Bakar Tongkang Festival 2016 in Riau: Burning a replica of the Last Ship

2 Jun 2016

The fateful decision of the first Chinese migrants to leave their homeland behind and settle in Riau on the island of Sumatra is commemorated every year through the festival called Bakar Tongkang, meaning Torching the (last) Ship on which they sailed in.

Honoring their ancestors and preserving age old tradition, the Chinese ethnic group at Bagansiap-api will this year hold the Bakar Togkang Festival on 20th to 21st June 2016 in Bagansiapi-api, capital of Rokan Hilir Regency, in the Riau province.

Bakar Tongkang literally translated meaning “Burning the (last) Ship” is commemorated by torching a replica of the traditional Chinese ship, being the high focal point of the festival.

Also known as Go Gek Cap Lak in the Hokkien language, this is derived from the words Go meaning 5th and Cap Lak meaning 16th, so the ritual is celebrated annually on the 16th day of the 5th month according to the Chinese calendar.

The Bakar Tongkang Festival is the largest annual event in the Rokan Hilir Regency. During the festival, a range of rituals and prayers by participants, cultural processions, a variety of distinct  oriental attractions such as the Barongsai (Lion Dance) performances are held, as well as an entertainment stage for  performers from Medan, Singkawang (West Kalimantan) as well as from neighboring Malaysia, Taiwan, and Singapore rendering Hokkien songs.

At the pinnacle of the festival,which is the burning of a huge ship replica, the crowd anxiously anticipates where the main mast shall fall. Locals believe that the direction where the main mast falls (whether facing the sea or facing inland) will determine their fortune in the coming year. If the mast falls to the sea, they believe that fortune will come mostly from the sea, but when it falls on land, then fortune for the year will mostly come from land.

Believed to have originated in 1826, the festival is rooted in history when Chinese immigrants first set foot in the area. It is believed that the ancestors of Bagansiapi-api were Tang-lang people of Hokkien descent  who originated from the Tong’an District (Tang Ua) in Xiamen, Fujian Province, in South China. They left their homeland and set sail south in search of a better life. They reached Thailand in 1825 but left due to arising conflict in the area. They sailed in ships that had a flat base which were used to transport sand and mined minerals which came to be known today as “tongkang”.

Initially, there were 3 tongkang ships in the expedition, however only one ship reached the coast of Sumatra. Led by Ang Mie Kui, the ship managed to arrive on the shore of Riau as it followed the flickering lights of fireflies which are locally known as siapi-api. Arriving in an inhabited land which consists of swamps, forests, and grassland, they decided to settle here, eventually giving it the name Bagansiapi-api or “Land of the Fireflies”. Pledging to never return to their homeland, these migrants  burned the tongkang and thus became the ancestors of the Chinese ethnic group in the area. Nowadays, the moment is symbolically commemorated annually by their descendants, with the ritual of burning a replica of a similar tongkang as used by their ancestors.

The replica of the ship can measure up to 8.5 meters in length, 1.7 meters in width and weigh up to 400Kg. The replica would be kept for one night at the Eng Hok King Temple before being blessed and then taken in the procession to the site where it will be burnt.  The procession of the tongkang also involves the Tan Ki attraction where a number of people demonstrate their exceptional physical abilities by stabbing themselves with sharp objects yet remaining unharmed, somewhat similar to the Tatung tradition in Singkawang in West Kalimantan.  Arriving at the site, thousands of yellow prayer paper pieces will be attached to the ship representing prayers from the people for their ancestors, before the ship is then finally torched.

The ritual is also a manifestation of thanks by the people to the gods Ki Ong Ya and Tai Su Ong who have led their ancestors safely to Bagansiapi-api. The gods Ki Ong Yan and Tai Su Ong represent the balance of power: of good and evil, happiness and sadness, and  fortune and disaster.

The town of Bagansiapi-api can be reached overland in about 6-7 hours’ drive or approximately 350Km from Pekanbaru, the capital city of the Riau Province. Alternatively you can also reach the town from Medan in North Sumatra in about 10-12 hours’ drive. There are a number of hotels and inns that can facilitate your stay as you explore the area.Each year throngs of Hokkien ancestry from around the region will flock to Bagansiapi-api to watch this memorable event.

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