Thanks to its sizable Chinese population, the Chinese New Year in the Malaysian state of Penang is one of the biggest celebrations in all of Southeast Asia. The party begins on the Lunar New Year Eve when people return to their family homes to eat, gamble, and celebrate with loved ones and lasts for 16 days. You can see not only the typical Chinese New Year traditions you're likely familiar with, such as lion dances and fireworks, but also uniquely Penang rituals that come from the Malaysian Hokkien community.
Chinese New Year 2021
The Lunar New Year falls on February 12 in 2021, with festivities taking place from February 11–26. While the state of Penang is usually home to the biggest Chinese New Year celebrations in Malaysia, the Chief Minister has prohibited group gatherings for the holiday period in 2021. However, some events are taking place virtually instead of being canceled, and many temples are extravagantly decorated to enjoy from the outside (since entering them is temporarily suspended).
What to Expect
Throughout the Chinese New Year season, Penang comes alive with innumerable parties and parades, but the focal point of the holiday activities is in the capital city of George Town. The event kicks off with festivities on Lunar New Year Eve in the George Town Heritage District—a neighborhood recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historical significance.
Many historical homes, mansions, and temples that are typically closed to the public open their doors, including the homes of top government officials. Lion dances and Chingay performances compete for your attention, all while sampling the delicious local food that is one of the most important parts of the holiday.
Things to See and Do There
The entire 16 days of festivities are filled with parades, decorations, and eating. Even though a lot of the time is spent at home with family, several events stand out as particularly worth seeing for visitors during Chinese New Year.
- Kek Lok Si Temple in the Air Itam neighborhood, or the Temple of Supreme Bliss, is the site for some of the biggest festivities leading up to Chinese New Year. Throughout the entire holiday period, more than 200,000 light bulbs and 10,000 lanterns illuminate this century-old temple, transforming it into a gorgeous palace of light.
- During the Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, giant balloons rise over Padang Polo in the mornings, rising with the cool sunrise breezes and blazing bright colors against the sky. Up to 100,000 attendees come out to watch the colorful balloons take to the sky, some of them even designed as famous characters like Darth Vader.
- The Chinese deity Chor Soo Kong is the patron of Penang's Snake Temple. The sixth day of the Chinese New Year is commemorated as the deity's birthday, and visitors come from far and wide to pay their respects and watch performances at the temple. Be warned, though: the Snake Temple gets its name from the real-live vipers that call the temple home.
- The Hokkien Chinese in Penang have their own grandiose Chinese New Year bash known as the Pai Ti Kong Festival. Families commemorate how ancestors escaped from invading forces by hiding in a field of sugarcane by feasting at tables decorated with sugarcane stalks. At midnight, prayers are offered to the Jade Emperor God.
- Known as the Chinese equivalent of Valentine's Day, Chap Goh Meh is celebrated on the 15th night of the Chinese New Year. As the full moon shines, marriageable young ladies go to the Penang Esplanade in George Town 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 pier and ends at Bukit Tambun's historic old town.
Tips for Visiting
Chinese New Year is the biggest holiday period in Penang, so plan ahead if you'll be in the area during this exciting time.
- A number of hotels stand close to the historical, cultural, and shopping destinations within George Town, which is conveniently where a large number of Chinese New Year festivities also take place. Travelers looking for more affordable accommodations will appreciate the budget picks along with backpacker favorites Love Lane and Lebuh Chulia.
- Taxis, trishaws, and a modern bus system make getting around George Town and Penang easy. Most buses leave from the Weld Quay jetty or the KOMTAR complex, and nearly all of them can be hailed in Chinatown. A free bus circulates around the city every 20 minutes.
- While there is a lot of excitement around Penang during Chinese New Year, keep in mind that many shops, restaurants, and other businesses may be closed down while locals take time off work to celebrate with family.
- February is part of the short dry season in an otherwise very wet region, so your chances of getting rained on are relatively low. The temperatures in Penang don't fluctuate much throughout the year, with the average high hovering around a constant 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius).