Sun, 02 Feb 2003

'Barongsai' troupe aims at young people

Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

From outside the Tan Su Tjie crematorium on Jl. Pinangsia III in Kota, West Jakarta, the sound of drums being beaten was heard last Thursday night, combined with the clash of cymbals and the sound of traditional gongs.

At the back of the building, inside a white hall with a high ceiling, some 30 young people between the ages of 13 and 20 were rehearsing for a barongsai (traditional Chinese lion dance) performance.

They are members of a barongsai troupe owned by the Kong Ha Hong Foundation, a Chinese-Indonesian social group.

Some of the members were practicing their wushu martial arts movements using sticks, while others were doing acrobats or running and jumping on a series of red poles.

Soon enough, the lion dance began, as two young men held aloft a colorful lion, undulated between the poles before jumping and performing a series of acrobatic yet elegant movements.

Their peers clapped once in a while, and clapped even harder as soon as the two finished their performance and jumped back down to the floor.

"We have seven shows tomorrow, so we have to split our 50 members into several groups. On Saturday, there will be even more shows," said the troupe's trainer, Salim Tan, 60.

Hectic as it is, Salim could not hide his satisfaction at being so in demand, including the 30 performances they have given in the past two weeks.

"I feel content because we can now perform the barongsai in public, unlike years ago when it was banned," Salim said.

Under former president Soeharto, ethnic Chinese were banned from publicly celebrating the Lunar New Year, as well as making any other open display of their culture, as part of the regime's assimilation policy.

It was not until 2000 that the policy was revoked by former president Abdurrahman Wahid.

Barongsai troupes then began to emerge in the capital and their numbers have now reached over 60. Just on Jl. Pinangsia there are three troupes.

Ronald Sjarif, one of the founders of Kong Ha Hong Foundation, said the foundation's troupe was the largest in town.

"We own over 30 barongsai costumes and two liong (dragon dance) costumes. Other troupes only have maybe two or three," Ronald said.

The main purpose for establishing the troupe, he said, was to preserve Chinese culture.

"I'd like to emphasize that the barongsai is a traditional art, not related to religious teaching. It's not a ritual thing, but art and also sports. It doesn't require a trance or burning incense, etc.," Ronald said.

Another purpose of the troupe, he said, was to get children and young people involved in healthy activities and to keep them away from drugs.

The troupe recruits children as young as 8 and up to a maximum age of 20.

It is not easy, however, establishing a barongsai troupe filled with children, who seem to have so many other activities going on in their lives.

"There are so many temptations for kids in this metropolitan city. It's very good when they are willing to join the troupe," he said.

Another obstacle is the children's parents, who fear that the troupe will interfere in their children's studies, or that the barongsai is just too dangerous to perform.

Dewi, 15, only smiled when asked about the risk of falling off one of the poles used in the dance.

"I'm getting used to spraining my ankles. He got a concussion," she said, pointing to one of the boys in the troupe.

"I mean, we know the risks. But I really like doing this. It's so much fun," she said, adding that she has been doing it for four years.

Earning some money is also part of the fun, beside the chance to travel around Indonesia or even abroad.

Four months after it was established, the troupe won a prize at a barongsai competition in Hong Kong in 2001, performing a flawless dance.

"Our only flaw was running over the allotted time. And we didn't bring our own equipment. But we ranked 13 out of over 30 participants, and we were still really new," Ronald said.

The competition proved that local troupes are able to compete with performers from other countries.

"It also made us realize that the barongsai is no longer owned by a certain country or religion. There were participants from western countries and the dancers were also western, not of Chinese descent," Ronald said.

"We hope that can happen here, too. That the barongsai will be recognized as part of Indonesian culture, instead of Chinese culture," he said.