Penangites celebrate CNY better and tastier – they say

Hokkien clan elder Peter SH Cheah.

GEORGE TOWN: If you’re strolling along the Esplanade in George Town and you happen to see young people tossing fruit into the sea, egged on by their elders, don’t worry – they have a plan.

Tradition has it that in the CNY evenings, unmarried men hurl apples and women lob mandarin oranges into the briny in order to find a suitable marriage partner.

Penang always likes to do things in its own idiosyncratic way. And if you ask any Penangite, they’ll tell you it’s the best way.

According to them, Chinese New Year celebrations in Penang are more festive than in other parts of the country due to the deep-seated traditions of the Hokkien people.

Hokkien clan elder Peter S H Cheah said all Penang Chinese people, including Cantonese, Teochew and Hakka, embrace Hokkien culture and celebrate the New Year together.

“It is simply due to the large presence of Hokkien people in Penang and across the northern region. Centuries-old traditions originated with their forefathers whose roots go back to southern China,” he told FMT.

Cheah explained why celebrating the lunar new year in Penang is different.

He said a ritual involving the sending of deities to heaven is usually performed a few days before the Chinese New Year.

The “sung sin” ceremony involves placing offerings such as fruit and tnee kuih or glutinous rice cake on the altar.

“We then light candles and wait for them to be consumed, after which we burn joss papers to signify sending the deities to heaven,” said Cheah. “They then present our ‘report cards’ informing the Gods if we have done well or badly.

“And on the fourth day, these deities return to bless us, and we hold a similar ceremony with offerings to welcome them.”

The Chinese clans in Penang also hold a united celebration called Miao Hui (the grand temple festival) on the first day of the new year, together with state officials in George Town and Butterworth.

Cheah said another grand celebration widely regarded as the de facto new year for the Hokkien people is the Pai Tee Kong (God of Heavens or Jade Emperor) celebration, held on the night of the eighth day of the Chinese New Year.

The celebration is to give thanks to the Jade Emperor, who saved the Hokkien people from being massacred by a ruthless pirate army in ancient China.

“Legend has it that pirates invaded our ancestral land in Fujian and slaughtered everyone in sight.

“Then a vast sugarcane farm magically appeared out of nowhere and the survivors hid there. The pirates retreated after tiring of searching for the people.

“Those who survived believed it was because of the Jade Emperor’s protection, and celebrating the Pai Tee Kong is to give thanks to him for ensuring the survival of the Hokkien people,” he said.

In Chew Jetty and Air Itam, large-scale offerings are made on tables draped with red cloth, with tnee kueh (sweet cakes), ang koo (red tortoise buns), and other delicacies. Roast pig and brandy are also usually offered.

Of course, sugarcane gilded with gold papers tied to one end is also offered in recognition of the fabled rescue.

Penang is famous for its food and Cheah said that on the fifteenth and last day of the festival, families make a special mixture of bananas, yam, sweet potatoes and tapioca called pengat and serve it to all, bringing the celebrations to an end for another year.

Proud Penangites say there is no other lunar new year like the one in Penang.