Penang is a real mix of cultures and their religions.
During my stay in Georgetown, I overlapped the end of the Moslem observance of Ramadhan ( a month of daytime fasting) and the celebration of Hari Raya Puasa (a time of forgiveness and sharing). Everywhere there were Hari Raya Puasa banners and posters. Decorations stretched across some streets. Many Moslems return to their village and family so the festival stretches over a full week for many. It is party time, the feast to mark the end of fasting. Crowds turned up at the mosques, especially in the evening and especially at the mosque I saw most regularly -Kapitan Keling Mosque.
In fact Georgetown, like the rest of Malaysia is full of mosques of various sizes. Some I saw were very large, but there were smaller ones as well – these were often older than the obviously modern buildings.
But Islam was not the only religion. I also saw several Hindu temples in the city and they looked old enough to have been around for a long time. They had towers full of carvings of various Hindu dieties and were tremendously complicated in the mixing of the sculptures. Unfortunately the main ones which I would like to have visited were always locked each time I went past.
Georgetown has the highest density of population in Malaysia. It is presently something around 45% compared with 28% nationally. It has been much higher on Penang reaching around 70% in the past. So as would be expected, there are a large number of Chinese temples. There are 36 Clan temples as well as others. They almost seem to be in every street. Consequently, I visited several. Most are at least a century old and some look rather run down. But many, perhaps most, are well maintained and used.
One I visited a couple times was Teochew Temple on Chulia Street. The association was established by a small group of Teochew migrants in 1855 but the present temple was not completed until 1870. It underwent extensive restoration six years ago and so has a lovely fresh bright look. The paintwork is especially striking with the use of a lot of gold paint. I understand that the name was changed during the 20th century to Han Jiang Ancestral Temple.
On my second visit a large family group was involved in a ceremony of respect to their ancestors. This was followed by a meal or banquet. One of the family leaders who spoke excellent English explained the activity to me and warmly invited me to join in the lunch. In the end I felt rather shy and let the invitation pass by. A pity in a way as the invitation was genuine and it would have been a new experience fo me. But my confidence let me down on this occasion.
The Lum Yeong Tong Yap Kongsi clan has their temple Choo Chay Temple on the corner of Armenian Street and next to the clan house. It is only a block away from the large Kapitan Keling Mosque. Another is just at the end of the road. So I was interested in the overlapping sounds of the amplified Moslem call to prayer and the clashing cymbols of Chinese ceremonies.
My final evening in Penang coincided with the end of the Chinese Hungry Ghost festival. This is a time when ancestors are worshiped or more correctly honoured and respected by the present generations. They also try to respect lonely ancestoral spirits. I shall try to recall what I have been told.
Every Chinese family will have a small house shrine at which they may have ancestor photos but where they will leave small amounts of food offerings and burn incense. These ancestors are happy. However, some Chinese died but lack a family to continue to look after them. So they are hungry. In this festival therefore it is a time to respect these lonely ancestors or spirits.
At the Choo Chay Temple they had set up a large marque on the street and in it they had large paper effigies of either gods or ancestors. There were tables of food offerings and incense buring. At the other end of the block they had a stage and rows of seating. The two nights I went there there was a very active Chinese female performer doing her very best rock star effort. Regular costume changes as well. She seemed confident and talented. Of course no one seemed to see any problem with rock concert at one end and religious activity at the other. Sounds from both overlapping. Quite a cultural blending I thought.
On the final night I went back to watch again. This time they had taken over the crossroad beside the temple and were building up a rectangular wall of bick like bundles of paper money. False money of course as the spirits apparently don't know the difference. Then they laid great long strings of crackers around the 'wall; and along the road. Other strings were hung from lamp posts and poles. All the time cars and motor scotters were making their way past the construction.
Suddenly, in the marque a whole lot of crackers went off and the banging of cymbols began. Out came a parade of people holding the paper effigies high and others throwing fake money like confette at a wedding. There was lots of noise, shouts cymbols, drums as the parade went off round the block.
A few minutes later they came down the street towards the crossroads. Cars were trying to drive towards the parade but there was no room to pass so they pulled over as best they could. The paraded halted about 50 metres from the crossroads.Suddenly the strings of crackers started going off – some very close to the pulled over cars and their passengers. It was all very noisy. I was close enough to be pelted by pieces of cracker case and small stones thrown up from the road surface.
As the crackers stopped the fireworks began. A table set up by the paper money wall had numbers of display strength shooting and exploding balls. Very impressive and the cinders were dropping on me. You would never be this close back home. And the cars continued to drive right past – unbelieveable! But a fire brigade crew was on duty.
Once the fireworks were over, the parade advanced and the effigies where placed on the money pile.
Now great plastic bags of gold and red coloured paper, some rolled into cone shape, were piled up beneath the figures. Dozens of bag fulls were brought to the pile by excited participants.
Finally a circle of young people stood around the pile a flame was passed around and each lit a a tourch. Then in unison they all reached forward and lit the pile in front of them. In no time a great ring of flame appeared. As the crowds watched, the cars and scootters drove past and trhe rock concert continued, the pyre of paper qickly reduced to ashes.
The next morning as I walked to Komtar to catch my bus for Kuala Lumpur, I past ash pile after ash pile telling me that similar but smaller ceremonies had taken place. Most were just small household fires, indicating the range of scale for the ceremony.
The Hungry Ghosts had been made happy for another year.
A photo posting of the this even can be found several entries below.