GEORGE TOWN, Feb 22 — Taoists and some Buddhists today started preparing for one of the most important days of Chinese New Year, the Jade Emperor’s birthday, which falls on the ninth day of the lunar new year.
The Jade Emperor’s birthday, known as Thnee Kong Seh in Hokkien, is a Taoist celebration but in Penang, where most of the ethnic Chinese are predominantly Hokkien, the celebration is also one steeped in culture and traditions.
In fact, it is so grandly celebrated by the Hokkiens that it is commonly known as the Hokkien New Year.
Penang Heritage Trust president Lim Gaik Siang said Jade Emperor is the supreme ruler of the heavens according to Taoist beliefs.
“All Taoists celebrate the Jade Emperor’s birthday with offerings of fruits and vegetarian kuih, not only the Hokkiens,” she said.
The Hokkiens and sugarcane
In Penang, the celebration, held in a grand manner at Chew Jetty each year, is different because it is a mix of Hokkien culture and religious beliefs.
Lim said the Hokkiens’ grand celebration of Thnee Kong Seh goes back to the year 879 in China, during the Tang Dynasty when a rebel tried to overthrow the Tang imperial government.
“The Hokkiens had to escape persecution on the first day of Chinese New Year and a sugarcane plantation owner let them hide in his plantation,” she said.
The Hokkiens hid for nine days in the sugarcane plantation and when they emerged on the ninth day, the danger had passed.
“Since the day they emerged from the plantation was also the Jade Emperor’s birthday, the Hokkiens believed that the Jade Emperor had saved them,” she said.
She added that the sugarcane plantation owner died while protecting the Hokkiens so the Hokkiens offer up sugarcane stalks on this day as a symbol of gratitude to both the Jade Emperor and in remembrance of the plantation owner.
“This is why only the Hokkiens will have sugarcane stalks as one of the offerings for Thnee Kong Seh,” she said.
So, each year, sugarcane stalks are one of the high demand items for Thnee Kong Seh.
One of the main sugarcane sellers on the island, Ch’ng Chai Seah, 41, said he sells thousands of stalks each year starting from the seventh day of Chinese New Year until the eve of Thnee Kong Seh.
“Most people will buy a pair, one on each side of the table of offerings, and now that a lot of people live in apartments, they will request the stalks be chopped into sections so that they can serve them on plates instead,” he said.
The Jade Emperor’s birthday eve celebration
Traditionally, the sugarcane stalks flanked the front of a table where offerings such as fruits, “mee koo” (steamed pink buns), “ngor siew th’ng” (pink pagoda-shaped candy), “bit chien” (skewered sweets) and “bee koe” (sweet glutinous rice) are placed for the Jade Emperor.
Lim said there are different meanings to the offerings placed on the altar for the Jade Emperor.
“There will be four types of fruits — apples, bananas, pineapple and mandarin oranges — to signify the four seasons,” she said.
There will also be offerings of five coloured beans and six types of vegetarian “kuih”.
“All food offerings to the Jade Emperor must be vegetarian,” she said.
Usually, the devotees will start preparing for the celebrations on the day before the eve by buying sugarcane stalks and food offerings.
Over at Lee Heng Cake Shop, workers are busily steaming hundreds of “mee koo” or steamed pink tortoise-shaped buns.
The traditional baker supplies thousands of “mee koo” each year for Chinese New Year, especially for Thnee Kong Seh.
The shop also makes “ngor siew th’ng” and “bit chien” to supply to temples and clan associations for the celebrations tomorrow.
“We started making the “ngor siew th’ng” and “bit chien” even before Chinese New Year and we have sent most of it out by now,” the shop owner, Elaine Lee, said.
On the Jade Emperor’s Birthday Eve tomorrow, the celebrations will swing into motion with a procession from the Teow Guan Teong Poh Sim Thai Tay Temple at Chew Jetty at about 2pm.
Chew Jetty residents committee chairman Chew Choon Seng said statues of seven deities will be placed on a dragon boat and the boat will then be taken on a procession to the Hean Boo Thean Temple along Weld Quay too.
“We will invite the Jade Emperor from that temple and place his statue on the boat along with several other deities for a short procession around George Town,” he said.
The procession, attended by devotees and temple members, will travel through Malay Street, Beach Street, Chulia Street and Pitt Street to stop at the Goddess of Mercy Temple before making its way back to Chew Jetty.
After the procession, the Jade Emperor will be placed on an altar along Weld Quay.
This is when devotees and the temple committee will start placing food offerings for the deity on the main table.
“There will be a second layer of tables that is lower and these are for non-vegetarian fare offered for other deities,” Chew said.
The celebrations will culminate with cultural performances throughout the night and fireworks at midnight.
Celebrations will end well after midnight, at around 3am, at Chew Jetty while devotees can still fulfil their prayers at Thnee Kong Thnua (Jade Emperor’s Temple) in Air Itam.
Lim said celebrations at the Taoist temple are strictly religious where devotees will throng the temple near midnight of the eve and on the morning of the actual day to pray, offer fruits and seek blessings from the deity.
Many households will also put up tables to serve up offerings to the Jade Emperor outside their homes at midnight.