Wednesday, September 08, 2004

TEMPO's Special Report: Chinese Indonesians (11 of 14)

Dark-Skinned Lion from the South

Lion dance performances, concerts featuring Chinese traditional musical instruments, and Chinese songs in nasyid, are now quite commonplace.

In the present reformation era, ethnic Chinese Indonesians may evoke immediate association with lion dance performers that can jump high in a flash. The lion dance performer, about 3 meters above the ground, raises the head of the lion and its front legs and all of a sudden changes the rhythm of his movement to pounce on a bundle of vegetables hanging from a pole.

One afternoon in mid-July, the audience watching a lion dance performance at the Jakarta Fairground held its breath. The star performer was a youngster with a Malay face, a very flexible body and a high level of acrobatic skill. What really captivated the audience was the way he allowed his body, head down, to swing in the air like a pendulum as he hooked his left leg at the pole. This movement mesmerized the audience but the lion head he played showed a smile. The mouth of the lion was open and its right eye was ogling in a funny and attractive way.

That was the Lion from the South. The springing movement of the head showed great agility while the body did not move that much as it had to provide a balance from behind. The attraction came to its peak when the lion jumped to gobble an envelope containing some money-usually called lay see. The Lion from the South often appears with its great humor. It swallows envelopes that are tied to a bundle of watercress, which is a gift for the lion. The Lion from the South differs from the Lion from the North, which shows aggressive movement and has a strong instinct to fight. During the Old and the New Order eras, the Lion from the North, played with various aggressive martial arts techniques from northern China, was dominant. The lion dance groups from Ambarawa and Semarang usually have this characteristic.

Outwardly, the Lion from the South is a figure of a lion that has a scaled body and two or four legs. The lion figure is played by dark-skinned youngsters with round eyes and curly hair and, of course, also by young yellow-skinned people with slanted eyes. Oscar Kam Hok Kan, who is of Fujian origin and has been organizing a lion dance troupe since 1975, refers to the presence of indigenous and non-indigenous youngsters in his troupe as the manifestation of the country's motto of "Unity in Diversity." Behind the Jatinegara Market in East Jakarta, Oscar, now in his 60s, organizes and trains some 40 youngsters in his lion dance troupe called Bel Pas (an acronym comprising "bel" from "belakang"-behind-and "pas" from "pasar"-market). This lion dance troupe has strong teamwork and often performs in many events. Its members are from different ethnic groups and have various professional backgrounds, ranging from market hands, kiosk owners, to pupils and university students.

Today the Lion from the South is no longer alone and separated from its surroundings. Sucipto, 57, a martial arts teacher and the owner of Genta Suci, a wushu or Chinese martial arts school that oversees the L'ung Chio Dragon Lion Dance Troupe, for example, has also said that the members of the dragon lion dance troupe are of diverse backgrounds. "Mostly they live around my house," he said. Then he talked about regeneration. His father organized the dragon lion dance troupe and now his son, Herry Siswantoro (Lim Swie Kiong), has been involved in running the troupe since the 1990s.

Every day, in the training ground of this troupe, somewhere in Cimanggis, Depok, West Java, young people aged between 8 and 25 years, are busy doing exercises to ensure that they can easily make their gong wu movement, lift weights and maintain their flexibility. In fact, in an open building measuring 7x20 meters, these young people also practice Chinese martial arts in spaces among iron poles and punch bags. Martial arts are not the main program, though. Basic movements are gradually choreographed in the composition of a lion dance movement. At first they perform on the floor, then on benches and finally on poles. "Performing a lion dance on poles is quite difficult," said Sucipto, née Lim Tiong Giok, a third Dan Kyokushinkai black belt and now seriously learning wushu.

Times have indeed changed and the lion dance performers have now jumped over the fences that protect but at the same time surround them. In Jombang, East Java, lion dance performances more frequently take place than "kuda lumping" show (plait-work horse that men dance into a trance). The lion dance performances are usually held in an open field and in the town square. Three years ago, Jombang, dubbed the town of "santri" (students at Islamic boarding schools) was home to a national lion dance competition.

A lion dance troupe now no longer displays its skills only at Chinese Buddhist temples or Chinese temples. Their performances are no longer a mere traditional rite to ward off evil. The lion dance has slowly merged with the outside world, including the business world. Since 1998, the lion dance has been performed in many other events besides the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration, in malls and plazas. Recently, the figure of the Lion from the South along with the deafening sound of the drum and cymbals also appears in ceremonies marking the opening of an automobile expo, in the inauguration of plazas, during the launch of new products, and of course, in the celebration of Indonesia's Independence Day.

Take, for example, L'ung Chio Dragon Lion Dance Troupe, which is managed by Sucipto and his son. This troupe, which won second place in the 2001 Lion Dance National Championship in Jombang and was named the best troupe in the Jakarta Open Lion Dance Competition in 2001, performs up to twice a month. This troupe is one that receives a lot of orders, and is also quite expensive to hire. One has to pay Rp5 million for a 10-minute performance on 3-meter-tall poles. The troupe has performed in almost every major plaza and mall in Jakarta. Last year, the lucky star of the troupe was indeed shining bright.

"This year we have received fewer orders to perform," said Herry Siswantoro, 28. The reason, he said, is that there are more lion dance troupes today. This means that there are more troupes offering a greater diversity of attractions. But this is a new business and of course, big names do not fade easily. In late August this year, the troupe will perform in a grand religious gathering along with Aa Gym at the headquarters of the elite police force, the Mobile Brigade (Brimob), in Kelapa Dua, Depok, West Java. The troupe will also perform in many other events, including in a number of Chinese temples in Jakarta, a practice that has been going on since the times of the founder of the troupe.

Since Suharto stepped down from power, fragments of Chinese culture, banned during the New Order, have enjoyed a new lease of life. Old troupes, such as art troupes, have been revived. "This revival is manifested with the performances of the lion and dragon dances and Chinese dances," said Harry Tjan Silalahi, a senior researcher at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta. The freedom that ethnic Chinese lost for three decades has now returned.

The portrait of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia reflects the change in Chinese painting, which has now begun to abandon objects in nature such as goldfish, birds or bamboo trees. The freedom of expression has for three years now seeped into the works of Chinese artists on display in Indonesia. Last year, 16 contemporary Chinese artists such as Fang Lijun, Zhang Gong, Yue Mijun, and Shen Xiaothong, displayed their works at the Indonesian National Gallery and Edwin's Gallery in Jakarta.

The reformation means the freedom to import traditional Chinese paintings and instruments. Guzheng, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument with 21 strings, is the most popular instrument now played everywhere. In shape and in terms of the wealth of notes, it is close to a kecapi, a traditional Indonesian stringed instrument. A guzheng produces pentatonic notes (do-re-mi-so-la) and when it is played, it is placed on a table, on the floor, or in the lap of the player. However, this instrument has enjoyed a warm welcome. It is played during the opening of a property expo, the launch of a new product, or even the inauguration of a shopping center.

Guzheng enjoys great popularity, especially after the 12 Girls Band demonstrated the flexibility and the greatness of this instrument in July this year at Hailai Discotheque in Ancol, Jakarta. The pretty girls in this band play traditional Chinese musical instruments, including guzheng. They have formal music education and can demonstrate their skills playing traditional, pop, and even western classical music. A guzheng expert can employ a certain technique to make this instrument produce notes beyond the pentatonic range. Eni Agustian, 28, a guzheng teacher, usually plays the famous Meteor Garden theme song, Yue Liang Dai Biau Wo De Xin, a song now very popular in China, or even Bengawan Solo. Eni learned to play this instrument in Taiwan, Singapore and also in Shanghai Music Conservatory. Today she can see the world, something unimaginable to her before.

At Kawai Music School, where Eni teaches, 42 students-aged between 7 and 60 years-were training their fingers, playing old and new songs. Some of them were ethnic Chinese but others were indigenous Indonesians. Eni Agustian is very enthusiastic about this development, especially because she has 17 special students, who come from Penabur Kindergarten, Jakarta. She said she saw a contrast. In the past, during the New Order era, only a handful of people learned to play guzheng. They were found in major cities like Surabaya, Bandung, Semarang, and Medan, but none of them dared to appear in public because of the ban imposed by the New Order. To learn how to play guzheng is a secret move: moving from one house to another and the teacher hid his or her ability.

The world, however, has changed drastically. Just like the lion dance troupe above, Eni also has a tight schedule: she performs up to five times a month, mostly during the inauguration of shopping centers. "Besides, I also play in the church along with the church band," she added.

Indonesia is indeed changing. You can witness how Bengawan Solo is played on guzheng. Then there is a nasyid (a group singing verses from Al Qur'an) chanting the prophet's salawat or invocation containing verses from Al Qur'an in Chinese music. Even two years ago, Snada, a nasyid group, released an album, Neo Solawat, in which their top salawat is sung in Chinese and with a Chinese music style.

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