As the horse canters its way towards the zodiac calendar, Penangites are getting ready to welcome it with a fortnight of celebrations and ceremonies.
Visiting Penang over the Lunar New Year period is something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, traffic over the first two or three days can be an absolute nightmare as people take to the roads to call on family and friends. 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.
On the other hand, you get to see Georgetown at its most vibrant, dressed up to the nines with decorations, and ringing to the evocative sounds of firecrackers and lion dancers’ drums. You can also watch 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.
Much like Christmas, this celebration is a family affair and on New Year’s Eve (January 31, 2014) people visit the clan houses and temples to pay homage to their ancestors before gathering in their homes for the annual reunion dinner. This normally takes the form of a huge feast, when children, teenagers and unmarried adults are also given ang pau (red packets containing money) by older family members.
Over the following few days, there is 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.
To see some seriously sumptious decorations, head over to the Kek Lok Si Temple in Ayer Itam, the largest Buddhist temple complex in Malaysia, which has a nightly Display of Lights between January 26 and February 27 (19:00 until midnight) in celebration of this special time of year. Alternatively, the streets of central Georgetown are bedecked with red lanterns, which glow particularly photogenically at night, and surrounding the front doors of many of the shophouses you will see traditional hanging red cloths, symbolising joy, virtue, truth and sincerity.
If you’re new to the concept of the lion dance, you can almost certainly catch performances ad hoc around Georgetown. Troupes of dancers and drummers on open trucks will be doing the rounds of houses and businesses on New Year’s Day (Saturday February 1), scaring away bad spirits and ushering in luck and prosperity for the coming year. Otherwise, why not go to one of the scheduled performances listed at the bottom of this page.
Meanwhile, to catch cultural performances, traditional Chinese costumes, martial arts demonstrations, folk music, a lantern exhibition, Chinese orchestral works, games, sketches, dragon dances and lion dances on stilts, check out the Chinese New Year Cultural and Heritage Celebration 2014. This will be held from 15:00 on Sunday February 2 in Lebuh Bishop, Lebuh Pantai, Lebuh Gereja, Lebuh Penang and Lebuh King, and is a great chance to experience traditional Chinese culture against the backdrop of one of the world’s best preserved Chinese heritage towns.
For something really unusual, it is well worth making time to join in the Hokkien New Year festivities, which are held on the eighth day of Chinese New Year (Saturday February 8) at the famous Chew Jetty between 19:00 and midnight. Many centuries ago, Penang’s Hokkien ancestors had to miss the first day 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 fortnight, the fifteenth and final day of Chinese New Year (Saturday February 15) is known as Chap Goh Meh. 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 tangerines 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 tangerines bobbing around in the shallow waters.
Lion dance performances
* Traditional Acrobatic Southern Lion Dance: January 31, 15:00-15:30, Straits Quay
* Dragon Dance and Traditional Acrobatic Southern Lion Dance: February 2, 19:30, New World Park
* Penang Chinese New Year Cultural & Heritage Celebration: February 2, from 15:00, Lebuh Pantai
* Photo courtesy of Penang Global Tourism.