This temple was set up in Semarang's Chinatown in 1771 when Zhenghe's cave shrine at Sam Po Kong became the property of a Dutch landowner who demanded huge sums from pilgrims for access. Every year during the anniversary of Zhenghe's arrival in Semarang, a procession would bring sacred images of Zhenghe from Tay Kak Si to the fence of the Dutch holdings where it was nearest to the cave. In 1879, a wealthy Chinese bough the land around the cave and turned it into a public temple. Since then, the procession goes directly to the cave at Sam Po Kong.
The procession and festival took on new significance with the fall of the New Order in 1997, after which Chinese-Indonesians begin to rediscover and celebrate their ethnic identity, and the rise of China as a regional power highlights the importance of this historical relationship between China and Indonesia.
We have undertaken this trip to witness the procession. Unfortunately, the procession was suddenly cancelled. The official reason given was that the ceremonies were cancelled as the economy was bad. Perhaps the ostentatious display of Chinese pride would be rubbing salt into the wounds of the many pathetically poor Indonesians suffering from high food and fuel prices.
More privately, we heard murmurings about rivalries between the people who run Sam Po Kong and Tay Kak Si, as well as talk about the god of Zhenghe himself who rejected the procession this year when the request was put forward in the form of qian, or traditional oracle. When I have heard of the second possibility last week, I wondered if the threat of terrorist attack was why divine instruction was so given. Indeed, in a country plagued by the cancer of extremist forces and religious fundamentalism, a gathering of this sort presents an opportunity to teach a lesson to the indolent infidels.