But this event is also a symbol of the brotherhood that now binds the Chinese Hakka and the Dayak tribes, after decades of civil wars and assassinations. The spirits of Kaharingan, the ancestral religion of Borneo, invade the streets along with the Taoist colleagues, joining in fact two metaphysical universes.
day 1 - prayers or riots?
The fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year is approaching, it will conclude the celebrations for the new year.
And here, in this Taoist Chinese majority town it is still alive an ancient tradition. The streets must be metaphysically cleaned to be ready to welcome the new year, on the fourteenth day of the Chinese New Year believers go to pray in all the temples of the city and surroundings. The Chinese settled here more than three hundred years ago, as miners and traders, and had become Indonesian citizens since generations.
Singkawang is nicknamed the "city of a thousand temples" and really has a thousand temples, large, small and microscopic.
On the fifteenth day, the Tatung, as they are called in Indonesia, are possessed by the spirits and, in a trance, sit on sharp blades and pierce their faces with various tools.
Then come two more vans, one carrying the musicians and a portable shrine, it's the main Taoist goddess, Xi Wangmu, the Queen Mother of the West. They're taking it in procession to all the other temples.
They invite us toget on the van with them, give us red hats and we go. We are the only foreigners at this event. This is the street cleansing ceremony. We ask when and where will be the ceremony of possession, they say tomorrow, but do not know exactly.
It all looks very organized. After a few hours of visiting temples we arrive in a countryside sanctuary filled with Tatung. There's a guy with 4 or 5 piercings in his face. We are unwittingly in the middle of a protest.
The Indonesian government is anxious to make this tradition into a carnival for tourists. In town they are setting up the stands for the paying audience and the platform for the VIPs and the rulers of Singkawang, which are strangely Muslims (while the wide majority of the citizens are Chinese).
Our contact tell us that last year the Tatung, already possessed, sitting on the swords and with piercings stuck in their faces, had to wait until the end of the Mayor's speech and various politicians jabber for two hours. When the parade finally began it started to rain, the audience was gone and the Tatung were now no longer possessed, out of the state of trance. This is particularly dangerous because coming out of the possession the Tatung begin to feel the pain and when piercings are extracted blood spills.
The Tatung begin this practice as children, they usually belong to the same family.
We get back to the main temple where all the Tatung are arriving, they come, they pray. Watching them closely is clear that their conscience is not in this world.
There are only 4 or 5 policemen outside, in a state of bewilderment and concern, the ceremony was supposed to be tomorrow, and no one expected this demonstration, which in summary means "this is our tradition, it is a religious ceremony and politics needs to stay out."
two worlds, two peoples, one festival - the brotherhood between Dayak and Chinese Hakka
The Dayak come to pray in the Taoist temple as a sign of respect and some of them are Tatung. We are told that under President Suharto, the Indonesian dictator from 1967 to 1998, Dayak and Chinese were mass killed by the government who tricked them both blaming the Dayak for the Chinese killings and the Chinese for the massacre of Dayak, divide et impera. This generated a war between the two groups, and many died. When they realized that it was the work of the dictatorship they promised each other eternal mutual protection, renewing an alliance more than a century old.
A few years ago the Muslim administration wanted to eliminate a dragon statue, very dear to the Chinese. The Dayak came from the forest armed with machetes. The statue is still in place.
In the square in front of the temple we see a lot of people, we approach, a Dayak has just beheaded a puppy dog and they are eating it along with another Dayak, raw as it is. He does it right in front of the police. The government banned the dogs eating practice, and this is a clear protest against the constant interference of the Indonesian Muslim majority.
In the evening we go to visit various temples to understand if it is possible to assist at the moment of piercing, will visit four or five together with a Chinese friend from Singkawang, but all of them tell us that tomorrow they will not participate in the parade. They boycott.
Day 2 - religion or carnival?
Then the national anthem, hand on heart.
We know that a guy died.
The government did not want to pay all of the participants claiming they had not made the performance, despite the obvious holes in their cheeks. And, to make matters worse, the pay is not 1 million rupiah but 900,000. 100,000 are taxes.
Despite all this the Tatung are many, most come from outside, the boycott was not total, the parade is impressive.
But of the Tatung families of the city not a trace, for them the rite has already been accomplished, the spirits Singkawang have eluded the trap.