National Day – Malaysia

National Day is celebrated every year in Malaysia on the 31st of August to commemorate the momentous occasion when the Federation of Malaya achieved independence from British rule in 1957. On the 30th of August, Malaysia’s then Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman took to the Royal Selangor Club Padang, now known as the Merdeka square at 11.58pm and observed two minutes of darkness. At the stroke of midnight, the Union Jack was lowered and raised with the Flag of Malaya. The morning after, Tunku Abdul Rahman read aloud the Proclaimation of Independence, followed by seven chants of Merdeka, with the crown at the square joining following each chant. The moment is considered to be one of Malaysia’s most memorable and significant points in history.

National Day shouldn’t be confused with Malaysia Day, which is celebrated on September 16 and declared an official public holiday since 2010. Malaysia Day marks the day where Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore and Malaya had joined together to form the federation of Malaysia, although Singapore has since become its own country.

This year would be the 55th year that Malaysia celebrates her independence from British rule. However, times have changed Malaysia into a newer, more politically aware and conscious young nation. It can certainly be argued that the patriotic spirit has dwindled especially in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, partly due to increased dissatisfaction and racial discrimination felt by a growing number of young Malaysian Chinese and Indians. Unity among races and a greater patriotic spirit among Malaysians are certainly stronger now than two decades or three decades ago. Nevertheless, Malaysian citizens would be quick to proclaim their love for their country, despite their misgivings for the country’s current administration.

Government buildings and corporations would start decorating the buildings with the colours of the national flag in the weeks before National Day. Decorations with themes of red, blue, yellow and white along with the national and state flags would hang off almost every window and building in the city. Malaysia’s national flag is proudly known as the “Jalur Gemilang” and the flag is usually the central theme and pride of the nation and her people. Old and torn flags are frowned upon and will usually be replaced by newer and brightly coloured flags. Vehicles are not to be missed out, and during the month leading to the celebrations, it will not be unusual to see vehicles decked out as colourful as buildings in the colours of the Jalur Gemilang.

In the past decade or so, to young urban Malaysians, National Day usually means looking forward to commercials from Petronas, an oil and gas company which is solely owned by the Government of Malaysia. Around this time, Petronas-commissioned commercials with themes centralized around unity and love among the three biggest races in Malaysia are aired. These commercials were originally the brainchild of the late Yasmin Ahmad, a very much loved and veered figure in the entertainment industry, until her untimely death in 2009.

Public schools usually have class-decorating, essay writing and poetry competitions, all with National Day themes. The more creative classes would be completely decked out in red, blue, yellow and white decorations and poems and essays about unity and tolerance are usually written. There will also be nationwide competitions held by many corporate and government bodies to commemorate the glorious event.

On the eve of National Day, fireworks will light up the sky at the stroke of midnight, usually set off in Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur. In recent years, the fireworks have been moved to Putrajaya where they are equally, and if not more beautiful, dazzling the crowd who would stop their cars on the highway and people who would gather at the parks in Putrajaya to witness this few minutes of splendor. It is truly a sight to behold. In 2008, the fireworks were moved to Titiwangsa lake in Kuala Lumpur, where a giant ferris wheel named the Eye of Malaysia had been set up a year before. The fireworks and the lights from the city and the ferris wheel added a touch of scenic splendor to the entire patriotic affair.

The National Day Parade

The highlight of National Day is the National Day parade organized every year. Every year, there will be an official theme and slogan for National Day and this year will be no different. The slogans usually resonate with the country’s current prime minister and his policies. Since Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is known for his policies to transform and change the country ever since he took office in 2008, the themes for National Day have been about transformation and the catchphrase “1 Malaysia” signifying unity and tolerance among different races. In 2011, the theme was “1 Malaysia, Transformasi Berjaya, dan Rakyat Sejahtera” (1 Malaysia, A Successful Transformation, Peace among the People). This year’s theme is yet to be announced but there is no doubt it will again be centered on transformation. One of the more famous slogans and themes was the recurrent theme from 2000-2006 which was “Keranamu Malaysia” or “Because of you, Malaysia”. The inaugural guest of honour presiding over the National Day parade will be the Yang di Pertuan Agong (King) of Malaysia along with government dignitaries and other VIPs.

The parade is slightly different every year depending on the circumstances and decisions made by the federal government. The parade is usually held in the streets of the city culminating in Merdeka Square, where it all began in 1957. However, since 1985, the celebrations have been moved to other states in the country so that citizens all around the country have a chance to participate and revel in the celebrations as well. In the year 2009, it was a smaller scale celebration limited to only 4000 people as there was the H1N1 flu pandemic at the time. In 2010, the parade only lasted for 40 minutes as it was in the midst of Ramadan month where Muslims have to observe fasting rites during the day. Of recent years, the national parade has been held in Putrajaya three times seeing that it was the main administrative capital of the country.

Every year, a human graphic display of the Jalur Gemilang will be readied by members of Soka Gakkai Malaysia, and will usually be formed on the parade grounds or on the streets where the celebrations are held. The Royal Malay Regiment or another military unit of the three services of the Malaysian Armed Forces will form the Guard of Honor Company, usually joined with a military band. When the Yang di Pertuan Agong and the Raja Permaisuri Agong (Queen) arrives at the venue, the Guards of Honor render the Royal Salute to His Majesty and Her Majesty, and the national anthem, Negaraku is played by the military band. Immediately after this, the Guards of Honor order arms, readying for inspection by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

The Royal Inspection

When the inspection starts, the military band plays “Menungjung Duli March”. After the inspection, the national anthem is played again, and the human graphic display will then arrange itself to show the words, “Daulat Tuanku” (Long Live the King). The Guards of Honor will then perform a march past after the display.

A 21-gun salute will also be performed by members of the Royal Artillery Regiment after the flag has been raised to the national anthem. The Rukunegara (National Principles) will then be recited by the emcee and is usually started with a pledge, Maka Kami (translated into ‘And therefore, we…’), the left hand at shoulder level. Following the reciting of the Rukunegara, seven shouts of Merdeka! (translated into ‘Independence!’) will follow with the left hand raised.

The Rukunegara

The Rukunegara was proclaimed in the year 1970, a year after the deathly riots between the races that make up Malaysia’s population on May 13, 1969. The government of Malaysia at the time sought to resolve the tension and instill unity among the races in the aftermath of the riots. As a result of these efforts, the Rukunegara is a declaration of national philosophy for the people to follow and live by these principles. The pledge is recited at every official function and weekly at assemblies in schools around the country.

The literal Malay verse of the Rukunegara is as follows:

BAHAWASANYA NEGARA KITA MALAYSIA mendukung cita-cita hendak:

  • mencapai perpaduan yang lebih erat di kalangan seluruh masyarakatnya;
  • memelihara satu cara hidup demokratik;
  • mencipta satu masyarakat adil di mana kemakmuran Negara akan dapat dinikmati bersama secara adil dan saksama;
  • menjamin satu cara liberal terhadap tradisi-tradisi kebudayaannya yang kaya dan berbagai corak; dan
  • membina satu masyarakat progresif yang akan menggunakan sains dan teknologi moden.

MAKA KAMI, rakyat Malaysia, berikrar akan menumpukan seluruh tenaga dan usaha kami untuk mencapai cita-cita tersebut berdasarkan atas prinsip-prinsip yang berikut:

  • KEPERCAYAAN KEPADA TUHAN
  • KESETIAAN KEPADA RAJA DAN NEGARA
  • KELUHURAN PERLEMBAGAAN
  • KEDAULATAN UNDANG-UNDANG
  • KESOPANAN DAN KESUSILAAN

And when translated into English, it is as follows:

Our nation, Malaysia, is being dedicated to:

  • Achieving a greater unity of all her people;
  • Maintaining a democratic way of life;
  • Creating a just society in which the wealth of the nation shall be equitably shared;
  • Ensuring a liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural tradition;
  • Building a progressive society which shall be oriented to modern science and technology.

We, the people of Malaysia, pledge our united efforts to attain these ends, guided by these principles:

  • BELIEF IN GOD
  • LOYALTY TO KING AND COUNTRY
  • UPHOLDING THE CONSTITUTION
  • SOVEREIGNTY OF THE LAW, and
  • GOOD BEHAVIOUR AND MORALITY

The Rukunegara has become an important and integral part of the nation as it is beyond politics. It talks about a democratic nation founded on a steadfast faith in God, honor and love for the King and Country, and a wholly just and democratic society which upholds the Constitution and the Rule of Law.

The parade

The fun starts after the formal and solemn proceedings have ended. Patriotic songs accompanied by members of the ethnic percussion group will be sung, and the stage will be filled with young dancers dressed in the many colourful costumes that make up the various races and ethnic groups of the country. Every year, there will be a new theme song and this song will be sung as well.

The skies would not be missed out in the celebrations as well, and planes of the Royal Malaysian Air Force, the Malaysian Army Air Force and the Royal Malaysian Navy will take to the skies in a salute to the nation. The fleet is led by military helicopters flying the Malaysian flag, the flags of the Armed Forces and the flags of the 13 states of Malaysia and the flags of its 3 federal territories, with the rest of the military aircraft following behind.

The march past then begins with the three divisions of the Armed Forces, the Royal Malaysian Police, civilian and business organizations. Each contingent will march past the parade stage where the Royal Highnesses preside over the celebrations and give a royal salute. There will also be floats, representing their organization and is decorated with intricate designs and decorations which symbolizes the heart of their organization.

Where to be and what to do

Tourists should be sure not to miss out the exciting parade every year and join the crowd at Dataran Merdeka to watch the parade on the morning of National Day and partake in the festivities. The roads in and around Dataran Merdeka will usually be closed in preparation for the festivities but due to the prominence of the location, Dataran Merdeka is easily accessible via public transport as it is in the vicinity of KTM stations and LRT stations nearby as well as a bus station. In other states such as Penang and Sabah which are also known as tourist hotspots in Malaysia, other Merdeka Day festivities will be held as well. An annual regatta organized by the Kinabalu Yacht Club will take place in Sabah from the 31st August until 2nd of September to commemorate the occasion. In Penang, a parade will usually also be held in the city centre with a considerably higher number of tourist turn out due to the island being a popular holiday destination.

For every patriotic Malaysian, no matter how they celebrate, each year brings a special meaning to National Day. This year will surely be no different and perhaps even more important and relevant to the people as the country’s national elections will be declared this year as well.

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Thaipusam Festival – Batu Caves, Malaysia

Thaipusam is celebrated every year by the Hindu Tamil community on the full month in the Thai month (February) of the Hindu lunar calendar. As Malaysia has a sizeable Hindu Tamil population, the festival is celebrated on a large scale among the Tamil community, the main location of which culminates in Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, and in Balathanda-yuthapani temple which is located on a hill in Penang.

The word Thaipusam refers to the Pusam star which is believed to be at its highest point in the Thai month. In the spirit of the Malaysian unity and also their frequently crossed religious cultures, Thaipusam is also celebrated by a growing number of ethnic Chinese in the country as well as those of the Sikh faith.

The celebration starts as early as 1am on the day of the festival. In Kuala Lumpur, devotees would start to gather at the Sri Maha Mariamman temple in Bandar Road to witness the ceremonial bath of Lord Muruga. The deity would be adorned with colorful flowers, precious stones and elaborate ornaments before being placed on a ceremonial silver chariot which would be drawn by two oxen. The entire chariot weighs about 5 tonnes in total. A pilgrimage would then proceed on foot from the Sri Maha Mariamman temple on a 15km journey to the shrine at the Batu Caves Hindu temple. The final journey culminates in a 272-step ascent to the temple which is in the caves. The journey would start at 4am and last for about 8 hours to Batu Caves. Hundreds of devotees will accompany the chariot on the long journey, many carrying kavadi as self-inflicted penance.

Similarly in Penang, a grand procession starts from Little India and goes on a 18km journey to Nattukottai Chettiar Thandayuthapani Kovil and Waterfall temple (Balathanda-yuthapani) in Jalan Air Terjun Waterfall Road) during Thaipusam Penang.

The legend

There are a few legends associated with how the celebration of Thaipusam came about. In one of the legends, the Great Saint Agasthya had instructed his student Idumban to uproot two hills from the earth which belonged to Lord Murugan and to bring the hills back to the Great Saint. When Lord Murugan heard about this, he wanted to test Idumban’s loyalty and devotion to his master. He reduced his size to that of a small child and stood on top one of the hills. To Idumban’s great surprise, he was unable to uproot any of the hills and when he checked, he saw a small child standing haughtily on the top of the hill. Idumban humbly requested for the child to step down from the hill, but when the child refused, Idumban flew into a great rage and tried to attack the child. This failed, for the child was Lord Murugan in disguise, and Idumban found himself on a heap on the ground like an injured little bird. Lord Murugan then reverted back into his original form and stood before Idumban and told him that he was pleased with Idumban’s show of faith, loyalty and devotion to his master. Lord Murugan also bestowed Idumban the honour of being his guardian and made a declaration that from then on, whoever who brought forth kavadis to him would receive his blessings. The kavadis that you see at Thaipusam festivals today symbolizes the hills of burden that Idumban had borne. This is why most temples chosen for the festival are usually on top of hills.

There were other legends surrounding the origin of Thaipusam. In another version, a demon by the name of Tharakasuran was troubling the Rishis and the Saints. Lord Murugan was called forth by his parents Lord Shiva and Parvati and was instructed to destroy the demon. He was given 12 weapons, the twelfth being a ‘vel’, a spear like weapon with an arrowhead tip, given to him by his mother Parvati. Lord Murugan destroyed Tharakasuran on the Pusam Nakshatra day in the Thai month of the Tamil calendar. In yet another version of how Thaipusam came about, on that legendary day, Shiva and Parvati were engaged in a beautiful dance as the other gods watched.

Thaipusam is also believed to originate from a war between the celestial beings Devas and Asuras, the evil forces. This war torn the world apart, and the Devas paid homage to Lord Shiva, asking for His protection. Lord Shiva agreed to help them, and He opened the central eye on His forehead, radiating six sparks of fire, which convered into his son, the Lord Murugan. Armed with a golden spear, called the Nyanya Vel, Lord Murugan went to battle, and after a long and fierce battle, Lord Murugan slain Soorapadme in one stroke. One portion of the slain Soorapadme was converted into a peacock as the Lord Murugan’s vehicle and the other portion into a rooster adorning his banner. This is why the vel (spear) and peacock feathers are frequently incorporated into the festivities of Thaipusam.

Similar themes run through all the legends. They involve Lord Murugan eradicating negative and evil forces that eradicate us and it is this theme that runs through the entire Thaipusam festival. On this day, devotees make offerings to Lord Murugan to thank him for banishing evil forces from their lives, and the kavadi or burden that the devotee bears for Lord Murugan has benefits that are a million fold greater than the little pain that the devotee would inflict upon him or herself.

The Kavadi

The kavadi concept comes in many forms. Generally, devotees take up a vow to offer the Lord a kavadi as a tiding over a great calamity or as an oath to ask for help from the Lord Murugan. For example, a parent whose son is sick would pray for his son’s recovery in return for which the devotee would dedicate a kavadi to the lord.

A kavadi has many shapes and sizes. The most spectacular forms of kavadi are the vel kavadis where the structures are in the shapes of metal frames adorned with colourful decorations, peacock feathers, flowers and golden chains. Others are much simpler in structure, in the form of a wooden stick with two baskets at the end. The simplest form of a kavadi would be to carry a jug of milk. Brass bells are most often adorned on the kavadi, ringing as the kavadi bearer walks, announcing his presence.

These kavadi structures are often attached to the kavadi bearers’ bodies. The most memorable and focal point of the festival would be to witness these kavadi bearers and the self-torture they inflict upon themselves as an act of devotion towards Lord Murugan. Some pierce a sharp spear through their tongue, and others through their cheeks. Piercing the vel through the tongue is said to prevent free speech so that the devotee can focus his entire concentration on the Lord Murugan. Some pierce steel hooks into flesh off of their backs. Some of these hooks are connected to a person pulling a rope, or connected to small bells and fruits, or limes in particular. A single lime may not weigh much, but when the hooks are connected to 50 limes down a devotee’s back, the feat involved a great wealth of devotion and tolerance. We call it self-torture but the kavadi-bearer is often in a state of trance and claims to feel no pain. A first time kavadi bearer however, may be a little apprehensive when the vel hooks are pierced through the skin and the metal straps of the kavadi structures are tightened. This usually goes away once the priest arrives to give a blessing, sometimes putting the kavadi bearer into a trance, allowing the family members and friends to continue on with the piercing.

For the others, there are often no signs of blood or pain on the bearers’ faces or signs of any scarring after the hooks have been taken out. They are said to be in the highest form of religious fervor and sometimes are even possessed by Lord Muruga himself. These kavadi bearers are also often accompanied by friends and family for support and in the long and tortuous journey up to the temple, it is the support by fellow devotees and surrounding friends and family that the kavadi bearer relies on to keep going. The kavadis may seem weightless like feathers as the kavadi bearers dance and swing all the way to the temple. Yet, the journey is not easy and the structures weigh as much as 70kg, sometimes more. As the procession nears the temple, the sun would have risen by this time and the large crowds would have added to the sweltering heat that the kavadi bearers have to tolerate as well. The bearers are usually barefoot and would have to walk on the burning hot tarmac once the sun rises. The hardest part of the journey is often not the journey on the road but once they reach the foot of the hill as 272 steps stand between them and the temple. The encouragement of family members and other devotees are crucial to climb up all 272 steps.

The procession is not a quiet affair, and the stream of devotees is always accompanied by a band of percussionists and a leader singing religious songs, called the urumee. The tasks of these musicians are to encourage and give support to the kavadi bearers to continue in their journey of faith. The music is encouraging, as those carrying the vel kavadi are more prone to fatigue, and they frequently have to stop throughout the journey to rest.

The kavadi bearer usually observes strict customs and “regulations” prior to carrying the kavadi on the day of the festival. Kavadi bearers usually observe strict celibacy from sex, drugs and alcohol. They will also meditate and pray and practice vegetarianism before the start of the festival. These acts of devotion and holiness are also observed by other devotees, not just the kavadi bearers. The bearers are also frequently dressed in a saffron-colored cloth, a conical scarlet cap and a cane which is silver capped at both ends. As mentioned, the devotees also frequently take part in the procession on barefoot. It is also not unusual to see devotees of other faiths and religion take part in this unique festival. Among the ethnic Chinese community, especially the Buddhists who share many of the same beliefs as Hindus, it is not unusual to see Chinese people among the devotees with a jug of milk atop their heads as they march along with the procession to the temple. The grand affair will also be attended by hundreds of tourists and photographers as they scramble to get the spot that will attain the best view of the procession. This spirit of kindred unity and combined faith is even more prominent in the state of Penang, where the population is predominantly Chinese. The lines between faiths blur as the festival is more about upholding and showing one’s faith, courage and devotion to his or her God regardless of religion.

Penance

There are other ways for devotees to fulfill their religious obligations other than carrying kavadis. Some provide support for the kavadi bearers and massage their sore arms and legs or provide stools for the bearers to sit whenever they stop to rest. Some devotees shave their head and facial hair while some prepare food so that the other devotees would not have to go hungry. In fact, on Thaipusam there will usually be a congregation of Indian barbers at the foot of the hill with thousands of eager customers, each waiting to shave his or her hair. Each devotee has his or her own reasons for doing penance. As mentioned earlier, some seek to overcome bad luck or karma, others to honour a vow made, and some as penance for their sins. It is believed that once a vow has been fulfilled and if the devotee does not carry a kavadi as promised, he or she will receive misfortune in return.

The atmosphere on the day of Thaipusam is electric and has a festive air filled with the beating of drums, chanting, and singing. The crowd will be massive, almost a million strong, full of eager devotees and tourists alike to witness the arrival of the procession and the deity and to participate in the festivities. A path laden with smashed coconuts would greet the chariot the entire journey, believed to signify the triumph of good over evil. Once ascended up the steep stairs of the cave and into the shrine, the devotees are blessed by the Hindu priests and the hooks and spears can then be removed. The vow is finally said to be fulfilled.

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Chinese New Year in Malaysia

It goes without saying that Chinese New Year (also known as the Spring Festival) is the most important date in the Chinese lunar calendar. During the celebrations, entire households spend a small fortune just on festivities alone. Businesses and other forms of work stop and everyone sets aside for at least 3 days to join in the celebrations.

Not only is Chinese New Year the most important festival, it is also the longest festival, lasting 15 days – the entire duration of a lunar phase. This is because the entire celebration itself adheres to the Chinese Lunar Calendar, and Chinese New Year is traditionally celebrated on the first day of the first month of the first year. Even with the diffusion of the Gregorian calendar into the Chinese culture, Chinese people still use the lunar calendar to determine other important festivals as well as auspicious dates (for marriage, childbirth and the like).

The Chinese lunar calendar itself is an extremely complicated creation, and it is based on lunar phases, equinoxes and solstices. There are 12 months in each lunar year, and each month alternates between 29 and 30 days. Because its system is totally different from the Gregorian system, Chinese New Year does not happen on the same day every year. Instead, it ranges from January 21st to February 20th. Most governments with a significant Chinese population usually use this as a basis to plan their holidays. Other than that, the lunar calendar is also famous for its zodiac signs. There are 12 signs altogether, one animal for each year and it moves in a cycle, repeating itself every 12 years. The 12 lucky animals to be included (in order) are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. The story behind it:

Once upon a time the Emperor of Heaven, the Jade Emperor, decided that there should be a way of measuring time. He then initiated a race across a river – the first 12 animals to cross the river would then have the honor of being in the zodiac calendar. All the animals participated with gusto, especially the cat and the rat. The cat and the rat were good friends; however, they both could not swim. They decided to hop onto the ox’s back instead; he agreed. The cat and the rat immediately realized that the ox was a good choice when he took the lead with ease, navigating the waters without difficulty. The rat however, was cunning – he wanted to be the first. As they approached the bank, he rat pushed the cat into the water. Being unable to swim, all the cat could do was to struggle to keep afloat. After that, the rat jumped onto the bank and ran towards the Jade Emperor. He was the first to reach and therefore had the honor of being the first animal in the zodiac. The ox felt cheated, but he had no choice but to be content with second place.

The other animals also have their own stories of course, each about how they got to the finish line. These stories then contribute to the characteristics of people born in that year. For example, people born in the year of the rat will be quick-witted, enterprising and selfish; people born in the year of the ox will be friendly, genuine and apathetic. The year of 2013 happens to be the year of the snake, and its characteristics include being acute, cunning and proud. Some very traditional Chinese people go to the extent of planning to have their children in a certain year – boys born in the year of the dragon are highly favored.

Being a generally superstitious culture, the Chinese believe that if the first day of the New Year did not start out on the right foot, things would go disastrously wrong for the rest of the year. This is why many Chinese households adhere to strict traditions, to dispel bad luck and bring in prosperity instead. However, not all is grim and dreary – Chinese New Year is actually more of a joyous occasion than anything else. It is the time where the entire extended family gets together, the time for everyone to buy new clothes, the time to eat good food, and also the time to improve relationships with family and friends.

In all cultures across the world, every festivity has its own story. The story of Chinese New Year is an interesting one, and it explains many of the rituals and symbols used today.

A long time ago, monsters dominated the world. They were terrifying creatures, one especially, by the name of ‘Nian (年)’. At the end of every year, Nian would satisfy his hunger by eating humans – he had a special appetite for children. People feared this beast the most because every time he came out, whole villages would be destroyed at a time. Many brave warriors tried to slay the beast, but no one could come close to succeeding. In the end, villagers had no choice but to huddle up in their homes and tried not to be eaten. During one of those years, Nian was in an especially bad temper. One little boy however was not aware of the danger. He ran right out of the house and straight into Nian’s path. To everyone’s surprise, Nian did not eat the boy. Instead, he fled to the brink of the village, circling the perimeter but not daring to come in. The boy’s parents lit up a torch so that they could find their son and bring him back to the safety of their hut. In the process however, the torch lit up a firecracker. The loud explosion caused a horrific reaction in Nian. He howled with horror and ran away. The next morning, all the villagers were grateful to be alive. They thought about what it was exactly that spared them and in the end, concluded that Nian was afraid of the color red (the little boy wore striking red color clothes) and loud explosions. From then on, every village decorated their houses and wore clothes that were red. They also set off firecrackers with sounds as loud as possible. Nian was never seen again.

Nian (if he ever existed before), has probably died of old age now, but the traditions from long ago are still incorporated till today. Rituals and taboos are so abundant during this period that from now on let’s proceed according to the chronology. We will start a few weeks before Chinese New Year, because the preparations are just as important as the event itself. Preparations for Chinese New Year start way before the actual date as this is the time where families start buying items that contain good fortune and prosperity to decorate the house. Most items are red (remember the story of Nian); red banners with the words ‘Gong Xi Fa Cai’ (more on that later) are extremely common. Other than that, red packets are also bought in bulk so that there will be enough red packets (again, more on that later) to distribute during the whole 15 days of Chinese New Year. Finally, Chinese New Year Clothes are purchased. ‘A new change for the New Year’ is the general concept behind the brand new clothes.

Besides that, food too, plays a key role during this major celebration. Lucky foods include oranges, and they are purchased by the crates as they are considered to attract wealth. Pineapples are another fruit that is well received during Chinese New Year because its Chinese name literally translates to mean ‘Come, good luck’. Other than that, ‘Nian Gao’ (a sticky sweetish substance) is popular because it can also mean ‘Nian Nian Zhang Gao’, translated to mean ‘to grow bigger and taller every year’. Lastly, fish is eaten during family reunions. Fish is read as ‘Yu’ in Chinese, and ‘Yu’ can also mean abundance. ‘Nian Nian You Yu’ is a common phrase that means ‘to be in abundance every year’.

A very thorough spring cleaning is also carried out in anticipation of this day. The whole house from top to bottom will be cleaned thoroughly, from the windows and walls to the roof. This is because families aren’t allowed to sweep the house for the whole period of Chinese New Year. The reasoning behind this is to prevent any luck from being swept away. Chinese New Year decorations are set up too. Paintings of fish and oranges are highly favored, and they are hung up as decorations on all the walls. Paper pineapples are hung at the front doors too to enhance the chances of prosperity. Red banners and lanterns will be put up as well, again for the same reasons.

Now we move on to the actual celebrations, which start on Chinese New Year’s Eve itself. On this day, extended families (from the father’s side) will gather for a family reunion dinner. This dinner usually takes place in the grandparent’s house or the house of the most senior person in the family. Dinner includes all the ‘lucky foods’ mentioned above and will usually comprise of all the favorite dishes of the family. It is during this time that relatives bond with each other. It is also the ideal time for them to catch up on each other’s lives if they live far away. Firecrackers are set off at midnight, and the goal is to make as much noise as possible to scare away evil spirits (but more to usher in the New Year than anything these days). ‘Hong Pao’ is the largest and loudest of all the firecrackers. Adults and children alike participate whole heartedly in the celebrations. Some friendly gambling is also common during this period. Blackjack or poker is especially popular.

The first day of Chinese New Year is the liveliest one. Early in the morning, everybody wears new clothes. The clothes are always bright colored – black or other dark colors are frowned upon. This, in part, is attributed to the story of ‘Nian’ again. Children, teenagers or unmarried young adults will go up to all senior relatives to wish them ‘Gong Xi Fa Cai’, which is translated to mean ‘May you be blessed with good fortune and prosperity’. This term will be heard very commonly throughout the whole 15 days of Chinese New Year as everyone wishes each other with this phrase. In fact, it is equivalent to the term ‘Merry Christmas’ on the 25th of December. After the children wish the elders ‘Gong Xi Fa Cai’, elders will distribute the ‘angpows’ (red packets) to them. Money can be found in these ‘angpows’, and the money is thought to bring prosperity to the receiver of the red packet. The distributions of angpows are reciprocal (meaning that children in every family will receive a red packet from other families), so that both parties will receive good fortune. Married couples are the ones who distribute the red packets. However, if any bad luck has befallen the family (like the death of a relative), families refrain from handing out the red packets for three years.

Other than that, some families may hire a lion dance troupe as a symbolic ritual to usher in the Chinese New Year as well as to evict bad spirits from the premises. According to folklore, the art of lion dancing had started thousand years ago in China. In ancient days, the people found it difficult to meet the lion. So, the impression of the lion was ambiguous. Members of a trope hide under a lion costume topped off with a giant lion’s head. The head of the lion can be fully controlled – in some dances, the lion even blinks in time to the beat of the drums. The lion’s mouth can also open and close, and with very good reason to do so. While performing, people may place red packets in hard to reach places, and it is the job of the lion to get it while maintaining the movements of a lion. Professional lion dance troupes are extremely impressive; they consist of many people in the costume, and can perform extreme balancing feats. The drummers of the troupe are also highly skilled; some can play the beats to such a climax that people just start cheering. Overall, the best troupes bring the most entertainment factor to crowds of people.

Since Chinese New Year’s eve and the whole first day of Chinese New Year was spent visiting the father’s side of the family, the second day has been rightfully dedicated to the mother’s side. Traditionally, it was the only time where brides could visit their birth parents, relatives and friends. Again, relatives exchange ‘angpows’ to bring in good luck. Families also pray to all their gods and ancestors during this day. The second day is also known as the birthday of all dogs, so people are especially kind to their furry friends and feed them with extra food. The third day and the fourth day are basically saved for visiting houses of friends, but some conservative Chinese believe that visiting during these days will bring both parties bad luck. They believe that during these 2 days, evil spirits roam the earth, so going outdoors at all will be bad luck.

The 5th day is supposed to be the birthday of ‘Cai Shen Ye’, the God of Wealth. Therefore it is unwise to leave your house for too long in case ‘Cai Shen Ye’ decides to pay a visit. Business and shops normally reopen on that day and it is no longer considered bad luck to sweep the house. Governments also usually have school reopened by this time. Hence, even though there are traditionally 10 days left in Chinese New Year, the major festivities will have come to an end. The occasional business dinner or last minute visitings will still be conducted here and there, but nothing will be as grand as the first 3 days.

The last day of Chinese New Year is known as ‘Chap Goh Meh’, when translated means: ‘Fifteenth Night’. It is also known as the lantern festival, where everyone lights candles to guide the wayward sprits home. Crowds of people, families, and children will also walk the street with lanterns…it really is a sight when watched from a bird’s eye view. In Malaysia and Indonesia, this night is also dedicated to young ladies searching for a suitable love partner. Young ladies who believe in this will write their contact number on a mandarin orange, and throw it into a lake or river. Young men would then pick up the oranges and eat them. If the orange is sweet, that means that the relationship would go well; if sour, that means the man should probably steer clear from that woman. Due to pollution however, this particular idea is slowly dying out. Firecrackers will again be set off, and this marks the end of the year’s Chinese New Year.

If this is the first time you are hearing about Chinese New Year, then you definitely need to come check it out for yourself. The highly charged atmosphere of the whole celebration cannot be justified in writing alone – nothing can compare to receiving your first red packet (with real money!), cheering on the Lion Dance Troupe, or even being playfully nudged by the lion himself. In Malaysia, the best place for experiencing Chinese New Year will undoubtedly be in Georgetown, Penang. Thanks to its sizable population, celebrations here are especially boisterous. Penang City Hall or the Esplanade is where you want to be for the annual countdown gala. Local celebrities and dance troupes will be there to entertain the crowds, and the whole performance will be aired live on National TV.

Kek Lok Si temple in Penang will also hold its own celebration, lasting for 33 days starting a few days before Chinese New Year to a few days after. A total of 200,000 lightbulbs and 10,000 lanterns will be lit up to shed light on this century-old temple.

Around the same area, just a little way down from Esplanade or Penang City Hall, there will be a government held celebration as well on a few of the more famous streets like Armenien street, Chulia Stree and Ah Quee Street. For people who like cultural or heritage sites, this is the place to go for you to make the best of both worlds because Georgetown has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage City. This is also the opportunity for you to photograph some of the famous street arts by renown street artist, Ernest Zacharevic. Also, if you enjoying driving hard bargains and deals, this is the time for you to scout around as items are all on sales and promotions at almost any shops. Walk around at your own leisurely pace and just take in the sights.

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