Keeping old traditions alive


PENANG may be famous for its food but visitors will be further enthralled as the city’s old traditions and cultures are kept alive at the George Town Heritage Celebrations 2019 from tomorrow (July 6) to Monday (July 8).


The visitors will have the opportunity to experience elements of rituals and festive events through carefully curated interactive workshops, performances and site visits.


George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI), which is the organiser, has carried out a community-based inventorying project earlier this year to equip participating communities with hands-on skills to identify and document cultural heritage elements.


GTWHI general manager Dr Ang Ming Chee, who is also the executive producer of the George Town Heritage Celebrations 2019, said some of the output of the inventorying process would be shared during the celebrations.


“We want to raise public awareness about cultural heritage safeguarding efforts and encourage collective support to ensure the transmission of cultural heritage to the next generation.


“We hope that through these activities, the values and significance of rituals and festive events will be shared with more people, in particular, the youth.


“More importantly, let’s appreciate the peace and harmony that we have in George Town by respecting and valuing our similarities amidst the diversity,” Dr Ang said in her message.


The celebrations have three categories – Street Festival Community Workshops comprising 22 activities at various places on July 6 from 6pm to 11pm, Street Festival Performances at Armenian Park and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling on July 6 to 8 from 6.30pm to 11pm, and Site Excursions from July 6 to 8.


Among the community workshops to be held are the ‘Duo Zhei’ by the Penang Hokkien Association, ‘Wedding Reception’ by the Penang Eurasian Association, ‘Sadangu Kazhithal’ by the Nattukottai Nagarathar Heritage Society and ‘Mua Guek’ by the State Chinese (Penang) Association.



‘Duo Zhei’


Soh showing some of the items for the baby to choose upon reaching one year old.

According to Penang Hokkien Association member Soh Saw Lan, ‘Duo Zhei’ was an important practice among Hokkiens but the majority of the younger generation have not shown a keen interest in it.


“When a baby celebrates his or her first birthday, a few items like an abacus, a ruler, a pair of scissors and a book, are placed around for the baby to choose. We believe the item chosen by the baby would indicate the career path he or she would take in later years,” Soh explained to reporters at the George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) office in Lebuh Acheh recently.


“For instance, if the baby grabs a ruler, the baby may grow up to become an architect. If the baby goes for the abacus, the baby is likely to become a businessman. If the baby takes a book, the baby is likely to excel in academic studies. And if the baby grabs some spring onions, the baby will likely grow up to be a very intelligent person.”



‘Eurasian Wedding Ceremony’


Nonis showing photographs taken during his wedding 51 years ago. Note the five-tier sugee cake (left photograph) that was popular in the Eurasian wedding ceremony in the 60s and 70s.

A traditional Eurasian wedding ceremony, according to Penang Eurasian Association patron Datuk Eustace Anthony Nonis, would usually be full of fun and merry-making.


“Eurasians are typically merry people and have a great liking for dancing. A Eurasian wedding will usually start in church for the priest to bless the couple,” said Nonis, who had a five-tier sugee cake with royal icing for his wedding ceremony 51 years ago.


“It will be followed by a wedding reception in the hall with the guests seated all around. There will be speeches from the fathers of the newly-weds. The guests will look forward to the dance item. The first dance will go to the newly-weds, followed by the bridesmaid and best man, and then the two witnesses.”


While there would be plenty of feasting, Nonis said many of the men would head to the open bar and drink until they got drunk.


After the bride had changed her wedding dress, confetti would rain down on the newly-weds as they were about to drive off with the ‘Just Married’ sign on the back of their car and tin cans tied to the getaway vehicle’s bumper.


Nonis said many of the Eurasians, who are of the Catholic faith, are not allowed to remarry even after divorce unless the spouse dies.




‘Sadangu Kazhithal’


Dr Punithavathi putting a ‘Keppai Roti’ on the head of Sethukkarasi, who herself is showing a photograph of the ceremony of purification of a pubertal girl she conducted.

According to Dr N. Punithavathi and S.P. Sethukkarasi, who are committee members of Nattukottai Nagarathar Heritage Society, when a girl attained puberty, the Chettiars would hold a purification ceremony for her on the 16th day after her first menstrual cycle had started.


In the old days, Dr Punithavathi said the girl would not be sent to school as they were very scared of evil spirits attacking her. She would be kept in a separate room for the 16 days and be given special food, like egg, black dall pudding and sesame oil, to eat with the belief that that would strengthen her womb.


But nowadays, Dr Punithavathi said they don’t mind allowing the girl to attend school.


Relatives would be invited to the ceremony. The girl would first be given a bath. Then, the father would bless her.


Then, the girl would be asked to stand on a small mat called ‘thadukku’; and neem leaves with stem would be placed on seven places – one on her head, two on both shoulders, two on the elbows and two on the feat. A ladle would be used to strike down all the leaves three times, an act they believe would chase away all the evil spirits.


During the ceremony, two things would be cast away after putting them on the seven places on the neem leaves with the stem– the Keppai Roti, a millet seed pancake, and ‘putu mayong’. In the old times in India, Dr Punithavathi said the Keppai Roti would be given to washerwomen who would happily receive it and eat it. Nowadays, no one would want to receive it and so, the Keppai Roti would be thrown away.


Dr Punithavathi added that three things, however, would be brought into the house – a pot filled with water (signifying wealth in the house), a measuring jar filled with padi with one brinjal placed atop it (signifying household has rice to eat) and the lamp which is very important in Indian culture (signifying it brings brightness and happiness to the home).


After that, the girl would be given a bath again to mark that she was purified. Then, she would be dressed like a bride and her relatives would come to bless her with gifts.


But before everyone would start to feast, one more act must be accomplished. Believing that evil eyes may have fallen on her, a bowl of water mixed with lime paste, turmeric and betel leaf would be used to circle her head three times clockwise and three times anti-clockwise before they were thrown out.




‘Mua Guek’ 


Lim (left) and Wong explaining the food items used and their significance during the one month (full-moon) celebration of a baby by the Peranakan community.

A full month (30 days) after the baby has arrived, the Peranakan community will celebrate the occasion called the ‘Mua Guek’ with great happiness. State Chinese (Penang Association) vice-president May Lim and publicity chairman Lily Wong said during the celebration, the family would give out nasi kunyit (turmeric glutinous rice), Nyonya curry chicken, ang kuo kuih, and hard boiled eggs to relatives and friends.


“The shape of the ang kuo kuih will tell whether the baby is a boy or girl. If it is flat, the baby is a girl and if it is round, the baby is a boy,” explained Lim.


“The neighbours will reciprocate with gifts, like raw eggs, mee suah and sugar; the richer ones may give ang pow, gold or jewellery.


“The gifts have significance, for instance, sugar is meant for the baby to grow up and have a sweet life, mee suah for longevity and eggs for fertility.”


Lim said it is sad that these days, this tradition has changed as some families choose to give KFC coupons or supermarket coupons instead of the traditional food items.



Many other community workshops will also take place tomorrow. So, grab this opportunity to know more about the city’s old rituals and festivities.


Story by K.H. Ong

Pix by Adleena Rahayu Ahmad Radzi