Sat, 06 Mar 1999

Banned dragon dance reappears amid changing political climate

By Edi Petebang

PONTIANAK, West Kalimantan (JP): West Kalimantan again saw Chinese culture celebrated at this year's Chinese New Year with public performances of the dragon dance, which has been banned for more than two decades.

The dragon dance, known here as barongsai, enthralled crowds in Pontianak and Singkawang, especially the children who had only heard about the dance through magazines and television.

In West Kalimantan, the public performance of the barongsai was banned by Presidential Instruction No.1/1974. Although the ban has not been officially lifted, in keeping with the era of reform the ethnic Chinese in West Kalimantan are no longer afraid to perform the dance in public. The dance was performed in Pontianak at a rally for the National Mandate Party (PAN) last year.

"We did not violate the law. PAN wishes to eradicate the cultural repression of the ethnic Chinese. And frankly speaking, this is a way for us to attract people," said Muhamad Sani, PAN's secretary-general in West Kalimantan.

The barongsai is a very beautiful Chinese art form. Regrettably it was banned for political reasons, denying the public the opportunity to witness this wonderful dance. Its reappearance is also full of political nuances.

PAN supported four barongsai groups during this year's Imlek (Chinese New Year). There were also dance groups supported by Golkar, PDI and the local institute of resilience and defense (LKMD). For the first time, Golkar even circulated thousands of Imlek cards to ethnic Chinese citizens in West Kalimantan, the province with the highest ratio of ethnic Chinese.

Barongsai dances were performed here for 15 days, beginning on the New Year and ending on Cap Go Meh (the 15th day of the first Chinese month), which this year fell on March 3.

The barong (dragons) measured between four meters and six meters long, much shorter than the dragons used before the ban was enacted.

According to one barongsai dancer, Akhiet, the person at the head of the dragon must be well versed in kung fu. Barongsai dance steps resemble the kung fu moves used by Jet Lie and Jacky Chan in their films.

When a larger dragon is used, the performers must have great strength and endurance because a big dragon can weigh up to several hundred kilograms.

A big barong needs a lot of open-space for its performance. The smaller ones require relatively small spaces. Families visited by a barong are happy because tradition has it that they will receive good luck during the year. Each family visited by the dancers usually slip an angpau (red envelope containing money) into the mouth of the barong.

Before dragon dancers enter an area a messenger informs the residents and residents prepare their angpau. The sound of the orchestra which accompanies the dance is then heard approaching. A drum, a bell and two iron discs provide the music for the dance.

The smallest dragon is handled by two people: one person at the head and the other in the middle of the dragon, harmoniously controlling the dragon's movements. Other members of the dance group carry incense sticks, placing the sticks in temples or in front of houses. The scent of the incense makes one feel that they are witnessing a rare ceremony. Someone carrying a flag indicates which houses or buildings must be visited by the dancers. A dance group has a minimum of 10 members.

According to Lip Seng, a barongsai dancer, in the first three days after the New Year, his group was collecting about Rp 2 million a day. He said that the angpau collected by his group would be used for social work. Another group said they would use the money for road repairs in residential areas.

There were at least 10 dragon dance groups in Pontianak performing at this year's Imlek. Due to a lack of coordination, several groups visited the same neighborhood on the same day.

"I actually have my objections because one day may see five or six groups doing the rounds. But Imlek is only once a year and the proceeds are used for social work so I do not make a big deal out of it," said Kim Seng, a resident of Pontianak.

Some people are afraid that the revival of the barongsai will strengthen the bond between Chinese-Indonesians and Chinese culture. However, others are happy about the return of the barongsai.

"There is no need to worry about the barongsai. It can be turned into a tourist attraction," said Mochtaria M. Noch, a lecturer of political and social sciences at Tanjungpura University in Pontianak.

According to Lindawaty, an ethnic Chinese dentist, discrimination against Chinese-Indonesians may strengthen the bond between the ethnic Chinese and the culture and traditions of China.

"The ancestral heritage might become stronger among Chinese- Indonesians than it is among people in China because here it is threatened, discriminated against," she said.

She believed there was no reason to ban the barongsai. "It is just like the lion mask dance in Bali," she said.