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.
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! 🙂
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 粘 (nián), meaning “sticky”, is identical in sound to 年, meaning “year”, and the word 糕 (gāo), meaning “cake” is identical in sound to 高, meaning “high”. As such, eating nian gao has the symbolism of raising oneself higher in each coming year (年年高升 niánnián gāoshēng). 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! 😛 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.
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. 🙂