Indonesian lion dancers’ first roar since pandemic



Two lion dance athletes practice choreography on top of a pole as the drum player looks on at the Gambir Expo, Central Jakarta, Indonesia, on Friday (7/05/2021)

It was 8 p.m. and winds were blowing slowly at the Gambir Expo exhibition and entertainment complex in Central Jakarta. A familiar yet unique melody filled up the outdoor spaces of the complex. The sounds of gong, drums, and cymbals produced exclusive music for lion dance, popularly known as ‘Barongsai’ in Indonesia. Toong toong toong chak! Toong toong toong chak!

Two dancers standing in line were moving very energetically following the rhythm of the music on top of a big pole. Music is the key component of the choreography itself. As each beat has its own move, and each move differs from every beat.

Here comes the drums beating. On top of the pole, one dancer on the back started moving his leg as the drums beat. The other dancer started moving his hand, making the lion’s eyes blinking repeatedly.

The two are members of a Jakarta-based lion dance troupe, Kong Ha Hong. At least 20 members of the group came to the practice that evening, or around half of the total 40 members belonging to the troupe. Not all members needed to participate in the regular practice that day as they did not have performances coming up.

The practice started in the evening, given that most of the dancers have a regular job or were students. This is our hobby,” Andre Wijaya, the manager of Kong Ha Hong, said recently.

Kong Ha Hong had a long journey before they were able to practice and perform in public. Lion dance and other manifestations of Chinese culture, tradition, and belief were banned during the authoritarian New Order regime, which lasted from 1967 to 1998, when then President Soeharto stepped down following deadly student protests and riots in Jakarta and other major cities in Indonesia. 

After the collapse of the New Order regime, numerous discriminative laws were abolished, allowing various expressions of Chinese ethnic identity to flourish. Kong Ha Hong, which was established in 1999, was among lion dance pioneers in Indonesia. According to Agus Indiyanto, a professor of anthropology at Yogyakarta-based University of Gadjah Mada, 1999 also marked the rise of lion dance troupes and performances in Indonesia. Lion dancers were able to perform in public, especially during the celebrations of Chinese New Year.

Today, lion dance is considered as a national sport and selected athletes will represent the country in international competitions. On Nov. 6, 2019, Kong Ha Hong won an international competition in Guangxi, China, marking their fifth win at the global level.

But then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Public places, malls, shopping centers were all closed and gatherings were limited, forcing the troupe to take a long break – probably their longest one to this date.

“We are just trying to follow the government regulations [regarding the health protocols]. Once an athlete starts beating the drums, a crowd will swarm in,” Anton Chandra, a Kong Ha Hong trainer, said recently.

Kong Ha Hong canceled virtually all shows during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, Kong Ha Hong performed hundreds of shows during Chinese New Year festivities. Since the pandemic, the number of shows that they were able to perform dropped to 10, with some of them being pre-recorded. 

During the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was only one lion dance championship, which was done virtually by the Indonesian Barongsai Sports Federation (FOBI) in April 2021. Twelve lion dance teams participated in that competition. Kong Ha Hong, which sent three teams to compete, won two gold medals from the virtual championship.

While Kong Ha Hong was preparing for the competition, they should stick to health protocols so they cut down the practice to once a week, from previously three times a week. 

“We take a [Covid-19 test] every two weeks,” Kong Ha Hong’s manager Andre Wijaya said.

It was almost midnight when the practice finished. It was chilly that evening because of the sudden downpour. But, it felt chillier because of news that came from the evaluation.

The decrease in the number of shows had affected Kong Ha Hong’s finances. They earned less but spent more due to Covid-19-related expenses on top of regular expenses, such as warehouse rental fees. 

But there was one piece of good news. At the end of April 2021,  Kong Ha Hong lion dance athletes received their first dose of vaccine. Following  the vaccination rollout, Kong Ha Hong would be able to resume performances and roar again.