Gong Xi Fa Chai!

…. is what you say on Chinese New Year in Jakarta (along with Gong Xi Fat Choi and innumerable variations). Chad and I went up to Glodok, Jakarta’s Chinatown, this year but we missed the boat a little — we went on New Year’s day itself, and a lot of stuff was closed. So I’m going to use last year’s pictures, which I never posted due to the Great Kopi Susu Outage of 2009.

We went with our friends Howie and Haviva, who have since tragically moved back to the US (we miss you, Havowie!). It must have been just 2 or 3 days before the holiday because the place was hopping.

Inside the main temple, people were lighting big bunches of incense, doing a short prayer ritual, and leaving the incense sticks burning at the altars. Temple employees were buzzing around removing the sticks almost as fast as people put them down, but they were still pressed to clear enough room for the oncoming waves of worshipers. The air was so thick with spicy smoke, everyone was red-eyed and coughing.

Out back there were candles as tall as your head, which you could buy and leave burning in the temple courtyard for days.

It’s traditional to give money away for the holiday, so poor people had packed the temple’s whole front yard. Some of them ride trains for hours all the way from Central Java to get in on the charity. Train tickets and food are relatively cheap, while rich businesspeople sometimes give away substantial sums of cash, so the math makes sense. I hate crowd scenes like these, and fatal stampedes are not out of the question, so we didn’t linger long here.


Of course, New Year’s isn’t just about going to the temple, any more than Christmas is only about church. The streets were packed with cool holiday stuff, including complete outfits for kids.

Flower-sellers were out getting their share of the holiday spending ….

Haviva’s bag of luck

and all sorts of holiday treats were on sale, including golden coins (chocolate, I assume) and the impenetrable kue keranjang.

Chinese New Year is so widely celebrated here, not only in Glodok but in malls, advertisements and public events throughout the country, it’s hard to grasp that it was all illegal just a decade ago. Under Suharto, Indonesians of Chinese descent couldn’t publicly celebrate their holidays or use the Chinese language. They were required to carry special i.d. and were systematically eliminated from the higher levels of government and military.

Today, the discriminatory laws have largely been revoked (although there are reports of crooked officials still applying the old citizenship restrictions or extorting people for extra money to get around them). Jakarta is certainly more joyful, colorful and delicious as a result.


Author: Trish Anderton

I am a nonprofit communicator, Red Sox fan and amateur streetfoodologist. Once upon a time I worked for the Jakarta Globe & Jakarta Post.

73 thoughts on “Gong Xi Fa Chai!”

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