Penang boasts a large and lively Chinese community, and February will see a whole ream of celebrations that the whole island can enjoy. Sarah Rees brings you all the details and encourages you to get involved!
The first chinese settlers headed towards Penang for much the same reasons as the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, and the myriad of migrants from all over Southeast Asia: trade. Once the British had established a port and made the fi rst beginnings of a town on this jungle-strewn island, traders and merchants began to head here, equally tempted by its great location on the Straits of Malacca, the fact that it was a duty-free port, and the offer from Sir Francis Light – who had established the port in the late 1700s – that immigrants could have whatever land they could clear.
The Chinese settlers brought with them their religions, traditions, festivals, and food, and, to this day, the historic centre of George Town is packed with shophouses, temples, and clan houses that catered for the needs of this community.While the Chinese have, over the centuries, become Malaysian, their cultural celebrations and practises still live on and are now embraced by the nation, with one of the largest, loudest, and jolliest being Chinese New Year (this year in February).That said, the month of February holds a range of important days for the Chinese community of Penang, and is a good opportunity for visitors and residents to understand a little more about culture and traditions of this ethnic group.
Chinese New Year Celebration
On 10 February, the Year of the Snake will begin and the country will enjoy a national holiday as Chinese people all over the world mark the first day of the New Year with much visiting, feasting, and noisy firecrackers.With such a large Chinese community living on the island, Penang is decorated with raucous enthusiasm and many restaurants, shops, and malls will have special events in conjunction with the season. Lion dances are a treat worth catching – whirling, jumping colourful lions that chase away the evil spirits in a cacophony of drums – while Chinese New Year treats such as cookies, oranges, and yee sang are available for eating all over the city. There will also be a fun-filled parade that will allow all revellers to throng the streets and share in the excitement of turning over a new year once again.
Kek Lok Si Display of Lights
Throughout the Chinese New Year season (from 10 February), Kek Lok Si temple will be lit up in a dazzling array of lights that only adds further splendour to this remarkable tourist site and sacred locale tucked on the edge of the forest in Air Itam. Building began on this iconic temple back in 1890, although the seven-storey pagoda – which today offers a wonderful view across George Town and to the sea beyond – was only completed in 1930.Worshippers and tourists flock to this temple to admire the architecture and get a photograph at the largest Buddhist temple in South East Asia. Thanks to the addition of a 30-m bronze statue of KuanYin, the Goddess of Mercy, in 2002, Kek Lok Si’s position as a star of the island’s tourist trail has been firmly cemented. Make an effort to visit this month as the sun sets to watch the temple get lit up like a Christmas tree – 200,000 bulbs and 10,000 lanterns will be dazzling to ensure that Chinese NewYear is a time for light!
Chor Sor Kong Diety Birthday
Another of Penang’s star temple attractions is the Snake Temple, which takes its name from the collection of pit vipers that share the temple with the statues and incense sticks. Believed to be the only one of its kind in the world, the Snake Temple will be a hive of activity on 14 February when Chor Song Kong, the diety of the temple, has a birthday. Chor Song Kong was a revered Buddhist monk who earned his name for showing compassion towards jungle snakes. Upon his death, the templewas built in his memory and originally named Temple of the Azure Cloud, but renamed when, in the 19th century, snakes began to take up residence there.His birthday falls on the sixth day of theNew Year, and for 2013 there will bea special Flaming Ceremony (runningfrom 4pm but flaming takes placeat 11pm) which will bring togetherattendees from surrounding temples who will travel to the Snake Temple in carriages adorned with a statue of ChorSong Kong himself.
Hokkien New Year
The 8th day of the Chinese NewYear – this year falling on 17 February – is another cause for celebration as the Hokkien community celebrate Thni Kong She, or the Jade Emperor God’s birthday. The story goes that, during the Mongol Dynasty, the Hokkien clan couldn’t celebrate Chinese NewYear because they were in hiding due to being mercilessly pursued by the Mongols.The clan fled to Hanan Province and hid in the sugarcane plantations, and the Mongols, unable to discover them, abandoned their search on the 8th day and the Hokkien clan emerged to celebrate and praise the Jade Emperor for protecting them.
To mark this day, the Hokkien community will say prayers and offer food, drinks, and – most importantly – sugarcane stalks to the Jade Emperor God. Chew Jetty is the place to head from 7pm to see the celebrations and be part of the festive spirit, as many descendants of the Chew clan who settled in this area are Hokkien.
Chap Goh Mey
Another special day in the NewYear is the fifteenth night, falling this year on 24 February, which is known as the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day. As the full moon rises into the night sky, young, single women head to their nearest body of water (Penang Esplanade is a good place to see them) to throw oranges into the waves, having written on the peel their names and phone numbers. It is hoped that their ideal match will find their orange and track them down and is a tradition that has been practised for years, although most young people indulge in it for fun than anything more serious.
For more information on any of these events, visit www.penangglobaltourism.com.
Source: Penang International February 2013 -March 2013
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