Once banned, Chinese lion dance now has broad appeal in Muslim-majority Indonesia
- Chinese lion dance groups sprang up across Indonesia after Suharto’s downfall in 1998, allowing people to express their ‘Chinese-ness’ again
- But a Chinese-majority troupe is uncommon in Indonesia today, as the activity has developed into a ‘competitive sport and form of entertainment’
It was past midnight in the Australian city of Melbourne. Citra Satria Ongkowijoyo, 35, was speaking to the younger members of Ksatria, an Indonesian-Chinese lion and dragon dance troupe he co-founded, as they unloaded their equipment at a mall 4,692km away from him in Surabaya.
Ksatria was there to take part in the 2022 Regional Chinese Lion and Dragon Dance tournament, organised by the Federation of Indonesian Lion Dance Sports (FOBI), held at the same shopping centre the next day, where 11 groups would battle it out to compete at the national level in October.
Ksatria is one of dozens of Chinese lion dance groups that sprang up across Indonesia after strongman Suharto’s downfall in 1998. Under the late dictator’s 32-year rule, public expressions of Chinese culture and identity were banned, including the art of lion dance, known locally as barongsai.
“If I still lived in Surabaya,” said Ongkowijoyo, an architect who moved to Australia in 2014 for his PhD programme and subsequently settled there. “I would be with the guys lugging our stuff into the venue.”
Ongkowijoyo, his brother and two friends founded Ksatria, now a troupe of 40 members, in 2004. The founders had met at a wushu academy that they attended.
“We are now on our third generation; the youngest of our members are mostly the under-26 Gen Z,” he said. “The co-founders and I have taken a back seat and mainly act in a supervisory role.”
Ongkowijoyo said the 2000s were significant for Indonesian-Chinese after the government allowed them to express their “Chinese-ness” once again.
“Many young Indonesian-Chinese like myself were excited about learning wushu and lion dance, something we had only heard about from our parents,” he said.
Troupes in Indonesia typically include independent groups such as Ksatria and those affiliated with Chinese temples.
By 2012, Indonesia’s lion dance scene had grown large enough for advocates to petition the Indonesian National Sports Committee to recognise it as a sport. They won the lobby in 2013.
But even as it remains an icon of Indonesian-Chinese culture, lion dance today has grown to have such widespread appeal, it is no longer dominated by troupes with Chinese heritage.
“When I first started studying lion dance, all my contemporaries were Chinese,” said Ongkowijoyo. Ksatria began with eight members, including one non-Chinese person. Today, Indonesian-Chinese account for three quarters of Ksatria’s members.
But Ksatria’s predominantly Chinese membership is unusual in Muslim-majority Indonesia’s lion dance scene.
Yoseph Christanto, who researched lion dance groups in Surabaya for his thesis at Petra Christian University in 2019, concluded that Indonesian-Chinese lion dancers are now the minority.
“In the old days, lion dance was an instrument for Chinese folk religious rituals. It has evolved into a competitive sport and, most importantly, a form of public entertainment,” he said.
Indonesian lion dance has also evolved into new forms, represented by the Indolion-Muhammadiyah lion dance troupe that is affiliated with Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic organisation.
Hadi Gunawan Tjondronegoro, 36, founder and director of Indolion, is all for pushing boundaries for lion dance. After establishing Indolion, he approached the Muhammadiyah Junior High School in Kapasan to include lion dance as an extracurricular activity with him as the instructor.
Tjondronegoro said he received much concern over his decision to approach an Islamic school to collaborate on something that was intrinsically Chinese. But his approach turned out to be the right move as the school integrated Chinese lion dance into its system and it became “a badge of pride”.
Indolion-Muhammadiyah also moved past cultural norms when it began its brand of Islamic lion dance in 2015. This was a lion dance with Islamic characteristics where female music players wear a hijab and where Arabic calligraphy, not Chinese motifs, are featured on the custom-made lions.
At Ksatria, however, time-honoured traditions hold sway. Though unaffiliated with any Chinese temple, troupe members continue with rituals associated with lion dance, such as seeking blessings in prayer at Chinese temples before taking part in tournaments.
“But we are an open group to all. While quite a few of our members practise Buddhism and Confucianism, we also have members who are Muslim and Christian,” said Ongkowijoyo.
According to Australian academic Charles Coppel who specialises in Indonesian-Chinese history, almost half of Indonesian Chinese are Buddhists while 27 per cent are Protestant Christians. Roman Catholics account for 17 per cent, and Confucians and Muslims each comprise four per cent.
Ongkowijoyo acknowledges the challenges of a religiously diverse group. “Obviously, religious fanaticism has no place in our team. We still perform rites at the temple and all members, regardless of their faith, participate.”
“There were problems in the beginning with the families of a few Christian members who were concerned about their kids performing temple rites but it was resolved once they were convinced we weren’t trying to convert anyone.”