Chinese New Year 2014 – Learning More About the Tionghoa Ethnicity

Submitted by viravira on 3 February 2014   •  Destination

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The smell of incense filled the damp narrow alleys. It kept me up that morning as I had failed to sip a cup of caffeine. The burned incense always makes me happy as it reminds me of Bali and indicates that I’m traveling. On the contrary, I was roaming the town I’ve called my second home for 6 years. Jakarta. I was in the narrow streets of North Jakarta on a Chinese New Year’s day, and even though I was partially awake, I really loved the feel of venturing new faces of this city.

 Chinese New Year

Gong Xi! “Congratulations!” as the Chinese would say. I’ve heard that it’s pronounced kinda like a ‘Khong Xi’ but I’m not sure how exactly. The short man in the black and red attire complete with a hat that had a fake braid on it, told me how to say it, but I could hear that my accent was still missing a few half notes. Songs in Chinese language came from within the main hall as I exchanged ‘Gong Xi!’ with the old man in the yard. We were standing in the court of St. Maria De Fatima Catholic Church, our first stop of many others on our trip with Gelar Nusantara.

This church was once home of a wealthy Tionghoa (Indonesian ethnicity for Chinese descendants) family, which was then turned into a church. What I’ve just learned is that the Chinese New Year can be irrelevant to religion; it’s about tradition, no matter how much incense and candles are burned. The old man’s eyes turned into frowns and his mouth gave me a big smile after I congratulated him and bid farewell. Good to exchange smiles so early in the morning.

Chinese New Year


Not far from the church was a temple. Toasebio Temple is one of the oldest temples in Jakarta. The temple court was filled with less prosperous people, waiting for that moment where the temple (‘s administrators) will give out money and goods after the celebration. As we entered the great doors, we were welcomed by burning red candles with notes attached to them, indicating they were dedicated to a certain person or cause. Aaahhh, more smell of incense!

Chinese New Year


Toasebio Temple was built in 1509, and rebuilt in 1750-1752 after a huge fire had burned it down. There were a few remains of the original church but not much. However, what is fairly new is still about 261 years old. This temple is dedicated for the ‘Dog of the sky’. I don’t know what that means, but it sure sounds like a super K9 worth worshiping.

That morning, we were guided and accompanied by prominent legislative member, Ernawati Sugondo. To be honest, I googled her after the trip. Turns out, she is a really respected lady amongst the local Chinese community to fight for Indonesian citizenship. That’s one tough lady! But she wasn’t the only source we had that morning. Upon our visit to the Vihara Dharma Bakti temple, the oldest temple in Jakarta, we were educated by the security guys. They had been working for the past few days and were able to fill us in with the actual information.

Although we kept the conversation light, surprisingly Pak Saripuddin was pretty sharp when it came to the history of the Tionghoa people. He had been visiting the Museum Sejarah Jakarta (Jakarta History Museum) and read a thing or two. All of his stories were concurred by Pak Casmo, an elderly security guard out of uniform. He’s done his homework more than I can say for myself.

Chinese New Year


Another source that Gelar Nusantara proudly had on their trip was JJ Rizal, a prominent, and commonly controversial, historian. He was kinda like a walking history library, as he knew a lot of the past and its connection to each other. It was easy listening to him even after lunch with the gentle breeze of the Sin Ming Hue house, owned by the famous and wealthy Khouw. He explained about the house and being a student in house turned into a school. He explained about much of the family, who were one of the most wealthiest and influential families around. He then continued more on the city’s history and the influence of the Chinese people, who were pretty much the founders of this city, too. Information kept rolling out of his mouth and I eventually gave up taking down notes ‘cause it was … a lot!

Chinese New Year


Interestingly, when discussing about history, it wont be too far off environmental issues. I think my eyes turned super bright every time JJ Rizal mentioned something related to nature. Amongst the thing he talked about, he mentioned a few spots that was known to be flooding areas, the correlation of alligators to the Betawi people, and how Jakarta is a sediment plain with changing river structures. Me likey!

Chinese New Year

Other stops we made on this trip were, seeing what remains or what things used to exist. The rivers of the area used to be able to let 10 meters wide boats pass and sail all the way to Bogor, before sedimentations and settlement started happening. Because business was booming through this river, it was the taxes from boats passing that made VOC rich. Aaarrhgg! Learned so much!! Cant. Write. Them. All.

Aside to feeling enlightened by JJ Rizal, I also felt major bummed to know that our history has lost a lot of its documentation and how countless historical evidence are either missing or in heartbreaking conditions. I wish I could say that it was the government’s fault, but just catching up with history now probably means my ignorance isn’t helping either.

Chinese New Year

By the end of the trip, I was sleeping in the bus with my mouth open. I usually do that when I’m exhausted. Good thing Vira was in slumber land too, so she didn’t take a picture of me in action. It had been a tiring day, but the kind that I enjoy the most; traveling and learning new things. I have a different respect for the Tionghoa people now. I’ve always known that they deserved to be treated as the same first class citizen, but I’ve come to realize that their lineage has also built this nation more than I had ever known. I also have more respect for Jakarta, it’s a lot larger that I thought it was. I know that I’m way behind my history lesson, but now I’m inspired to learn more!

It was a good Chinese New Year. Gong xi to all that is celebrating.


Gelar, the organizer of this Chinese New Year tour

We traveled with Gelar Nusantara who we’ve written about before here and here. Briefly, we love this organization for what they are doing. We’ve recently learned that they are concerned about Indonesian culture and preservation. Because it takes a lot of effort to bring the authentic cultures to the people, they decided to change their ways and bring the people to the culture by making tours with important people that know their stuff, and not just mere tour guides, for deeper insights. They may cost more than your average tours but if you’re really interested in culture, the money is totally worth it. We toadilly recommend them, guys!

 Chinese New Year - the tour participants

For their website you can click here or Click here for more information on Gelar’s trips in 2014.

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2 Comments on "Chinese New Year 2014 – Learning More About the Tionghoa Ethnicity"

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Timothy W Pawiro
5 years 4 months ago

Sometimes it’s really nice to use a tour guide when visiting a place. With that, not only we get good pictures, but also add more knowledge …

Perhaps next time I will go to Petak Sembilan again and get some insight from the organizer that you joined 🙂


5 years 4 months ago

Sometimes, we travel to learn, do we not? It was the information that was priceless. Please do 🙂