Fri, 29 Sep 2000

Chinese influence pervades Singkawang

By Erma S. Ranik

SINGKAWANG, West Kalimantan (JP): A clue to what makes Singkawang special can be found in its popular name, "the city of a thousand temples".

Travelers bound for West Kalimantan should include a stop in this administrative town in Bengkayang regency, 140 kilometers from the provincial capital of Pontianak.

Much of the town's attraction is physical, with its location at the foot of a mountain. Yet even more interesting are the lives of the local Chinese community, known by the old term Tionghoa,

The majority of the population is ethnic Chinese, with their presence signified by the distinctive decorations and architecture throughout town. Local people know the Chinese buildings as kelenteng or Pek Kong.

Singkawang is a narrow town and it is easy for newcomers to get lost among the structures resembling soapboxes. It is advisable to bring a guide if you plan to venture far.

Lovers of Chinese cuisine will find themselves in culinary heaven in Singkawang. A variety of food can be found on the corner of Jl. Bawal, in the middle of Singkawang Market, which stays open for night owls until 4 a.m. Muslim visitors, however, must be careful to ensure no pork products are used in their meals.

The area's ceramics are also renowned and have become a coveted souvenir for travelers. Visitors must travel to Sedau, a subdistrict of Tujuhbelas, five kilometers from the center of Singkawang.

It is said the ceramic artisans in Sedau are direct descendants of ones from China. Not surprisingly, the ceramics have distinctive Chinese characteristics.

"The Chinese ceramics have become the traditional gifts to be brought back from Singkawang," said ceramics maker Abong.

Nobody knows exactly when the ethnic Chinese came to West Kalimantan for the first time, although many trace their presence back to the troops of Kublai Khan who landed at Tanjungpura Ketapang harbor in 1292.

Admiral Ceng Ho and his troops marked the second stage of the arrival of the ethnic Chinese in 1463 he came to West Kalimantan as ordered by the emperor Ceng Su alias Jung Lo, the 4th emperor of the Ming dynasty. According to legend, he settled in West Kalimantan and married a local.

The influx increased when Sultan Sambas opened trade relations with China in the 17th century. The foreigners were employed in the Sultan's gold mines.

Their number increased over the years. Based on the 1995 population, there 435,600 people of Chinese descent, nearly 12 percent of the total population of the province. The majority of them lived in the municipalities of Pontianak and Singkawang, which at that time were still in the regency of Sambas.

In Singkawang itself, there is no definite figure on the number of ethnic Chinese, but XF Asali from the community estimated it was 80 percent of the population.

"Most of them are Khek (Haka)," he explained.

The Khek, who come from the province of Guangdong, were traditionally looked down upon by other Chinese, Asali said, "because most of them work as farmers, fishermen or in other forms of manual labor".

The people are known as hard workers and many of them have persevered to become successful. Among those hailing from Singkawang is tycoon Prayogo Pangestu, who reportedly started out as a conductor on public buses.

Generally, however, the ethnic Chinese in Singkawang barely eke out a living as farmers and fishermen. Many are unable to afford to send their children to school.

Many young people leave the town to seek jobs in other areas, with young women often becoming migrant workers in Taiwan and marrying local men.


Unlike ethnic Chinese in Java who feel obliged to use Indonesian in public, the residents of Singkawang speak their Chinese dialect whenever they please.

They are not fully proficient in Indonesian, with their Chinese accent coming through (many of the older members of the community cannot speak Indonesian).

Only a few of them are Catholic or Protestant, with most officially Buddhist but holding to Confucianism. However, they keep their beliefs under wraps.

"They are afraid of being considered against the government," Asali said again.

Tjang Fo Han, who is in charge of the Buddhist monastery Cung Yang Pek Khong, said there was no basic difference between the followers of Buddhism and those of Taoism. "If Buddhists worship gods who are in heaven, we worship gods who are on earth."

As they are not free to acknowledge their religion in public, they have to use another name for their place of worship. On nearly every Pek Hong is written the word Vihara, the name of a Buddhist place of worship. Some of the kelenteng also place statues of Buddha, "for security reasons", said Fo Hon.

Ethnic Tionghoa are obliged to pray at the Pek Hong twice in a month, on the first and the 15th day of the Chinese calender, Fo Hon said. They can pray in any Pek Hong which are found in every corner of the town.

But more people prefer to pray in the Vihara Chung Yang Pek Khong, which is already 67 years old. "It seems we'll get more luck when we pray here," Akhung, 33, said.

The ethnic Chinese still retain their traditional rites, such as burials and Cap Go Meh rites.

Cap Go Meh is classified as extraordinary because a variety of Chinese supernatural powers are displayed in special ceremonies. The dukun (shaman), who are usually called tatung/laoya, exhibit their supernatural strength in ceremonies similar to Banten's art of debus. They can be stabbed or whipped, but they remain impervious to pain.

The Naga Barongsai dance also enlivens the Cap Go Meh atmosphere. When the show is over, visitors ask the shamans to predict their future or the fortune of their businesses. The more famous the shaman, the more people will come to ask for his advice.

It has not always been easy days for the Chinese of Singkawang. Like other ethnic Chinese, they kept quiet during the repressive New Order. In 1967 there was a rebellion by the Serawak People's Movement Troops/the North Kalimantan People Troops in West Kalimantan, and Indonesian troops pitted the local Dayak people against them. It led to racial unrest in which thousands are estimated to have died.

The author is an editor of Kalimantan Review Magazine, published by Pontianak Dayakology.