The intriguing tale of deliverance behind the Hokkien New Year
The ninth day of the first lunar calendar is especially significant to the Hokkien people (subgroup of Chinese). Some traditionalists would even venture as far as to say that it is much more important than the Chinese New Year day itself because the entire Hokkien clan was spared from massacre. They believe it was the Jade Emperor, also known as the God of Heaven, who protected them. Thus, it is celebrated with more grandeur when compared to the first day especially in Penang.
If you are here on the eve of the celebrations, head down to the clan jetties to join in the festivities and witness a mammoth offering table to the God of Heaven.
There are many versions of the Hokkiens’ Pai Ti Kong story. A popular version has it that this took place sometime in the 16th century under the Ming Dynasty. It was a time when many ships sailed the ocean and there were pirates operating on the east coast of China. On a Chinese New Year during that era, pirates raided the east coast of the Fujian Province where the Hokkein people lived. The merciless pirates invaded the east coast from all directions and killed everybody who crossed their path.
Fearing for their lives, the villagers fled and hid in a sugarcane plantation. They prayed to the God of Heaven for deliverance. The pursuing intruders spent days hunting them down but in vain. On the ninth day of that Chinese New Year, they gave up and left.
The joyful Hokkien people emerged from the sugarcane fields, praising the God of Heaven for keeping them safe from harm. Realising that it was also the birthday of the God of Heaven, they decided to make votive and prayer offerings to him. It was here that the Hokkiens first started the practice of celebrating on the ninth day of the first lunar month with sugarcane.
In the lunar calendar, the day starts at 11:00 pm. Therefore the Hokkiens would start their prayers at 11:00 pm on the eight day of Chinese New Year but preparations would usually start well in advance.
Preparation begins on the morning of the eighth day. The Hokkien people would be busy at the market buying all the essential items needed for the celebration including sugarcane stalks, roasted pigs, cooked meats, Ti Kuih (sweet sticky rice cake), Ang Koo (red tortoise cakes), Mee Koo (bright magenta-colored buns), Huat Kuih (light and fluffy steamed cupcakes made from fermented rice flour), Bee Koh (rice pudding), bright pink miniature pagodas, fresh flowers and fruits. Most of these items symbolise abundance and good fortune and are a must.
During this time of the year, you would see long stalks of sugarcanes being sold all over Penang especially at market areas. It is interesting to note how these long stalks are when positioned out of a car window or balanced on a motorcycle!
On the auspicious night, the Hokkiens will give thanks and offer up a beautifully decorated table laden with gifts for the God of Heaven. A pair of long sugarcane stalks is usually tied to the sides of the offering altar or table. This symbolises unity, cooperation and strength. The sugarcane itself is a symbol of harmony and a token which can bring good and "sweet" results.
Certain festive fruits also make an appearance and are aptly decorated with red paper cuttings, some with Chinese characters on them. Pineapple “flowers” are a popular offering as well.
Businessmen of the Hokkien community take the festival quite seriously – their generous offerings are a thanksgiving and are votive in nature, in anticipation of a prosperous year ahead.
Also particularly relevant are the piles of Kim Chua ("gold" paper) folded into the old-style shapes of ingots that are burnt as a thanksgiving offering to the Jade Emperor. After these gold papers are set ablaze, the family members would take the stalks of sugarcane from the altars and throw them into the bonfire.
There will be fireworks and firecrackers to mark the beginning of the ninth day as well as the survival of the Hokkien people. It is also believed that fireworks would scare away evil spirits.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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2 February 2020