If you’re visiting Penang for the very first time, you may find the predominantly local Hokkien Chinese community will greet each other ‘Keong Hee Huat Chye’ or even ‘Keong’ during Chinese New Year.
Origins of spring cleaning
Weeks before the spring festival, the Chinese spring clean their home.
Every nook and cranny of the house must be swept with bamboo leaves or a broom in preparation for Chinese New Year.
Unused or broken items are thrown out.
Some families even give the house a new coat of paint.
Curtains are changed and clothes are bought.
Debts are paid, hair is cut, perm or coloured and new clothes, shoes and even handbags are bought.
The red banner or an auspicious ‘chai’ bearing well wishes of prosperity and wealth is hung over the front door.
In the homes, vertical red paper banner with couplets like “big prosperity coming in a big way” or “peace on your coming and going” and is hung.
The matriarch of the family takes command and gets the household in order and plans the meals of traditional festive dishes.
First prayers to the kitchen god
For Taoist, it is important to offer prayers, and a sticky tnee kueh (glutinous rice cake) is offered to appease the ‘Kitchen God’ as he leave last day of the year to submit his annual report to the Jade Emperor on the behaviour of the family.
For a favourable report, the Kitchen God’s lips are sealed with the sweet tnee kueh as he is given a grand send-off only to be welcomed once again on the first day of the Chinese New Year.
The reunion dinner
For the Chinese, the grandest annual event is the family reunion dinner.
The Chinese New Year’s eve dinner is a large gathering of family members heading home to eat and unite.
The reunion dinner has numerous dishes and traditionally includes meats like chicken, pork, prawn, fish, fish maw, prawns, abalone and dried oysters.
Choice ingredients include lotus seeds, ginkgo nuts, dried bean curd, bamboo shoots, lettuce, mushrooms, dumplings, long noodles and black hair-like algae called “fat choy” which literally means “hair vegetable” in Chinese.
Many of the dishes featured have auspicious sounding names similar to “prosperity”.
The Chinese believe that having one will lead to greater prosperity and abundance.
For this the Chinese will splurge on the reunion meal which may cost several hundreds of dollars.
The food is cooked in huge amounts and intentionally leftover to signify “abundance”.
Many hotels and restaurants offer a reunion dinner package to attract the modern working couples and their families who want to have a great reunion dinner but haven’t the skill or time to cook.
Chinese New Year eve
On the eve of the Chinese New Year, after the big reunion dinner, the family gathers to chat, snack on tiny cakes, tit bits, drink, gamble and merry making.
Generally, the young and old do not sleep early.
To keep awake as they wait for the Chinese New Year’s, the family will have a nice time catching up, resting from work and enjoying themselves playing cards, mahjong, watching festive TV programmes, playing with fireworks or just have a good time chatting with one another.
The must haves for Chinese New Year are a play on the symbolism of sound and colours, which interesting all denotes prosperity and wealth in one way or another.
For the Chinese, working hard and saving money is a must.
The older generation may be frugal in daily expenses but for the Chinese New Year, they will spend their hard earned money on good nutritious food.
Chinese course meals are very popular and sought after and the feasting continue and last for 15 days from the 1st to 15th day of the first Chinese lunar month.
Some Chinese businesses close for a week or even up to 15 days for the Chinese New Year.
First day of Chinese New Year
The children and younger family members will greet their elders with a hearty “Keong Hee Huat Chye” in Hokkien literally means “congratulations on getting more wealth”.
In return, the children and single unmarried adults will receive red packets (ang pow) containing cash from parents, married family members and friends.
Nowadays some Chinese prefer to say “Xin Nian Kuai Le”, which simply means ‘Happy New Year’, to focus on the spirit of togetherness rather than wishes for more material gains.
Auspicious snacks offered to visitors include mandarin oranges, ground nuts, roasted pumpkin or melon seeds.
The traditionalists believe that eating these eight types of auspicious foods will bestow good fortune upon the family.
The rooster is tenth in the Chinese zodiac and 2017 is dubbed as the “year of new opportunities”.
Each year is related to an animal sign according to a 12-year cycle.
For the Chinese, fortune seeking by way of prayers and astrology is the norm as most will ensure that their luck in finance, romance, marriage and relationships in workplace is good.
This is the reason for popularity of TV astrologers and Feng Shui masters giving general readings.
Some Taoist will seek out personal consultation and arm themselves with good luck charms, amulets and crystals for protection.
On 7th day of Chinese New Year is known as “mankind’s birthday”, ‘yee sang’, a dish popular in Malaysia for the festivities is eaten.
Yee sang sometimes known as the “prosperity toss” consists of raw fish slices, shredded vegetables, lime, pickled ginger and various fried crunchies.
Smoked salmon is commonly used in lieu of raw fish to be mixed and tossed.
Yee sang has a variety of colours; mixing them together and tossing in unison represents a joyous celebration.
The higher the ingredients are tossed with their chopsticks with shouts of ‘loh hei’, the greater the prosperity they will enjoy throughout the year.
Hokkien New Year
On the 8th day, the Hokkiens will rush to the wet markets to buy the essential items needed for the midnight prayers on the 9th day of the first month of Chinese lunar calendar.
This is a thanksgiving celebration known to the Hokkien people as the ‘Phai Thee Kong’ which literally means “praying the Heaven God or Jade Emperor”.
Known as the Hokkien New Year, traditionalists say that for the Hokkiens, the 9th day is even more important than the New Year itself.
Jade Emperor (Thee Kong) is the mighty protector of the ancestors of Hokkien people from ruthless army in ancient China.
The entire clan of Hokkiens was spared from being massacred by hiding in a sugar cane plantation.
In George Town, this celebration is held on a large scale at the century old clan jetty village with the surname Chew at Weld Quay.
A table altar is usually set up in front of the house with bountiful offerings.
Sugar cane stalks, roasted pigs, cooked meats, boiled crab, and fruits.
Popular sweets include tnee kueh (sticky glutinous rice cake), ang koo (red tortoise cakes), mee koo (red-coloured buns), huat kuih (pink prosperity cakes) and bright pink miniature pagodas.
At the stroke of midnight, piles of “kim cua” (folded pieces of gold paper) are set burnt, with the pair stalks of sugarcane from the altars thrown in the flames.
Sky rockets scream and firecrackers thunder as the night sky is set ablaze with fireworks to mark the beginning of the ninth day as the survival of the Hokkien people.
Eating nine kinds of vegetables on the ninth day is a must for the Hakka community as numerous offerings are set out in the courtyard of temples for the Jade Emperor birthday.
Chap Goh Meh
The 15th day is by no means the last or the least significant day of the Chinese New Year.
In George Town, the Chap Goh Meh (Chinese Valentine) is marked with Hokkien community’s boisterous celebration of the Chingay – a street parade with acrobats balancing huge flags hung on bamboo poles.
The parade moves slowly along the busy streets of George Town, to the beat of gongs, drums and cymbals to lion and dragon dancers and stilt walkers.
When the sun sets, the celebration takes off to the golden era of the Babas and Nyonyas as Dondang Sayang troop still goes around town in their illuminated buses to sing their pantuns and serenade the Chap Goh Meh revellers.
During Chap Goh Meh parades, young unmarried women are seen riding in cars along the Gurney Drive or Esplanade to throw mandarin oranges into the sea while expressing the wish to meet a good husband.
Malaysia Outlook wishes the Chinese community – “Keong Hee Huat Chye”.