On Lunar New Year, Indonesia’s minority Chinese Muslims embrace ancient heritage
Ahead of Lunar New Year, Lili Sumiati is constantly busy cleaning her family home to sweep away ill fortune and open space for good luck.
The routine she follows is the same as that of the rest of her family: chores, shopping, cooking. Only, unlike them, she is Muslim.
It is estimated that Chinese-descended citizens make up about 3 percent of Indonesia’s Muslim-majority population of over 270 million. Most are either Buddhists or Christians, while a small minority professes Islam.
Every year, Sumiati’s family gathers at her mother’s home in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, to celebrate the new year together — to give children pocket money in red envelopes, light firecrackers, and feast. Widely observed across Asia, the Lunar New Year or Chinese New Year festival is believed to date back to the 14th century B.C., to the times of the Shang Dynasty, China’s earliest ruling dynasty, when people celebrated good harvests.
“I feel happy during Lunar New Year celebrations. It’s a form of gratitude, so as an ethnic Chinese, I am equally excited about the festivities,” Sumiati, a 48-year-old mother of four, told Arab News.
“Lunar New Year is cultural, and Muslims are respectful of non-Muslim traditions.”
Sumiati became Muslim right after high school. Initially, dining at home posed a problem as some dishes on the table would not be halal. Eventually, her mother began cooking only halal food for everyone to enjoy.
But for others, such as Qisha K., navigating between two identities can be a more complex affair.
“Being Chinese Muslim is a bit awkward,” she told Arab News. “It’s like we’re a minority within a minority.”
Most Indonesians have the idea that Chinese culture is one where pork is a staple food and so clashes with Islam, Qisha said.
“They forget that each of those things is just a sliver of the culture and religion. And, honestly, it’s very easy to eat halal Chinese food in Indonesia.”
On the other hand, her unfamiliarity with the Chinese language is also a source of insecurity.
Many Indonesian Chinese are unfamiliar with the speech of their great-grandfathers, which was banned for decades under former President Suharto, who put in place restrictive policies of forced assimilation, some of which were only lifted years after his regime fell in the late 1990s.
Those, such as 29-year-old Qisha, or her parents, had no chance to learn Chinese at school.
Growing up in Jakarta as both Muslim and Chinese, she often felt that she did not belong. But during the Lunar New Year festival that feeling disappears.
“It’s like the time I can embrace and go all out to show my appreciation of my heritage,” she said.
“Lunar New Year makes me feel like I actually do belong.”
In 2023, Chinese New Year falls on Jan. 22 and will be celebrated for another two weeks.
For Jodi Baskoro, 37, from Jakarta, the festival is a way to reconnect with his ancestry.
Baskoro realized only recently how little he knows about the Chinese side of his mixed family. “As I’m getting older, I’m starting to embrace my Chinese heritage,” he told Arab News.
His curiosity was piqued as he learned more about Indonesia’s discriminatory treatment of ethnic Chinese, whose role in society has always been complex.
“I feel like we, as Chinese Indonesians, never had a chance to just live. We are forced to adapt and yet get shunned at the same time,” he said.
“Celebrated Chinese Indonesians are often athletes, businessmen, or some kind of clerics — we need to be worth something just to be accepted.”
In his personal celebration of Lunar New Year, Baskoro looks for traditional food items, such as mooncakes and mandarin oranges. This year, he also bought some traditional knick-knacks for good luck.
“I don’t know much about my heritage,” he said. “This cultural event is the least I can do for now.”