Photo: Shophouse scenes.

Lunar New Year in Penang

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Out with the old, and in with the new is very much the theme during Chinese Lunar New Year, and an excellent time to experience Penang at its most vibrant.

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Witness traditional Chinese culture against the backdrop of one of the world’s best preserved Chinese heritage towns when just about everywhere is dressed up to the nines with decorations and ringing to the evocative sounds of firecrackers and beating drums. You can feast your eyes on traditional cultural performances in the streets, gaze up at enough fireworks to launch Penang island itself into the sky and, with any luck, see more than a few dancing lions.

The streets of central Georgetown are decked with red lanterns, which glow particularly photogenically at night, and surrounding the front doors of many of the shophouses hang traditional red cloths, symbolising joy, virtue, truth and sincerity. To see some seriously sumptuous decorations, head over to the Kek Lok Si Temple in Ayer Itam, the largest Buddhist temple complex in Malaysia, which bedazzles with a nightly Display of Lights in celebration of this special time of year.

If you’re new to the concept of the lion dance, you can almost certainly catch performances ad hoc around town as troupes of dancers and drummers on open trucks usually do the rounds of houses and businesses on New Year’s Day, scaring away bad spirits and ushering in luck and prosperity for the coming year. Alternatively check out scheduled performances which often include spectacular costumes, martial arts demonstrations, folk music, Chinese orchestral works, games, sketches, dragon dances and more—see Penang Global Tourism for programmes.

For the locals, this celebration is first and foremost a family affair and on New Year’s Eve people visit the clan houses and temples to pay homage to their ancestors before gathering in their homes for the annual reunion dinner. Much feasting is enjoyed, with each dish having symbolic and auspicious meaning. Children, teenagers and unmarried adults are given ang pau (red packets containing even numbered amounts of money—odd numbers are for funerals) by older family members—“bribes” to be used against evil spirits who prey on the venerable.

Mandarin oranges are also common gifts, symbols of wealth and good fortune. Taboos to be observed include no house cleaning for the first four days of new year, for fear of sweeping aside the newly arrived good luck and knives and scissors that may in turn, cut the threads of good fortune should be hidden away. Also make sure your chopsticks are the same length otherwise your investments or travel plans for the year may go astray. Over the following few days, the festivities continue with a flurry of parties and open houses, and a whole lot more food. If you are lucky enough to have friends or family in Penang who celebrate Lunar New Year, then you may get to experience much of this first-hand, but if not, don’t despair—enough goes on in the streets for you to be able to get a real flavour of the celebrations.

For something really unusual, it is well worth making time to join in the Hokkien New Year festivities (Thni Kong Seh), which are held on the ninth day of Chinese New Year. Many centuries ago, Penang’s Hokkien ancestors had to miss the first days of New Year when they hid in a sugar cane plantation to escape oppression by the imperial army. They emerged unharmed eight days later, when they were finally able to celebrate, and since the date coincides with the birthday of Jade Emperor God, offerings of red cakes, pineapples, bottles of whiskey and, of course, sugar cane are made in his honour. This is a great chance to see a unique Penang celebration and, of course, more fireworks and lions.

Rounding off the celebrations, the fifteenth and final day of Chinese New Year is known as Chap Goh Meh, the Chinese version of Valentines Day. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, this was when unmarried Chinese women were escorted by their families through the streets of Penang and down to the shoreline where they would throw mandarin oranges into the sea in order to bring luck in finding a husband. The tradition is still continued today and if you head down to Gurney Drive or the Esplanade, you will see mandarins bobbing around in the shallow waters.

Visiting Penang over the Lunar New Year period is something of a mixed blessing, however, as traffic can be an absolute nightmare as people take to the roads to call on family and friends and to add to travellers’ woes, hotels and restaurants hike up their prices, flights to and from the island are more expensive and many of the Chinese cafes and shops close for several days. It can still be enjoyable, but takes a little planning—book accommodation and transport well in advance to avoid missing out.

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What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Penang.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Agoda or Booking
 Read up on where to eat on Penang.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Penang.
 Read up on how to get to Penang.
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