With the long strange Chinese New Year holiday (or holidays as in a pluralized version) finally winding down, it’s time to reflect on lessons learned. Residents of Southeast Asia for about eight months now, Diane and I realized from the start it takes an entire year to asses all the various multicultural events, holidays, religious celebrations and everything else that makes Malaysia as different from North America as night and day. Unlike North America, life in a Chinese dominated island revolves around the Lunar New Year and affects everyone’s daily life from shoppers to non-Chinese workers. Adding to the confusion, Penang is basically the only place outside China sporting a large community of Hokkien Chinese people. Unaware that Hokkien Chinese have a mysteriously different language, history, culture and ambition level compared to Cantonese and Mandarin speakers, here’s a non-comprehensive and very unscientific list of what we learned this month.
Never visit the wet market on the weekend before Chinese New Year
Having been to the local market in Tanjung Bungah about 100 times, we’ve never seen any real crowds. Akin to a local Wal-Mart the day before a hurricane, the mad rush on everything and anything edible, especially animals, means fending off hundreds of patrons and even the Asian discount goes away if you don’t speak Hokkien Chinese. In their defense, however, Hokkien Chinese are not very aggressive and the least pushiest Chinese people anywhere which probably comes from living with non-confrontational Malays. Don’t visit at this time.
Nobody really answers when asked “So what do you do for Chinese New Year?”
Having asked dozens of Uber drivers (our main source of Chinese information), they’re mostly unresponsive with the younger generation leaning towards “hanging out with friends“. Middle aged drivers mostly allude to one dinner on the eve of the real Lunar New Year so don’t bother trying to call Uber that night or you’ll be greeted with the lovely response “No Cars available”. Yes, there’s a few Malay and Indian drivers but they mostly avoid Chinese neighborhoods which means the entire side of the island where expats live.
Unlike other Asian Chinese enclaves like Singapore, Hong Kong and even Beijing who’ve begun understanding that closing businesses for the sake of tradition is very unprofitable, the Hokkiens are like throwback Chinese. Roaming through the large tourist-based malls on the third day after Chinese New Year, you’ll find about 95% of everything closed from restaurants to technology stores. Interestingly, all the kiosks have signs on them from the Singapore based mall management telling them “Kiosks must only close for a maximum of TWO DAYS” and it goes on to stress specific allowable dates. Apparently brick and mortar shops can do as they please and some stay closed all week. Nobody patronizes the mall anyway and Malay employees stuck working at the few businesses still open (like Nando’s) goof off like you’ve never seen before and act annoyed that they’re not at the beach. Which leads me to the next point:
The calendar Lunar New Year Day is the MOST crowded beach day in Penang
Indians and Malays love Chinese New Year. Although not an official holiday on the Malaysian government calendar for work or school, with every supervisor, manager and boss being home, nobody else works or attends school even if they’re supposed to. Looking like every Malay and Indian in the country comes to Batu Ferrenghi for one day, our beach town once again becomes a mass of bodies all thrashing around the beaches. Looking more like what you’d expect from Malaysia, (racially speaking) we found a no other Caucasians on the beach but did see and unusually high number of European tourists on chaises at all the resorts (This continued all week with the numbers dwindling a bit each day). Five short weeks after the holidays, the town becomes another bumper to bumper mess that backs up five miles away and the serviced apartment condos next door triple their prices to accommodate the lucky ones with enough ringgit.
Chinese New Year celebrations are for White People and tourists
Participating in an app that allows Chinese speaking people from China to practice their English, Diane converses with many young people from Mainland China. Surprisingly, we’ve learned that Chinese New Year in China is simply known as Spring Festival. Additionally, most of them don’t know there’s 90+ dialects of Chinese and think “Mandarin” is an orange. Interestingly, none of them mention any kind of lion dances, parades with floats or anything other than a simple meal with the family. Scheduling events for tourists in Penang on weekends, everything is decked out in red but most Chinese we spoke to hate the noise as much as we do. Mostly the island remains emptier than normal after the initial three-day closures, Chinese teens hit the mall, mostly visiting the cinema and the restaurants have no duck for a few weeks no matter what’s on the menu. Not really understanding why the Uber drivers kept alluding to the ninth day after Chines New Year, we quickly learned the strangest part of Chinese New Year in Malaysia:
Penang celebrates “Hokkien New Year” nine days AFTER Chinese New Year
Virtually unknown to millions of non-Hokkien Chinese people, persecution from the MIng Dynasty is the reason the Hokkien observe Chinese New Year nine days after the Lunar calendar begins. Quoting from internet sources, Hokkien New Year’s history is this:
During a Chinese New year of the Ming Dynasty, there was a bandit raid in the province of Hokkien. These intruders however robbed and burned down villages, attacked and killed the villagers. The people of the villages were in fear and escaped from their burnt villages during the night.
Some of the villagers then hid themselves among the sugarcane fields. Needless to say, those villagers prayed to Heaven God (Tian Gong) for salvation during their hideout. The pursuing intruders spent many days trying to locate and hunt them but to no avail. On the ninth day of that Chinese New Year, they finally gave up and returned to their region.
The Hokkiens then happily emerged from the sugar cane fields, and praising the blessings of the celestial deities and owing gratitude to the sugarcane plants for saving them from destruction. Thus, in all Hokkien celebrations, the sugarcane plant is given prominence.
Realizing that it was also the 9th Day of the Chinese New Year and coincidentally the birthday of Heaven God, they decided to make votive offerings and prayers to the Jade Emperor for their salvation. There are many version of the Hokkiens’ Bai Tian Gong stories. Whichever it is, the hokkiens believe that our life and prosperity are granted by the Heaven
Sleeping is not an option on “Hokkien New Year”
As young kids, many American kids probably remember their parents loading up the car and arriving hours early to get a good viewing spot for July 4th or New Year’s Eve fireworks celebrations. For any of you that felt deprived because you never got close enough, just come to our condo in Batu Ferrenghi on the night of Hokkien New Year where they launch huge elaborate fireworks so close to every house, person and anything else in the way, its astounding nobody gets hurt and neighborhood dogs don’t die from heart attacks.
Unprepared for the second Chinese New Year, I made the mistake of falling asleep before midnight and awoke to what sounded like bombing raids on Syrian villages. Running to our balcony, we learned where the Chinese in Penang spend their entire year’s salary. Launching into a 90 minute non stop display of fireworks easily as expensive as The Macy’s 4th of July Celebration over the East River in Manhattan, we observed a beautiful but overly ridiculous display of color and noise that’s set off so close to our 9th floor balcony that anyone who leans over risks being hit by rockets and sparks. Now understanding yet another major difference between Asia and the West, no individual citizens would ever attain such an immense collection of powerful and dangerous fireworks and even they did, local noise ordinances and fires safety regulations would never allow the local community to celebrate with no official guidance to what’s allowed. Anything goes in Asia. Gotta love it.
The Hangover Effect
Naturally, the tenth day after Chinese New Year is another unofficial holiday since nobody sleeps the night before. And the day after that is only slightly better. Needing food and unable to eat out if we wanted to, we hopped on the bus to the same wet market that was packed 13 days earlier and found some sleeping cats in boxes where fresh produce should be, one or two Indian vendors selling stale goods and an entire neighborhood devoid of life, similar to Times Square at 6 AM on New Year’s Day. Although the supermarkets stay open during the entire Chinese New Year period, good luck finding anything resembling food, especially fresh meat, chicken or seafood. Hoping they replenish supplies by the third week, we’ll stick with Nasi Campur for a while at our friendly neighborhood food stall until tehe supply chain resumes until everyone decides it’s time to go back to normal life.
Fascinating to westerners like us raised with the principles of never ending capitalism, long hours of work and one day holidays, it’s mind-blowing to me that they group Malaysia in with other “middle-income economies” like South Africa when business and commerce grinds to a halt 17 days a year (officially) and another three weeks for Chinese New Year but that’s part of what makes living in Southeast Asia so interesting and different. Always educational, we think we’ve seen almost all the annual interruptions, inconveniences and interruptions but then again school holidays happen three times a year so I think we’ll plan on visiting other places during the next bumper to bumper traffic event, assuming we can get an Uber driver to take us to the airport
Happy Lunar New Year !!