Hokkien New Year at Chew Jetty, Penang

Chinese New Year is a celebration of the the first day of the lunar calendar, and lasts for 15 days. However, for the Hokkien community in Penang, the 9th day of Chinese New Year is also another celebration of the new year. Penang has a large Hokkien community, whose ancestors were immigrants primarily from Fujian province in China.

The Hokkien New Year is to celebrate the day when the Hokkiens escaped mistreatment by ruthless army in ancient China by seeking refuge in a sugarcane plantations. The Hokkiens emerged unharmed on the 9th day of Chinese New Year, and it was then considered as new year for the Hokkiens.

The 9th day of Chinese New Year also coincides with the birthday of the Jade Emperor of Heaven (Thni Kong Seh). The Hokkien community in Penang celebrates Thni Kong Seh around midnight on the eighth day, by praying to the Jade Emperor of Heaven (or Thni Kong). While most homes would have their own celebration and prayers, the largest celebration was in Chew Jetty.

As I wrote in my previous post, the clan houses of Penang, clan houses and associations are an important aspect of the Penang Chinese community. There is also a whole stretch of clan jetties named after the surnames of the residents there in Weld Quay. The clan jetties are villages built on stilts with rows of houses connected by wooden walkways. The Chew Jetty is one of the few surviving clan jetties. It was built more than a century ago by the Chinese immigrants with the surname Chew. Today, Chew Jetty remained a village for more than a thousand residents.

 
[Photo taken from the Chew Jetty]

The Chew Jetty has one of the biggest community Thni Kong Seh celebration in Penang. The celebration was held on the eighth day of the Chinese New Year which fell on 21 February this year, and started from around 8pm to midnight. Tables are joined to make a long row just outside of Chew Jetty, with an altar in front (below).


Residents of Chew Jetty would bring out offerings for the Jade Emperor of Heaven (Thni Kong) and leave them on the table.


Offerings would include buns in the shape of turtle (below), roast pork (further below), fruits and tea. 

   
[This photo was taken in the temple inside the Chew Jetty]

As the Hokkiens escaped by hiding in sugarcane plantation, sugar canes are also an important offering.

 

Candles in the shape of lotus (below), large incense (further below in shapes of dragons) and gold paper would also be burned. 

 
 

However, I did not stay till midnight when the prayers and burning would begin as I had to be home and pray to Thni Kong at home. While I am not Hokkien, it has became such a cultural event in Penang that we do it every year too. 

Kate Hudson's Cinema Italiano

I simply love Kate Hudson's Cinema Italiano from the latest movie by Rob Marshal, Nine! I didn't know that Kate Hudson can sing and dance!

The teams racing around the world

I love The Amazing Race. I have watched all the past 15 seasons (my short post on Season 15 is here) and I simply love the concept. The show could have even encouraged my travels! After a long wait (well, not really that long since the last season just ended a couple of months ago), Season 16 is finally here! However, the first two episodes made me wonder - why did the producers cast teams with questionable intelligence (trying not to be rude here). Here are the six teams which started me wondering...

Brent & Caite - Dating Models
Caite was THE former Miss Teen South Carolina who made a complete fool of herself when she tried to answer the question "Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can't locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?". You need to watch her attempting to answer to believe it. She proudly said that she will prove her intelligence in the course of the show. But guess what - she and her boyfriend received a penalty in the first episode for not reading the clue correctly (or rather, for not knowing what a "funicular" is).

Jordan & Jeff - Newly Dating
They met in another reality TV series the (U.S.) Big Brother with Jordan eventually winning it. On their first task, the teams were supposed to travel to Santiago, Chile. Jordan kept referring to Chile as China, and even requested for two tickets to China from the ticketing counter agent! Luckily the ticketing agent did not produce two tickets to Shanghai, China. In the second episode, she proudly spelt San Jose as San H-O-S-E.

Jet & Cord - Brothers / Cowboys
I wonder if those are their real names. But from the hats that they are wearing, they are definitely showing people that they are cowboys. After knowing that they are going to Chile, they exchanged their U.S. dollars for "Brazilian money" as it was the "closest" thing to "Chilean money" that the counter has to offer. Yes, they are both in South America but two countries being close to one another would not mean that they use the same currency!

Steve & Allie - Father / Daughter
The father and daughter team confidently went into a partially renovated house and painted the walls, much to the confusion and amusement of the construction workers. They realised they were in the wrong place when the construction workers could not produce a clue for them!

Louie & Michael - Detectives
Well, they tried to paint over a graffiti on a random wall, and kept insisting that their paint is the same colour as the wall.  Well, they're not the same! They also seemed to have problems with directions. Maybe they were too used to chasing cars.

Joe & Heidi - Married
They managed to irritate everyone by saving spots for their alliance Carol and Brandy. My question is this: After watching the last 15 season of the race, is forming an alliance so early in the race, and irritating everyone else a smart move? They had not shown that they would be helpful to you in anyway, and yet you would rather made everyone hate you for that. Well, based on the second episode, Carol and Brandy had definitely not proved their worth.

As for the rest of the teams, let's wait for future episodes for more memorable moments.

The first team that was eliminated was the high school sweethearts, Dana and Adrian. They were eliminated when Adrian failed to complete their first (and only) roadblock. He fell twice during the cable walk, and was unwilling to try again. Yes, I understand it could be scary (I am not sure if I would be able to complete the task), but you were in The Amazing Race. You auditioned and actually got a spot in the race. I definitely think that you owed it to yourself and your team mate to try your very best.

I guess the producers need teams with interesting personality to make the show interesting. However, I personally prefer to travelogues than the dialogues of the teams. And for that, I am patiently waiting for the next episode.

The clan houses of Penang

Clan houses has always been part and parcel of Penang, that they never really occupy my thoughts. So, I do not claim to be very knowledgeable on this topic. However, after walking around the Penang’s heritage site area for the Chinese New Year Cultural and Heritage Celebration, I was fascinated by the number of clan houses there are in Penang.

During the 1800s and 1900s, there was a huge stream of Chinese immigrants, primarily from Fujian province of China, who arrived in Penang. The many immigrants from Fujian province also explained why the Chinese in Penang are using the dialect Hokkien from the area. In order to maintain a sense of community for the new immigrants, the Chinese formed clans associations and build clan houses.

These clan houses, also called “kongsi” in Hokkien, are usually part meeting hall and part temple for the clan. These clan associations were based on surnames or the area (or clan) that the Chinese are formed. Some of the surname-based clan houses are the Khoo Kongsi, Tan Kongsi, Cheah Kongsi, Lim Kongsi, Yeoh Kongsi, Yap Kongsi and many more. The area or clan based associations are the Hokkien Association, TeoChew Association, Hainan Association, Khek Association and others.

Over the years, as the clan associations became more and more prosperous and rich, the buildings grew to became more and more elaborate and magnificent. One of the finest in Penang is the Khoo Kongsi (below).


Each association has its own stories and history, and if I have the chance to learn more about them, I would share it with you. But this I know - when I was in school, my school mates would receive the odd money (from few ringgit to a few hundreds) for getting good grades in school from their clan associations. This, I guess, was just one of the many things that the association did to encourage the community to be part of the society in Malaysia.

Penang's CNY Cultural and Heritage Celebration

On the 7th day of the Chinese New Year, Georgetown, Penang has been organising a Chinese New Year Cultural and Heritage Celebration every year – and that was even before the city was given the UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2008. It used to be just a small scale celebration of the Chinese New Year, but the celebration has been getting bigger over the past years.

This year, it fell on 20 February 2010 and was packed with activities, performances, exhibitions and stalls selling food, handicraft and painting. It was, in other words, packed with all things related to the Chinese in Penang, and swarming with people of all races and ages, and of course, with tourists who happened to be lucky enough to be in the island then. (Below is a photo of the main entrance to the celebration.)


It was held at the heart of the heritage site, comprising the Acheen Street, Armenian Street (below), Cannon Street, Ah Quee Street, Soo Hong Lane, Chulia Street and Kampung Kolam.


It was organised by the Penang State Government and the Penang Chinese Clan Council, and supported by many associations, companies and clan houses in Penang as well. As it was held right in the middle of the Heritage Site, many of the clan houses and temples were part of the celebration. These include Khoo Kongsi (below), TeoChew Temple (further below left) and the Hokkien Tua Pek Kong Temple (further below right).

 

The whole area was closed off to traffic for a few days in preparation for the one-day celebration. The area was divided into different zones, promoting different culture and heritage of Penang such as handicraft (below), art (3rd photo below), clan houses, history, and even morality such filial peity, etiquette and justice.


There were also many stages, showcasing different performances such as cultural dance, lion dance, dragon dance, Chinese orchestra, Chinese opera, songs, drums (below), wushu or kung fu, puppet show, drama and many more.


It was a celebration rich in culture and history of the Chinese in Penang. While the Chinese here, myself included, would associate ourselves more as Malaysians rather than being from China, we are still deeply rooted in our culture from our forefathers who had immigrated to this country hundred of years ago. I would whole-heartedly recommend everyone, be it Chinese in Penang who would like to learn more of our own culture and history or tourists from far-flung places who are interested in local cultures, to arrange your schedule to be in Penang on the 7th day of Chinese New Year to enjoy this extravaganza.

Trip down under to Sydney

{Australia Feb/March 2009 - Sydney, New South Wales}

Walking along the streets in Sydney brought back memories of the days when I was studying in Australia, the people, the view, the shopping centres, the buildings – everything. We were back in Sydney, Australia for a few days on a business trip in February 2009. The business trip to Sydney was only for a few days, and we only managed to travel around Sydney for the weekend and during the evenings. After Sydney, we planned to travel around South Australia for almost a week (but that would be on another posts).

We took Singapore Airlines on the A380. If you ever had a chance to take the A380, try to get a seat on the upper deck. The seats were bigger I believe, and as the economy class section was smaller on the upper deck, the Singapore girls (as the air stewardess were known as) would be able to serve you better. Once we touched down and collected our rental car, we drove to the city for lunch.

We went to Haymarket for dim sum. Yes, I do live in Singapore where we can have dim sum everyday, but my colleague suggested that we have our lunch there. As it was a place where I used to go whenever I went to Sydney when I was living in Australia, I thought - why not? The Chinese dim sum restaurant - China Grand Restaurant in Market City, Haymarket - served pretty delicious dim sum! It was also a good shopping place for discounted clothing. Paddy’s Markets on the ground floor had almost everything – souvenirs, fruits, nuts, clothes, plants and lots of other things with Chinatown just across the street.


While we did not do many touristy activities, we did walk around and saw all the familiar sights and sounds in the city. Here are some snapshots taken around the city.

 
  
 

We walked passed the Queen Victoria Building, or QVB as it was better known. It was one of my favourite building in Sydney - not for the shopping, but for the interesting architecture. It was built around 1900 but has since been refurbished to cater for the shops occupying the building now. However, there were various interesting displays around the building, like a mechanical clock on the top floor. All these were from my memory of my previous visits as we did not manage to go into the building.

My other favourite place in Sydney was Darling Harbour. Maybe it was the vast space around the harbour that made the area looked big with significantly less people than the rest of the city.


The harbour was lined with many restaurants which I believe should serve satisfyingly good food, but with a premium on the price due to the location. We decided on Jordan's Seafood Restaurant, and came out full and contented. Do get the Jordan's deluxe seafood platter rather than the Jordan's hot platter! The deluxe platter on the other tables looked better than ours. After dinner, we went to have pancakes in Pancakes on the Rocks. The first shop was opened in The Rocks but there one in Darling Harbour as well.


We also managed to do a dinner cruise around the Sydney harbour and were presented with spactacular views Sydney, including the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Sydney Opera House and buildings by the harbour. The Sydney Opera House is a UNESCO's World Heritage Site. The dinner cruise was a private cruise, but there are many harbour cruises and tours for visitors and tourists. I would definitely recommend a cruise while you are in the city as the view of Sydney is even better looking in from the harbour!

 
 
  

And if I have my way, all dinner would end with a walk to a nearby café for good cake and a chocolate drink! We had these in a Guylian café in Circular Quay right after the cruise.

 

While this trip was definitely more comfortable (from a monetary perspective) than the trips I had made during my days as a student in Australia, Sydney still remained a vibrant and stunning city. The city has lots to offer to everyone – from a climb up the Sydney Harbour Bridge, or just a walk along the Darling Harbour.

Movie: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief


I have to admit that I do not know much about Greek mythology. I had a brief encounter during my holiday in Antalya, Turkey when I learnt a little about it, which I briefly noted about it here. While I know that the whole mythology was regarded as a myth, I wonder if there are any elements of truth in it.

Regardless of whether it was all a myth or it evolved from something real, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief was quite an entertaining movie. It reminded me of the Harry Potter movie series but to tell you the truth, I am not sure if it would become as big as the Harry Potter franchise.

One main thing I noted about the movie was how unashamedly American the movie was. For examples:
  • Why would so many gods, demigods and other Greek monsters be located in America?
  • Why is Camp Half-Blood, a training camp for demigods, be situated in America?
  • Why would the entrance to the underworld be in Hollywood?
  • Why would the entrance to Olympus be on top of the Empire State Building?
For the sake of American children who read the book and loved the movie, I hope that somebody told them that America is not the centre of the universe and that the world is a much bigger place than America alone.

Happy Chinese New Year!

To everyone that celebrates the Chinese New Year... 
Happy Chinese New Year! 
May the year of the Tiger brings you health and happiness!


As always, home is great during Chinese New Year, with many things that remained pleasantly unchanged. The Chinese New Year is celebrated on the first day of the lunar calendar and fell on Valentine's Day this year. It lasted for 15 days.

I just realised that in Singapore, they used the (politically?) correct term “Lunar New Year”, which I believe is to dissociate it with the Chinese and to generalise it as the beginning of the lunar calendar. I find that quite unfortunate as the new year celebration that marked the first day of the lunar calendar is a very “Chinese” celebration around this region. In China, it is called the Spring Festival as it marked the beginning of Spring. Obviously, in countries like Malaysia and Singapore where there are not seasons, we can't really call it the Spring Festival.

Regardless of what we call it, it is still a grand celebration of the New Year by Chinese everywhere in the world. There are many traditions associated with the celebration that I would not be able to write about all of them here, but here are some of the more memorable traditions that I have come to love and enjoy during the first day of the new year. As a caveat, these are all from my memory and tradition that I have been practicing and may be different from the traditions elsewhere!

The day(s) before the first day
  • Spring cleaning the house - Well, I don’t really enjoy this, but it is an important tradition. It is to sweep away all bad luck. We are not supposed to sweep the floor or throw away rubbish on the first day, so that luck are not swept away.
  • Hanging red cloth over the door and decorating the house with everything red - Red is an important colour during the celebration. Bright coloured flowers and plants would also be used to decorate the house. Chrysanthemum (below), that symbolises longevity, is one of the many flowers used to decorate the house.
  • Buying fruits (especially oranges and pineapples) and coiling strips of red papers around them for praying to deities at midnight.
  • Reunion dinner on New Year's eve - This is one of the most important dinner for all families and everyone will try to be home to attend the dinner.

At the stroke of midnight
  • Praying to deities including God of Heaven, God of Prosperity etc. These may be done before the stroke of midnight at the exact right and prosperous timing according to the lunar calendar. (The lunar calendar is split into various sections throughout the day where there would be auspicious time and bad times to do various activities! You can view this site, but I am not sure if it follows the lunar calendar)
  • Lighting and playing with firecrackers and fireworks – Originally, the loud noise of the firecrackers were to scare away evil spirit called “nian” and has been traditionally continued by Chinese everywhere. These days, I think it is more for the atmosphere to signify the beginning of the New Year – not unlike the fireworks at the stroke of midnight on 1st of January. However, with the ban of firecrackers and fireworks in many countries, the tradition is slowly disappearing. There are still the odd firecrackers appearing once awhile.
  • On this night, it is believed that the later the children stayed awake, the longer the parents will live. 

On the first day
  • The morning started off with having something sweet for breakfast like "nian gao".
  • It is also tradition to wear new clothes on the first day to symbolise a new beginning.
  • Visiting extended families and relatives - Married relatives will give the younger generation red packets (ang pows) with money inside. 
  • For the whole of the first day, we will be vegetarian and abstain from killing animals. 
  • Lion dance - Many homes and offices would invite a lion dance troop to usher in the new year and to ward off bad spirits.
  • Gambling - While this is not a tradition per se, it is now an important new year activity. While I personally do not gamble with money, we do play various games like mahjong (below left) and cards (below right). 

There are many other traditions during this celebration all over the world. Regardless of where you are from and regardless of where you are celebrating, have a great one!

Food and history in Melaka

My earliest memory of Melaka, or Malacca as it was spelt in English, was from my history lessons during my school days. According to a legend, Parameswara, a prince from Palembang, was resting under a tree while hunting when he saw a deer push a dog into a river in self-defence. He was so impressed by the courage of the deer and took it as a good sign to create an empire in that area. He decided to name the place "Melaka" after the tree that he was sheltering under.

After many (failed) plans of going up to Melaka, we finally put our foot down and decided to drive up there in June 2009. With two cars and together with some of my colleagues, we drove up to Melaka from Singapore for a weekend trip. The plans were, or rather the only plan, was to eat, eat and eat! However, as it would be my first in the city state, I decided that I wanted to do a little sightseeing as well. Melaka was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site together with my hometown, Penang, in July 2008.

Our first stop once we reached Melaka was to find a place to park near Jonker Walk and to start eating! We started in a small shop that served laksa, a coconut curry noodle soup (below), chendol (further below) and some other food. Chendol is probably my favourite local dessert. The ones in Melaka has very thick fragrant gula melaka (local palm sugar).

 

The shop was in one of the old shophouses on the street and it has some interesting decorations.

 

Jonker Walk reminded me of the streets in Georgetown, Penang with all the old shophouses and quaint little shops. Maybe, that was why they are a combined UNESCO's World Heritage Site. Here are some photos taken along the road.


My friends were initially reluctant to do any sightseeing around the town, but I insisted and they eventually joined us. First sightseeing stop was A Famosa, a fortress built by the Portuguese after they defeated the locals in 1511. According to the wikipedia page...
The name is often mispronounced as /ei/ Famosa, even among Malaysians (as though the Portuguese definite article "a" were the letter "A" in the English alphabet). A more accurate pronunciation would be /ɑ/ Famosa (approximating 'ah').
Well, I am one of those Malaysians! Anyway, after studying so much about the history of the city and the famous A(h) Famosa, I was a bit disappointed when I first saw the "structure". It was definitely smaller than the image I had in my head! Porta de Santiago is a small gate house, and it was the only remaining part of the fortress that was still standing.


Above the hill is a bigger structure overlooking the sea. The building was built by the Portuguese in 1521 as a chapel called "Our Lady of the Hill". St. Francis Xavier, a Catholic missionary, was laid to rest in an open grave - which was now covered in wire mesh - for eight and a half months before being sent to Goa, India. Apparently, the body is still on display there at the Basilica of Bom Jesus, and is still well-preserved! After the Dutch took over Melaka in 1641, they renamed the chapel to St. Paul's Church. It was used as a church before Christ Church was completed, and was then turned into a burial ground with tombstones scattered around.

 

The Stadthuys, also called the Dutch Square or the Red Square, was full of red-coloured buildings. There were the famous Christ Church and clock tower. Many shophouses nearby were also painted red. There were lines of trishaws which were too heavily decorated for my taste. The prices of the rides are specified, so you do not have to worry about being over charged.


At night, some of us went to Menara Taming Sari - a revolving tower that went up around 100 metres, providing a 360-degree view of the town. The ticket price was cheaper for Malaysians! The view was nice, but as it was night time and there weren't that many buildings with lights, there wasn't that much to see.

After that we went to join our friends who where queuing for satay celup. It was like a steamboat or "lok lok", but with savoury spicy peanut sauce. So, you basically dip sticks of raw food into a boiling pot of sauce to cook. It was pretty good. I don't think that I have seen/had it elsewhere, actually.

At night, Jonker Walk was closed to cars, and many street vendors would line up the street selling food, clothes, accessories, and almost everything else. We walked, we bought and we had more chendol! Well, you always need dessert after dinner!

After a full day filled with lots of food in Melaka, we went back to our hotel to rest. We ended up watching a Michael Jackson's concert that was being shown on TV. He has just passed away then, and I was still in shock with the news. For as long as I could remember, I have always wanted to watch him live in concert. That wish, unfortunately, would never be fulfilled. But, I digress.

The next morning, we had another famous Melaka food, the Hainanese chicken rice, for breakfast. I don't think that I have ever had chicken rice for breakfast, but according to my friend from Melaka, Malaccans do! It is special and famous mainly due to the ball-shaped rice. The chicken was good, but the rice balls were a little cold for my taste.


We walked along Jonker Walk again to exercise a little bit, before digging into more chendol! I know, it was a lot of chendol for such a short trip, but I love it. Maybe even more than the ones in Penang due to the gula melaka, but shhh... don't let any Penangites hear me! How I wish for a bowl right now.

We stumbled upon this husband and wife team that was selling maltose "lollipops" and this very hard sweet that needed to be hit with hammer-like tool. I have always loved the maltose sweets but most are now processed in factories (with lots of other flavours) rather than handmade like the ones they were selling. Unfortunately, there are very few of these handmade ones being sold these days.


After a short walk and more food (had satay but was too full to fully appreciate it), we started our drive back to Johor and then Singapore. It was a great weekend break with lots of good food. I would definitely plan another drive up to Melaka another of these weekends when I am in need of great local food (which unfortunately are not easy to find in Singapore).

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