CNY in Penang, Malaysia

Growing up in the U.S. I have vague memories of celebrating the Lunar New Year. Sure, I kind of remember that the holiday is about 15 days long and on occasions when relatives were present, I received lucky money. But since moving to the U.S. in grade school, I mainly just remember eating hotpot with my immediate family, and that was that. After all, American schools don’t give Lunar New Year vacation.

This year marks the 10th year anniversary since I last truly celebrated the holiday, which was in Penang, Malaysia.

The year was 2011. I was a year out of college and working abroad in Seoul as an English teacher. I was excited to be “on my own”—earning a monthly paycheck and living in an apartment by myself, sans adult supervision—and eager for adventures. So when the month-long Lunar New Year vacation rolled around, I didn’t go home to visit family like many of my fellow English teachers did. Instead, I chose to go to Southeast Asia.

I started my journey flying from Seoul to Kuala Lumpur (the capital of Malaysia), and from there flew to Penang (an island and a province located on Malaysia’s northwestern coast) to meet up with my good friend A., a Penang-born-and-bred Malaysian Chinese. He and his wonderful family hosted me in Penang and I was kindly included in their Lunar New Year celebration. It was bizarre because the experience was one of the most authentic and traditional custom-filled Lunar New Year I have celebrated—in Malaysia of all places!

In light of the upcoming Lunar New Year on February 12, I am “Hsieh-ing” with you the following can’t-miss Lunar New Year (more specificially, Chinese New Year) customs and rituals when in Penang.

Photos are from my 2011 travel to Penang, Malaysia.


Red, red, red

The color red dominates Chinese New Year decorations, from lanterns to spring couplets written on red paper to red paper cuttings of Chinese characters 福 (means good luck or fortune, pronounced fu) and 春 (means spring, pronounced chun).

According to Chinese mythology, once every year at the beginning of Chinese New Year, a ferocious beast called Nian comes out of its hiding place to feed. Because food is scarce during winter, Nian attacks the nearby village, eating livestock and sometimes villagers, mostly children. The scared villagers can do nothing except to pack their belongings and hide until Nian finishes feeding. One year when Nian comes to the village and chances upon a burning bamboo, Nian runs away. The villagers realize that Nian is scared of the color red—fire from the burning bamboo—and loud banging sounds of burning bamboo. So next year, the villagers put red lanterns and red spring couplet scrolls on their windows and doors. They also throw firecrackers. They successfully ward off Nian, and from that day on, red became the official color of Chinese New Year.

Red lanterns outside the Penang Gelugpa Buddhist Association temple in George Town, Penang, Malaysia,

Family Reunion Dinner

No matter how far apart the family members are, they will try to come home for the biggest annual gathering. Dinner is always a sumptuous, full-spread affair and must-have dishes (chosen because their pronunciations have auspicious connotations) include:

  • Fish (魚): Pronounced yu, fish carries the same phonetic sound as 餘, which means leftovers. Eating fish means next year you will be prosperous and have a surplus of good fortune.
  • Rice Cake (年糕): Made from glutinous rice flour, these cakes are pronounced gao, the same as 高, or high. Eating rice cakes means you will have advancement in the new year.
  • Dumplings: Shaped like traditional Chinese gold and silver currency yuanbao, dumplings signify more money for the new year.

Lucky Money

Lucky money is placed in red envelopes and given to children. When I was in Penang, I also got lucky money. The money, given to me by a dressed-up God of Fortune at a breakfast joint, totaled $1 Malaysian Ringgit, which equals USD $0.25. But hey, I got a McDonald vanilla cone out of it! The best dollar menu ever!

Lion Dance

The lion dance is a form of traditional Chinese dance. Performers mimic a lion’s movements in a lion costume to bring good luck and fortune. In the image below the lion-dance performer went up a stilt to fetch a daikon, which in Hokkien dialect sounds like tsai-tou, or 好彩頭 (good luck). Penang Hokkien is the dialect among the majority of Chinese population in Penang.

Kek Lok Si

Kek Lok Si Temple (極樂寺) is a Buddhist temple situated on a hilltop in Air Itam. It is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia and is also an important pilgrimage center for Buddhists from Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, and other countries in Southeast Asia. During Chinese New Year, the place is bustling with festivities.

Donations offered by devotees transform into thousands of lanterns that light up the temple.
The temple is home to the world’s tallest Guanyin statue, reaching 36.57-meter-tall, or 120 ft in height. Guanyin (Kuan Yin) is the Goddess of Mercy.
The temple is spectacular—a sea of light—during the Chinese New Year.

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