In Sarawak (or Malaysia in general), there’s a cute tradition where young bachelorettes throw oranges into the river during Chap Goh Meh in the hopes of finding true love – hopefully by the following year.
Chap Goh Meh in the Hokkien dialect translates to “the 15th night of Chinese New Year”. It is also known as the Chinese Valentine’s Day, but usually see families and friends gather together for dinner together as it is the last day of the Lunar New Year.
In Singkawang, a town located in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, you might find Chap Goh Meh being celebrated somewhat differently.
For the locals there, Chap Goh Meh is kind of a big deal as it is a truly unique event that reflects the culture and community here.
Before I elaborate more on what I saw during my brief four-day stay in West Kalimantan, this sort of celebration is not for the faint of heart (though I think James Wan might be inspired for his next thriller).
The Chinese New Year – also known as ‘Imlek’ – is when the local Chinese community believes the gods will gather together in Singkawang.
There are no direct flights to Singkawang, so you have to fly in to Pontianak which is 145 km away. After reaching Pontianak, the capital of West Kalimantan, you have to travel three to four hours by bus to get there.
With 70% of the population being of Chinese descent, Singkawang’s Chinese community is predominantly made up of the Hakka clan, followed by Teochew, while the rest are Malays and Dayaks.
Enjoying the procession of the 565 Tatung
The festivities in Singkawang were already in full swing on Feb 11 as people began to crowd the streets hoping to get a glimpse of the 565 ‘Tatung’ or shaman, the highlight of the Chap Goh Meh procession.
Known as the ‘City of the Thousand Temples’, you will pass various temples of different sizes and structures every few meters as you approach Singkawang from Pontianak. It is not a surprise then that a large number of Tatungs will come and participate in the procession representing their temples and gods.
The Tatung usually begin to prep themselves the day before the festival. Their preparations usually involve them going into trances at their respective temples, each temple dedicated to a different god.
While some were dressed in elaborate and colourful traditional Chinese warrior costumes, others were in traditional Dayak outfits with steel rods piercing their cheeks while they waved their swords in the air.
During the Tatung ritual, the participants – in a trance – perform unbelievable stunts such as stepping on swords, piercing rods and swords into their cheeks, as well as cutting themselves with knives without sustaining any injuries or shedding any blood.
Just to prove that their knives and swords are real and sharp, some perform demonstrations where they cut a variety of objects, from plastic cups to vegetables.
On top of that, some Tatung performed bloody feats like biting the neck off a live chicken. According to our tour guide, a chicken was used since 2017 was the Lunar Year of the Rooster. (I briefly imagined what would end up being sacrificed in the Year of the Dog. Thankfully, I was told that dogs had been prohibited for use in the festival thanks to outraged animal lovers all around.)
Planning a visit to the ‘City of the Thousand Temples’?
Being in the ‘City of the Thousand Temples’, it was a shame that I did not get to visit some, let alone learn a story behind each one or even what gods were worshiped there.
This gave me an excuse to come back and visit Singkawang for Chap Goh Meh again next year, though I have to remember to book my accommodation at least three months ahead. As I understand it, the motels and hotels are usually fully booked during that time of the year.
I was warned, however, that prices for accommodations might still double during this period even if you book early.
With Chap Goh Meh happening once a year, Singkawang is definitely worth a trip for the adventurous.