Cap Go Meh Singkawang: All Tatungs in Singkawang Join a Parade

Once a year Singkawang becomes the center of the Universe. All the Spirits, Gods and Demons of Taoism (and not only them) gather here, to spread their blessing upon this special place. The Tatung are the shamans, the vehicles through which the spirits manifest themselves, possessing and guiding them through other states of consciousness, thanks to which they can perform the most extreme corporal mortifications without shedding a drop of blood and without no scar remaining on their faces or bodies.

Singkawang, a small city located in West Kalimantan, is home to thousands of Dayaknese and Chinese descents. Located about 145 km north of the capital city Pontianak, Singkawang or San Khew Jong in Hakka means a town in hills nearby where the sea and the river meets. Singkawang is nicknamed the “city of a thousand temples” and really has a thousand temples, large, small and microscopic. The majority of its citizens are of Chinese descents, and the culture and tradition here is a mix of Chinese and Dayaknese culture.

Singkawang and Pontianak, the provincial capital, are known as Indonesia’s Chinatowns since the majority of their population is made up of ethnic Chinese, followed by Dayak, Malays and migrant groups from Java, Madura and Sumatera (Sumatra).

One of the Chinese rituals that has been assimilated with local culture is called Tatung. On the fifteenth day, the Tatung, as they are called in Indonesia, are possessed by the spirits. Once a year, all Tatungs in Singkawang will join a parade on Cap Go Meh day, at the end of the Chinese New Year’s festivity. The festive parade is usually held two weeks (15 days) after the Chinese New Year or locally known as Imlek.

Falling into a trance, they sit on sharp blades and pierce their faces with various tools. The ritual involves subjecting one’s body to pain and torture, hence, it is not suitable for the squeamish and little children to watch. Being a Tatung is not a choice because it runs in their blood or hereditary. Although, in some cases, a person can be a Tatung if possessed by the Lauya.

All Tatungs will not get hurt if they follow the rules. They are required to have a vegetarian diet every first and 15th day of the Chinese calendar. They are also not allowed to engage in any sexual activities, as well as fasting three days prior to the parade.

The term Tatung derives from Hakka language, referring to a person who is believed to be possessed by gods or supernatural spirits called Lauya. As a result, people believed that all Tatungs have a special ability or power. Sometimes people come to them to ask about their future, fortune, love life, or career. Cap Go Meh has attracted international attention, leading to the issuance of an Inventory Note Letter of Communal Intellectual Wealth.