Origins of Ethnic Diversity in Penang, Malaysia
Diversity is the catalyst for Penang Malaysia’s best festivals. In the State of Penang Malaysia over 94% of the population is divided in to 3 large sub-groups 1) Malay 2) Chinese or 3) Tamil Indian.
The origin of Penang’s diversity was the expansionist ambitions of the British Empire. In Malaysia, the colonial interests of the British were primarily in Malaysia’s rich agricultural potential. In particular, tin mining and rubber plantations were the main attractions.
During WWI and WWII global demand for these commodities exploded! Therefore, the British strongly encouraged immigrants from their other colonies in India and China to come and work in Malaysia’s tin mines, sea ports and rubber plantations. Additionally, the immigrants would provide financing from their home countries and they also filled administrative positions in the growing local economy.
As a result, strong Tamil Indian and Chinese ethnic communities were formed in Penang, Malaysia. These communities would remain here along with the indigenous Malay population after Malaysian independence at the end of WWII.
Ethnicity Population Percentage
Chinese 689,800 41.5%
Indian 166,000 10%
Malay (Bumiputra) 693,100 41.7%
Others 4,700 0.3%
Foreign 103,300 6.2%
The Primary Penang Festivals
The lasting legacy of British colonialism in Penang is cultural diversity. Additionally, the three primary ethnic groups of Penang all remain devoted to the cultural and religious practices of their forefathers. As a result, there is an eclectic mix of ethnic holidays every year. More recently, these traditional Penang festivals have been supplemented with community events that further enhance their appeal to visitors.
Nonetheless, the four primary Penang festivals are Wesak Day, Thaipusam, Chinese New Year and Hari Raya Aidilfitri. All 4 of these ethnic celebrations carry strong religious and cultural implications. These Penang Festivals are all centered around religious and cultural themes. The primary religions being Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese deities and Islam respectively. Additionally, this religious diversity is further divided along ethic lines – Tamil Indian (Hindu), Chinese (Buddhist) and Malay (Islam).
ISLAM + HINDUISM + BUDDHISM + CHINESE DEITIES = PENANG, MALAYSIA
Penang Festivals Occur Worldwide
However, these festivals are certainly not exclusive to Penang. It is important to note that these cultural festivals occur globally wherever communities of Tamil Indian, Buddhist, Chinese or Muslim populations exist. What is unique about Penang is that all of these festivals are celebrated here.
To be clear, Malaysia is a multicultural country and the multicultural Penang Festivals are for everyone who wishes to join in. Nonetheless, the celebrations are still heavily divided along ethnic lines just the same.
Below, is a short description of the 4 main Penang Festival celebrations. Please note that the list is not all inclusive and there are many additional celebrations here throughout the year.
The word Thaipusam can be broken down into 2 words. Thai which means the Tamil month of January/February and Pusam is the name of a star. The Pusam star reaches it’s highest point in the night sky on the day of the Thaipusam celebration. Additionally, this Penang festival is held during the full moon that occurs during the month of “Thai”.
Thaipusam is predominately celebrated by Tamil Indians in countries that have a large Tamil population. Malaysia has a large population of Tamil Indians, therefore the Penang Thaipusam festival is huge including all of the domestic and international visitors.
The ancient theme of the celebration was the giving of the spear “Vel” to Lord Murugan by Parvati and he then used it to vanquish the demon army of “Asuras”. Therefore, the Thaipusam celebrations in Penang, Malaysia are centered around Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Murugan.
Penang Thaipusam is centered around two Hindu temples located on Jalan Kabun Bunga near the Penang Botanical Gardens. These two temples are the Nattukottai Chettiar Temple and the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple also known as the “Waterfall Temple”. Needless to say, both of these Hindu temples are dedicated to Lord Murugan.
Traditionally, there had only been a silver chariot procession. However, starting in 2017 the Penang Thaipusam festival included both a silver and golden chariot procession. As a result, in both 2017 and 2018 the 3 day Penang Thaipusam Festival attracted well over 1,000,000 devotees. The Thaipusam festival in George Town, Penang is amazing and should be included as one of the best Penang festivals to attend annually.
Chinese Spring Festival
Also known as “Chinese New Year Celebrations“, the Spring Festival is the most significant Chinese holiday of the year. Therefore, every year in January/February the Chinese celebrate the change from winter solstice to spring equinox. The Chinese new year falls on the new moon that begins annually between January 21 and February 20.
The Chinese Spring Festival celebrations start on the eve preceding the new moon and end on the 15th day of the following calendar month. In China it is a national holiday and it is also devoutly celebrated by other countries that have large Chinese populations. Therefore, Chinese Spring festival is one of the most spectacular Penang Festivals.
As a result, there are fireworks displays nearly every night during Chinese New Year celebrations. Additionally, there is the annual Chinese New Year Street Party event. During this event the city of Georgetown closes off a large section of the city to vehicle traffic.
Throughout this closed off area there are many stages set up for performers. There is also a large selection of Chinese food delights to indulge in. Plus, there are the stage performances featuring traditional music and dance including the dragon dance and also the lion dance.
Pai Ti Kong Penang Festival
The majority of the Chinese population in George Town, Penang are of Hokkien descent. Pai Ti Kong Festival is celebrated on the 9th day of the Chinese New Year and this is a very special day for the Hokkien Chinese population in George Town. As a result, this day is commonly referred to as the “Hokkien New Year”. Specifically, the
Hokkiens are honoring the “Jade Emperor” also known as the “God of Heaven”.
The Hokkiens believe that the Jade Emperor saved their ancestors from a ruthless army in ancient China. Therefore, the Hokkiens pay tribute every year during the annual Spring Festival celebrations.
This celebration, also know as Pai Ti Kong Festival begins on the eve of the 8th day of Chinese New Year on Pengkalan Weld at Chew Jetty. This is considered to be one of the most politically important Penang festivals and every year the Chief Minister attends the celebrations. Visitors are bedazzled with gratuitous fireworks displays and Kim Cua offering fires light up the night.
Wesak Day Festival
Wesak is a deviation from the Pali term Vesakha. Wesak Day commemorates the birthday, enlightenment and Paranirvana (death) of Gautama Buddha. Therefore, the celebration is very important to Buddhists worldwide. As a result, all nations with a sizable population of Buddhist devotees engage in the annual celebration.
Wesak Day celebrations are held during every spring season although they typically are not held on the same day in every country. However, they are based on the same Theravada Buddhist traditions.
The Chinese population in Penang is mostly Buddhist and therefore Wesak Day is an important festival here. Other important symbols of Buddhist dedication include the Kek Lok Si Temple or “Temple of Supreme Bliss” in Hokkien.
Kek Lok Si is believed to be the largest Buddhist temple in all of Malaysia. There are several temples on the grounds that were built over a period of about 40 years. A popular attraction is the “Pagoda of Rama VI” also known as the “Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas”.
Wesak Day Procession
Wesak Day celebrations begin very early in the morning when Buddhist devotees flock to the local temples to meditate and pay tribute. Additionally, throughout the day acts of charity take place such as the distribution of free vegetarian meals and doves are also set free.
However, the celebrations don’t reach their apex until evening and the commencement of the Wesak Day Procession. The grand procession begins at the Malaysian Buddhist Association on 182 Burma Road and passes through the streets of George Town.
The procession includes beautiful floats covered with flowers, children singing, monks chanting and sprinkling holy water on devotees. This annual Wesak Day celebration has been held in George Town every year since 1949!
Eid al-Fitr Muslim Festival
Eid al-Fitr is a Muslim holiday celebration that commemorates the end of the Ramadan fast. As a result, the celebration begins only after the conclusion of the month long fast of Ramadan. Similar to other Penang festivals, the day it begins can fluctuate.
The reason for the fluctuation is that observers wait until the arrival of the new moon which concludes the month of Ramadan and ushers in the new month. This is typically June/July on the western calendar. However, the arrival of the new moon must be verified by local authorities and therefore varies by locality worldwide.
In Malaysia, Eid al-Fitr is known as Hari Raya Aidilfitri. The Malay translation of Hari Raya is “celebration day”. Similar to the other Penang festivals, Hari Raya has great significance in Malaysia especially because it is a majority Muslim country.
During Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Muslims in Malaysia greet each other commonly with “Selamat Hari Raya” which means “Happy Eid”. It is a time when workers in the city return home to the villages and visit family members. Additionally, it is common for Malaysian Muslims to wear traditional clothing for the celebration and to welcome neighbors into their homes.
Fireworks are used during the celebration however, their usage is not nearly as prolific as with the Chinese New Year Penang festivals. Traditionally, large fireworks have been manufactured out of bamboo although their usage has proved very dangerous due to the magnitude of the explosion. Therefore, authorities have banned their usage in many areas especially during early morning hours of Ramadan.
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