George Town, Malaysia, is a city that is known for its food scene, but over the course of my three days on the island, I often struggled to find any food at all! Ironically, the reason for this is the very reason I visited George Town when I did – my visit coincided with the Lunar (Chinese) New Year. As I’ve written about previously, there is a large Chinese population in Malaysia, and in particular on Penang Island, so the Chinese New Year celebrations are an important part of the local culture.
In the Chinese Zodiac, 2018 is the Year of the Dog. The date of Chinese New Year varies from year to year because it is based on the Chinese lunar calendar; the first day of the new year is the date of the full moon that falls between late January and mid February. Regardless of the date, however, the celebrations continue over the course of fifteen days, where each day has a particular significance and set of traditions. As the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar, the new year celebration is considered to be a time to drive out evil spirits and usher in good luck for the upcoming year. The idea is to ensure that whatever bad luck you had in the previous year does not carry into the new year. In the weeks leading up to Chinese New Year, many people consult their horoscopes or visit fortune tellers to find out what the coming year holds for them so that they can prepare and make decisions accordingly.
I arrived in George Town on the eve of the New Year, after a long bus ride from Kuala Lumpur that I had been (correctly) warned would likely involve heavy traffic. As Chinese New Year is a public holiday in Malaysia and Singapore, most Chinese residents of those countries return to their hometowns to spend the long weekend with their families, which causes some gridlock on the main north/south tollway through Malaysia.
The atmosphere in the town that evening was festive, yet rather quiet. There were many people out enjoying the evening, but the real celebrations did not begin until close to midnight. At about 11:50, I came across a small temple just as the drums inside were announcing the emergence of a dragon. As an auspicious symbol in Chinese culture, the dragon dancing through the streets is meant to bring good luck to the local community. After thoroughly pleasing the crowd gathered in front of the small temple, the dragon was processed down the street to the much larger Kuan Yin (the Goddess of Mercy) Temple, where it performed a variety of gyrations and spirals – an impressive dance, considering that with each movement, the puppeteers must either jump or duck to ensure they don’t block the dragon’s path.
As the clock struck midnight, the town lit up with fireworks launched from the middle of the streets and barely clearing the roofline before erupting. Many people were mingling around the temples buying food and drinks from street vendors. Those who wished to make an offering to the Goddess of Mercy purchased sticks of incense, called joss sticks, lit them, and entered the temple to worship the deities inside. This ritual involves facing the deity’s shrine, holding up the joss sticks (always an odd number, as even numbers are considered unlucky), and bowing as they fan the deity with incense. They then place the joss sticks in a bowl of sand in front of the shrine and proceed to the next shrine. With the smell of incense, the worshippers moving from shrine to shrine, the lanterns and fireworks, and food vendors, the temple area was very atmospheric, so much so that I immediately teared up upon entering the temple – okay, that was due to the huge amounts of smoke coming from 6-foot tall incense sticks burning all around the temple courtyard! 😋
Throughout that night and the following nights, there were impromptu displays of fireworks and firecrackers on the streets around George Town. However, during the day, the city was very quiet. The first day of Chinese New Year is traditionally spent at home in the company of family. People exchange mandarin oranges (a symbol of good luck) and children receive red envelopes filled with money (red is considered to be a lucky color). Cleaning, using knives, and saying curse words are discouraged during this time because they are considered to drive away the good luck. All Chinese-owned businesses, including restaurants and shops, are closed on this day and the next three days. This is why I often found it difficult to find food – many streets were completely shuttered and deserted throughout my entire stay! There were a few areas with Malay (and a handful of Chinese) food stalls that opened for part of the day, and I returned to these areas several times. Otherwise, Little India was the most reliable place to find a meal.
After the first few days of traditions and time spent at home with family, businesses begin to open again and people spend time visiting their friends. Part of this involves a tradition known as the “open house”. Considered as yet another means of bringing in good luck, many families, businesses, and even local governments will open their doors to allow guests in to visit and enjoy some food. The state of Penang hosted a large open house event on one of the main streets in George Town which I attended along with some new friends. The event took up a large section of the city center and featured a broad array of entertainment, activities, and food. Several stages featured various dance, music, and magic acts, while booths set up along the length of the street offered everything from handicrafts to “knife blade massages”. By far the most popular areas of the celebration were the side streets, where rows of food stalls served classic local dishes, drinks, and desserts. In the spirit of the open house tradition, all of this was free and open to the public – and no one hesitated to wait in line for second, third, and even fourth helpings of the delicious food!
The last few days of the Chinese New Year celebrations involve more dragon and lion dances in the streets, fireworks, and lantern festivals. In one Malaysian tradition, single women write notes on mandarin oranges and throw them into the sea; then men row out and scoop up the oranges, hoping to find a match. For house maids in George Town back in the day, this was one of the few occasions during the year when they could see and be seen, and they would be processed in carriages through the main square along the waterfront to toss their mandarin orange love notes.
As I was only in Malaysia for the first four days of the Year of the Dog, I did not witness the entire array of celebrations. However, as this was my first experience with Chinese New Year, I had an interesting time exploring Penang during the first part of the festival. I’ll end this post with a typical Chinese New Year greeting: 恭喜发财 (Pronounced “Gōngxǐ fācái”), which means “Wealth and prosperity”!