On my first day in Georgetown, Penang, I had no specific plans in the afternoon except that I wanted to see the Hokkien New Year celebrations at Clan Jetty area at night. Penang is renowned for their unique and boisterous Hokkien New Year celebrations which is typically held on the eighth night of Chinese New Year.
The Hokkien are the largest Chinese dialect group in Malaysia, and historically, majority came from the southern Fujian province in China and settled in Malaya in the 18th & 19th centuries (Malaysia was called ‘Malaya’ before independence from the British). These groups form the bulk of the Chinese population mainly in Penang and Melaka.
The Hokkien New Year or Jade Emperor’s Birthday is a significant celebration among the Hokkien-Chinese in Penang. According to traditional beliefs, the Hokkiens in China were oppressed by evil forces and didn’t have the opportunity to celebrate the new year for a long time until one year, on the eighth day of the Lunar New Year, the Jade Emperor of Heaven came at midnight and liberated them. In Taoist religion, the Jade Emperor is regarded as the supreme deity. Hence, to commemorate their liberation, the Hokkiens perform rituals known as “Pai Thee Kong” which means “worshipping the Jade Emperor” as thanksgiving for being able to celebrate the new year.
On that first day, I reckon the gods were smiling down on me. Since my arrival, everything I saw and felt exceeded my expectations. I loved the location of my homestay, the ambience of my room and the warm reception from my host. I loved the city’s UNESCO heritage area that are dotted with several places of worship (mosque, church, temple), restored pre-war buildings, street art, cafes, galleries, etc.
To make the day extra special, I was fortunate to chance upon a procession in the heritage area where devotees carried the statue of the Jade Emperor and other deities to mark the start of the new year celebrations. I had only found out a week later that the procession was usually held at sea on boats, but this time, they organized the procession on foot instead.
The 3km procession was held around 5pm. I was taking photos of street art and suddenly I heard drums of the lion dance. I turned around and saw a number of people ran towards the main road. I followed suit to see what was going on and this is what I saw (photos below) – the procession. For the next one hour so, I joined the devotees on their walk from clan houses to temples, and finally Chew Jetty Temple which was the central place for the major celebrations later at night.