Chinese New Year in Penang: A Lively Family Affair

Penang Welcomes 2020 Lunar New Year with a Bang

Fireworks over Kek Lok Si Temple for Chinese New Year, Penang
Jordan Lye/Getty Images

Thanks to its sizable Chinese population, Chinese New Year in Penang is especially boisterous. On the eve of the New Year, Malaysian Chinese turn up in their ancestral homes to eat, gamble, and celebrate with their families.

(For more on what Penang's Chinese community like to eat during the holidays, look at this image gallery about Chinese New Year food in Penang, or this list of favorite Penang food.)

Throughout the Chinese New Year season, Penang comes alive with innumerable parties and parades, but several events are particularly worth seeing if you're visiting the area for the 2020 holiday:

February 2: Penang CNY Celebration 2020

The Penang Chinese Clan Council (PCCC) will hold a Chinese New Year celebration on the streets of George Town Heritage District, particularly around the Penang Esplanade, Lebuh Light, Lebuh King, Lebuh Penang, Lebuh Gereja, Lebuh Bishop, Lebuh Pantai and Lebuh Armenian.

The event is thrown partly to celebrate George Town's recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage city. (For more Heritage sites in the region, read this list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia.)

Normally closed to all except their members and devotees, over 20 clan houses and temples within Penang's historical district will open their doors to visitors on February 2. If you want to see traditional Chinese performing arts, this is the place to go.

Lion dances and Chingay performances will compete for your attention, just as you're sampling the delicious food that comes with any Chinese New Year celebration! Celebrations are expected to start at 4pm and end well after midnight.

Chinese New Year Lights on Kek Lok Si Temple, Penang, Malaysia
Image courtesy of Matthew Micah Wright/Getty Images

January 19 - February 21: Kek Lok si Display of Lights

The Temple of Supreme Bliss on Air Itam, or Kek Lok Si Temple, is the site for some of the biggest festivities leading up to Chinese New Year. From January 19 to February 21, more than 200,000 light bulbs and 10,000 lanterns will illuminate this century-old temple, shedding light on the Chinese New Year celebrations swirling around.

The lights will turn on from 7pm to midnight, transforming this ancient temple into a gorgeous palace of light in the dark hours throughout Chinese New Year. For more on the temple, read our article: Introduction to Kek Lok Si Temple.

February 1-2: Penang Hot Air Balloon Fiesta 2020

From February 1 to 2, hot air balloons will rise over Padang Polo (location on Google Maps) in the mornings, rising with the cool sunrise breezes and blazing bright colors against the sky. Previous iterations of the Fiesta brought over 100,000 visitors to watch a motley group of 15 hot-air balloons take to the air, among them Darth Vader's head!

Rides aboard the hot-air balloons are allowed, but only on special tethered balloons. Visit the official site for more details: penanghotairballoonfiesta.com.

January 31: Ban Ka Lan Snake Temple CNY Culture Celebration 2020

The Chinese deity Chor Soo Kong is the patron of Penang's Snake Temple. He is venerated as a guardian of wild snakes, and the temple has served as a refuge for countless snakes since its foundation in the 19th century. The incense smoke in the temple is believed to keep the snakes tame for visitors, but keep your distance just in case.

The sixth day of the Chinese New Year is held to be the deity's birthday, and visitors come from far and wide to pay their respects. On the eve of Chor Soo Kong's birthday, a "fire watching" ceremony is held to foretell how business will go in the year to come. Come to watch Chinese opera being performed on the grounds from the afternoon to late into the night.

On 2019, Chor Soo Kong's birthday falls on January 31, and the festivities take place from 7am to 11pm. For more on the Snake Temple, read this article: Penang Snake Temple.

Chinese New Year lights at a Penang clan jetty
Ed Norton/Getty Images

February 1: Hokkien New Year Celebration

The Hokkien Chinese in Penang have their own grandiose Chinese New Year Bash on the Weld Quay's Chew Jetty – Thni Kong Seh, also known as the Pai Ti Kong Festival.

The long tables groaning with food, and the sugarcane stalks that decorate every table and every household, commemorate the Hokkiens' escape from invading forces by their hiding in a field of sugarcane. Come midnight, prayers are offered to the Jade Emperor God, with sacrifices of food, liquor, and sugarcane stalks. For 2020, the festivities take place on February 1, 7pm to 12 midnight.

February 8: Chap Goh Meh Celebration

Known as the Chinese equivalent of Valentine's Day, Chap Goh Meh is celebrated on the fifteenth night of the Chinese New Year. As the full moon shines, marriageable young ladies will go to the Penang Esplanade to throw oranges into the sea, all while wishing for a suitable husband. Street food, games and fireworks fill the air.

In Penang’s Bukit Tambun fishing village, the Teochew Chinese of Penang celebrate Chap Goh Meh with a parade of drummers winding through the local community houses and temples. The parade starts at the jetty, and ends at Bukit Tambun’s historic old town.

Accommodations & Transport in Penang for Chinese New Year

A number of hotels stand close to the history, culture, and shopping destinations within Georgetown, where a large number of Chinese New Year festivities will take place. Backpackers will appreciate the budget picks along Love Lane and Lebuh Chulia, while business and luxury travelers will like the higher-end establishments like the Eastern & Oriental. Compare rates on Penang hotels, Malaysia.

Taxis, trishaws, and a new bus system make getting around Georgetown and Penang easy. Most buses leave from the Weld Quay jetty or the KOMTAR complex; nearly all can be hailed in Chinatown. A free bus circulates around the city every 20 minutes.

Read about transportation options and getting around Penang, particularly your choice of buses in Penang.  

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