Jan 30 2013

Lunar or Chinese New Year in Penang

Published by at 5:37 am under Penang

As the state with the highest proportion of Chinese in Malaysia, Penang pulls out all the stops for its Lunar New Year, when the whole island resounds to the bangs of firecrackers and the beat of the lion dancers’ drums.

New Year lights at the Kek Lok Si Temple (photo courtesy of Penang Global Tourism).

New Year lights at the Kek Lok Si Temple.

Penang’s strong Chinese heritage makes it one of the best places outside China to experience the festivities, and there are plenty of opportunities to join in the fun. As the new lunar year dawns and Penang slides forward into the Year of the Snake, here is a calendar of some of the highlights over the two weeks of celebrations.

Saturday February 9: Chinese New Year’s Eve is traditionally reserved for relatives, and families will come from far and wide to congregate and celebrate over a large reunion dinner. However, the party is open to everyone at the Esplanade, where the official Penang countdown takes place (Lebuh Light, 21:00 to 00:30). Entertainment on the main stage includes Malaysian celebrity singers, cultural dances and an LED dragon dance, and the God of Prosperity will make an appearance to hand out goody bags and mandarin oranges. The night concludes with a dance involving a 15 metre-long wooden snake, fireworks and a spectacular stilt lion dance.

This is also the first night of the Display of Lights at the Kek Lok Si Temple in Air Itam, where close to 240,000 bulbs and lanterns will illuminate this famous Penang landmark. Assuming the national grid can cope, the switching on ceremony takes place at 19:00, and the lights can also be enjoyed every night thereafter, from 19:00 to 22:00, until March 10.

Lion dances take place throughout Penang over Chinese New Year.

Lion dances take place throughout Penang over Chinese New Year.

Sunday February 10: Penang will wake up to the sound of firecrackers and drums, as the city’s lion dance troupes get into full swing at temples, businesses and private residences all over the island. As a potent symbol of strength and protection, the ‘lions’ dance in order to purge buildings of evil spirits and bring good luck for the coming year, and firecrackers are thrown to scare off any lingering nasties. You will not have to look — or rather, listen — hard to find a nearby dance: just follow the sound of the drums.

It’s worth noting that many Chinese businesses, including shops and restaurants, close down for a few days over the beginning of Chinese New Year, and even the major malls can feel a little dead on New Year’s Day, so if you are planning a day of shopping, it’s better to wait a day or two.

Thursday and Friday February 14 and 15: Where better to celebrate the Year of the Snake than a visit to Penang’s famous Snake Temple (Jalan Tokong Ular, Bayan Lepas). February 14 coincides with the birthday of the patron deity, Chor Soo Kong, whose statue is said to attract and protect the resident snakes. Slithering reptiles and poisonous fangs may not be everyone’s idea of a romantic Valentine’s Day trip, but for something a bit unusual, you can witness the temple’s fire watching ceremony (20:00 to midnight), which is said to predict the future economic outlook of Penang for the coming Year of the Snake.

On February 15, between 16:00 and midnight, the celebrations at the temple are somewhat more upbeat, with over a hundred different hawker stalls on the road just outside, demonstrations on how to make traditional food, and entertainment including snake dances and snake charming.

Saturday February 16:  Between 15:00 and midnight, central Georgetown will be alive with a host of cultural events, at some of the city’s major kongsis, or clan houses. The clan houses themselves showcase Penang’s most opulent traditional Chinese architecture, but this event is also a great way to discover more about Penang’s Chinese heritage. Learn about the role of the dragon in Chinese culture at the Cheah Kongsi on Lebuh Armenian, and sample traditional foods from the stalls around the nearby Khoo Kongsi. If you are interested in Chinese medicine and the benefits of tai chi, head on down to the Lim Kongsi on Lebuh Ah Quee, where you will also find an array of traditional crafts for sale.  If you haven’t had your fix of lion dances, there will also be traditional folk music and dance performances at the various locations throughout the afternoon and evening.

Hokkien New Year (photo courtesy of Penang Global Tourism).

Hokkien New Year revellers.

Sunday February 17: If you missed the celebrations on February 9, this is your chance to do it all over again, at Hokkien New Year. Between 19:00 and midnight at the Chew Jetty (off Pengkalan Weld), the city’s large Hokkien population commemorates the time when their ancestors in China hid in a sugar cane plantation to escape oppression by the imperial army, and emerged unscathed on the eighth day of Chinese New Year, when they were finally able to celebrate. The date coincides with the birthday of the Jade Emperor God, to whom offerings of red cakes, pineapples, bottles of whiskey and, of course, sugar cane are made. This exuberant and colourful celebration involves fireworks and more lion dances.

Sunday February 24: The fifteenth, and final, day of Chinese New Year is known as Chap Goh Meh. Traditionally, this was when the unmarried Chinese women of Penang were paraded through the town and escorted down to the shoreline, where they would throw tangerines into the sea in order to bring luck in finding a husband. These days, things are a little less formal, but you can still see girls throwing tangerines on Gurney Drive and the Esplanade.

Photos courtesy of Penang Global Tourism.

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