Rejoicing in George Town’s Diverse Rituals

Kuah Li Feng.

This year, the George Town Heritage Celebrations, held from July 6-8, highlights the rituals and festive events of the various ethnic groups that have been historically residing in Penang.

With the theme “Let’s Celebrate: Rituals and Festive Events”, it aims to showcase the rich intangible heritage that Penang has to offer: the traditional dances, music, festivities and wedding ceremonies.

There will be cultural performances at the main stage and dance floor, as well as 22 interactive community workshops offering exciting insights into the living traditions and rituals of the communities. Participants will also have the opportunity to take part in site excursions to seven cultural institutions – the Penang State Chinese Association, Nattukottai Nagarathar Heritage Society, Kapitan Keling Mosque, Penang Eurasian Association, Gujarati Samaj Penang, Wadda Gurdwara Sahib Penang and Nam Hooi Wooi Koon Association.

Earlier this year, George Town World Heritage Incorporated, which organises the celebrations, invited the various community leaders in Penang to participate in a comprehensive community-based inventorying project which equipped the communities with hands-on skills to identify and document their respective cultural heritage elements.

The celebrations last year.

At the community level, the event is also about appreciating the peace and harmony of the different races living with each other in George Town.

According to Kuah Li Feng, programme manager of George Town Heritage Celebrations, what’s different about this year’s celebrations when compared to last year’s event is the shift of focus towards the daily lives of individuals within a particular community, such as celebrations on the birth of a baby, wedding ceremonies and coming-of-age ceremonies.

“Members of the local communities will be present for the interactive activities that are going to be held at the various workshops. They will be there to interact and talk to visitors about the history and origins of their communities, as well as the intricacies behind the dances, rituals and games which will be conducted during the celebrations,” says Kuah.

“When we approached the different communities in search of their traditions, we found that some of the traditions lived on only in memory. Our volunteers were trained in the various folk dances and games by the community leaders themselves so that they can conduct the activities during the celebrations. The most fruitful impact that these trainings will have on the volunteers is the indirect inculcation of knowledge which will, as a result, facilitate the transmission of traditions to the next generation.”

Leaders of the participating communities in a show-and-tell. Clockwise from top left: Datuk Eustace Anthony Nonis, Dr Punithavathi Narayanan (in green), Lily Wong Chiew Lee (in white) and Saw Soh Lan.

A traditional Eurasian wedding will be re-enacted at the Penang Eurasian Association, says Datuk Eustace Anthony Nonis, who is also patron of the association. “What the Penang Eurasian Association is also trying to achieve through this event is to remind the younger generation of the presence of the Eurasian community in Penang so that it will never be forgotten,” he says.

The Chettiar community will demonstrate a coming-of-age ceremony, the Sadangu Kazhithal, which is celebrated when a daughter reaches adolescence. “A lot of these traditions have been discontinued in most modern Chettiar families,” says Dr Punithavathi Narayanan from the Nattukottai Nagarathar Heritage Society. “We would like wider recognition in order to preserve our invaluable cultural heritage,” she hopes.

The Chinese Peranakans, on the other hand, are represented by the State Chinese Association. According to Lily Wong Chiew Lee, director of publicity, documentation and bulletin of the association, there will be a re-enactment of a traditional Peranakan wedding featuring traditional rituals and mouth-watering Baba Nyonya delicacies from a Tok Panjang feast.

“There is a constant number of families approaching us to host Peranakan weddings for their sons and daughters. We recently held the soft launch of a Peranakan wedding gallery at our association headquarters, and the public, regardless of whether they are of Peranakan descent or not, is welcome to consult with us on hosting a Peranakan wedding,” says Wong. She adds that the mua gue ceremony, which is celebrated by Peranakan families when a baby is one month old, will also be demonstrated during the heritage celebrations.

The Penang Hokkien Association will feature the Duo Zhei ceremony which, according to Saw Soh Lan, director of the association’s women’s section, is held in a typical Hokkien family when a baby reaches one. Several daily objects such as a book, Chinese calligraphy brush, abacus and scissors are placed on a tray in front of the infant; each object represents a career path for when he or she grows into adulthood. For instance, if the baby picks up an abacus, it is believed that he or she will one day become an entrepreneur. “It is one of the cultural aspects of the Hokkiens which we want the public to remember,” says Saw.

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