The Hindu festival of Thaipusam (main topic of our last blog post) falls on a full moon once each year and is always 2 weeks before the Chinese New Year (CNY) which, being based on the lunar calendar coincides with the new moon. We were really lucky to see the Thaipusam festival the way we did at just a local temple in a non-tourist location, but for the CNY we decided we’d strategically position ourselves in the heart of the Chinese quarter of George Town, on Penang Island. Two years ago, we were in China for the New Year and failed to see anything much more than just loads of fireworks being randomly set off in the street by locals, so this CNY we were hoping to see a little more – perhaps a dragon dance, or perhaps a good firework display.
From Sungai Besar it took us 4 days to cycle up the coast to Penang province. En route we saw a leaning tower in Teluk Intan, we met another cycle tourist on the road (that hasn’t happened to us in ages), we saw the occasional fish-farm, and finally arrived at our friends’ house in Simpang Ampat – Brett, Noey & their 4 kids. The intention was to stay just a few days with them, but they’re just so hospitable and if they don’t rope you into something then their kids will. So trekking one day, lounging in the pool on a number of other days, massage on another, trip to local holiday island of Pangkor on another … you get the picture I’m sure – we were with them for 9 nights before we kicked ourselves out to get over to George Town before all the accommodation there filled up for the CNY holidays.
We arrived in George Town on Monday 16th February and with CNY national holidays being Thursday & Friday we had no trouble getting rooms in the same hotel that we stayed in when we were here last April (correct balance of nice & cheap). Of course we had the other small matter of needing to arrange our visas for Indonesia while in Georgetown, but you’ve probably already read about that, so I won’t mention that again. We also thought that with the few days before the actual New Year, we would be able to get around the town and establish which temples and clan-houses would help us best with our tick-list. How wrong we were. We began by going to a couple of the clan houses to ask about dragon dances and fireworks, and most just gave us blank faces and another just waved her hands and told us, “around the shops”.
The question is, do you consider the dance to be that of a dragon, or that of a lion? It seems that most people here call them lion dances, so while we were asking about dancing dragons, I think that may have been adding to the confusion. (A quick look on Wikipedia tells me that a Lion Dance is normally performed by 2 people who are covered by the lion costume while a Dragon Dance is performed by many people with the dragon’s body held aloft on poles)
We took ourselves to the local tourist office where they had a shiny brochure about what was going on over the holidays, but there was no mention of lions, dragons, or fireworks. The lady in the tourist office figured that our best chance of catching a lion dance would be at one of the local shopping malls, in the atrium area. We were a bit surprised to be told that when you come all the way to the heart of George Town’s Chinatown, to the UNESCO world heritage zone, filled with 19th & 20th century colonial and multi-cultural architecture, that the best place to see a traditional part of the New Year celebrations would be in a 21st century shopping mall.
New Year arrived at midnight on Wednesday and I went out for a walk around to catch whatever celebrations I might find. What I noted most was that nearly every temple shrine, or clan-house shrine, or even the shrines in front of people’s homes or businesses, had fireworks (or mostly firecrackers) set off just in front of them. Unlike fireworks of the western world which are colourful and artful, I think the main aim of Chinese fireworks is noise – a bit of light and sparkle is okay, but noise is a must. I believe the noise is to frighten off evil spirits and to bring good fortune. Earlier in the day at the Goddess of Mercy Temple, I had watched 3 guys lay out about 5 strips of firecrackers, overlapping and on top of each other and then set them alight at the central point and run for cover – the noise in the enclosed area of the temple was impressive and the proximity of people to the exploding crackers, was a bit crackers as well.
Lion dances proved difficult to find though. They seemed to be much more random than we might have appreciated. On Thursday morning (first day of the new year) as we sat in our hotel room reading after breakfast, one of the guys who works in the hotel came to our landing to tell guests that there was currently a lion dance going on out in the street, but by the time I got there, they were packing up and leaving. Later in the day, as we walked past a hotel, again we saw a dance troupe packing up and leaving to go to their next gig. On Friday morning, again while in our hotel reading and researching after breakfast, we heard drums from somewhere out on the street and the drums normally accompany the lions, so off I shot. I caught the tail of the 2-person lion disappearing into a nearby guesthouse, being followed through the door by the drummer with his drum being carried by two other members of the troupe.
At one point there were 3 lions in the street, going into various buildings. Each dance followed the same pattern – the drummer would begin a beat outside, perhaps together with cymbals and gongs, and the lion would then begin his dance, and if there was a shrine outside the building it would first dance in front of that.
But most Chinese owned buildings (homes, guesthouses, businesses, clan or society buildings) have a shrine inside and so the lion would coyly make its way to the shrine and do a particular dance before that. Year round, these shrines have some offerings sitting at them to feed the spirits, often pieces of fruit, but the lion was allowed to symbolically consume the offerings. The offerings for the lion were normally mandarin-oranges, sometimes a lettuce, and sometimes also a little red envelope – pretty similar to the red envelopes used for wedding gifts at a Chinese wedding – filled with money as a payment or reward for the troupe. The lion would cover the offering plate with his mouth and when he would lift away, the red envelope would be gone, the mandarins would be opened and part peeled but the lettuce would be in the lion’s mouth and would then get spat out. The lion would then back away from the shrine, but would never turn his back to it and so there was always a member of the troupe behind the lion guiding it out of the building and down the steps or over the gulley, back out to the street. Throughout the dance, the drummer changed the beat to match the particular part of the dance and once back out on the street, the dance would stop and the instant the drums stopped, the lion dancers removed the mask. Then the troupe would move to the next building and the owner of the building just left would set off strings of firecrackers.
At one point I wondered to myself who was organising the troupes and the timings of their arrivals into different parts of the town. Who organised things so that each building was only visited once … or perhaps if a building is visited many times, then their year will be filled with great fortune – what luck for them. Or perhaps it’s more like a, “our lion is here to dance for you to bring you good fortune … you wouldn’t want to miss out on that … now would you ?!?!?!”. Perhaps that’s just my Northern Ireland mentality coming through … “we’ll protect you if you pay us because you’re one of us, but we couldn’t possibly comment on what might happen to you if you didn’t have our protection”.
For the rest of Friday, we took ourselves off on a tour around the island on our bike. Our friend Annie in KL had recently done the circuit of Penang Island and recommended it to us, telling us that it was about 80kms. The northern coast of Penang is very developed but as you turn south along the western side of the island and climb up past a big reservoir, you leave the tourist hubbub behind and the road becomes narrow, peaceful and pleasant. For the south-west corner of the island, google-maps suggested there was a road closer to the coastline and less busy than the main road, so we decided to go that way. The P224 however became very narrow and soon headed uphill on little more than a pathway. We decided we were in no rush so we followed it. The pathway became singletrack and the nimble Pino with a steady headed stoker and a game-for-anything pilot just kept going. I could hear gasps on occasion from the front, and could often see Tamar’s shoulders lift and twist as we navigated the difficulties but sadly our fun was brought to a premature halt when a link on the chain broke. We did have a puncture repair kit with us, but we didn’t have a chain-splitting tool, so we were approximately stuffed and up what’s-it creek without a paddle. It took us at least 45 minutes to get out of the single track and back down to a real road, but we managed to freewheel the downhill sections. We soon reached a small village and got a cold drink, but sadly were told that the nearest bike-shop was about 10kms away … and it’s the CNY holidays so it may be closed. We ended up pushing and scootering the bike along for a full 30kms, past 3 closed bike shops, back to George Town. If our bike doesn’t attract enough attention when it’s working properly, it seemed to attract even more while Tamar was sitting on the front seat paddling her toes along the tarmac, and I was behind with one foot on one pedal and the other foot pushing on the ground to scoot us along … a whole lot quicker than walking though. For the next few days, my left leg was much more tired than my right.
Our other major task for our stay in George Town was to work out where we’re going next. One of the dive-instructors from Tioman Island, who is also a cycle-tourist – Astrid – had asked us if we would like to tour Malaysian Borneo with her and we were very taken by this idea. But we also want to complete our own Dive Instructor Training this year and to do so in Indonesia. Of course we could have worked all this out when we were in China over Christmas, or when we were in KL at the end of January, but we just kept putting it off. So we first established when the main holiday season is for Indonesia and then worked back from there to work out by when we should complete our instructor training. Then we realised that May and June aren’t that far away. In all, we spent ages reading about the myriad dive locations throughout Indonesia and then about the various dive schools at each and trying to put the jigsaw pieces of nice looking dive school, good dive locations close to shore and close to dive school, marine life that will offer us something new, and also somewhere where we can get cheap flights back to Singapore (as that’s where our diving kit is currently stored with a very kind friend). So with lots of homework done, emails sent, ferries investigated (and dismissed), flights booked and timetable set, we were ready to leave beautiful George Town and get on the road south, back to Kuala Lumpur for our flight to Java.
Happy Chinese New Year to you all and especially to all you goats, sheep, lambs and rams, as this is the year of the goat/sheep/lamb/ram.