Ever since the 9th century when the ancient kingdom of Srivijaya became a thriving trading power and an epicenter for Buddhist learnings, Chinese merchants came to trade in Palembang and monks stayed here to study Sanskrit before proceeding to India, or on their journey home from India. Many settled in the city so that through the centuries the growing Chinese population, its culture and history became an inseparable part of the city of Palembang.
Later, in the 17th century Chinese communities were also involved in the construction of the Kuto Besak Fortress when it was first built as the Sultan’s new palace.
With time, Chinese celebrations and religious commemorations were introduced and accepted as part of local culture. Today the annual highlight in the Chinese calendar is the Cap Go Meh Celebrations, held 15 days after Chinese New Year, – here called Sin Cia,- centering on the Island of Kamaro, or sometimes spelled Kamaru, located midstream in the wide Musi River delta where there are pagodas and Chinese temples.
On this day, thousands of ethnic Chinese from Palembang and around Indonesia, as well as from neighbouring Singapore, Malaysia to Hong Kong and Taiwan gather on the island, arriving here by boat from Palembang city.
There is a legend about Kamaro, which has a number of versions. According to one version, the island is evidence and symbol of the love and loyalty of Princess Siti Fatimah, daughter of the King of Srivijaya, towards a Chinese prince called Tan Bun An.
In the 14th century, so the legend goes, Prince Tan Bun An arrived in Palembang to study. After living here for some time, he fell in love with princess Siti Fatimah. He came to the palace to ask the king for her hand in marriage. The king and queen gave their approval on one condition, that Tan Bun An must present a gift.
Tan Bun An then sent a messenger back to China to ask his father for such a gift to be presented to the King of Srivijaya. When the messenger returned with pots of preserved vegetables and fruits, Tan Bun An was surprised and enraged because he had asked his father to send Chinese jars, ceramics and gold.
In his anger he threw the ships cargo into the Musi River, unaware that his father had placed gold bars inside the fruits and vegetables. Ashamed after finding out his mistake, he tried to recover what he had thrown into the river. Tan Bun An, however, never returned as he drowned with the precious cargo.
When Siti Fatimah heard about the tragedy, the Princess ran to the river and drowned herself to follow her lover, but not before leaving a message saying; “If you see a tree grow on a piece of land where I drown, it will be the tree of our true love “.
At the place where the princess drowned, a piece of land appeared on the surface of the river. The locals believe that this new island is the couple’s tomb and therefore, they call it “Kamarau Island” which means that despite high tides in the Musi River, this island will always remain dry.
The local ethnic Chinese believe that their ancestor, Tan Bun An, lives on this island. As a result, the island is always crowded during Chinese New Year.
Today, a magnificent Chinese temple, the Hok Cing Bio, stands here. Built in 1962, it attracts many devotees. On special occasions, especially on what the Hokkien call the ‘Cap Go Meh’ Celebrations, the island is packed with locals and visitors coming from Palembang and overseas. There is something magical about Kamaro island. Witnessing the crowds on this particular occasion is an attraction by itself.
To reach the island , cross the river for free as everything will have been arranged by the Chinese community here. There are tongkangs, small boats called ketek, speedboats, and dragon boats. Find your own spot in a crowded tongkang then walk along the walkways to locate the graves of the legendary Tan Bun An and Siti Fatimah, or watch Chinese opera on the island. There is also a show of Barongsai, and local Chinese bands. The event starts in the morning and lasts until midnight. Naturally, with the flood of visitor to the island, food vendors, and those selling drinks, souvenirs, religious accessories, and even clothes, secure their own spaces too to do what they do best: selling.
The vivid red and golden colors, the burning incense, and the excitement around will make this a day of utter excitement. Wealth is in abundance during the event. To see it, just come here a couple of days before the actual activities begin. Cap Go Meh is an event both for the Chinese and everyone else who wishes to participate in these celebrations.