Singkawang Cap Go Meh (Borneo, Indonesia): not the usual Chinese Lantern festival 11
Singkawang, Cap Go Meh

Singkawang Cap Go Meh (Borneo, Indonesia): not the usual Chinese Lantern festival

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cap go meh indonesia
Hakka Tatung at Chap Go Meh in Singkawang

Cap Go Meh (Chap Go Mei, Chap Go Meh)
The traditional Chinese Lantern Festival of Singkawang
Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia

Day 1 – prayers or riots?

Singkawang, Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia. The fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year is approaching, it will conclude the celebrations for the new year.

And here, in this Taoist Chinese majority town, it is still alive an ancient tradition. The streets must be metaphysically cleaned to be ready to welcome the new year.

On the fourteenth day of the Chinese New Year, believers go to pray in all the temples of the city and surroundings.

The Chinese settled here more than three hundred years ago, as miners and traders, and had become Indonesian citizens for generations.

Singkawang is nicknamed the “city of a thousand temples” and really has a thousand temples, large, small, and microscopic.

On the fifteenth day, the Tatung, as they are called in Indonesia, are possessed by the spirits. Falling into a trance, they sit on sharp blades and pierce their faces with various tools.

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Lantern Festival Indonesia
February 21, the Singkawang’s Tatung perform without the permission of the authorities

It’s the morning of February 21, should now begin the Cap Go Meh (正月 半 Jang Ngiet Ban in Hakka), it should just be a day of prayer and there should be no performance today.

But already at 6 am at the main temple of the city, a van arrives. A father, his son, and a group of musicians, who play always the same rhythm with gongs and drums, to maintain the trance state of the Tatung.

A chair of sharp blades is placed in front of the entrance to the temple, the father enters dancing and goes to pray at the altar, still dancing. Then he goes out and jumps on the swords. So does his son, who seems still inexperienced and evidently suffering.

Then come two more vans, one carrying the musicians and a portable shrine. It’s the main Taoist goddess, Xi Wangmu, the Queen Mother of the West. They’re taking it in procession to all the other temples.

They invite us to get on the van with them, give us red hats and we go. We are the only foreigners at this event.

This is the street cleansing ceremony. We ask when and where will be the ceremony of possession, they say tomorrow, but do not know exactly.

The protest

singkawang Cap Go Meh
the state of trance allows the “shamans” to not bleed

We quickly realize that there is great movement around. It doesn’t seem to be just private prayers, as they told us.

It all looks very organized. After a few hours of visiting temples, we arrive in a countryside sanctuary filled with Tatung.

There’s a guy with 4 or 5 piercings in his face. We are unwittingly in the middle of a protest. The Indonesian government is anxious to make this tradition into a carnival for tourists.

In town, they are setting up the stands for the paying audience and the platform for the VIPs and the rulers of Singkawang, which are strangely Muslims (while the wide majority of the citizens are Chinese).

Our contact tells us that last year the Tatung, already possessed, sitting on the swords and with piercings stuck in their faces, had to wait until the end of the Mayor’s speech and various politicians jabber for two hours.

When the parade finally began it started to rain, the audience was gone and the Tatungs were now no longer possessed, out of the state of trance.

This is particularly dangerous because coming out of the possession the Tatung begin to feel the pain and when piercings are extracted blood spills.

Chap Go Mei Borneo Indonesia
women can also become a vehicle for the spirits

What’s worse, to create the carnival, the government decided to pay 1,000,000 rupiahs, 67€, every Tatung.

Obviously, the risk is that for some little money even those who have never done it before may try, risking their lives. The Tatung begin this practice as children, they usually belong to the same family.

We get back to the main temple where all the Tatung are arriving, they come, they pray. Watching them closely is clear that their conscience is not in this world.

There are only 4 or 5 policemen outside, in a state of bewilderment and concern. The ceremony was supposed to be tomorrow, and no one expected this demonstration, which in summary means “this is our tradition, it is a religious ceremony and politics needs to stay out.”

The brotherhood between Dayak and Chinese Hakka

Dayak Chap Go Meh Singkawang Borneo
the Dayak, natives of Borneo, join the ceremony along with Hakka Chinese

Around midday also the Dayak, the natives of Borneo, come to the temple. This shouldn’t be their festival, their Gods do not inhabit the Taoist temples.

But the relationship between Chinese and Dayak is so strong here that they decided to celebrate together. The Dayak come to pray in the Taoist temple as a sign of respect and some of them are Tatung.

We are told that under President Suharto, the Indonesian dictator from 1967 to 1998, Dayak and Chinese were mass killed by the government who tricked them both blaming the Dayak for the Chinese killings and the Chinese for the massacre of Dayak. Divide et impera.

This generated a war between the two groups, and many died. When they realized that it was the work of the dictatorship, they promised each other eternal mutual protection, renewing an alliance more than a century old.

A few years ago the Muslim administration wanted to eliminate a dragon statue, very dear to the Chinese. The Dayak came from the forest armed with machetes. The statue is still in place.

Dog Eating Lantern Festival Indonesia Borneo
a Dayak eats a raw dog in front of the police, it’s a sign of protest

We spend a couple of hours inside the temple watching people possessed by spirits, each accompanied by a personal shaman, responsible for piercing and lead the Tatung during the day.

In fact it seems they don’t see anything in front of them, but they know where they are going. It’s impossible to cross their glance.

In the square in front of the temple, we see a lot of people, we approach, a Dayak has just beheaded a puppy dog. They are eating it along with another Dayak, raw as it is.

He does it right in front of the police. The government banned the dogs eating practice, and this is a clear protest against the constant interference of the Indonesian Muslim majority.

In the evening we go to visit various temples to understand if it is possible to assist at the moment of the piercing.

We’ll visit four or five together with a Chinese friend from Singkawang, but all of them tell us that tomorrow they will not participate in the parade. They boycott.

Day 2 – religion or carnival?

Kaharingan religion Dayak
the spirits of Kaharingan, the religion of Dayak, join the Taost ones. Two worlds meet at Singkawang festival

We have tickets for the VIP grandstand, given to us by the family that is hosting us, they too are boycotting.

We don’t get on the VIP platform, but we can get a better position on the road where the ceremonial parade takes place.

The Mayor’s speech seems to last forever, with tremendous interludes. One above all when they try to play gongs and drums with results nothing short of embarrassing.

Then the national anthem, hand on heart.

Chap Go Mei Singkawang
apprenticeship to become Tatung is undertaken very soon

The parade begins, it lasts about an hour.
It’s sunny.

We know that a guy died. The government did not want to pay all of the participants claiming they had not made the performance, despite the obvious holes in their cheeks. And, to make matters worse, the pay is not 1 million rupiahs but 900,000. 100,000 are taxes.

Despite all this, the Tatung are many, most come from outside, the boycott was not total, the parade is impressive. But of the Tatung families of the city, not a trace, for them the rite has already been accomplished, the spirits Singkawang have eluded the trap.

Lantern Festival Indonesia
The only ethnic Malay Tatung of the festival

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  1. Oh my god, so this is what this festival is called! It’s a very interesting read, but I couldn’t seem to really look at the photos without cringing. Do you know that they do the same at the Vegetarian festival in Phuket? that’s actually the first time I’ve heard of it.
    Sarah |

  2. Thank you for this post! We are not a huge fans of this activity so we don’t have to much to say… This is not typical of our culture but if it’s ok for them….
    Anyway we love the traditional festivals!

  3. Oh my god, what kind of festival is this?!?! I didn’t really get if it’s something positive or negative!! Anyway really interesting and you wrote something new about a not well discovered part of the world: Indonesian Borneo! This place is on my bucket list after visiting Sumatra, Sulawesi and Lombok!! Thanks for sharing your experience, how did you feel when the man ate parts of the dog?!?! wow!! If you have any time go to my blog and read my experience in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi! 😀

  4. Well, looks like a total change of atmosphere, this Cap Go Meh festival. My last trip was Indonesia, but unfortunately I haven’t been to Borneo. It’s interesting to experience such cultural festivities. Where there a lot of tourists?

  5. This is just…wow.
    I have several facial piercings myself, but they’re purely for vanity/aesthetics and no religious or belief-based reasons, so who am I to judge the practice in this article?
    With that being said though, I’m still not sure whether piercing various holes in your face for the sake of a few euros is really worth it?! Surely you’d be left with scars and unsightly holes afterwards??
    Also, the photo of th man eating a dog raw kind of made me feel sick! Still, a very interesting read about something I’d never heard of before, so thank you for sharing!

    1. indeed the practice of paying the tatung is ruining this festival! Of course this is not how it’s supposed to be, it’s another trick of the government to turn it into a tourist parade, and very dangerous too, since you need to be trained to do this. The real tatung have no scars and no blood when they do this.

  6. Fascinating. What a shame the the government wants to turn a sacred ritual into a show for tourists. The bit about them coming our of the trance while the politicians waffled on made my toes curl! Hope they heed the protests…

  7. I’ve never seen anything like the Cap Go Meh festival but it looked interesting, albeit a bit gruesome…The piercings that they’re willing to go through is pretty amazing and also jumping on swords. Though I cringe at those photos, there’s a level of admiration I have for those who celebrate their culture. The protest though with the dog unnerves me a bit, and I’m sure it would’ve been more so if I saw it live. But it’s an interesting event during a gruesome part of their history.

    1. eating raw animals is part of the tradition, but the government has forbid this practice. That’s why it was a protest. Anyway, I know that people feels like that when is about dogs, but me myself I don-t see any difference with a lamb or a cow. It’s just cultural prospectives

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