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Unique Chinese New Year Traditions and Events in Penang We Love

For many of us, Chinese New Year means lighting up firecrackers, receiving (or giving) red packets and chowing down on festive food! But Penang has a lot of treasured Chinese New Year traditions and events — some even begin days before the big day arrives! Here, we give you a peek into how the Chinese people in Penang prepare for and celebrate the Lunar New Year.

Pineapples as Decorations

If there is one thing that will surely put the Chinese in a Chinese New Year mood, it's the beautifully decorated houses! The Hokkien Chinese incorporate real pineapples or pineapple-shaped lanterns into their decorations as the Hokkien word for pineapple literally means ‘prosperity arrives’. Other than pineapples, some common decorative items in a Chinese household are auspicious red banners for prosperity and wealth, red Chinese lanterns to drive off bad luck and kumquat trees for wealth! 

Tossing Yee Sang during Reunion Dinner

Pic credit: Lexis Suites Penang

Traditionally, yee sang — a salad dish typically made up of sliced carrots, radish, papaya, ginger, pickled leeks, dried yam, dried potatoes, pomelo pulp, ground peanuts and crackers— is tossed on the seventh day of Chinese New Year to celebrate Yan Yat (everybody’s birthday in Cantonese). Legend has it that Chinese Goddess Nu Wa created humankind on this day. 

But few stick to the rules these days, with the salad dish being tossed as early as Chinese New Year’s Eve, during the family reunion dinner. If you’re keen to experience the time-honoured tradition of reunion dinner and partake in the yee sang toss during Chinese New Year, renowned Penang-based blogger, Timothy Tye suggests the following hotels:

Name: The Wembley 
Address: 183, Jalan Magazine, George Town
For reservations, contact: +604 259 8000  

Name: Eastin Hotel
Address: 1, Solok Bayan Indah, 11900 Bayan Lepas
For reservations, contact: +604 612 1111

Name: Lexis Suites Penang
Address: 28, Jalan Teluk Kumbar, 11920 Bayan Lepas
For reservations, contact: +604 628 2888 Ext. 2858

Name: The Light Hotel
Address: Lebuh Tenggiri 2, 13700 Seberang Jaya
For reservations, contact: +604 382 1111

Name: Ixora Hotel Penang
Address: 3096 Jalan Baru, Bandar Perai Jaya
For reservations, contact: +604 382 8888

Kek Lok Si Display of Lights

The Kek Lok Si Display of Lights event wows each year with its unparalleled visual feasts during Chinese New Year. Tens of thousands of LEDs, neon lights and traditional Chinese lanterns adorn the temple grounds, transforming the biggest Buddhist temple complex in Southeast Asia into a massive fairyland of lights. The yearly tradition of ushering in the new year has been going on for almost half a century, attracting devotees, tourists and avid photographers. This year, the bright lights will be turned on from January 19 to February 21 from 7pm till midnight.

8th Ban Ka Lan Snake Temple CNY Culture Celebration 2020

To witness a Chinese New Year tradition unique to Penang known as Chnea Hoay or flame-watching ceremony, head over to the 8th Ban Ka Lan Snake Temple CNY Culture Celebration 2020. The ceremony is held annually on the sixth day of the Lunar New Year at the Snake Temple in Bayan Lepas where devotees and visitors are treated to lion dance and traditional drum performances before the ceremony commences. It is believed that the Snake Temple’s resident deity, Cheng Chooi Chor Soo Kong, can predict the state’s economy, and devotees must interpret the deity's divinations based on the strength, brightness and stability of the burning flames in the incense urn – each representing a four-month cycle of the year.

Pai Thee Kong Celebration (Jade Emperor's Birthday)

The first day of Chinese New Year may be a big celebration for the Chinese in Penang. Even bigger is the Pai Thee Kong Celebration (Jade Emperor's birthday), when the Hokkien community in Penang throw a massive new year celebration! According to folklore, during the Ming Dynasty, the Hokkien in the Fujian province survived a massacre by the pirates after hiding in a sugarcane plantation on the Jade Emperor's birthday, which falls on the ninth day of the Chinese New Year. That's why each Hokkien household sets up an offering table groaning with sugarcane, sweets, joss sticks, fruits, meat dishes and roasted pigs to thank the Jade Emperor on the ninth day. Prayers start at 11 pm on the eighth day of Chinese New Year. At the stroke of midnight, the Hokkiens will light up firecrackers and perform prayers with intricately carved dragon-themed joss sticks. Burning of joss papers and a late-night feast mark the end of the ceremony. Every year, the Pai Thee Kong Celebration is celebrated on a grandiose scale along Pengkalan Weld and at the Chew Jetty.

Penang Chinese New Year Celebration (Miaohui)

The annual Miaohui or Penang Chinese New Year Celebration has blossomed into a treasured cultural celebration for local and international visitors since its inception in 1999. During the one-day celebration, the ancestral halls and associations at the heritage precinct of George Town will open their doors to the public offering insights into their culture through multi-cultural performances as well as authentic Chinese cultural performances, workshops, and activities. The heritage precinct’s temples, clan houses and pre-war shophouses are the perfect settings for lion dance, drums and opera performances, making the event an Insta-worthy celebration not to be missed.

Chap Goh Meh

Did you know that Chap Goh Meh is an enduring Penang Baba-Nyonya tradition? Long before mobile dating apps like Tinder existed, young unmarried women only get to leave the house once a year, which is on the last day of the Chinese New Year. They ride in cars along the Gurney Drive or the Esplanade, write their names and contact details on mandarin oranges and throw them into the sea in hopes that a man would scoop them up and make contact. Today, Penang celebrates Chap Goh Meh with a night-long merrymaking at the Esplanade on the island and also at the Jetty Bukit Tambun on the mainland. Other than mandarin orange-throwing ceremony, visitors can expect an array of spectacular shows, including lion dance and Chinese opera performances as well as a dazzling display of fireworks.