Gong Xi Fa Chai, Penang!

What I love about travelling is experiencing the rich culture and meeting the locals and what better way to do that than to join the locals to celebrate one of their biggest festivals.

Carnival of Venice in Italy, La Tomatina in Spain, Oktoberfest in Germany and Songkran in Thailand–tourists often flock to these countries to celebrate with the locals. Now, if there is one festival in my hometown in Penang, Malaysia that I recommend to be included in that list, it would be the Chinese New Year (CNY) celebration.

I have left Penang for more than ten years but never failed to travel home every year for CNY celebration, along with other ‘Penangites’ who study and work in other states and countries. There are many events and activities held around Penang during the celebration in January which are free for all to participate.

The celebration

CNY celebration used to be a family affair, where most people will spend time at home with family or visit relatives and friends. These days, many activities and events are held all over Penang during CNY that would complement your holiday in ‘Pearl of the Orient’. The place to be to soak in the red-hot atmosphere and to learn about the culture and heritage of CNY is the annual Cultural and Heritage Celebration.

It is held right in the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and many clan houses and temples are part of the celebration. The clan houses, called “kongsi” in Hokkien, are usually part meeting hall and part temple for the clan. These clan associations were based on last names or the area (clan) where the Chinese immigrants came from. One of the finest clan houses is the Khoo Kongsi which would be all lit up during the celebration.

{ Part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site - Armenian Street }
{ Khoo Kongsi clan house }

There would be activities, performances and exhibitions, as well as stalls selling food, handicrafts and paintings throughout the celebration. Traditional Chinese dance, including lion and dragon dance, Chinese orchestra and opera, drums, kung fu (or wushu), puppet show, and flags performances aplenty, adding cheer to the festivities.  And, if you are interested in traditional handicrafts that may soon be lost in this modern world, check out the many traditional sign making, paper cutting, and Chinese calligraphy sessions!

 { Performances held throughout the celebration }
{ Traditional handicrafts and skills are showcased }
Hokkien New Year

While CNY is generally celebrated on the first day of the lunar calendar, the Hokkien community in Penang celebrates their Hokkien New Year on the ninth day of the Chinese New Year. Penang has a large Hokkien community, whose ancestors were immigrants primarily from Fujian province in China. The Hokkien New Year celebrates the day when they escaped mistreatment by the ruthless army in ancient China. They sought refuge in sugarcane plantations and emerged unharmed on the ninth day of Chinese New Year.

This day also coincides with the birthday of the Jade Emperor of Heaven (Thni Kong Seh). The Hokkien community celebrates ‘Thni Kong Seh’ around midnight on the eighth day, by praying to the Jade Emperor of Heaven (or Thni Kong). While most homes would have their own celebration and prayers, the largest celebration is at Chew Clan Jetty at Weld Quay.

{ Offerings for the Jade Emperor of Heaven }
{ Residents of Chew Jetty brought offerings in baskets }

Clan jetties are villages built on stilts with rows of houses connected by wooden walkways. The Chew Clan Jetty is one of the few surviving settlements, built by Chinese immigrants more than a century ago.

Residents of Chew Clan Jetty will place offerings for ‘Thni Kong’ on a long row of tables. Offerings include buns in the shape of turtles (to signify longevity), fruits, teas and even sugarcane (as the Hokkiens escaped by hiding in sugarcane plantations). Lotus-shaped candles and large incense are also offered to the god before being burnt.

The busy atmosphere is certainly not to be missed! It’s heartening to see that a community in a big city still gets together every year for the celebration.

{ Candles in the shape of lotus for prayers }
{ Huge incense in the shape of dragons would be burnt }

Temples galore

Another must-do during CNY would be to visit the many Chinese temples around the island–the oldest being the Goddess of Mercy (Kuan Yin); the Snake Temple, named after the many snakes that are found in the temple; and the ‘Kek Lok Si’ temple which is a sight to behold with all the decorated lights throughout the 15 nights of CNY. The young and the old would flood these temples in their best new attire to pray for a prosperous year ahead.

{ The oldest temple in Penang, the Goddess of Mercy Temple }
Indeed, Chinese New Year celebration in Penang extends the island’s diverse offerings beyond what you normally see—people coming together in the spirit of community, thankfulness and festivities; welcoming all the good blessings while sharing delectable foods.

For Malaysians who like to learn more about CNY culture, heritage and traditions, to curious tourists eager to discover for their first time, Penang is the place to go. What’s more, most of these activities are open to everyone without a need to pay a single cent!

Plan your trip and take part in Penang’s CNY festivities by booking your flights at www.airasia.com! Do visit the Penang State Tourism Official website at visitpenang.gov.my for more information on the various events and activities.

::: Footnotes :::

This blog entry is part of AirAsia Bloggers Programme. 
The article is also in the AirAsia's Travel 360 website here!

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