Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hokkien salvation in sugar cane fields

In Penang tonight, hundreds of thousands of Chinese have been trooping up to the foot of Bukit Bendera, since early evening, to pay homage to Yu Huang (Jade Emperor), the Supreme Ruler of Heaven, or as Penangite call Him, Th’nee Kong (Lord of Heaven), long before I publish this post.

The deity’s birthday is on the 9th day of the Chinese New Year, but Penang tradition calls for worshippers to begin their pilgrimage to the shrine once evening sets in on the night before. The Temple, Th’nee Kong Thnua, lies just above the Hill Railway Lower Station.

Th’nee Kong Thnua

It is also a time for the congregation of hundreds of beggars. They would line the stone steps leading up to the temple. Chinese Penangites are particularly charitable tonight and tomorrow.

The 9th Day of the Chinese New Year is the MOST important day for the Hokkiens who constitute the majority of the Chinese Malaysians in Penang. In fact, to them, the 9th Day is even more important than New Year’s Day itself or, for that matter, any other day of the year.

No, I am not Hokkien but growing up in beautiful (once) Paradise, Penang lah, one couldn’t help but pick up Hokkien traditions.

Grandpa told me that during the Chinese Ming Dynasty, the Hokkiens, having suffered a terrible defeat during a regional war, had to flee their villages. A few written articles diplomatically identified the aggressors as foreign troops from the north, perhaps insinuating they were Manchus.

Unfortunately for the Manchus, they have been the usual/convenient whipping boy for the Han Chinese. But my grandpa was far more blunt. He said the invaders were Cantonese from the South.

Anyway, the Hokkiens fled their burnt villages and hid in some sugar cane fields for several days when the Cantonese fighters were hunting for them. Needless to say, those Hokkiens prayed to Th’nee Kong plus company for salvation. Eventually the Cantonese grew tired of their unsuccessful seek-and-destroy operations and return to their own region. A Hokkien Rwanda was avoided.

wiki photo

The Hokkiens then emerged from the sugar cane fields, relieved that they had been spared a terrible death by divine grace. Realizing that it was the 9th Day of the Chinese New Year and coincidentally the birthday of Th’nee Kong, they decided to make votive offerings and prayers to the Jade Emperor for their salvation.

But they were last-minute war refugees on the run with only the clothing on their backs, so what was there to offer as sacrifice to Yu Huang, the Supreme Ruler of Heaven?

Well, as they were in the sugar cane fields, each of them grabbed a couple of sugar cane stalks, uprooting the plants from the earth, and fell on their knees in homage to the Lord of Heaven, offering the only edible item they were able to procure there and then.

Since that fateful day, the Hokkiens have celebrated Chinese New Year with a pair of sugar cane plants, which must be complete stalks from roots to shoots to commemorate their ancestors’ votive offerings on that historical day.

Naturally being Chinese, they would select the yellow specie rather than the deep purplish or greenish-brown type. Yellow is akin to gold (kim or kam), an auspicious colour for an auspicious period in the lunar calendar.

Today (during the 15 days of the 1st lunar month), if you were to drive past houses of the more traditional Hokkien Penangites, you would be able to see two yellow sugar cane plants, one secured on each side of the main front door - and remember, with roots and all.

And obviously Day No. 9 of the New Year has become the MOST important day in the year for them. Their race was saved by God.

When the Hokkiens pray to their saviour, they would invariably offer, among many delicacies, cut and skinned sugar canes arranged as tiers on trays (I have always termed that as 'piles of mini sweet logs'), as offerings of gratitude to Yu Huang for that memorable day of salvation. The various forms of sugar cane offering also symbolize sweetness and growing prosperity.

Maybe this history lesson does in a way explain why I, with a sweet tooth, have always been partial towards Hokkien babes ;-)

Vivian Yeo, Hokkien sweetie from Johor
now Hong Kong TV star


Chuan Hock said...

Hi, I am very curious about this part of the Hokkien history as I am Hokkien myself. Has anybody identified this in history as to who the Hokkien was hiding from and why? Also I am interested to know where in Hokkien province are sugar cane grown. That might be a clue to the history itself.

Toh Chuan Hock

KTemoc said...

Hi Chuan Hock, this story is well known among the Hokkiens in Penang (btw, I'm Teochew wakakaka but living in Penang I'm considered a Hokkien as well)

The Hokkiens were hiding from the Cantonese who got the upper hand in the 'civil war'. But sorry, unable to tell you where the cane fields were.

wargabebas said...

No lah, history says invaders were from the North and that makes sense because the Southern inhabitans who are smaller in build could easily hide in the dense sugar cane forest or plantation. On the other hand, the Northern invaders whos main staple is wheat are normally larger in build could not maneuver easily through the sugar canes. This is one proof that size is not everything :)

Anonymous said...

I am Hokkien and if the story is about Hokkien running away from somebody in Malaya then I may believe it. Are you sure Hokkien in China also have sugar canes offering on the 9th day of the Chinese New Year? As far as I know from my uncle who lives in Fujian province China, they don't.

KTemoc said...

Overseas Chinese are more traditional and thus faithfully maintain the folk/historical festivities, whereas Mainland Chinese having undergone more than 50 years of (Western-orginated) communist indoctrination have mostly lost 'memory' of those traditions.