The intriguing tale of deliverance behind the Hokkien New Year
The ninth day of the first lunar calendar is especially significant to the Hokkien people (a subgroup of Chinese). Some traditionalists would even venture as far as to say that it is much more important than the Chinese New Year day itself because on that day, the entire Hokkien clan was spared from being massacred. They believe it was the Jade Emperor, also known as the God of Heaven, who protected them. Thus, it is celebrated with more grandeur especially in Penang compared to the first day of the lunar calendar.
If you are in Penang on the eve of the celebrations, head down to the clan jetties in the heart of George Town to join in the festivities and witness a mammoth offering table laden with scrumptious treats for the God of Heaven.
There are many versions of the Hokkien Pai Ti Kong (praying to the God of Heaven) story. A popular version has it that a tragic event took place sometime in the 16th century during the Ming Dynasty. It was a time when oceanic travel was popular with many cargo ships plied the ocean on route to trading ports. This gave rise to marauding pirates who took to the seas to haul their bounty, especially the busy stretch along the east coast of China. One Chinese New Year day, a band of ruthless pirates raided the east coast village of Fujian Province where the Hokkeins lived. They attacked from all directions and rampaged the village mercilessly, killing everybody who crossed their path.
Fearing for their lives, the villagers fled and hid in a nearby sugarcane plantation. They prayed to the God of Heaven for deliverance. The pursuing intruders spent days hunting them down but were in vain. On the ninth day of that Chinese New Year, they finally gave up and left the village.
The grateful Hokkiens emerged from the sugarcane fields, praising the God of Heaven for answering their prayers and keeping them safe from harm. Realising that that joyful day coincided with the God's birthday, they decided to make votive and prayer offerings to him. It was here that the Hokkiens first started the annual celebration on the ninth day of the first lunar month.
In the lunar calendar, the day actually starts at 11:00 pm. The Hokkiens would usually start their prayers at 11:00 pm on the eighth day, although preparations would usually have started well in advance.
Preparation for the festivities begins on the morning of the eighth day. The Hokkiens make their way to the market to buy all the essential items needed for the celebration. These include fresh sugarcane stalks, a whole roasted pig for those who can afford it, cooked meats, Ti Kuih (sweet sticky rice cake), Ang Koo (red tortoise cakes), Mee Koo (bright magenta-colored buns), Huat Kuih (light and fluffy steamed cupcakes made from fermented rice flour), Bee Koh (rice pudding), bright pink miniature sugared pagodas, fruits and fresh flowers. Most of these items would symbolise abundance and good fortune and are a must!
During this festive time of the year, you would see long stalks of sugarcanes being sold all over Penang especially at market areas. It is interesting to note how these long stalks are being cleverly positioned in a car, protruding out of the rear window or balanced skilfully on a motorcycle!
On the auspicious night, the Hokkiens will give thanks and offer a brilliantly decorated table filled with prosperous-sounding gifts for the God of Heaven. A pair of long sugarcane stalks is usually tied to the sides of the offering altar or table. They symbolise unity and harmony as well as cooperation and strength. Together, they are a token to reap good and "sweet" results.
Certain festive fruits also make an appearance on the offering table and are aptly decorated with red paper cuttings, usually with auspicious Chinese characters on them. Cuttings of red pineapple “flowers” are a popular sight as well. Everything is well curated and nothing is left to chance.
Businessmen of the Hokkien community take the festival quite seriously – their lavish and generous offerings of thanksgiving, some votive in nature, are thought to reflect their hope of prosperity of the year ahead. Thus, they do not cut corners and go all out to celebrate with abundance.
Also particularly important in this celebration are the piles of Kim Chua ("gold paper"), meticulously folded into the shapes of ancient ingots; they are burnt in a bonfire of thanksgiving offering to the Jade Emperor as well. While these gold "ingots" are set ablaze, family members would add the stalks of sugarcane from the altars into the towering flames.
There will be fireworks and thundering firecrackers to mark the beginning of the ninth day of Chinese New Year as well as the joyous reminder to celebrating the deliverance of the Hokkiens. It is also believed that fireworks would scare away evil spirits, leaving only peace and prosperity to flourish.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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19 February 2021