It’s been about a week since we last spoke.
I know you must be feeling upset, violated - processing reasons of why I never wrote, promising yourself that you’ll be strong and resist checking your inbox, phone, facebook, twitter, linkdin, youtube, google +, letterbox for word.
I’m sorry but I’ve been places no wifi has ever gone before. Places ungoogle mapped. We’ve got some catching up to do...
Before liberating the nature boy inside of me and reducing my attire to a loin cloth in the Malaysian jungle, I was in Penang, where puppetours decided we would see in the Chinese New Year...
“ It’s about two friends trying to find a flower,” a Chinese woman responds when I ask her about the story behind the incredibly acrobatic lion dance just performed on Armenian street of Penang’s little Chinatown.
I’m a little dumbfounded understanding how the flips, twists, jumps and acrobatic feats performed on stilts by two lions – each operated by two people underneath the costume– has anything to do with a quest to find some flower, but I’m nevertheless in awe of what I’ve just witnessed.
“It was once common for people to have lion dance performers come to their house to play it out – a lion dancing scares off evil spirits,” she decides to educate me a little.
“But in now the price has gone from 200 ringgit to 800 so for most normal people it is too expensive.”
“What happens to the evil spirits then?” I ask.
“Ah, I don’t know- guess they stay and drink tea- It is very sad- you must now pay with a visa card to get rid of evil spirits.”
The origins of the lion dance began when a Chinese monk had a nightmare. One night he dreamt that there were many evils and sorrows plaguing the world and, like all good monks, he turned to the gods for answers. They advised that only a lion would be any match to fight back the demons. This presented a problem for the monk because, as is common knowledge, the king of the jungle is not a native animal in China. Actually, the Chinese at this time had only heard of the beast, but never seen one. However, like a good backyard mechanic the monk improvised by sticking together the spare parts of all the lucky and magical animals he could think with duct tape (historical accuracy may be iffy here) and created a lion.
I am told, by the many voices on the road that the most impressive Chinese New Year celebrations actually occur outside of China.
The Chinese immigrant population of Penang equals that of the Malays so I was told the New Year celebrations would be comparable to Munich’s Oktoberfest or Venice’s carnival.
While these were biased exaggerations, it did not let us down. It certainly was an authentic spectacle and an experience I will neatly file in my collection of standout cultural festivals.
“Bang,ra-ti-tat-tat” go the drums and Chinese gongs. An eruption of percussion and cymbals that shake the walls of the buildings along the narrow streets and make the ground shake sends lions and dragons into a frenzy of dance. The parade is coming.
Smiling young people walk past in a stream, splashing colour onto the streets with their dazzling traditional costumes as dragon dancers weave in and out of the crowds stuffed into the bloated narrow lanes. A group of performers try to catch 6 metre flag poles in their mouths after another kicks it in the air. Thousands of digital cameras are capturing it all.
Little red envelopes are handed to monks who stand out in orange robes. These envelopes are filled with money. Money and luck are entwined at this time of year for the Chinese. Economists wear big grins at this time of year as - for the Chinese - it is traditionally good luck to purchase your house, a washing machine, or to marry with the entering in of the new year. It’s good luck.
Lanterns are draped across the old colonial city’s streets and a Chinese opera is playing out on a stage directly facing another on which a Chinese Britney Spears belts out a ballad. It is hard to hear either performance but the girls in their elaborate makeup look like dolls.
We try our hand at calligraphy at a workshop- a respected art of the Chinese people- and draw the mandarin symbol for dragon- the lucky animal for this year. We hold it up with pride and an older man rips it out of our hands. “Dragon!” he says with triumph. He is as proud as we are. Another does the same. They smile and pat us on the back.
Stumbling into what appears to be an old bike shop we find a Chinese Ray Charles who throws his head back, closes his eyes and laughs a hearty laugh when we try to coax him into playing us a tune on an instrument that looks like some kind of accordion. A crowd gradually grows and huddles around.
We slip out and wander down the food street, raiding the stalls with our appetites, trying the many different dishes- including a bread roll filled with shredded pork...deep fried.
It is getting late and the crowds are dispersing, but one stall seems to be drawing people like moths to a light. I head over and have a peek at the attraction. This is when I met Mr Wee.
“Where you come from?”
“Ahhh, are you a kangaroo”
“I can be whatever you want me to be Mr Wee.”
Mr Wee entertains the crowd by making small inventions from recycled materials like milk bottles, beer cans, wire, old car belts. He makes me a puzzle out of wire.
“I’m going to make you something that you take back to Australia- it is a puzzle that needs much discipline and when you solve it everything else will fall into place.”
He gives me what appears to be a mangled pile of the green wire with one part of it shaped like a love heart.
“You must allow the heart to escape,” Mr Wee tells me with a mysterious look in his eye like he.
“Now what do you say- you say thank you teacher,” he says before erupting into a song about a coconut.
I am still working on that puzzle.
- Book some accommodation before you turn up in town as it gets quite full around this time of year.
- Be on the lookout for open houses – where families invite you into their homes and offer you something to eat. It is very common around the new year as charity brings good luck for the superstitious Chinese.
- Penang’s New Year’s celebrations occur a week after the new year begins.
- Old Penang guesthouse on the renowned street Love Lane provides the best value dorm beds in town.
Location: Kota Bahru, cultural hub of Malaysia.
When travelling, I often treat tour guides like I used to treat the training wheels on my bike as a child - “I’m a big boy, I can do it on my own!” But in some instances a local guide can give you an insight that independence misses out on.
In a ramshackled shack just outside of Kota Bahru in Malaysia's far north is a ramshackled man...making kites. No ordinary kites however. These have bamboo frames and are glued together with sticky rice- the staple building materials of this man’s age. With his leg propped up on a chair the man uses a rusty scalpel to cut a pattern into thick paper that will become part of a small kite; small compared to the others that fill the room like giant butterflies.
Our guide Azeem tells us that he has been at this art for over 40 years and is one of the few surviving traditional kite craftsmen. Kites used to be a big deal in Malaysia.
“It is sad that young people do not value this anymore. These kites are what the Malay youth used to occupy their time with - modern games killed kite makers,” Azeem tells us. A byproduct of the rapid industrialisation of Asia.