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  • Writer's pictureHannah

Stranded in Penang- part 4

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

Chinese New year celebrations feature on different dates in different localities across Asia. Penang is an ex-British colony, (1946-1957) and since the 1800s, many Chinese migrants from the Fujian Province in Southern China settled here. They are now the largest ethnic group and are known as the ‘Baba- Nyonga’ whose dialect is: ‘Hokkein’. I was under the impression that in mainland China, 25 January was new year’s day, but the Chinese of Penang are perhaps more laid back than those of China and this was reflected in the more leisurely approach to new year’s day, they had theirs a week later, on 1 and 2 February. They either simply weren’t ready for it a week earlier, or they go in for such a boisterous declaration that they would like an extra week to plan for it. Having now experienced the atmosphere of the UNESCO world heritage city of historic George Town at Chinese New Year, it would actually seem to me to be the latter. *

On 1 February, from about 4 pm until the early hours, George Town became a frantic debauch of minor explosions, floating lanterns, thick smoke, sugar cane, wafting incense, lights, whole pig roasts, food and drink stalls, Taoist shrines, drum beats, and acrobatic lion dances. Not wanting to disappoint our friend and lulled by a slightly false sense of security by the graceful, twinkling hanging lanterns on the outskirts, we proceeded with our children in to the hectic vibes. Not really sure what to expect, we admired the light displays and the strange paper arrangements framing some of the gates and doors.

About 2 meters away from the paper decorations, Emily’s mood quite rapidly turned from amusement to curiosity, to disdain, to utter horror as in a sudden deafening crackle, the paper was set alight and snap, crackled and popped it's way through a dramatic few minutes. The explosive decibels stamped out any possibility of soothing her with “ooh it’s just a pretty firework” type messages. No choice but to saunter on forwards, mouthing “it’ll be ok”, but when the firecrackers were screaming from all angles and fireworks were sounding off directly overhead, poor Emily became quite hysterical. So coughing through thick smoke, we sought shelter from the ambush in a cafe. Mike stayed with Gideon and Emily while the other Mike and I joined the crowds and watched a fabulous traditional lion dance involving 2 acrobats joined by a lion costume, doing cool moves on a podium to the rhythm of a drum beat. If Emily doesn't remember the 5th of November when she's a bit older, we might be able to explain why.

*I checked with our Malaysian friend and he confirmed that the Hokkein have two celebrations, the one that corresponds with mainland Chinese New Year and the 8th day celebration. This one is more special to the Hokkein because it’s linked to honouring their gods and the sugar cane fields for protecting them from their war enemies in the past.

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