Friday, August 26, 2011, 00:00
Passage to China
A group of people stands in front of a huge replica of a ship wearing red. They are all Chinese, burning incense just under the bow of the ship and gathering food for the long journey. They also chant in unison in Chinese while hundreds of spectators watch in anticipation.
The scene of the show is Pontianak, Indonesias West Kalimantan province.
The ships crew stands still, proudly staring forward. There is also the captain, the first officer, the second officer.
The crew is made of cardbox and plastic; but so what, one would say it is all about symbolism and those who created the crew did their best to give it great dignity and strength. The ship is real though and by now it is loaded with food, drinks, cigarettes and paper money. It stands on wooden supports and its sails, full of wind.
Right behind Bhakti Suci, the ceremonys compound, is a vast and well kept Chinese cemetery surrounded by green fields. The cemetery is the ships ultimate destination.
In one single act that lasts just a few minutes, the food is given to the local people who are mostly poor.
The men then lift flaming torches, thrusting them towards the sky. Fuel is spilled all over the vessel. Everybody moves back, except for a few of those who will send the crew, the ship and above all, the souls of Chinese immigrants, on their journey back home to China, to the mainland, where many Chinese people feel they truly belong.
Then the flames hot and merciless engulf the ship. Those of us close enough to the incendiary scene feel the heat hitting our skin, lifting up our hair. Loud explosions are heard as the wood crackles and burnt bits of paper swirl towards the sky. Everything is in motion and in its own way; the ship begins to sail, engulfed in a ball of fire.
Lost souls, deceased men and women, are going home.
Ghost money is burnt together with the ship to ensure that the spirits will be well taken care of, even in the other world.
The crew members do not budge as the flames take possession of their uniforms and then, of their bodies. They are expected to bring their people home and thats what they are doing, with calm pride, and precision.
Now they are going home. They are going back to China.
The ship is now one big ball of fire and firefighters turn on their sirens. Jets of water begin to join the flames fire and water, two extremes in breathtaking unison.
The ritual of Chung Yuan is performed on 15th day of the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar. This year in Pontianak, it was carried out on Aug 14. Six funeral houses participated in this annual event.
The popular belief is that the ritual leads the lost souls, through tears of those who are destined to remain; through flames and ash and many memories, back to where they belong. No amount of water and nor flames can erase the symbolic journey.
This more than a hundred-year-old ritual is performed in only two cities of Indonesia: Bagansiapi-api and Pontianak.
Pontianak is one of those places where hundreds of thousands Chinese were slaughtered in cold blood in a CIA-organised army coup led by General Suharto in October 1965 to sweep aside an infirm and shaky regime of President Sukarno.
In other parts of Indonesia where between 500,000 and 3,000,000 communists and Chinese were killed following the coup, Chinese people were barred from practicing their culture such as painting their places of worship in red. The ban list also included speaking in their native language.
The presence of Chinese communities in Indonesia, especially in Pontianak and West Kalimantan, can generally be felt not only because they are one of the three biggest ethnic groups of the cities population, but also because they are allowed to practice their culture.
Chinese communities here always try to live side by side with other ethnic groups - we respect each others cultures, says Xaverius Fuad Asali whose Chinese name used to be Lie Sau Fat.
In Indonesia, we say, Dimana tanah diinjak, disitu langit dijunjung. It means the place where you step on is the place where you hold the sky. The Chinese version is, If you enter the river, then follow its stream. If you enter a village, then follow its tradition., Asali explains.
The ritual is very important to continue this tradition, says Asali. We have to pass this from one generation to another.
The emphasis of chung yuan is the worship of ghosts. Gods are also worshipped but they are gods who either protect the community from ghosts or save ghosts from purgatory, wrote Paul Steven Sangren in his book, History and Magical Power in a Chinese Community.
During the seventh month, the gates of hell are said to open, allowing the spirits trapped there to roam the world of the living. One of the major reasons, commonly offered as an explanation of chung yuan rituals, is that the community must be protected from roaming dangerous ghosts.
We send lost souls back to the Chinese mainland (through chung yuan), says Charles Ferlani from Yayasan Bhakti Suci. Chinese communities in Pontianak and West Kalimantan came from all provinces in China. And it is most important for lost souls to go back to China
On Aug 14, the day chung yuan was took place in Pontianak the sky was overcast, but cleared moments before the ritual began. For locals, the bright spots of light in the sky are an auspicious sign, signal that the souls have been given clear passage back to their motherland.
Every year, our ship keeps getting longer by several centimeters. It means that its getting more crowded here, says Ferlani.
Or perhaps, more people crave the home they belong, eternally.
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