Bak Chang Festival in Penang

Bak Chang Festival © Adrian Cheah

Bak Chang is steamed pulut (glutinous rice) seasoned with dark soya sauce wrapped in bamboo leaves and stuffed with pork belly, shiitake mushroom, dried prawns, salted egg yolk and chestnuts or just white beans. This rich and high cholesterol delight which is a specialty during the Bak Chang Festival is available all year round in Penang.



Bak Chang © Adrian Cheah

For the Nyonyas in Penang, they have their own version of Chang – Pua Kiam Tea. Although also made of glutinous rice, the stuffing however differs from that of the traditional Bak Chang. No soya sauce is being used leaving the Chang pristine white. Some on the other hand add a natural source for edible blue colouring from rehydrating dried Bunga Telang (Butterfly-pea flower).

Bak Chang Festival © Adrian Cheah

I have to confess that I am a big a fan of these Nyonya-style dumplings where there is a good balance of sweet and savoury elements to them. The presence of candied wintermelon, aniseed and coriander add a strong and distinct flavour to the yet addictive dumplings. The wonderful aroma from the pandan (skrewpine) leaves also made a big difference.

Usually a few weeks before the festival, the Chinese community in Penang will be making and enjoying these bamboo leaves-wrapped dumplings. Making the dumplings takes skill, effort and time. Even cooking the dumplings after all the preparation and wrapping involve boiling the whole bunch for at lease two hours.

Bak Chang © Adrian Cheah

Bak Chang Festival © Adrian Cheah

Having said that, families who come together annually to make Bak Chang for the festival enjoy the entire process very much. I can still vividly remember way back when we were young, my mum would make Bak Chang and my brothers, sisters and I had such a blast packing our Chang with all our favourite ingredients. Once cooked, the dumplings are removed from the boiling pot, hung up to remove excess water and allowed to cool to room temperature. Usually our Chang would not hold well because we had left very little room for the pulut. We had such a thrill unwrapping our Chang filled to the brim with your favourite fillings.

Cooked dumplings can kept for up to a week in the refrigerator and for a few months if frozen.

Bak Chang Festival © Adrian Cheah

The tale behind the Bak Chang Festival

The fifth day of the fifth lunar month marks the Duanwu Festival (also known as the Dragon Boat Festival), celebrated by the Chinese community all over the world including Penang. The celebration of Duanwu includes dragon boat racing and feasting on traditional rice dumplings. Like many traditional Chinese foods cooked during festival time, Bak Chang Festival is also based on a popular folklore.

Bak Chang Festival © Adrian Cheah

The story is based on historical annals of Qu Yuan (340-278 BC.), the pioneer poet of ancient China's Zhou Dynasty. He was a descendant of the Chu royal house who was banished from his high ranking position when he opposed the king’s decision to ally with the expanding neighbour state of Qin. While in exile, Qu Yuan wrote some of the greatest poetry in Chinese literature. When the capital of Chu fell into the power of Qin, Qu Yuan’s grief drove him to commit a ritual suicide by drowning in the Miluo River, holding on to a heavy rock which he must have also tied to himself. (Miluo River is located in northeastern Hunan Province in modern-day China.)

Villagers who were present at the scene rush out to save him. They raced across the river on boats, beating drums and splashing the water with their paddles to scare away the fish. They also threw rice dumplings into the river so that the fish would eat the rice dumplings and not Qu Yuan.

But all was in vain as they were unable to safe him. Qu Yuan's body were lost in the river. However, later that night, Qu Yuan's spirit was said to have appeared before his friends. He told them to drop rice dumplings into the river to ward off a river dragon.

His friends fashioned rice dumplings wrapped in silk and dropped them into the river.

This tragic tale is celebrated annually on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month to commemorate Qu Yuan death with the Bak Chang Festival. Today in Penang, Bak Chang are not thrown into the river to be consumed by the hungry fish, but are given as gifts to family and friends.

Bak Chang Festival © Adrian Cheah

Bak Chang is sold all over Penang at morning markets during the days leading up to the festival. However, they are also available all year round being a popular snack for breakfast and tea. One of my favourite Bak Chang stalls in Penang is at the curb in front of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, at the junction of Burmah Road and Tavoy Road. The vendor sells a wide range of Bak Chang. He also sells Oh Kuih (yam cake) and Ang Tau Th'ng (red bean dessert).

And the act of racing down the river in search of Qu Yuan's body brought us the Dragon Boat Festival, held with deep reverence in many parts of China in the spirit of its ancient origins. Like the heroic integrity of the legendary Qu Yuan, the spirit now lives on in Penang, to the beating of the drums and the roaring of the throngs in the thrill and adulation of sheer human prowess.

Both these festivals with the same source of origin continues to be celebrated until today many miles away from China on this little island with much gaiety and joy.

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Here is a paragraph from LI SAO (The Lament), one of the most remarkable works of Qü Yüan. It ranks as one of the greatest poems in Chinese or world poetry. It was probably written during the period when the poet had been exiled by his king.

In sadness plunged and sunk in deepest gloom,
Alone I drove on to my dreary doom.
In exile rather would I meet my end,
Than to the baseness of their ways descend.

Remote the eagle spurns the common range,
Nor deigns since time began its way to change;
A circle fits not with a square design;
Their different ways could not be merged with mine.

Yet still my heart I checked and curbed my pride,
Their blame endured and their reproach beside.
To die for righteousness alone I sought,
For this was what the ancient sages taught.

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Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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Updated: 28 March 2018