Behind the Chinese New Year Tradition of Burning 'Cars'
Photo by Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja
Today, Chinese New Year—or commonly known as “Imlek”—are synonymous with barongsai (the lion dance), fireworks, people saying "gong xi fa choi" or red envelopes filled with money (angpao).
But back in the day, Chinese Indonesians weren't always so free to celebrate the new year. For more than three decades, until fairly recently, all forms of Chinese culture were banned in public spaces by the New Order government. Due to 30 September tragedy, Chinese Indonesians were discriminated against. They were accused of being disloyal to Indonesia, and secretly working with the Republic of China. Because of this, Chinese Indonesians were required to assimilate to the dominant Javanese culture to become a “true” citizen.
The 1967 Presidential Instruction declared that all forms of Chinese cultures in public space, needed to be regulated under the rationale that they “might have inappropriate psychological, mental, and morale impact towards Indonesian citizens and would be a hindrance to assimilation process.”
Fortunately, these discriminations were ended by President Abdurrahman Wahid—better known as Gus Dur—when he spontaneously revoked this ban and welcomed a representative of Chinese Indonesians at the National Palace.
“We were chatting as we walked around the Palace when Gus Dur then said, okay, Imlek will be celebrated twice, in Jakarta and Surabaya for Cap Go Meh," Budi Tanuwibowo, the High Council of Confucianism in Indonesia told Kompas last year. "I was surprised."
When Budi asked about the Presidential Instruction, Gus Dur simply responded, “Easy, let me revoke it.”.
Since then, the celebration of Chinese New Year has blossomed. We’re all familiar with barongsai and angpau, but there’s more to the Chinese culture than just those two: burning objects and paper money to honor the soul of their ancestors. Many Chinese Indonesian families keep this tradition alive until now. Some even burn a car or a house—toys, obviously.
To understand this tradition better, VICE talked to three Chinese Indonesian millennials who grew up celebrating Imlek freely in the country.
VICE: What do you do during imlek? What’s your family tradition?
Stefanie: Ahead of imlek, we all buy new clothes, underwear, bed cover, and get a haircut. Then we pray for our ancestors, at the altar and burn anything we wish for them. During the day, we gamble using money we got from angpao [laughs].
Why do you need new clothes and new haircut?
For better or new fortune. People said it’s to throw away bad luck.
What about sending things for the ancestors? What do you usually burn aside from paper money? Any weird ones?
Usually I burn replicas sold at a worship ship, a suitcase filled with clothes, shoes, belt, et cetera. I usually buy gold bars, a car and its driver. If I’m feeling up to it, I'll send a cellphone, alcohol, coffee, cigarettes, TV, radio. Silver Chinese coins and gold is a must, as well as bank notes. The food at the altar will also be burn: rice + meat with white wine. We also send our grandfather his favorite meal.
What does Imlek have to do with the rain? What’s up with the belief that the Chinese New Year brings out the rain?
That’s the belief of Chinese people, that anything that comes with the rain is a good sign, better fortune. Plus, Imlek usually takes place in January or February when its the rainy season in Indonesia [laughs]. Back in China, it also happens during the rain season over there. So I think it’s just a coincidence.
Some people believe that you shouldn’t sweep the floor on Chinese New Year, is that right?
Our ancestors believe that doing so is like sweeping all your luck away. But my mother sweeps anyway, we don’t want our house dirty when the guests arrive. My mother said it’s up to us if we want to believe that.
Do you believe myths and superstitions surrounding the holiday?
I think I do, as long as it doesn’t make my life hard I’ll just follow it.
Do you now give angpao to others? If yes, how’s it like to be the person giving the angpao, and receiving one anymore?
Angpao is given by those who are already married. If you’re not married yet, you’ll get angpao. I’m not married so I get angpao. It’s also nice when you’re married and have children before the new year, because they will get angpao from their aunts and uncles and basically you can use it to give it to your nieces and nephews.
What about burning presents for your ancestors? Where do you buy it?
I usually get it from Kelapa Gading. It’s easy to find really because people still hold onto the tradition. You can also find it in Muara Karang, Glodok, and Kelapa Gading.
VICE: Hi Daisy! How’s the Chinese New Year tradition in your family like? Anything in particular?
Daisy: We will have a New Year dinner. It’s the most important thing. Usually our family gather in my grandparents’ house. There’s food and special fruits that we cook and serve. There will be abalone, pork lamb, rebung and sea cucumber. And then we would wait until midnight to pray and ask for blessings. In the morning we visit the relatives’ houses.
The Chinese New Year is synonymous with luck and money, what do you do so that you stay lucky throughout the year?
We just believe in good deeds. The Chinese also believe that if you do good deeds, we will not get bad karma and our live will get better. In Chinese culture people also believe in astrology and the year of their birth. That can affect someone’s personality. So your luck can be determined by the shio.
There are myths about a certain activity that would block your fortune. Do you believe that?
I grew up with the tradition, and it seems that I believe in the myth, even just for a day. We also believe that the rain for a whole day means good luck. I believe in the myths when they’re good.
There’s a ceremony where you burn replicas of cars and houses for your ancestors' spirit. How is the tradition like in your family? What’s the strangest thing you’ve burned?
Actually that’s for people who believe in the afterlife, which is symbolized by burning the paper or kimzua. And the things burned depend on the request. One time my grandpa visited my dad in his dream, and my grandpa asked for a house and a car. So in order to fulfill his request, my dad made a ceremony where we burned a two story house full of furniture, two maids, a car and the driver, and money. All made of paper.
VICE: What do you get out of a haircut on Chinese New Year?
Hendri: That’s to get rid of all the bad luck from last year. Not everyone does it, though. But I personally believe that.
What else do you burn during the burning ceremony for your ancestors besides fake cars and houses?
The ceremony is only about burning the brown paper. And burning a big incense for three days so that we get good fortune.
Where do you buy such things?
Usually in Chinatown like Muara Karang, North Jakarta. There’s a whole store just for that.
What’s the purpose of burning ceremony?
To get good karma. Also we don’t want our family in the afterlife suffer in hell.