Once the slab of meat is sliced, with a blazing sweep of his knife the man shoves the pork slivers on to a plate, freeing up his board for the next chunk he grabs. And then the next, and the next. His rhythm continues unbroken, again and again. Through it all, he never looks at what is happening on his chopping board, but rather concentrates on the commotion before him.
When a parked bicycle tumbles over, setting other bikes falling in a minor domino effect, the man behind the counter chuckles to himself. This has been his day for 30 years or so: Every morning locals will salivate over the tasty nosh from his simple eatery, the wet market will bustle with rowdy sellers and quibbling buyers, and somehow someone in a rush to finish their shopping will park their bicycle clumsily.
Opposite is another eatery serving kembang tahu (runny tofu pudding) and crab noodles. Flanking it are kiosks selling flowers, ripe citrus fruits and dried, salted fish. A few meters away, vegetable sellers flaunt their fresh produce, a delightful explosion of green adorned with gaudy blotches of red, yellow and orange. From my table I can watch people’s lips move, but the general din prevents me from eavesdropping on their haggling.
Deeper into the market, inside a dark, blood-smeared hall, customers stand and wait as pig carcasses are scorched with blowtorches and hung on metal hooks. Chickens are available by the bridge on the river, where the visitor can see (or even learn) how a squawking chicken is reduced lifeless limbs and innards ready for cooking.
It’s only 7 in the morning when I sip my thick brew of Singkawang coffee, and Pasar Babi, Singkawang’s second largest wet market, has already bloomed into the liveliest place in town. The chatty, elderly couple at the next table are just getting their morning meal. A charming woman serves the man a steaming bowl of pork porridge with a cup of teh tarik. For the lady, noodles with grilled pork, sliced up by the man behind the counter. The couple offer me a nod and a smile, and their conversation ceases as they sink their spoons into the bowls.
Never mind. There are plenty of other people here eager for a chat, although probably in Hakka, a Chinese dialect my grandparents taught me when I was a boy – and that I never did master. But when my own bowl of pork porridge arrives, topped with a poached egg, I, like the elderly couple, shut up and savor this most delicious of breakfasts.
The second most populous city in West Kalimantan, Singkawang is considered unique for many reasons. Most are either directly or distantly related to the city’s sizable Chinese community and their vivid Chinatown. (Chinese, mostly the Hakka people, make up more than half the population, with the rest an intricate composite of Dayaks, Malays and Javanese settlers.) Many Chinese adhere to Confucianism, a religion disowned during the New Order regime, and this has earned Singkawang the long-standing nickname “city of a thousand temples” – you can’t go a few hundred steps in any direction in the town proper without encountering a Confucian prayer altar or the vermilion roof of a pagoda.
Singkawang Chinese get along well with people of other faiths and ethnicities, such as the native Dayaks who practice a peculiar blend of animism and Christianity, and the Malay residents who are devout Muslims. More than once, walking along the neighborhoods’ clean and spacious streets, I have seen a church, temple and mosque standing side by side, commanding equal majesty. Here’s an anecdote I heard from a Christian pastor, himself Javanese: When the Lunar New Year falls on a Sunday (as it sometimes does), every church must reschedule its services because the congregations will be skipping church to pay morning visits to each other.
Harmony has been a fundamental part of life here ever since Hakka gold prospectors befriended the forest-dwelling Dayaks to build Singkawang centuries ago, originally as a transit point for their gold shipments from nearby Monterado. In fact, Singkawang has opened itself as a much-needed haven for refugees fleeing clashes in the region, most notably the 1997 and 2001 Dayak–Madurese conflicts that claimed many lives in neighboring Sambas. Nevertheless, several avoidable interethnic and interreligious frictions have flared within the city, although the people have always been cool-headed enough to keep them from descending into turmoil.
Enter the Dragon
One of the most recent imbroglios tinted by religion and race concerned the erection of a dragon statue at an intersection in the town center. Chinese-style dragons are not uncommon in Singkawang, as they are portrayed dramatically in local Ming-like pottery, murals, wall reliefs and statues inside the temples. Yet in early December 2008, a few days into the construction, a crowd driven by the hard-line group FPI or Islamic Defenders Front (whose activities have been known to create all sorts of social distress throughout Indonesia) gathered at the site and called for the mayor, Hasan Karman, to halt the project.
The group questioned the propriety of erecting a dragon statue, a symbol deemed too specific to a single culture (Chinese) in a public space. Dissent swiftly erupted regarding the dragon’s true purpose: to adorn the city, as the mayor had claimed, or to assert the supremacy of a certain ethnic group, as the hard-liners suggested.
The mayor held his ground. The statue stands to this day; the protests reduced to an occasional grudge. “There’s still pressure from certain groups to tear the thing down, move it someplace else,” says Basri, who sells top-up vouchers near the intersection. “But I don’t see why we Muslims should do that. I personally have no qualms about it. Some guys hate it, yes, a few surely take pride in it, but I think most people love to strike a pose there every once in a while, like tourists. Or they simply don’t care. Let them all be.”
Birds of a Feather
Its nickname notwithstanding, Singkawang proper is not that large, nor is its architecture so monotonous as to really contain 1,000 temples. I would hazard an estimate of a few hundred temples in total, dedicated to possibly every god and goddess in the ancient Chinese pantheon. For a mid-sized city like Singkawang, this is impressive. But strolling around town early one evening beneath the raucous flapping of birds, I realize that some structures definitely do amount to a thousand: the towering halls in which swiftlets build their nests from their saliva.
For years these “swiftlet residential units”, as one local businessman jokingly calls them, have been more polarizing than any purely religious theme. Thanks to the Chinese belief that this super-expensive bird’s nest has health benefits, by rebalancing your chi and all, the more productive units can command billions of rupiahs annually. But for those living near these buildings, the swiftlets’ shrieking – plus that recorded on audio cassettes played 24/7 and amplified with megaphones to attract more birds to nest there – is an incessant nuisance.
The irritated residents, who have to bear the all-day avian cacophony, also complain about the dirtiness (the birds’ saliva is harvested, but droppings?) and diseases these birds are feared to transmit to humans. They have petitioned the local government several times for stricter regulation of these buildings, or at least for the banning of new ones within Singkawang proper. Everyone’s aware, though, that the bird’s nest business owners have deep pockets, and everyone knows the effect that can have on government policy. Whether a mutually acceptable solution can be achieved remains a moot point.
The 15th day of the Chinese New Year is the biggest, most important day for the people of Singkawang, whether of Chinese descent or not. On that one day, Singkawang’s hotels, houses and streets overflow with people from around the country – and the world – coming for the Cap Go Meh festivities.
On this day, every Chinese in Singkawang gathers together, with each other and with other ethnic groups, to celebrate the coming year, to give praise and to pray for a better life. Enmities and grudges, as well as any problems, seem to melt away, if only temporarily, along with the beads of sweat running off people’s skin as they join the festivities on the streets.
The climax of the Cap Go Meh revelry is not only the most anthropologically interesting feature that gives Singkawang its edge; it is also the most terrifying. Be warned: This event may invoke nightmares among children and the faint of heart. During the event the performers – mostly Chinese men but a few Dayaks and children – flirt with fire and intentionally wound themselves with objects so sharp they should make them bleed.
But they don’t. Tatung, as these daredevils are called, are said to be possessed by benevolent spirits summoned by the shamans. “Driven” by the spirits, the tatung perform breathtakingly weird stunts that involve lacerating, piercing and drilling the skin, and astonishingly, no blood is shed. (Contrary to folk beliefs about the tatung’s magical powers, the wounds do not heal straight after the spirits are exorcised.)
This sounds too surreal to be believed. Until you see it for yourself. Until you experience it all firsthand – the splendor of their regalia, the noise, the intensity, the penetrating smells of incense and body odors, the heat, the gasping for oxygen unique to the presence of so immense a crowd. Then you’ll get why Singkawang is such a mesmeric place.
Cap Go Meh 2011 will be celebrated in the third week of February.
A GREAT PLACE TO BE HUNGRY
A haven for foodies, Singkawang is rife with tasty dishes, mainly Chinese cuisine with a touch of Malay- and Dayak-style cooking. This brief list will help you eat your way through the day.
Bubur Aloi at Pasar Babi serves the heartiest breakfast in town: pork porridge. The crab noodles are a wonderful alternative for non-pork eaters. Wash it down with a cup of Singkawang robusta coffee or teh tarik. Dessert is kembang tahu from a nearby stall. Keep yourself sated till lunchtime by combing the market for choi pan (fresh jicama rolls) to nibble on.
Maitreya Vegetarian Restaurant (SM Tsjafioeddin 7) purveys a cheap yet excellent buffet with a diverse selection of vegetables and faux meat. Ordering à la carte is fine, too. Want something fancier? Head for Restaurant 889 (SM Tsjafioeddin 29) for some satisfying seafood dishes.
If you plan to visit Pasar Hongkong just once, make sure you don’t come on your first day in Singkawang, lest you be enticed back to this night market every evening by kwetiau Singkawang – the genuine version of this flat rice noodle dish is served on a wide leaf – and other famous Chinese dishes on offer here. Don’t rush back to the hotel afterwards, but hang around for a chat; the market stays alive until about 2 a.m.
Writer: Chriswan Sungkono