Capgomeh – The Localization of Chinese Culture

Traditionally, Imlek, Indonesian for Chinese New Year, celebrations last for 15 days. This year Imlek fell on Feb. 7. The first day is usually reserved for welcoming gods. Over the next few days, people pray to gods and visit relatives. The fifth day is usually spent at home to commemorate the god of wealth, while, on the eighth day, people pray for happiness and luck. The 14th day is spent in preparation for the final day of Imlek celebrations.

In China, the final day is known as Yuanxiao, or Goansiauw in Hokkien, a common Chinese dialect. In Indonesia it is more popularly referred to as Capgomeh, which means the 15th day.

Like Imlek, Capgomeh is a family occasion strewn with prayers and is centered around a family dinner. The traditional food eaten at the dinner is Tangyuan, glutinous rice balls with a peanut and ground meat filling according to Setefanus Suprajitno.

Liem Thian Joe, Riwajat Semarang, or the History of Semarang, 1933, describes what Capgomeh celebrations were like in the past in Semarang, Central Java.

It reads, “From the tenth day of the first month of the Chinese lunar year, people will see children walking around the streets carrying lanterns of various shapes, such as animals, birds … in which a candle is lit. It looks like a flower party at night.”

The night of the celebration is a scene of beauty, where candles twinkle in the children’s lanterns. In English, this is called the Lantern Festival.

As time has gone by, there have been changes made to the Capgomeh celebration.

Nowadays, people do not pay much attention to the rituals of Capgomeh. There is, however, one element of the traditional celebration that has persisted among Chinese and non-Chinese alike, especially those living in Java, that of lontong capgomeh.

Lontong” means rice cakes and they are served with various traditional side dishes, lodeh soup, made with bamboo shoots, and telur sambal petis, egg cooked with shrimp paste and soybean powder.

Lontong capgomeh, which differs from the Tangyuan traditional meal served in China, is only found in Indonesia.

The discrepancy is evidence that Indonesian culture has localized Chinese traditions since their arrival.

Another consequence of this localization can be seen in culinary art.

Chinese food in Indonesia is very much influenced by local cuisine. The result was the creation of Peranakan food, Chinese cuisine which makes use of local spices. Lontong capgomeh is an example of Peranakan.

Another example of the influence of local cuisine on Chinese food regards tofu. Historian Myra Sidharta wrote that tofu, a Chinese traditional food, has become an Indonesian daily food, Tahu Bacem, tofu stew and tahu telur, tofu with egg, being examples.

As a result of this unique localization of Chinese cuisine, Chinese food has become a major part of Indonesian culinary art and of the daily menu.

This can be seen in restaurants throughout Indonesia and in many cities, street vendors serve Chinese food.

The localization of Chinese culture can also be seen in dresses worn by Chinese-Indonesian women in the past, namely the kebaya blouse and batik.

The Chinese kebaya, known as “Kebaya Encim“, differs from the Javanese kebaya in the design of its motifs. Kebaya Encim motifs are usually in the design of Pekalongan or Lasem batiks, which incorporate traditional Chinese patterns as opposed to those of Surakarta or Yogyakarta.

Nowadays, Chinese women rarely wear kebaya encim as their daily dress, although batiks in this style are still available.

Chinese culture in Indonesia is unique and, although the saying
“once Chinese, always Chinese”, is indisputable on the basis of ethnicity, people should remember that local cultures and societies can have an influence on their Chinese residents.

It is wrong to think Chinese in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand or China are the same as Chinese in Indonesia.

The “Chinese-ness” of every Chinese community is different because of the influence of local cultures as seen in the motifs and patterns of batiks, as well as in cuisine like Lontong Capgomeh.

Thus, the localization of Chinese culture also influences the meaning of Chinese-ness, but what actually constitutes the Chinese-ness of Chinese-Indonesians?

If merely celebrating Chinese traditional holidays makes somebody Chinese, then how can we account for other ethnics that also participate.

If the answer implements those with the knowledge of the Chinese language and culture, then again we are faced with a growing number of people from different ethnicities and nationalities who learn and study the Chinese language and about Chinese culture.

Perhaps the Chinese-ness of Chinese-Indonesians can be qualified by considering the example of Lontong Capgomeh, in which there are elements of local culture and Chinese culture brought over by the ancestors of Chinese-Indonesians.

Setefanus Suprajitno is studying for a doctorate in anthropology at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.