Monday 30 January 2012

Feasts, Family Reunions and Fireworks - CNY Penang

We travelled with my parents on a double decker bus from Kuala Lumpur to the island of Penang, the turtle-shaped 'Pearl of the Orient', my mother's home town. It is connected to the Malaysian Peninsula by one immensely long bridge. The new giant condominiums and the partially completed second bridge visible to the south showed that Penang was undergoing some population growth. No longer the peaceful little island my mum and her siblings grew up on.
But Penang still has truckloads of charm for us. We stayed mostly with family as this was the primary reason for visiting Penang, including staying at my Poh Poh's (grandma) house, which was an experience in itself for my other half. Ben has been converted to what he terms 'the bucket bath' - dunking a small bucket into a large urn of fresh cold water and simply dousing yourself repeatedly. Obviously has its limitations (no hot water and water restrictions need not apply) but sooo nice in the tropics; bathing becomes addictive. Penang also fulfilled our final Malaysian food pilgrimages to the best Char Kway Teow, the best Hokkien Hae Mee, the best Assam Laksa, and the best Teochew Cendol we could find.
This was the first time we experienced Penang during Chinese New Year, and wow - it sure was fun! In the lead up to Chinese New Year, everyone is under intense preparation mode. Houses are scrubbed clean and decorated with all good things red, crate-loads of mandarins are given and received, home cooks bake, fry or steam dozens of delicious treats for the upcoming visits and anticipated visitors, and last minute shopping is completed knowing that most shops will shut for up to a week.
But in multicultural Malaysia, the Malay restaurants are still open on new year's eve, and so for the last night of the Year of the Rabbit, the family chows down sumptuous bowls of Mee Udang with some of the biggest prawns I've seen.
An election or something was coming up, so what better way to pump up the festive feelings of your majority ethnic Chinese voters than to fill the Colonial District with plenty of colourful lights, lively music, dragon dancing, stunning lion acrobatics, and of course the obligatory countdown at midnight to a dazzling display of pyrotechnics.
But the government's efforts to bring in the new Year of the Dragon were only the start. Here all the children and young at heart light their own sequence of "Pop Pops", "Happy Booms" and whatever special delights that could be coaxed out from the fireworks vendor's hidden (most likely illicit) supply.
Kids and Fireworks - Penang
With the authorities relaxed at this time of year, all manner of whizzy bangs were seen and heard unceasingly until dawn, and would continue intermittently throughout the two weeks of Chinese New Year. And so of course we joined in the fray.
The boxes of tricks we collated from various stalls were a colourful bunch of surprises, reducing all of us to crazy wide-eyed giggling kiddies, squealing as the mini-explosives go "Boom!" bigger than expected. It certainly is a challenge to capture on a camera a fireworks display that you are lighting yourself!
Ben lighting a Wizz Bang - CNY Penang
The next week was filled with visiting relatives (most of whom seem to have converged on Penang Island) and eating an unbelievable amount of amazing food. Ben and I had to carry around a sizeable stack of Ang Pao (little red packets for good luck with some money inside) as, since we were married, it was our turn to give to those who were younger than us, and I have many younger cousins. We celebrated my Poh Poh's birthday, attended a wedding celebration, several family reunion and farewell banquets, including indulging in several tasty helpings of my Aunty Mei Ling's seafood steamboat.
By the time we left Penang, it was obvious my circumference had gained some length. Not the hottest way to start island hopping, but it was nice to spend time with family before continuing our long journey.

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