Chap Goh Meh signals the end of the 15-day Chinese New Year celebration and goes off not without a big bang.
As it is also known as the Chinese Valentine’s Day, young damsels take part in a once-a-year ritual of orange throwing ceremony into the sea in front of Esplanade in Penang.
All in the name of fun, these young ladies throw oranges into the sea while young men would scoop them up to see whom their prospective match shall be. Nowadays, the oranges have hand phone numbers written on them.
In the earlier days, it was customary for unmarried ladies to stay indoors and Chap Goh Meh was one of the only few occasions they were allowed to go out of the comforts of their home under the watchful eyes of their chaperones.
Traditionally, the Chinese celebrate the first full moon of the year by preparing a special dessert called ‘Tang Yuan’, a variety of coloured round balls which signifies the fullness of the moon, in syrup water.
Tang Yuan is made from glutinous rice flour and has a chewy texture, very much like mochi. Sometimes, the centre is filled with peanut, sesame seeds or red bean paste.
In China, the 15th day is also known as the Lantern Festival. Children would carry lanterns with riddles written on it. Others light up ‘Kong Ming’ Lantern with wishes and prayers written on them before releasing them into the night sky. These mini hot air balloons are made of paper with wires constructed at the bottom to support a small fire that builds up enough hot air to lift the lanterns to float upward.
Chap Goh Meh has taken a rather unique twist in Penang, with Chingay or flag-balancing parades, lion and dragon dances, cultural performances and lots of firecrackers and a 10-minute display of fireworks lighting the sky.
Here, the folks in Penang also incorporate Baba and Nyonya traditions as part of the celebration, with food such as Pengat as one of the main items. Pengat is a sweet dessert made of bananas, yam, sweet potatoes, and sago in coconut milk, and is similar to the Bubur Cha-Cha.
During the street parade, the Dondang Sayang bus, beautifully decorated and illuminated would ferry performers from the Penang State Peranakan Association to perform on stage at the esplanade. The bus will then travel around George Town, making stops along the way to perform the traditional poetic art through dance and songs, in a mix of Penang Hokkien and Malay.
Chap Goh Meh coincides with the celebration of Tua Pek Kong’s birthday. Tua Pek Kong or Great Grand Uncle was a Hakka scholar named Zhang Li who left China with two of his friends in the 18th century heading for Sumatra.
Enroute, his ship was blown off-course and they landed in Penang. Some fifty years after his death, in 1799, a temple was built in his name and the locals venerated him as the god of prosperity. The settlement is now known as Tanjung Tokong.
The Tanjung Tokong Tua Pek Kong Temple is noted for its annual flame watching ritual, called Chneah Hoay. This takes place on the 14th night of the Chinese New Year or on the eve of Tua Pek Kong’s birthday. In this ceremony, embers in a ceremonial urn are fanned until the flames leap up. The intensity of the flames dictates the incoming year’s fortune or economic health.
The ritual is repeated three times, each to predict a trimester of a four-month period with predictions such as ‘normal’ to denote nothing spectacular to expect, ‘average’ to denote something moderate and ‘upward’ for good fortune.