Frances Wilks explores one of the largest festivals in Penang, Chinese New Year, which begins at the end of January and explains its origins, its food, its special days, and where to catch its best vibe on the island
It’s not clear when Chinese New Year began to be celebrated but it’s thought that its origins go back at least four thousand years. Both Buddhists and Taoists celebrate it but it’s older than either religion. Certainly it celebrates spring and the renewal of life and fertility that the spring brings.
In 2017 Chinese New Year begins on 28 January but many celebrations actually start on the eve of it – the night of 27 January. There are 12 signs in the Chinese Zodiac and each sign has five aspects connected with one of the five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and metal.
This year it’s the turn of the fire rooster, and the cycle repeats every 60 years. Like Easter, Chinese New Year is a moveable feast, as it’s based on the lunar calendar of 13 months of 28 days each, rather than our Western solar calendar, which has only 12 months of rather irregular lengths.
Chuay Peik and Chap Go Mei
After all the traditional gatherings and family events, the Eighth Day of the Festival is particularly interesting and this is one of the most colourful days to witness. Known as Chuay Peik, it celebrates a Hokkien legend from the Sung dynasty when villagers hid amongst sugar cane fields to escape a massacre.
It’s a time for a myriad of special cakes including one shaped like a tortoise, lots of decorations, fireworks, and even fires. The festival ends with two celebrations on the 15th day – Chap Go Mei and Chneah Hoay. Chap Go Mei is often thought of as a Chinese Valentine’s Day. Young unmarried women throw oranges into the sea and bachelors then scramble to get them.
This is altogether more serious – it’s an initiation into a secret society and an economic forecast. The focal point of the celebration is the oldest Chinese temple in Penang where a holy urn is filled with joss sticks and sandalwood powder, which is then lit.
The height of the flames determines the economic forecast for the coming year. The process is repeated three times. It will be in interesting to see what the year of the Rooster bring to Penang as, according to the Chinese, the rooster symbolically represents sun and sunshine as well as protection against demons. Whilst we normally have plenty of the former, it’s always good to have adequate defences against the latter.
Places to get the CNY vibe in Penang
Kek Lok Se, Ayer Itam
During the whole fortnight the massive temple of Kek Lok Se is lit up. Aim to arrive before dusk so you can witness the drama of the lights coming on. Particularly impressive is the illumination of the 99-foot high statue of Kuan Yim, the Goddess of Mercy.
Penang Open House (1st day of the festival at 10 am)
The Penang Chief Minister invites everyone to join a Chinese New Year Open House at SPICE, Jalan Tun Dr Awang, Bayan Baru, 11900 Bayan Lepas.
Chuay Peik (8th day of the festival evening)
All around the Hokkien heartland (the streets surrounding Jalan C.Y. Choy) and Chew Jetty in George Town as well as other places on the island, you can see these boisterous festivities including fireworks and bonfires.
Chap Goh Mei (last day of the festival)
Gurney Drive used to be the focus of this but as land reclamation is now taking place there, probably the best place to witness it is at Straits Quay.
Chneah Hoay (last evening of the festival)
This takes place at the Twa Peh Kong Temple in Tanjong Tokong. It’s semi-private and bound to be very crowded.