The Bakar Tongkang Festival commemorates the arrival of the Chinese community in Bagansiapiapi in 1820. The festival’s name, “Go Gek Cap Lak,” translates to the sixteenth day of the fifth month in Hokkien, marking the festival’s annual occurrence.

The festival’s origins trace back to a group of Chinese immigrants from Fujian Province, China, who journeyed across the ocean in simple wooden boats. They initially settled in the village of Xixi in Songkla, Southern Thailand. However, due to regional turmoil, they set sail again, this time without a specific destination.

The Journey and The Ritual

During their journey, the immigrants faced numerous challenges, including rainstorms and large waves. They continued sailing while praying for guidance from the gods Hu Ki Ong Ya and Tai Sun, whose statues they carried on their barge.

Eventually, they arrived at the estuary of the Rokan River, attracted by the light from fireflies perched on trees along the river. They decided to settle in this area, now known as Bagan Siapiapi.

The Bakar Tongkang Festival symbolizes the immigrants’ decision to settle permanently in Bagansiapiapi and not return to their ancestral land. The festival begins with a prayer at the Ing Hok Kiong Temple, the oldest temple in the Pekong Besar area. This is followed by a procession to the burning site.

The Burning of the Barge

The burning of the barge, or tongkang, is the festival’s main event. The barge’s position is determined according to the instructions of the sea god, Dewa Kie Ong Ya. Once positioned, the barge is placed at the burning site, and prayer papers are piled near the ship’s hull, ready to be burned.

During the ritual, various temples in Bagansiapiapi also conduct ceremonies to summon spirits. Some individuals volunteer to act as mediums for the spirits during these rituals.

Cultural Significance and Impact

The Bakar Tongkang Festival is more than just a cultural event; it is a testament to the Chinese community’s resilience and commitment to their new home. Despite being banned during the New Order era, the festival was reinstated during Gus Dur’s leadership.

Today, the Bakar Tongkang Festival continues to be a significant cultural event that attracts visitors from various countries, including Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, and mainland China. It also positively impacts the local economy.