Hokkien New Year

There is a saying that states you have not truly experienced Chinese New Year until you have celebrated it in Penang. The reason behind this is because Penangites celebrate Hokkien New Year in addition to Chinese New Year. You must be thinking – whatt? Hokkien New Year? How is this different from Chinese New Year?

Basically, Hokkien New Year is celebrated on the 9th day of Chinese New Year. (If you remember, I previously mentioned that Chinese New Year is a fifteen day celebration). For us Hokkiens, it is celebrated with more grandeur compared to the 1st day. According to mum, this is because the Hokkiens were in hiding for the first eight days of Chinese New Year, and only had the chance to celebrate the New Year on the 9th day. The belief is that the Jade Emperor (Thee kong – translated as “king of the heavens”) protected our Hokkien ancestors from being caught, which is why we offer thanksgiving prayers to him.

Although these prayers are traditionally only performed by Hokkiens, more and more non-Hokkien people have started to join in to pray for a good year ahead.

The prayers start at 11pm on the 8th day of Chinese New Year (in the Lunar calendar, the day starts at 11pm instead of at midnight), but preparations start well in advance. I went round with my mum to buy the fruits and flowers earlier in the day, and brought my camera along in the hope of capturing the festive air of it all. I must say I got quite a few strange glances from people, they must have thought I was completely crazy. Oh well.

Sugarcanes are an integral part of the thanksgiving prayers. This is because the Hokkiens hid out in sugarcane plantations, which managed to prevent them from harm. This is the only time of year when you will see this sugarcanes being sold all over town, and as you can imagine, it takes a bit of maneuvering to get the long stems into your car!

“Gold” paper (kim chua) is hung from the sugarcanes (as in the photo above), and this is later burnt as a thanksgiving offering to the Jade Emperor. A pair of sugarcanes are usually used, and traditionally these are tied to the sides of the altar. However, as we do not have a proper table, we lean the sugarcanes against the walls instead.

Fruit stalls do a roaring business during this period, as fruits are used as offerings during the prayers. You have the option of either praying with vegetarian offerings (which is what my family do), or of praying with a whole shebang of offerings which usually include a whole roast pig. To find out more about the non-vegetarian offerings, do read this brilliant write up by Quinn who is another Hokkien food blogger.

Certain festive fruit also make an appearance, and are aptly decorated with red and gold. I would love to tell you what these fruit are, but I honestly do not know what they’re called. I tried asking the fruit stall owner what these were called, but they told me what it was in Chinese… and unfortunately my understanding of Chinese/Hokkien is not great so I did not have a clue what they were talking about. I love how pretty they look though! ๐Ÿ™‚

Pineapple “flowers” are also a popular offering, and again is not something you see much of at other times of the year.

And just take a look at the ridiculous number (and size) of watermelons being sold!

The altar for prayers is set up in front of the house, an hour or so before the prayers are to begin. This is usually a table that is reserved specially for prayers (i.e. not a table that is used on a daily basis, or for any other purpose). The table is then draped in a red tablecloth, and the offerings are then placed on the altar. The size and height of tables vary greatly – for instance, we use a average height table, but my aunties use an amazingly high table which simply defies gravity (to me anyway).

All the offerings are decorated with red/gold paper with Chinese words on them. As you can see, I’m being very vague here as I have no idea what these Chinese words actually are. (Once again this is a testament of my poor grasp of the language).

“Nian gao” in Mandarin / “Thee kuih” in Hokkien – this is a sticky brown cake made from glutinous rice flour, palm sugar, and sometimes coconut milk. It’s delicious eaten on it’s own (once it’s re-steamed), or fried with yam slices. This is very popular during the New Year, and I only found out why after a spot of googling. According to Wikipedia, it is considered good luck to eat nian gao during Chinese New year, because “nian gao” is a homonym for “higher year.” The Chinese word ็ฒ˜ (niรกn), meaning “sticky”, is identical in sound to ๅนด, meaning “year”, and the word ็ณ• (gฤo), meaning “cake” is identical in sound to ้ซ˜, meaning “high”. As such, eating nian gao has the symbolism of raising oneself higher in each coming year (ๅนดๅนด้ซ˜ๅ‡ niรกnniรกn gฤoshฤ“ng). Thank you Wiki, I love you.

“Angku kuih” – literally translated as “Red tortoise cake” which I have previously blogged about. I must say though, these angkus were so delicious – much, much better than my attempt at it. I guess it’s just motivation to improve! ๐Ÿ˜› I can’t very well be hopping on a plane back home each time I crave for them now can I?

Huat kuih in Hokkien /Fatt koh in Cantonese – “Huat” or “Fatt” means prosperity, which is why these are such a favourite during Chinese New Year. They’re light, fluffy cupcakes made from fermented rice flour and are truly little morsels of deliciousness (plus they’re steamed so you can argue that they’re a healthy snack!) An important feature of huat kuih is the “bloom” or “cracking” of the cakes – the more it “blooms”, the more “huat” or prosperous it is.

The aforementioned sugarcane – this time cut into bite sized pieces. My grandma loves chewing on these as they are really juicy (and she manages this with her dentures, rather amazingly!).

Burning the paper offerings (“Thee kong kim”) – “heaven’s gold”. This is supposed to be the currency of the heavens, and various versions of these paper offerings are burnt throughout the year during various important dates. Now I know this tradition is completely not in line with trying to reduce environmental pollution, but some traditions just can’t be unfollowed, so to speak. (Which is why we usually only do it during Chinese New Year.) This “gold” is offered as thanksgiving for the success and good fortune of the previous year, as well as hoping for a similarly good year ahead. As you can see, the sugarcane leaves are burnt alongside the “gold”.

Now, Malaysia *technically* has a ban on fireworks and firecrackers. I say technically because in reality, people seem to find a way to get their hands on them. The above photo was taken from the front of my house, where my neighbours were having what seemed like an impromptu fireworks competition. I kid you not. The fireworks and firecrackers went on for a good 2 hours – for so long that me (the firework photographing dummy) had actually figured out what camera settings to use by the end of the first hour. Having said that, all the light and loud “bangs” honestly do add to the festivity of this day. These fireworks only come out in all their glory on this day (instead of the 1st day of Chinese New Year as one may have thought), once again a testament to the importance of this day to the Hokkien people in Penang.

Long post, but I hope I’ve shed some light on the festivities of Hokkien New Year. I shall end this post with an image that for me, depicts one of the most memorable things about Chinese New Year – playing mahjong with family and friends. ๐Ÿ™‚

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29 thoughts on “Hokkien New Year”

  1. I love fatt goh…they’re so yum with a bit of brown sugar ๐Ÿ™‚ So fluffy like eating sweet cotton. And seeing those bits of sugar cane really remind me of my childhood when i’d sit on the step of my gramma’s porch and suck on a sugar cane…sad to see a lot of Chinese new year celebrations get watered down because we’ve westernized a lot. But you’ve taught me quite a bit! Such interesting Hokkien new year. x

    1. Ah that’s it! Fluffy like cotton – that’s a perfect way to describe them. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I do agree that CNY celebrations have changed over the years, but somehow Penangites have managed to preserve the this bit of it.

    1. You know what, I have no idea… it’s a very old set that we’ve had for ages. Never thought about it. ๐Ÿ˜›

  2. What a nice take on the importance of this day. Being a Hokkien myself, I cannot stress enough the importance of this day. Thanks for the mention too. I’m starting to like your blog having discovered it like an hour ago…. Keep it up!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, glad you like it. I found your write up really good (and very informative!) and felt it more than deserved a mention. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Ahhh… I remember Hokkien new year! I am not Hokkien but where I come from, they are mostly Hokkien. I remember when I was a kid, on the 9th day, I heard firecrackers…
    Oh… sugarcanes.. I love chewing on them ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. Yeah, only in Hokkien areas do you hear loud fireworks on the 9th day. ๐Ÿ˜€ So festive! (Though when I was a student and had to go to school the next day I wished that they would stop!) I heard that it’s much quieter in places like KL where most people are Cantonese…

    1. Indeed! You need to tie them together, lower the front passenger seat as low as it can go, and have your back window open. You then insert the sugarcanes through the back window, and lean it on the passenger seat. Lastly, you wind up the window so it stops the sugar canes from moving around.

      Sounds very confusing, I know! I wish I had taken a photo of it now.

    1. Sorry to hear that. Having said that, you can always come to Penang, everyone (whether Hokkien or not) seems to celebrate this!

  4. Su-yin … I didn’t have the chance to grow up in a Hokkien community. I’m Cantonese (while my mom is Teochew.) So, I’m not too familiar with these though I’ve heard about them.

    Really, reading about this post has helped me learn a great deal about Hokkien culture! Oh, not just your Ah-Ma, I love chewing on those sugar cane sticks, too! So juicy and FRESH!!

  5. I know I’m a little late, but great, great post! I’ve been having some trouble with an assignment for my English class (inward groan) which requires me going on and on about my traditions. I’m only Hokkien on my dad’s side and not so familiar with Pai Ti Kong – call me clueless ๐Ÿ˜› – and I stumbled across your blog. What a relief! Great pictures, by the way.
    Thank you so much for posting this; it’s really helped! ๐Ÿ˜€

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