Observed annually on the fifteenth night of Chinese New Year, Chap Goh Mei marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations.
The festival is also synonymous with the act of young unmarried women throwing oranges inscribed with their names and telephone numbers into flowing rivers in the hope that their prospective mates will pick the oranges up and come in search of them.
While not a public holiday in Malaysia, Chap Goh Mei remains a popular festive date, with many people, young and old, partaking in celebrating what some call the Chinese Valentine’s Day.
On normal occasions, big family gatherings and meals are held, with glutinous rice balls being a must-serve at the dining table.
Chap Goh Mei is also often regarded as the last day that families can toss yee sang together, with the auspicious act believed to bring booming prosperity in the coming year.
This year though, with Covid-19 guaranteeing that family gatherings are a no-go, many families will forgo the chance to meet up for their own safety.
Additionally, devout celebrants will also visit temples to pray to the God of Prosperity, asking that they be bestowed with good fortune in the coming year.
Surprisingly though, Chap Goh Mei is not only a Hokkien celebration as some people are led to believe, as the Peranakan community, or Baba Nyonya, also celebrate the day with full gusto.
This is particularly true in Penang, where a large community of Peranakan reside to this day and where festivities of Chap Goh Mei are particularly colourful.
While Peranakan celebrations of Chap Goh Mei are similar to that of their Chinese counterparts, there are some differences, mostly in terms of cuisine.
For Peranakan households, the serving of bowls upon bowls of rich and delicious bubur cha cha is almost a certainty.
While “bubur” may mean porridge, bubur cha cha is a sweet dessert made with sweet potatoes, taro, sago and tapioca flour jelly.
These ingredients are boiled till tender, then served in a sweet coconut cream gravy, often infused with pandan leaves and sometimes black-eyed peas.
But what is the significance of bubur cha cha? It is actually the name that makes it a mainstay on dining tables, with “cha cha” being homophonic with the Hokkien “che che”, meaning abundance.
With the many different ingredients combining to form a delicious dessert, bubur cha cha is hence a symbol of familial unity and happiness in abundance.
It is also during this time of the year that the sounds of Malay love ballads called Dondang Sayang fill the air.
Literally meaning a lullaby of love, Dondang Sayang is essentially romantic poetry sung between a man and a woman.
Often, the lines sung by each singer are witty but affectionate, sometimes sarcastic but almost always hilarious.
Often, the Dondang Sayang is sung with the accompaniment of violins, drums and a gong.
While Malaysians and Indonesians argue about its true origins, Peranakans often take pride in their Dondang Sayang performances, which have been going on since the early 20th century.
Prior to the pandemic, Penangites would often see beautifully decorated buses buzzing around town with Dondang Sayang troupes spreading joy and laughter to all who celebrate Chap Goh Mei and to many curious others watching on the side.
While this tradition has unfortunately been brought to a standstill by the pandemic, here’s to hoping that it will make a return for the Chap Goh Mei celebrations next year.