Festivals and Events

Penangites are among the most hospitable people in the world – there is always an excuse for a smile, time for a welcome, and willingness to lend a helping hand. Enriched by various ethnic communities co-existing in harmony, Penang is blessed with a multi-faceted culture brought about by the integration of the many races which form its population, with each community making its unique contribution.

It has been said that the true character of a place is defined by its people. If that is true, then Penang's myriad cultural identities must be her most fascinating aspect. Despite the growing pains that accompany modern development, Penang's multi-ethnic communities have managed to preserve to a remarkable degree their traditional way of life, particularly with respect to the observance of cultural and religious festivities, among other things.

With religion being a major part of the lifestyle of Penangites, it is no small wonder that the main festivals of Penang are naturally religious in origin. Within each community, cultural identity is popularly and conspicuously asserted through religious festivals and cultural shows – Bangsawan, Boria, flag processions, the Chingay Parade, the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, the Hungry Ghosts Festival, Thaipusam and so forth. Although some of the festivals have largely departed from the versions in their source country, much of their 19th-century rituals have been retained, while developing uniquely Malaysian elements.

Penang's multi-cultural composition ensures a succession of colourful, exciting festivals and celebrations that are unrivalled anywhere else in the world. Considering the number of special events, festivals, celebrations, gods and deities' birthdays and religious occasions among the three main race groups (Malays, Chinese and Indians) when one big celebration is finished, another is just about to begin. Penangites are always game for an excuse to celebrate and feast, and there is much enthusiasm, painstaking preparation and merry-making all year round. Thus, Penang sees a kaleidoscope of festivals and celebrations which seems to last the entire year.

Many festivals take place according to the lunar calendar and, as a result, these festivals are celebrated at different times in different years, unlike the fixed dates of holidays like Christmas and Halloween for example. The lunar calendar which most of Asia uses is based on the movement of the moon, whereas the Gregorian calendar used by the rest of the world is based on the movement of the sun.

Possibly nowhere else in the world is there an open-door policy like Malaysia's for religious festivals. Friends of other faiths, whether they be from across the street or across the world, are welcomed into the homes and cultures of celebrants for a short time as their respective religious event is observed. As these festivals are religious in nature, visitors should always remember to accord them the proper respect, in terms of dressing and behaviour.

Despite the distinct ethnic and cultural differences among the various communities, Penangites have developed a sensitivity for, and an understanding of each other. Born of mutual respect for traditions, the high level of cultural and religious tolerance which abounds never fails to astound visitors. In many ways, the cultural wealth of Penang can be found in the rich festivals of its people.

Awal Muharram and the Hijri Calendar: marking Islamic History and Traditions

Awal Muharram, also known as Maal Hijrah, marks the beginning of the new Hijri year, falling on the first day of Muharram on the Muslim calendar. The phrase "Maal Hijrah" in Arabic translates to "migration", symbolising Prophet Muhammad's emigration as a process of positive change and leaving behind negative aspects of life. Thus, this new year's day for Muslims emphasises reflection, remembrance and gratitude.

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Pictorial essay of the energetic Angin OMbulan performance

21 July 2022 • 8:30 pm • Fort Cornwallis, Penang

Angin OMbulan © Adrian Cheah

Aida Redza and Kamal Sabran teamed up once again under the George Town Festival 2022 in Angin OMbulan, an on-site experimental performance. It was an expanded version of “Ssegar Angin” that was presented at the Venice Arts Biennale in April 2022 under the invitation of Port Perak, supported by George Town Festival 2022.

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My understanding of All Saints' Day

All Saints' Day © Adrian Cheah

Images of St. Joseph from the Roman Catholic Penang Diocesan Museum, Farquhar Street, Penang.

Can you name five saints that you have heard of, even if you are not a Catholic? The first name that would come to mind is St. Anne, the grandmother of Jesus. The famous church in Bukit Mertajam is dedicated in her honour. Of course standing next to Mother Mary, the mother of Jesus, is St. Joseph.

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The journey of faith – the Haj

Haj © Zakaria Salim


Hari Raya Haji (or Hari Raya Korban) falls on the 10th day of Zulhijah, the last month of the Muslim calendar. It is a major Islamic festival and of particular significance for pilgrims who have returned from performing the Haj or umrah (pilgrimage) in Mecca. It may not be as grand as Hari Raya Aidil Fitri (or Hari Raya Puasa) in terms of joyous celebrations, but is important nonetheless for Muslims the world over.

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Tides of candlelight adoration at St. Anne's Feast

St Anne

One of the largest and most extraordinary religious mass gatherings in Southeast Asia is the St Anne Novena and Feast in the town of Bukit Mertajam in Penang.

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The intriguing tale of deliverance behind the Hokkien New Year

Hokkien New Year © Adrian Cheah

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.

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The Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Penang

Nine Emperor Gods Festival © Adrian Cheah

How far would you go to uphold your beliefs? Would you undergo a strict vegetarian diet for nine straight days? Would you walk on fire barefooted or pierce a long spear through your cheeks? Or are you an armchair devotee who would prefer to remain in your comfort zone and observe events from afar? Does the younger generation know what this festival is all about and how many would stop to find out more?

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Hari Raya Open House

Hari Raya © Adrian Cheah

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language describes an open house as "a social event in which hospitality is extended to all". This could be taken to mean that the diplomacy of inviting one and all to your house to celebrate an event is not an unfamiliar practice. But one could conjecture that nowhere else in the world would you find an open house event as big and as merry as the ones held in Malaysia.

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Celebrating Vesak (or Wesak) Day in Penang

Vesak Day © Adrian Cheah

"Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared." – Buddha.

Vesak Day falls on the full moon of the lunar month of Vesākha (either in April, May or June). Also known as Buddha Purnima, it is considered as a holy celebration for the Buddhists as the day commemorates Gautama Buddha's birth, enlightenment (nirvāna), and death (parinirvāna).

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Pausing for Reflection on Holy Vesak Day

As 21st century Malaysia hurtles deeper into the recesses of globalisation, an urban rat-race and the 'kiasu' syndrome, does Buddhist culture still bear relevance in preserving traditional values?

Vesak Day © Adrian Cheah

The beggar readily sees a bare floor as a place for a good sleep. The rich man, on the other hand, will have nothing else but the softest bed in a 5-star hotel.

Both men, poor and rich, have one similar need - to sleep. But they have completely different levels of craving, different heights of desire.

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Madam Hong and Cheng Beng

Cheng Beng © Adrian Cheah

There are some who believe that traditionally, the task of performing Cheng Beng rituals falls on the family of the eldest son, followed by the next in seniority and so on. The eldest son is thus entirely responsible in ensuring that the rituals of ancestral offerings are carried out properly.

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Cheng Beng – the Festival of the Tombs

Cheng Beng © Adrian Cheah


The history and practice of Chinese religious and cultural festivals go back a long way, some even beyond the span of written history.

Over the years, the traditions associated with these festivals are handed down from generation to generation within communities, with very little changes introduced. The only difference found in a festival celebrated in two different countries would be cultural ones.

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Remembering loved ones on All Souls' Day

All Souls' Day © Adrian Cheah

The feast of All Souls' Day is a reminder for us to offer up prayers for the departed, to help them on their journey to heaven. We pray not just for those we know and love but also for “neglected souls”. This is regarded as an act of charity.

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Bak Chang Festival in Penang: an intriguing tapestry of flavours, traditions and cultural 

Bak Chang © Adrian Cheah

Bak Chang, a culinary delight available in Penang year-round, is a delectable combination of steamed pulut (glutinous rice) seasoned with dark soya sauce, wrapped in bamboo leaves and generously filled with a medley of ingredients such as tender pork belly, shiitake mushroom, dried prawns, salted egg yolk and chestnuts or with just white beans. This sumptuous and hearty treat holds special significance during the Bak Chang Festival, showcasing its rich flavours and cultural traditions.

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St. Patrick’s Ball 2017 through the lens of a Nikon D750

St Patrick's Ball in Penang

Yes, I am a Nikon D750 and would like to invite you to stop, pause and discover wonderful things I see through my lens. I am a brilliant engineering wonder that has evolved through the passage of photography. Having said that, the man who decides how much light goes through me, how fast the shutter speed is and when to capture that magical moment makes all the difference in the outcome of a photograph.

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The Spring Festival – an insight into the festivities of Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

The Chinese community observes many festivals, some religious and some secular. One of the most important celebrations is the Spring Festival, more commonly known in Penang as Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year.

The Chinese lunar calendar, dating back thousands of years, follows the cycles of the moon. A complete cycle takes 60 years, made up of five cycles of 12 years each (12 Chinese zodiac animals taking turns to govern each year). Unlike the Gregorian calendar, the start of the Chinese lunar calendar can fall anywhere between late January and the middle of February. Thus, the first day of the new lunar year that marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year celebrations changes each year.

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Chap Goh Meh – The Night of Romance

Chap Goh Meh © Adrian Cheah

A fascinating Chap Goh Meh legend tells the tale of a lonely young bachelor, who during an outing on this moonlit night, was suddenly enchanted when he caught a glimpse of the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Who was this exquisitely delicate beauty driving by in all her finery, he wondered? With excitement pounding in his heart, the hopeful young man quickly jotted down the number of the car she was in, lest he forgot.

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On The Crest Of Prayer – The Thaipusam Story

Thaipusam © Adrian Cheah

From the top of the green hill, the endless string of devotees dotting its way up the concrete steps seemed like a sacred procession of silence.

Carrying milk-pots of brass and silver, and harnessed in colourful kavadis, the worshippers inched their way to the great temple overhead with sweet hypnotic resolve. The children, the elders, even the disabled ones, scaled slowly with their ceremonial burdens, ascending with a mission to the call of the good Lord Muruga above.

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Hungry Ghosts roam the Streets of George Town

Hungry Ghosts © Adrian Cheah

The Hungry Ghost Festival, locally known as Phor Thor, is an annual month-long celebration observed by the Chinese communities not only in Penang but also throughout Malaysia, Singapore and Phuket.

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Ramadhan – a time for reflection

Ramadhan © Adrian Cheah

Once again, Ramadhan, the holiest of months for Muslims, is almost upon us. The ninth month of the Muslim year is strictly observed by all Muslims as a month of fasting (and abstinence) during which they would abstain from the pleasures of eating, drinking and carnal desires and actions from sunrise to sunset. Ramadhan usually lasts from 29 to 30 days, after which Muslims celebrate Id-al-Fitr (Hari Raya Puasa in the local language). Fasting is one of the five basic duties of Islam.

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