Walking between worlds

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ARIFIN KURNIAWAN towers over his 55-year-old father’s prostrate figure. With his hand placed firmly on the older man’s head, the blonde-haired son barks out instructions in Hokkien. 

Only moments before, the twenty-one-year-old Chinese-Indonesian had cut his tongue deliberately with a sword – using the blood to write Chinese characters on rice paper. Bathed in an eerie red light, with statues of countless deities lining the walls and the air filled with chanting, the Fat Cu Kung shrine is Arifin’s domain tonight. 

Surrounded by kneeling adherents, he strokes what would appear to be a chest-length beard imperiously. 

But on a normal day, the young man doesn’t speak Hokkien or even write Chinese. Neither does he have a beard. 

You see, Arifin is a spirit medium and that evening, he was possessed by Guan Gong, a deity based on a historical general called Guan Yu who lived in the tumultuous “Three Kingdoms” era of ancient China. As part of a ritual blessing, Guan Gong (popular with both police and triads because of his unwavering loyalty and courage) entered his body. 

As Arifin explained later, “Some nights, I can be possessed by four or even five spirits. To prepare, I must keep myself pure for at least three days: a vegetarian diet, no impure thoughts and a lot of meditation. I don’t become a god; that would be arrogant…I’m just a vessel.”

I first met Arifin a few hours earlier at Tak Kie, one of the oldest Chinese-run coffee-shops in Indonesia. Founded in 1927, the establishment is a local favourite in Glodok, the “Chinatown” of Jakarta. As he enters, Arifin is warmly greeted by several regulars as “Ah Fin”. 

Down a back alley from Tak Kie, Arifin’s family runs a tiny convenience store out of their 70m2 home. Its five minutes away from the Fat Cu Kung, where Ah Fin conducts prayers. Viirtually next to the shrine is the Vihara temple, where he practices lion dancing as part of a troupe he has been performing with since he was six-years-old. 

“This is my community. I try to serve any way I can, whether through helping out at the temple or keeping our traditions alive.”

After finishing secondary school, Arifin chose to start work right away. Tall, with a piercing gaze and a disarming smile, he found a job as a fashion model. Between lion dances, rituals, and strutting the runway, the hardworking young man also sells SIM cards at events to earn some side income. 

“I didn’t go to university because I wanted to earn money straightaway for my family. That’s what success is to me: being able to give back to my parents.”

The youngest of three, Arifin’s ability to walk the tightrope between modernity and tradition is perhaps a result of his diverse upbringing. While his father and elder brother are Buddhist, his mother is Muslim and his elder sister is Catholic. 

“We appreciate our differences. When it’s Christmas, we wish our sister Merry Christmas and when its fasting month, then we support our mother however we can.”

Ah Fin himself is a Buddhist who is dating a Muslim. 

“We’ll figure it out. I am willing to convert to Islam for her. My father’s only condition is that I continue to uphold my duties to the temple and that’s exactly what I intend on doing. I don’t see any contradictions in that—in our faiths, there is give and take.”

“I can be Chinese and Muslim, modern and traditional, a model at Instagramed fashion shows and a spirit medium at shrines—these things can all coexist in harmony. After all, Indonesia is the land of hundreds of races and religions; just look at myself and my family.”

Mindful of the wave of religious conservatism spearheaded by radical groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), I ask Ah Fin what he thinks of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (“Ahok”), the Chinese Christian former governor of Jakarta. 

“Talk less do more. That was Ahok to me. Under him, Jakarta was cleaner and more efficient. I think he was heading in the right direction: cracking down on corruption, reducing traffic, and modernizing the city.”

And now that Ahok has been sentenced to two years in jail on blasphemy charges?

“I think it’s a pity. I don’t care about his race or his religion, just that he got the job done. My hope for Jakarta is simple: we should become a modern city. That means fixing traffic problems, more public transport and clean roads. We can’t go back to the 80s where it was rickshaws and rubbish all over the place.”

As Indonesia moves closer to 2018 regional elections and 2019’s presidential race, political fault lines are bound to deepen. 

Issues of race and religion that poisoned the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial contest may well rear its ugly head once more, challenging the republic’s motto: “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” (Unity in Diversity). Already, incidents are on the rise. On 11 February, a sword-wielding man attacked a church in Yogyakarta, injuring four and decapitating statues of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.

The week before, the alleged eviction of a Buddhist monk from Tangerang went viral, outraging netizens. 

“The Indonesia I know and grew up with, that I believe in, it’s a place where we keep moving forwards—together. It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or Muslim or Chinese or Javanese, this is Indonesia.”

To Arifin, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika is more than a mantra; it’s what it means to be Indonesian.

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