Up until a few decades ago, Kuala Lumpur had a Chinese majority, and it was only very recently that Malays became the city’s largest single community. Even today, most of central KL feels much more Chinese than it does Malay, which probably comes as a big surprise for any visitor expecting a conservative city dominated by Muslim sensibilities. KL is for the most part an open, multi-cultural place.
One of the clearest signs of this is the gusto with which non-Muslim festivals are celebrated in KL. In fact, with thriving populations of Buddhists, Taoists and Confucianists (many Malaysian Chinese are a syncretic mix of all three), not to mention Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, hardly a week goes by without some colourful festival or other.
Over the years, many of these occasions have been given a distinctive Malaysian twist. The Hungry Ghost festival (which ends on August 28 this year), for example, increasingly involves glitzy entertainment shows called koh-tai or getai, rather than traditional Chinese opera performances.
It is true also of the second most important Chinese event of the year, the Mid-Autumn Festival. This falls on the 15th day of the eight month on the lunar calendar, when the moon is at its fullest and brightest. The origins of the festival are at least 3,000 years old, and tied to the worship of the moon Goddess, Chang’e. Family outings to look at the moon and burning incense for Chang’e are part of the festivities, as is eating special filled pastries, called mooncakes.
One twist in Malaysia, compared to mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, is the local ingredients used in the mooncakes, such as pandan leaves or durian (see here for a rundown of mooncakes in Saigon). Another is kids parading round with colourful paper lanterns, many in the shape of animals.
This has given rise to a popular local name for the celebration: the Lantern Festival. This can lead to some confusion, as the name is most commonly associated with the final day of the Chinese New Year celebrations, at least outside Malaysia and Singapore.
This year, Mid-Autumn falls on September 12, with Central Market chosen by Tourism Malaysia as the focus of KL’s celebrations. Its Lantern Parade is free to attend, and is due to run from 16:00 until 22:30 on September 10. Whether even the brightest moon of the year will be visible through the city’s light and air pollution is of course far from guaranteed.
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By Pat Fama
Last updated on 26th February, 2015.