the parade.
The annual parade was the culmination of two weeks festivities that started on Jan 23. It has become the main attraction to spur economic growth in Singkawang, through the development in the real sector, the mayor added.
Last year’s festivities attracted 76,964 foreign and domestic tourists, an increase from about 70,000 in 2018, according to the ministry.
Sutarmidji, governor of West Kalimantan, acknowledged the festivities were the biggest tourism event in the province.
“When I was the mayor of Pontianak, I did not allow the Tatung parade to be held during the city’s Chap Goh Mei celebration so that it would remain the main attraction for Singkawang,” he said.
“Pontianak can have the longest dragon dance, but the Tatung parade should be the focus of Singkawang’s Chap Goh Mei.”
Dian Halidi, a tourist from Sumbawa Besar, the main city on Sumba Island in central Indonesia, said he had come to the festivities because he was curious to see the Tatung parade in person.
“I came here just by myself and this is my first time in Singkawang. It turned out the Chap Goh Mei here is really amazing and as spectacular as I have been seeing on television.”
Hotels and homestays in the city were fully booked ahead of the parade, wit room rates as much four times higher than they normally are. Some tour operators even had to book the rooms for their clients a year in advance.
However, concern about the coronavirus in recent weeks led to some people having second thoughts about traveling, although Indonesia officially has reported no cases of infection yet.
Hotel occupancy and visitor numbers slipped as a result, although Daniel, a manager of a homestay in Central Singkawang, said the rooms in his establishment were fully booked for the festivities.
“But reservations and confirmations were slow and occurred at the last minute,” he said.
Hellen Chia, who comes from a family of Tatung and whose siblings are Tatungs from the Tho Fab Kiung temple took part in the parade, said that this year’s crowds of spectators were smaller compared to last year.
Dewi Virtana, a tour leader from a tour operator in Surabaya, East Java, said her company took just one group of 31 tourists to Singkawang this year, compared with three groups last year.
“I think it was mainly due to the rising prices of plane tickets, instead of the coronavirus,” she said.
But another tour operator based in Pontianak, Sentosa Tour, reported a small upturn this year. One of its tour leaders, Willy, said the company had about 200 guests this year, compared to 180 last year.
“We see the number of clients increase every year, he said. “Ninety percent of our clients are domestic, from other big cities in the country, and we also had a few foreign visitors from Japan and Australia who booked our private tours.”
In a bid to attract more tourists to the city, which is about four-hour drive from Pontianak, Mayor Thjai said the city has allocated and cleared an area of 151.45 hectares to build an airport and is seeking to develop it under a public-private partnership.
According to the transport ministry, the first phase of the airport will have a 1,400-metre runway that could accommodate ATR aircraft. A 2,600-metre runway that would allow a Boeing 737 to land could be developed in the future.
A day before the parade, the Tatung also toured the city performing a road cleansing ritual to ward off bad spirits. They also paid respects to their ancestors and deities by visiting various temples and houses of worships, or cetiya, scattered around Singkawang, which is known as the city of a thousand temples.
An entourage from the Hok Lo Nam temple also took part in the ritual. Carrying five dolls made of rattan and dressed in colorful Chinese costumes, the entourage visited a cetiya at a century-old mansion belonging to the Thjia clan in the city center, to pay their respect to the sea goddess to which the cetiya is dedicated.
The dolls were believed to have been possessed by the spirits of their ancestors and deities, as well as a local Malay elder identified as Datuk Suleiman.
More cities in the country with a large population of Chinese descent have been making Chap Goh Mei, or the 15th day of the Chinese new year an annual celebration. They include Jakarta, Palembang in South Sumatra, Bali, and Bogor in West Java.
Bogor celebrated in style this year, with organizers buoyed by the tourism ministry’s decision to place the festival on its official calendar of events.
The West Java provincial administration has even disbursed 30 billion rupiahs to revamp Suryakencana Street, the main street where the annual Chap Goh Mei parade is held in Bogor, 55 kilometers south of Jakarta.
“This is a show of support from the provincial administration,” West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil said.
The story was first published in Bangkok Post