Model by day, spirit medium by night

Karim Raslan

ARIFIN Kurniawan towers over his 55-year-old father’s prostrate figure. With a hand placed firmly on the older man’s head, the blond-haired son barks out instructions in Hokkien.

Only moments before, the 21-year-old Chinese-Indonesian had cut his tongue with a sword – using the blood to write Chinese characters on rice paper. Bathed in an eerie red light, with statues of countless deities lining the walls and the air filled with chanting, the Fat Cu Kung shrine is Arifin’s domain tonight.

Surrounded by kneeling adherents, he strokes what would appear to be a chest-length beard imperiously.

But on a normal day, the young man doesn’t speak Hokkien or even write Chinese. Neither does he have a beard.

You see, Arifin is a spirit medium and that evening, he was possessed by Guan Gong, a deity based on a historical general called Guan Yu who lived in the tumultuous ‘Three Kingdoms’ era of ancient China. As part of a ritual blessing, Guan Gong entered his body.

I first met Arifin at Tak Kie, one of the oldest Chinese-run coffee-shops in Indonesia. Founded in 1927, the establishment is a local favourite in Glodok, the Chinatown of Jakarta. As he enters, Arifin is warmly greeted by several regulars as ‘Ah Fin’.

Down a back alley from Tak Kie, Arifin’s family run a tiny convenience store out of their home. It’s five minutes from the Fat Cu Kung, where Ah Fin conducts prayers.  

After finishing secondary school, Arifin chose to start work right away. Tall, with a piercing gaze and a disarming smile, he found a job as a fashion model. Between lion dances, rituals, and strutting the runway, the hardworking young man also sells SIM cards at events to earn some side income.

The youngest of three, Arifin’s ability to walk the tightrope between modernity and tradition is perhaps a result of his diverse upbringing. While his father and elder brother are Buddhist, his mother is Muslim and his elder sister is Catholic.

Ah Fin himself is a Buddhist who is dating a Muslim.

Mindful of the wave of religious conservatism spearheaded by radical groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), I ask Ah Fin what he thinks of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (‘Ahok’), the Chinese Christian former governor of Jakarta.

“Talk less do more. That was Ahok to me. Under him, Jakarta was cleaner and more efficient. I think he was heading in the right direction: cracking down on corruption, reducing traffic, and modernising the city.”

And now that Ahok has been sentenced to two years in jail on blasphemy charges?

“I think it’s a pity. I don’t care about his race or his religion, just that he got the job done.”  

As Indonesia moves closer to 2018 regional elections and 2019’s presidential race, political fault lines are bound to deepen.

Issues of race and religion that poisoned the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial contest may well rear its ugly head once more, challenging the republic’s motto: ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’ (Unity in Diversity).

To Arifin, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika is more than a mantra; it’s what it means to be Indonesian. – February 15, 2018.

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