Chap Goh Meh – the Night of Romance
A fascinating Chap Goh Meh legend tells the story of a lonely young man who, during an outing on this very significant night, was suddenly enraptured by the most beautiful sight he had ever laid eyes on. Who was this exquisitely delicate beauty driving by in all her finery, he wondered. Despite the excitement pounding in his heart, the hopeful young gentleman quickly jotted down the number of her car, lest he forgot.
The very next day, he made enquiries as to who the car belonged to and finally obtained the car owner's address. With great haste, he requested his mother to send a matchmaker to his dream girl's home to arrange the marriage. In his rush, the star-crossed optimist did not realise that the girl he had seen was not the daughter of the house but a visiting niece. And so on his wedding day, the poor groom found that instead of the radiant smiling girl he had expected, he was married to her fat and rather plain cousin. The story does have a rather happy ending though, as his wife was a wealthy woman!
Chap Goh Meh goes by a few names. In Mandarin it is called Yuan Xiao, but in the traditional Hokkien dialect of Penang, Chap Goh Meh means the 15th night of Chinese New Year. It is celebrated with prayers and offerings to mark the end of the Chinese New Year.
During this auspicious occasion, houses are brightly decorated with lights and lanterns are hung over the balcony or five-foot ways for the last day of the Chinese New Year. Prayers to the ancestors are offered. Despite a ban, firecrackers are lit as a 'send-off' to the new year. The next day, people go back to work, businesses operate as usual and everyone is looking forward to the next Chinese New Year.
Various activities are planned to mark this very traditional occasion but the two mainstays are the Dondang Sayang and orange/tangerine throwing ceremony.
In the morning, the Nyonya households will distribute pengat, a sweet and rich broth of tubers and bananas to relatives and friends. As evening falls, the atmosphere relaxes as the gentle strains of Dondang Sayang fill the air.
Dondang Sayang, literally meaning lullaby of love, is an interplay of sung poetry, usually revolving around the theme of love, between a man and a woman, each trying to outwit the other in the name of affection whilst traditional music plays in the background.
Besides Dondang Sayang, traditional Nyonya dance performances as well as Chingay and lion dance are usually added in to the festivities.
In the past, Chap Goh Meh was one of the few occasions where eligible young ladies, transformed into scorching beauties, were allowed out from the confines of their homes. Eager gentlemen could only admire longingly at all the passing beauties, as the lovely ladies were always accompanied by an entourage of the fiercest looking aunts and amahs (servants)! These young maidens (and spinsters) would throw oranges into the sea as a gesture of hope to wed good husbands.
To keep this quaint tradition alive in modern times, orange throwing has transmogrified into a competition of sorts, where oranges thrown into the sea by girls (single or otherwise) would be scooped up by boys in boats. The boat with most oranges would be declared the winner.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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Updated 16 January 2020