This festival has its roots in history when Chinese immigrants first set foot in an area and then gave the name to the land now known as Bagansiapi-api in 1826. The ancestors of Bagansiapi-api were the Tang-lang people of Hokkien descent from the Tong’an (Tang Ua) District in Xiamen, Fujian Province, in South China. They left their homeland with flat base vessels. These vessels were used to transport sand and minerals which were mined.

At the beginning, there were 3 ships on the expedition, but only one ship reached the coast of Sumatra. Led by Ang Mie Kui, the ship managed to arrive at the Riau coast because it followed the flickering firefly lights which were locally known as siapi-api. Arriving in an uninhabited land consisting of swamps, forests and grasslands, they decided to settle there, finally giving it the name Bagansiapi-api or “Land of Fireflies”.

Vowing to never return to their homeland, these immigrants burned their ships and thus became the ancestors of the ethnic Chinese groups in the area.

The Ship Burning Festival is the largest annual event in Rokan Hilir Regency. During festivals, there are rituals and prayers by participants in the main temple. Then, there are  cultural processions and various different oriental attractions, such as the Barongsai (Lion Dance). There is also a stage entertainment prepared for players from Medan, Singkawang (West Kalimantan) and from neighboring countries Malaysia, Taiwan, and Singapore to sing Hokkien songs.

Celebrated every year on the 16th day of the 5th month according to the Chinese calendar, the tradition is also known as Go Gek Cap Lak (from the word Go means 5 and Cap Lak which means 16th). It is highlighted with symbolic acts of burning replicas of traditional Chinese ships as the peak of the festival.

At the peak of the festival, the crowd anticipates where the main pillar of the large ship replica will fall. Local residents believe that the direction to which the main pillars fall, whether facing the sea or facing the land, will determine their fate in the coming year. If the pillar falls into the sea, they believe that most luck will come from the sea, but when it falls on land, the luck of that year will mostly come from land.

Replicas of ships can be up to 8.5 meters wide, 1.7 meters wide and weigh up to 400 kg. The ship will be stored for one night at the Eng Hok King Temple, blessed, and then carried in a procession through the city to the site where it will be burned. The ship procession also involves the attraction of Tan Ki where some people demonstrate their extraordinary physical abilities by piercing themselves with sharp knives or spears but still not injured, somewhat similar to the Tatung tradition in Singkawang in West Kalimantan.

Arriving at the location, thousands of yellow prayer paper pieces will be attached to the ship. It carries prayers from people for their ancestors, before the ship is finally set on fire.

The Ngoya dance is performed twice in the Bakar Tongkang tradition. First, at the time of

the ceremony for determining the size of the ship. Second, at the closing ceremony. Ngoya dance is performed by 5 or 10 Chinese men. This amount is adjusted to the number of directions of the wind which are marked with colors specifically on shawls. The Ngoya Dance is an important element in this tradition, because it is an opening and closing tradition.

When closing, the Ngoya dance is played back as a symbol to end the Bakar Tongkang tradition while bringing the sea god Ki Ong Ya’s home. This dance is preserved through trainings taught to the young Chinese kids in Bagansiapi-api.

Ships are at the core of this tradition. In an effort to respect sea gods and at the same time commemorate the birthday of the sea god. After Ngoya dance performance, the sea god will determine the size (length and width) of the ship to be made, what to put in the ship and decoration that will be displayed on the ship. The ship head is a picture of a lion with the words “King” in Hokkien script and the image of a dragon on its tail as a marker of the power of the sea god, controlling land and sea.

There are 108 human miniatures around the ship representing the number of ship captains. This number is a request from the god Ki Ong Ya. But the Chinese ethnic community does not know its meaning. Images of flying horses in a ship symbolize a god’s companion who will help the god carry a flying ship. The Lion’s head will be covered with a red cloth during the Bakar Tongkang procession and will be opened if it has been approved by the god Ki Ong Ya through the Goyang Tandu ritual carried out on the night of the sea god Ki Ong Ya’s birthday. After the lion’s eyes are opened, on the next day the ship can be burned.

Sea gods have an important role in determining who will became a participant in the implementation of the Bakar Tongkang tradition. Sea god Ki Ong Ya determines who will be the Tan Ki (ritual leader) as a translator of the desire of the Sea god. There is no main requirement to be a Tan Ki, because god only chooses the person he wants.

The community has an important role in the tradition of Bakar Tongkang. To let the event take place from the first to the third day when the ship is burned, Chinese people will burn 1 or 3 sticks of incense. This number is determined by god and the community does not know what it means. Meanwhile, the incense burning is intended to attract the god’s attention to come up immediately.

Surabaya, 31 July 2019