Penang’s Chinese New Year Extravaganza!

A spectacular lion dance at Chinese New Year in George Town

By Chin Liang Teh
Senior Writer

Those unfamiliar with Chinese culture might think Chinese New Year is just about lion dances and lucky red decorations, based on what they see in the media. But if you ever find yourself in Penang, Malaysia, a vibrant island jewel located in the Strait of Malacca and my beloved hometown that has the largest Chinese population in all Malaysia, your impression of Chinese New Year could be forever redefined.

Chinese New Year typically falls in January or February. Although the official holiday lasts only two days, the festivities continue on for a full 15 days.

CNY Martial Arts in George Town
CNY Martial Arts in George Town

New Year’s Buzz Starts Weeks Before the Big Day

Weeks before the new year even begins, the festive atmosphere is already palpable, especially in George Town. The warm glow of red lanterns strung across the streets illuminates the old buildings and temples. The dreamy red imbues the architecture in its timeless allure — a blend of haunting aesthetic and historic grandeur that transports you to a time capsule of the past. Walking under the lantern always fills me with a sense reminiscent of the simpler and more traditional way New Year celebrations once were.

Having lived on this island my whole life, I strongly recommend visiting Penang during Chinese New Year to enjoy the magic that the festival brings.

Here are a few tips to maximize your experience of Chinese New Year in Penang.

“Lou Shang” is a Chinese New Year ritual where people toss fish salad ingredients for good luck

Rickshaw Ride around George Town

Part of the fun of Chinese New Year is the excitement that comes from the preparations. Take a rickshaw ride through the heart of George Town.

The ride gets you to the bustling local markets brimming with festive cheer – Locals pick up tasty cookies, new clothes, colorful lanterns, and red calligraphy artworks for their homes. Let the excitement of anticipation rub off on you.

Be sure to check out the street murals depicting everyday life in Penang. Don’t miss the iconic ‘Kids on Bicycle’ by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, a classic piece that gave rise to the explosion of street art in Penang.

New Year’s Eve: A Time for Everyone to Come Together

Chinese New Year’s Eve, also known as Reunion Eve, is a special day when families come together for a reunion dinner. If you are invited by local friends, joining their celebration is a unique opportunity to get a firsthand glimpse into Chinese customs.

A highlight of the dinner is the “Lou Sang” ritual. Families and friends gather around a platter overflowing with colorful ingredients including shredded vegetables, raw salmon, and crackers. On the count of three, everybody grabs their chopsticks and tosses the ingredients high.

This tossing is usually accompanied by a chant of auspicious greetings. The higher the toss, the better, as it implies greater heights of prosperity and good fortune in the coming year.

Kek Lok Si Temple lights up with thousands of LEDs and lanterns

As the clock strikes twelve, a hullabaloo of fireworks illuminates the sky in a dazzling dance of light, while firecrackers erupt in a cacophony of explosions. Legend has it that the thunderous booms and bright lights of fireworks were used in driving away the beast ‘Nian’ that terrorized the villagers.

Sharing joy and good vibes with everyone

In Penang, Chinese New Year kicks off with a whirlwind of activities and events: People visiting friends and family, gatherings, temple visits, and a lineup of traditional cultural events. If you are in the area and have friends or family in Penang, consider swinging by for a visit!

It’s a fantastic way to spread the festive cheer and exchange well wishes.  Red packets containing money are traditionally given to the elderly and children, symbolizing good luck and prosperity.

You might also want to consider dropping by the Penang Chief Minister’s open house, usually held on the second day of Chinese New Year at the SPICE Arena. A feast of local delights, including satay (meat skewers) and curry mutton, is served alongside an abundance of fresh tangerines, a complimentary treat for all!

New Year’s blessings at Chinese Temples

Most Chinese temples are shrouded in thick plumes of incense smoke as devotees make their way to the temples for New Year blessings. Looking for some unique temples to explore? Here are my recommendations:

Kek Lok SI, the largest temple in Southeast Asia

Kek Lok Si Temple: Founded in the late 19th century, this magnificent temple complex sprawls across lush green acres on the hill. It is home to monasteries, shrines, statues, gardens, pagodas, and tortoise ponds.

The seven-story pagoda is a fusion of architectural influences from China, Thailand, and Burma. Take a short funicular ride to see the imposing bronze statue of Kuan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) overlooking George Town.

During Chinese New Year, thousands of lanterns and LED lights weave a spellbinding path across the temple – a mesmerizing display that lasts for about a month. Come and see the magic of the temple at night.

This year marks the Year of the Dragon. The temple came alive with dragon-themed decorations. My Finnish friend was completely floored by the light show. He said, ‘I’ve never seen a temple like this before!'”

Snake Temple: Built in the mid-19th century to commemorate a monk believed to have healing powers, the temple shelters snakes that came from the nearby jungle. all the snakes, mostly pit vipers, are de-venomed and left entwined in the twigs of the plants throughout the temple. Visitors can have their photos taken with the snakes slithering around their hands or necks for a spine-tingling thrill. Anthony Bourdain is among the celebrities who visited the temple and had his photo taken with the snakes.

Visitors pose with a snake at the Snake Temple

A ceremony called “flame watching” takes place on the fifth night of Chinese New Year The ceremony starts with the lighting of a bonfire. The height and intensity of the fire are all analyzed as holding clues about Penang’s economic future in the coming year.

Hean Boo Thean: This unique temple is built on the sea. At night, the temple lights up in eye-catching New Year decorations. Climb the stairs to the second floor and see lanterns stretching to the archway, with two pavilions on each side and the entire Penang skyline along the shore as the backdrop.

Exciting lineup of New Year’s events to keep you immersed in local culture

Now comes the highly anticipated part of the celebrations – a smorgasbord of cultural celebration events ushering in the New Year. From traditional performances and rituals to dazzling displays, a wide variety of festivities take place all over Penang before and during the New Year. Here are some of the most talked-about highlights:

Night of nonstop fireworks for Jade Emperor’s Birthday

Jade Emperor God’s Birthday Celebration: This is a big day for the Fujian community in Penang. The celebration unfolds with a prayer ceremony before an elaborate altar.

Spread across the altar are offerings, the most prominent being golden-brown roasted pork and pineapples piled high, symbolizing prosperity.  Two meticulously tied sugarcanes adorn the front of the altar.

The tradition of the prayer traces back to the Ming dynasty. Fleeing from a bandit attack in Fujian province, villagers sought refuge in a nearby sugarcane field.

There, they prayed to Jade Emperor and miraculously escaped unscathed. The divine intervention is believed to be the origin of the tradition of the annual prayer.

Chew Jetty, one of Penang’s unique clan jetties where the clan lives in houses built on stilts above the sea, is known for hosting the biggest celebration of the Jade Emperor’s birthday in Penang. The prayer ceremony starts at midnight and continues throughout the early hours, with the continuous eruptions of firecrackers throughout the night.  Come feel the energy of the celebration at Chew Jetty – a guaranteed cultural experience that will take your breath away.

Traditional knife therapy at Miao Hui

Penang Miao Hui Celebration: The annual Miao Hui, translating to “Open House of Ancestral Halls”, celebrates Penang’s rich cultural heritage through exhibitions and performances, attracting thousands of visitors every year.

Almost all the Chinese ancestral buildings in George Town will open their doors that day for visitors to learn about how their ancestors settled and thrived in Malaysia.

I had the chance to visit Miao Hui this year. The scale and diverse programs were astounding. Stages and exhibitions transformed the old quarter of George Town.

On one street, giant flags flutter gracefully as performers balanced poles on their foreheads in a spectacular Chingay parade. Around the corner, Giggles echoed as children learned to play the games from bygone eras, with their parents grinning in remembrance of long-forgotten childhood fun.

Following the sounds of instruments, I arrived at a Glove Puppetry show, telling a heart-wrenching love story with the skillful manipulation of the puppets.

The air thrummed with the rhythmic blend of drums from the lion dance and the melodies of a rising and falling Chinese orchestra, Though I worked up a sweat weaving through the mass crowd, it was surely a night to remember.

People clad in traditional Chinese costumes at the Miao Hui in George Town

Chap Goh Meh (Chinese Valentine’s Day): Chap Goh Meh, also known as the Chinese Valentine’s Day, marks the grand finale of the Chinese New Year celebration. Forget about Tinder for a moment! Here at the historical Esplanade waterfront in Penang, the ancient art of matchmaking takes on a modern twist with a festive jamboree – Tangerine tossing party.

chinese new year in Penang Malaysia
Tangering tossing event at Esplanade, Penang

Standing along the sea wall are a vast crowd of people, mostly single women in festive clothing. They write messages, contact numbers and emails with waterproof pens on tangerines. On the count of three, in a roar of laughter, they launch the tangerines in unison into the sea, where a group of men wait eagerly in boats, hoping to scoop up the handfuls of tangerines in their quest to snag a potential match.

Penang CNY1
Men with painted masks at the temple parade

Coinciding with Chap Goh Meh this year was the grand float procession of ‘Tua Pek Kong’ (a Taoist deity), which happens once every 12 years.

I was lucky to see both events on the same evening. The star of the parade was the dragon, carried high by a group of men. A giant pearl led the way. As the parade reached its peak, a burst of fire erupted near the front, making it look like the dragon was breathing fire onto the pearl. A truly magical performance that roused rounds and rounds of applause.

A group of Chinese tourists bustled past me as I strolled by. I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation about the event.

“It is really touching to see how Chinese immigrants here have kept their traditions alive for so long!”

“It’s incredible!” another added. “I never thought Chinese New Year in Penang could be even more festive than back in China!”

Come visit Penang next Chinese New Year! The festive atmosphere on this ‘Pearl of the Orient’ will wow you and make you want to come back for more.

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