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


Honoring their ancestors and preserving age old tradition, the Chinese ethnic group at Bagansiapi-api will this year, without fail, again stage the Bakar Tongkang Festival on 10th to 11thJune 2017 to be held in Bagansiapi-api, capital of Rokan Hilir Regency, in the Riau province.

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

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Literally meaning "Burning the (last) Ship", Bakar Tongkang is an annual tradition commemorating the fateful decision of the first Chinese migrants who left their homeland by ship and settled in Riau on the island of Sumatra. The historic decision was marked by torching the (last) Ship on which they sailed in, which is now annually celebrated by torching a replica of the traditional Chinese ship at the pinnacle of the festival.

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

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

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The Bakar Tongkang Festival is the largest annual event in the Rokan Hilir Regency. During the festival, rituals and prayers by participants at the main temple precede, followed by cultural processions, a variety of distinct oriental attractions such as the Barongsai (Lion Dance) are held, as well as an entertainment stage set up for performers who hail from Medan , Singkawang (West Kalimantan) as well as from neighboring Malaysia, Taiwan, and Singaporerendering Hokkien songs.

At the peak of the festival, which is the burning of a huge ship's 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.

Bakar Tongkang Festival 2016 in Riau: Burning a replica of the Last Ship
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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 ship would be kept for one night at the Eng Hok King Temple, blessed, and then taken in a 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 piercing themselves with sharp knives or spears yet remaining unharmed, somewhat similar to the Tatung tradition at Singkawang in West Kalimantan. Arriving at the site, thousands of yellow prayer paper pieces will be attached to the ship bringing prayers from the people for their ancestors, before the ship is then finally burned into flames.

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

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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 between 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 , 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.

Because of the festival's continued presence each year, those of Chinese descent in South East Asia now make it a point to attend this ceremony and flock to the festival, many coming from Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and even from China, besides, of course from Jakarta, Kalimantan, Sumatra and other Indonesian islands.

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