A Round of Rites
Everyday Religion in Penang, Malaysia
By Hugh M. Lewis
Copyright © 2000 by Hugh
(Portions of this text may be printed and copied for
research or educational purposes only)
This e-publication is
For further information about this or any other Lewis
A year in the field is the standard ritual
round in the initiation of the cultural anthropologist into the profession.
There is good reason for it, and for going outside the boundaries of one's own
cultural background as well. Changes happen, almost imperceptibly, in the
course of that year. So busy had we become with the daily particulars of
fieldwork, so hungry would we become by nighttime, that we did not notice the
changes, nor the quick and sudden passage of the calendar. We woke up one day
and I realized things had changed, that our relations with our new and old
worlds were fundamentally different, but I wasn't quite sure exactly how
things were different.
A year is a lot to comprehend from a phenomenological perspective that
attempts to account for the minutiae of daily details and the nuances of
moment to moment experiences and feelings. A stream of consciousness approach
would soon become a mountain of monotonous ethnographic tickertape.
Larger than life relationships that so organize the world and order our
lives within it are in fact available in face-to-face interactions between
different peoples--they are silent in the background context and they
subconsciously underlie many of the motivations and rationalizations by which
we make sense of our world. They emerge with time and make an important
difference in the net outcome of social relations and our identity in the
The changes I would most like to account for are not those in myself, but
those in my family, an especially, in my young daughter for whom it was her
fourth year of life. She was much more resilient and adaptable in many ways
than were her washed-out old parents, and yet she remained fully committed to
the American materialisms of Barbie and "me." Her style of speech
noticeably changed so that she spoke perfect Penang English: "Daddy, you
don't know one, lah," or "My father made this one, lah." And
when Hokkien speakers told her to do something in Hokkien, she would
faithfully understand them and do it or tell them "Mai, lah." I was
still struggling with people's names and properly ordering glasses of ice
coffee and tea.
It was an entire family that I packed off to the field along with my
suitcases. If it had been myself alone things would have been
different--perhaps easier in some ways and harder in many others. There was a
lot we wanted to do, but couldn't out of deference to my daughter's needs. We
had to get her to bed early at night, to allow her own play-time between our
busy schedule, and let her watch cartoons on television sometimes. Repeatedly
I had been invited to go out on fishing excursions with the men of the Jetty,
but I never dared to because there would be no one to take care of the family.
We missed several important nightly rituals for the same reasons. We did not
want to drag our daughter out too late in the night-time and then possibly run
into unexpected trouble. It had happened to us before. We had to cut short and
curtail many plans and experiences because we had a day-care schedule to keep
and had to be back in time to make sure our daughter was not left "home
alone." I had to carry my 42 pound daughter on my hip along with my heavy
bag and camera whenever we took her with us downtown in the chaotic traffic or
to the Jetty, which was a long walk from the bus-terminus. This definitely cut
down on my load of possible notes, camera gear, protocols, etc.
At the same time our daughter was a vital component of our work. She
smoothed our way and frequently, easily broke the thick ice when we had no
hope of melting it. The love and nurturance that Malaysians have for children
is amazing compared to the comparatively cold and distant Americans always
preoccupied with not touching children.
Many smiles, pieces of candy and illicit squeezes would be forthcoming on a
daily basis from perfect strangers when not even a glance or a word were left
for us. She fit right in with the kids on the Jetty and was soon running
around its wooden planks in her underwear, just as some of the men did. She
came in and out of different people's homes, and she soon looked like she had
always been there.
But even she, my daughter, recognized the many differences between here and
there, this and that, and she had definitely made up her own mind about things
she did and didn't like. She was after all an American girl born in New York,
and not much could change that.
A Round of Rites
Religion is central to the way of life of most people on Penang. It is
expressed daily in devotional worship and through a series of annual rituals.
Most of the major religions of the world are represented upon Penang--Islam,
Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Taoism, Christianity in its many sects and
denominations. One can even find young Mormon men doing missionary work there.
There are syncretic religious movements and sects common to Malaysia such as
Sai Baba, Bahai, and Hari Krishnas (Ackerman 1988). There is a great amount of
religious syncretism, and it is not uncommon to find many peoples of different
faiths attending different religious celebrations. Hindu Indians can be found
praying in the Goddess of Mercy Temple, and, more frequently, Chinese can be
found at Hindu Temples. Chinese will go to almost every kind of festival (they
like to cover all their bases), whether Christian, Hindu or even to Muslim
kramats (saint). There are hundreds of "dato kong" shrines
(literally "grandfather" in Malay and "grandfather" in
Chinese) scattered across the island, mostly local male deities that guard the
locality. Practically any tree or rock can become the home of such a spirit.
The birthdays of these spirits are celebrated with three day long celebrations
that involve trancing and the religious fusion of diverse cultural elements.1
Other noteworthy aspects of religious syncretism on Penang are particular
beliefs and ritual practices. A striking example is the use of water with
flower petals and lime as a purifying or cleansing agent.2 Ritual
baths with only water are a common part of Malay animism--water is interpreted
as a boundary weakener that allows passage from one state to another (Endicott
1970). The Chinese believe that the lime, petal and water concoction cleans
impurities from the body. Lime is seen as a cleansing agent--the impurities
becoming concentrated in the lime pulp. Lime is also used for divination by a
spirit-medium in trance. In this case, seven lime pieces are cut, just as the
petals of seven flowers are used--seven "transcends distinctions based on
differences in colour" (Endicott 1970:137).
The daily and annual rhythms of life in Penang are punctuated by and
measured in terms of an endless round of ritual devotions and celebrations
(see Figure 2-1). As a daily way of life and religious worldview as a shared
experience, religion constitutes for most Malaysians a reality leaving little
room for secular notions of scientific rationalism or romantic ideals of
individualism. Religious worship as a basic way of life and as a guaranteed
freedom is held to provide a principle mechanism for maintenance of social
order within a radically plural setting. For the poor at least, religious
worship provides a limitless source of hope and spiritual salvation.
Chinese New Year
Jade Emperor's Birthday
Hari Raya Puasa
Goddess of Mercy Birthday
Hari Raya Haji
Goddess of Mercy
Saint Anne's Feast
Lantern & Mooncake Festival
Approximate Dates according to the Gregorian Calendar of the
Festivals of the Penang Ritual Calendar.
January to December, 1994
The Chinese New Year is a big time for the Hokkiens in Penang. For that
reason, we arrived in Penang early so that we would not be caught late for the
New Year Festive season when all the hotels fill up and double in price.
Actually, Thaipusam was the first festival we attended. It occurred the
first day after we arrived. The day before Thaipusam is the Silver Chariot
Procession, the Indian celebration for the Lord Subramaniam, celebrated from
the seventh to ninth day of the month of Thai of the Hindu lunar calendar.
Sleepless from jet-lag, we got up at 3:00 or 4:00 A.M. and went out to Penang
road to intercept the Hindu chariot as it was slowly being pulled along by
Chariot at Thaipusam being brought down near our Hotel in
the early morning hours.
People are smashing coconuts in the streets in front of the advancing
chariot, and the gutters ran white with the coconut milk. Before the chariot
comes, large mounds of coconuts are to be seen along the streets. People buy
these mounds and make a vow, according to one informant, to smash a
"hundred and one or a thousand and one" coconuts, and many people
join in the gaiety. If you venture too close you will become drenched in
coconut milk. Young Chinese and Indian men and boys join in the mad coconut
smashing. Indian women especially in their pretty saris are careful not to get
in the way of the action.
A small shrine comes, followed by another and then the chariot drawn by two
white oxen with their horns decorated with paper flowers and painted red and
green. Behind the well lit, gilt chariot, a green lorry pulls two white
photographers on top and a generator behind to which it is connected by a
heavy electrical cable suspended in the air and kept taut. Behind this vehicle
is another smaller shrine on a vehicle followed by a cart carrying the
generator itself. Mostly Tamils walk behind, praying and chanting, with some
playing drums. The chariot stops and the oxen are disconnected and replaced by
two new oxen. It is about 5:30 A.M. and the musicians continue to play in
front of the chariot.
There are many people ambling about quietly. Six police officers on
motorcycles follow immediately behind the last lorry. My wife gets some holy
ashes from the priests on the chariot and daubs some on me and my daughter's
forehead. Mahala immediately wipes it away.
The musicians begin playing their horns and we drop some ringgits into a
white cloth pouch carried by a man. He gives me a small picture of Lord
Krishna represented as a small boy sitting on a woman's lap. It is my first
piece of anthropological evidence, bought and paid for, and I deftly put it
away in my wallet. It is 5:35 A.M. and the Chariot begins to move again. The
oxen are leading forward at a pretty fast pace. The lorry following has a
singer and tambourine players and drummers. People are dragging the generator
behind. Coconut shells are being swept out of the way.
It was the first opportunity for trying out my camera and I feel pretty
awkward and self-conscious about it. We join in behind the procession with the
young Tamil men and women. I feel hesitant and intrusive to take photographs
of all these strange people, but no one seemed to mind or pay much attention
to me--many even seem happy to see me there doing it.
A little way down the Chariot stops in its slow procession. It is slow
going, stopping and starting all the way, and after a while we quit the
parade. We walk down toward the main morning market, or "bahn sahn"
at the Chowrastra wet market, just before 6:00 A.M. It is early yet and only
rats are running and jumping about in the dark shadows of the streets, gutters
and alleys. A few hawkers are setting up. Lorries are off-loading fish and
meat. Shopkeepers are putting out their wares for the market. A Malay stall
nearby is open. The cocks are crowing their final crows in their little cages.
There are quite a few people sleeping on the sides of the streets. The fish
market inside is busy.
Things are slow that early in the morning, so we go to a "dim
sum" shop that is open between 4:00 and 12:00 A.M. It is bright and smoky
inside, and comprised mostly of older men who all stare at us as we grab a
table toward the back. A managress tells us the peak hour is between 8:00 and
8:30 A.M., but it is already full with a lot of men. An elderly waiter brings
out a huge bamboo steamer rack and we pick out some sticky rice in a bowl that
they tip over on our plate, and some steamed "shu mai" dumplings,
fried rice and sesame seed buns. Then a rack comes around with some
"pao" dumplings. We drink Chinese tea steeped in a very hot tin
tea-pot from tiny little cups. The dumplings and rice are good but greasy and
heavy on the stomach. Rosie gets some "pao" and leftover sesame cake
to take to her God mum. She wants to take it right away but I don't want to
walk so far so early in the morning.
So we decide to walk through Chowrastara market again at 7:00 A.M. but it
is not quite all set up yet. My wife says it's probably still too dark out. A
lot of trucks are coming in with their wares--bean sprouts, fish, vegetables.
Older children in their blue and white uniforms are going to school, and a
small yellow "bas sekolah" (school bus) comes by, half full of young
ladies. Already there are quite a few customers on motorbikes probably trying
to avoid the rush. We go to a coffee shop on the corner and order more coffee
as it begins to fill up with customers. Things seem slow today and people look
very tired. The water for the coffee is not yet boiling, and some of the
customers waiting are a little impatient.
A man moves from a table in front of us to a table behind us to get a
better place. The waitress asks him why he moved and he tells her because the
"feng shui" (Chinese geomancy, a central part of Hokkien religious
beliefs) is not good there. She then asks him if "he bought his good luck
charm so he could move around."
A mother with a young son and daughter is sitting at another table near us.
The son is in a high chair and appears very rambunctious. The little boy
knocks over the noodles and bowl onto the floor. The mother slaps the daughter
and then strikes the little boy across the face. He cries out, but his crying
stops as his mother resumes feeding him. The grandmother who is out in the
market comes over and sits with them, helping to feed the daughter.
Within 15 minutes, the dawn has fully broken and the market outside is now
bustling with people--mostly middle-aged Chinese men and women out buying
their food early. It is busy because people are getting ready for the New Year
celebrations. In a few days prices will go up and many shops will close.
People spend hundreds of ringgit on food alone for this occasion. I go outside
and make my first inventory of things sold in the market, bumping peoples'
elbows and dodging between motorcycles and cars.
That morning we catch site of an Indian "kavadi carrier" down by
the Hindu temple. He has made a vow to carry the kavadi (a symbolic structure
constructed of wood and paper and designed to be carried on the shoulders or
dragged or pushed for doing penance) from the point that the chariot is stored
across from the temple for Lord Shiva in little India, all the way up to the
waterfall Hindu temple on the hill, almost four or five miles, I estimate. He
draws quite a crowd of tourists and locals. He has placed a skewer through his
cheeks and has sharp hooks piercing the skin of his back from which he will
haul the cart. He is getting himself ready by entering into a state of trance.
People can be seen all day long walking on nails, suspended from hooks, sharp
points piercing their bodies as they carry heavy "kavadis" upon
Kavadi carrier at Taipusam
Young girls and their mothers will make the journey carrying a can of milk
upon their heads. Many will go into trance before they reach the temple, and
the trance state is both desired and practiced before the event, and climaxes
with exhaustion when they reach the upper steps of their final destination.
I back away from the press of the crowd and nearby I catch a glimpse of a
group of Indian women all decked out in their best saris, bargaining for a
couple of Indian tri-shaws to carry them up to the waterfall garden. They
smile at me, apparently pleased that I would be paying so much attention to
them as to take their photo.
We didn't linger long as the jet-lag was catching up with us again and we
began our walk back to the hotel. Halfway back we stop on a bench under a tree
to rest. Nearby a Chinese mother and her young charge are also sitting in the
shade of the trees. The little boy stands up, pulls out his little penis, and
pisses directly on the pavement in front of him. The mother pays no heed, not
even seeming to notice. Three Muslim beggar women and their children are
sitting under the shade of another tree. We see a couple of European males
with Asian mates. One European tries crossing the street. It is so busy he has
to run across.
We stop by another coffee shop to eat lunch before reaching the hotel. Two
Cantonese women come over and speak to us. They sell chicken rise there. They
tell us that they had been there three years now. Business had not been so
good lately because everyone likes to go to Komtar (the modern shopping mall)
where it is cool. At 1:00 P.M. lunch hour was the busiest of the day, and
Sunday was the busiest day of the week.
We reach the hotel just at afternoon and we are already overheated. We
ascend the circular stairwell up to the second floor. It is a nice,
old-fashioned Chinese style hotel built in 1936. Before the war, it was a
first class hotel of its day where famous people once stayed. It still has
original furniture and tiles, although the partitions dividing the rooms have
been rebuilt--according to reports they originally didn't reach all the way to
the ceiling. The Japanese bombed it at the beginning of the war. A bomb fell
through the balcony outside and crashed through a couple of floors but
fortunately didn't explode. One old "uncle" (a polite term of
reference) who was there at the time showed me the spot. The houses that were
directly behind the hotel didn't fare so well in the air raid and many people
were killed. Their bodies were just heaped in the streets when the Japanese
came. Afterward Japanese took over the hotel as an officers' quarters.
We had stayed there previously and they all remembered us. It was
reasonably priced and relatively safe. The people were honest and clean. It
was the only hotel in Penang where one could rent a room with an air
conditioner and hot water for under $12.00 U.S. per night. We liked staying in
it because they made us feel at home and we got to meet a lot of interesting
people. They want us to stay the whole year, even allowing us to use their
kitchen and all, but it would have been too expensive and inconvenient.
I order a couple of sodas from the large refrigerator and break up some ice
from the ice-trays in the freezer compartment with the ice pic. Rosie takes
Mahala in the room to rest, and I sit outside at the large table in the main
lobby. The hotel is managed in a traditional manner, with keys and notices
kept on a large chalkboard with all the room numbers on it.
The uncle who manages the hotel begins talking to me. He is a nice, soft
man. He used to be full owner of the hotel but lost most of his shares through
gambling debts. He doesn't gamble any more, and has major headaches with the
other share-holders and the co-managress who took over the hotel. He refused
to be formally interviewed but would tell me quite a lot on the side while I
sat and took notes. When he was young, his family ran a school textbook store
down on Carnarvon street. He used to drive all about Malaysia delivering
textbooks to schools in his lorry. The Chinese schools were the worst, he
said, because they would never pay on time, and then often refused to pay at
all. He got into the hotel business in the early sixties and had been here
ever since. He began telling me this medicinal story:
It has to be a male rat. Take a male rat and take out its testes. You have
to catch the rat when it's alive. You cut the testes out--do it when it's
alive. Only the testes and not the penis. Then be careful not to break them.
Get a roof tile, and put it over the fire and put white wine over the tile,
then put the tile over the fire and then put the testes on it. After a while
they burn and become dry. Grind them up. It's good for children--they become
healthy and strong.
The auntie, who's the hotel maid, chimes in:
Pull the tail of the cockroach out. The cockroach with wings, only the
one's that can fly. It is a red colored cockroach, not the one with dots. Pull
out the cockroach's head. Carefully so it comes out with the intestines, then
roast it over the fire. It becomes tasty.
Take a cockroach and a kind of leaf called "chow chow". Very
stinky grass. And hong chang--it's called this. It must be grown from a flower
pot. Pour boiling water over it. Grind the ingredients-- hong chang and chow
chow. Then separate the head and intestines from the cockroach. Then use the
body with the ground ingredients. Pour boiling water over it and drink it.
It's for young children, newborns, who go into convulsions.
Auntie wants to go buy "to foo" and fish. Uncle continues with
The yellow freshwater eel is very hot. The Japanese who eat rats, will pay
hundreds of dollars for it, because it's better than bird's nest.
There is a kind of dog--"sia kao" (almost like "siow
kao" which means "mad dog"). It looks like a tiger with a dog
head. Body is like a tiger. You use the testicles. Grind it up, blow the
powder down the throat. It treats anything that deals with the
throat--growths, goiter, soreness. Mix a little of this with another kind of
medication, blow it down the throat with a straw. It costs RM $30 for just a
little bit. After they blow it down it cools down the thoracic area. Take it
from China--it's very expensive. If you have serious illness they use this,
whatever is internal.
Uncle tells me another story:
There's a plaster for rheumatism called "hong sipi tita' yok ko."
Apply the plaster wherever you feel the pain, and you can feel the coolness
traveling up the body. It costs a few dollars only.
He uses a lot of Chinese herbal medicine. I ask him what he does if he
feels sick. He tells me he goes to the Chinese sinseh first, and then to the
Western doctor. A lot of Muslim women go to the Chinese sinseh first. There
are not a lot of side effects. The hospitals don't give any more penicillin or
antibiotics. They don't use it any more. They use another kind of
I ask him if he takes Chinese medicine and the problem goes away, then will
he also take western medicine. He says no, that he will not go to the Western
doctor. He says he doesn't like needles. He cannot take any injections. They
are not good for the blood. He says some go to the Chinese doctor first, and
some go to the M.D. first, the other way around.
I ask him if older people go to the Western doctor. He says it depends.
Mostly the Christians go see the medical doctor. Some people if they are
seriously sick are afraid of dying after getting an injection. I ask "how
about if you have a little baby?" "Anything dealing with the
throat," he says, "go to the doctor. Diphtheria, all doctor. And
then they have 'wind' (colic), they go for the traditional medicine."
Then he tells me that he is the godson of the Goddess of Mercy. He prayed to
the Goddess of Mercy as a boy. He always had trouble.
I ask him if Chinese doctors refer patients to the Western doctors. Yes, he
says, if you take Chinese medicine a few times and it doesn't work then the
sinseh will tell you to go to see a Western doctor, sometimes vice versa.
Sometimes you pay so much and it doesn't work. Sometimes you pay just five
dollars and it takes care of the problem. There is even a sinseh now, he says,
who prescribes medicines and then fills the prescription at the same shop. You
pay an extra price, one dollar, and they will even cook the prescription for
I ask him if a lot of Malays go to the Chinese doctors. Yes, he says, more
in Kuala Lumpur than in Penang. I ask about Indians and he says not so many go
to the Chinese doctors because many of them are Christians. I ask him if many
Chinese go to the Malay bomohs. Yes, he says, strange things happen in
Malaysia. The government doesn't like racial strife so tries to promote
harmony between the races. They are encouraging the Malays to celebrate the
New Year too, and on Saturday "Puasa" (Muslim breaking of the fast
of the month of Ramadan, celebrated with feasting) begins.
I am growing tired with the jet lag and can barely keep my eyes awake. I
take leave from him and go into our room. We give Mahala a bath in a red buck
that we bought so we can fill it with warm water. We hang all our things up on
nails on the wall so mice and cockroaches don't get into them. The room is
cool and comfortable, and the traditional style Chinese furniture, grand in
its day, is well made and of an exotic variety of find dark tropical hardwood
that is not available any longer. It opens out with double doors onto an old
enclosed balcony that overlooks the street below. We can see out across the
red tile roofs of the city and watch the passers-by on the street below.
Across the street is a row of old shop houses that was gutted by a fire and
the roof had caved in. It's been like that for at least a year. Only one old
lady continues to live in the house on the very end of the row, and she
doesn't have a lot to do and just sits watching the street. We can sometimes
see her alone at night when she leaves her door cracked open inside. Penang is
such that there is almost no complete privacy anywhere. We shower and clean up
and then lay down dead to the world.
Mahala bathing in her bucket. She has to have hot water.
A few days later the 15 day New Year celebration begins (from the eve of
the 29th day of the 12 lunar month to the 15th day of the first lunar month of
the Chinese calendar). The children's song goes:
"Chap goh meh,
Chia lu e pu wa lai chiak teh,
Teh siow siow, kia lor beh kin chioh,
Kin chioh beh ki pek, kia lor beh chek,
Chek beh ki tak, kia lor beh bak,
Bak beh kee bua, kia lor beh chua,
Chua beh kee lia, kia lor beh ka kiak,
Ka kiak beh ki cheng, kia lor beh kar leng,
Kar leng kang, kar leng boh,
Si gina, ka wah long, toh."3
The hotel fills up to maximum capacity and the rates go up 50%. He doesn't
increase our rates though because we were there before (and besides, he knows
us). People come in by the droves all day long but cannot get anything. Every
hotel in Penang becomes full during the festive seasons, and sometimes local
or foreign travelers end up spending the night sleeping in the park. Food
prices also go up. Everywhere they go up. Hawker food which usually cost RM
$1.50 but goes up to over RM $2.00. Even a week before the New Year,
everything will slowly go up--dried food stuff, pork, chicken, and vegetables.
We get up early and go out to see a lion dance troupe perform at a small
shoe shop across the street. These troupes can be found all over the city now
on the back of lorries, with their drums and lion head. They are groups of
young men who train together and are led by an older instructor. The dancers
arrive in a small lorry, bring down their masks and instruments, go inside the
business to pray, come back out and begin performing. The dragon dance started
outside. The drum and the cymbals are quite loud and rhythmic. Soon the lion
enters the house and goes to the back rooms, finally it comes back out again
to lift its head up to fetch the lettuce and a red ang pao packet suspended
above the door. Inside the packet will be a large sum of money--RM $40, RM
$60, or more ringgit for the association sponsoring the dancers. Besides this
each dancer will also get a small ang pao of a few dollars. The dance will
bring good fortune for the business and homes in the coming year. Soon, the
dance is over and the young men hoist their equipment and themselves back onto
the lorry, do a u-turn in the street and drive off to another location.
A tall, skinny Chinese man who is dressed in old brown robe and a
traditional hat like a Chinese opera costume, is banging a gong and playing
the part of the God of Prosperity. He makes a lonely, singular figure walking
up all the streets in the middle of the hot Afternoon. People will give him
small "ang pao"--five or ten cents, for good luck.
Afterward we go out to watch another lion dance at the City Bayview hotel
that was just up the street. We meet an American couple we know from the
hotel. They were there making good on all the free "makan" (prepared
food) that was offered to the public by the hotel. Inside a tall fat God of
Prosperity, in makeup and a mustache and beard, is giving everybody a red
packet ("ang pao")--inside each packet are two shinny new Malaysian
pennies. We wait out in the lobby for about 15 minutes before the lion dancers
arrive. There are more of them this time and the lion's head is larger,
carried by several men. They go in to pray, and then begin their dance outside
again. The gong is quite loud as they go into the lobby. Quite a large crowd
gathers. A long string of fire-crackers is strung outside--I estimate about 30
feet in length. When the lion comes out again the string of firecrackers is
lit. They are all big firecrackers and they make a deafening noise as everyone
is holding their ears. It takes a good five minutes to finish and the lion is
lifting his head high up to retrieve the "ang pao" and eat the
lettuce on the first try. It's good luck if it can do it the first time. It
grabs the lettuce and chews it up and spits it back out again, and then takes
the ang pao. This time it is big ang pao. Afterward the troop take off their
costumes and put away their instruments. They line up to be given an ang pao
each and then they go inside to eat some "makan."
Afterward we walk back to the hotel and prepare to go back down Muntri
street to visit Rosie's Lau Mak ("old mother," actually, her god
mother) in order to interview her. She agreed to be interviewed a few days
earlier and so I wanted to take her up on her promise before she forgot about
it. We go down and I take out my tape recorder and microphone to set it up on
a small round wooden stool. I give her the special forms I had made up for her
to sign--"Interviewee Consent" forms. She proves to be illiterate
and is afraid to sign it. I try to explain it to her but she is afraid.
Finally I convince her it is for her own good and she puts an x over the place
that says "name" but I think she doesn't trust me in the matter.
I begin by asking her when she was born and she tells me she doesn't know
the date. I ask her how old she is and she tells me she doesn't know. Then she
tells me she is prepared for death and doesn't want to remember these things.
I ask her when she first came to Malaysia and she tells me she doesn't know. I
ask her what are her first memories of Penang and she tells me simply that
there were more trees then than now. I soon realize that she really doesn't
want to be interviewed and I begin feeling very uneasy and embarrassed, and
slightly angry. I suppose she has reconciled herself to her fate and does not
want to look backward on life. To her, imminent death seems to be all that
matters any more. I turn to her friend because she also agreed to be
interviewed, but, like Lau Mak, she tells me she doesn't remember and doesn't
want to go over it all. So I turn off my recorder and put it away. I feel bad
because it was a unique and tragic loss of information about their past--a
record of their memories that now would be lost.
I can only vaguely reconstruct her life from the first time we met seven
years previously when she was a lot more alert and energetic. Then I remember
her telling us that she had come as a young woman in the 1920's. There were a
group of them then. She went to work as an amah (house maid) with one employer
but had animosity with the wife, so she found another employer who treated her
better. Then the war came, and they were afraid of being raped and killed by
the Japanese so they fled into the forest on the mainland and hid there for a
few months. When news reached them that they would be safe, they returned and
she ended up doing laundry for the Japanese. She worked for them but refused
to talk to them. She worked hard for her food everyday. After the war she went
to work again for Rosie's adoptive parents. That was when she raised my wife
as a child. I can tell that she and my wife are bonded closely, almost like a
distant mother-daughter relationship.
She used to carry Rosie piggy-back as a child to the market. Rosie told me
that she remembered her to be an excellent housekeeper and did a very fine job
with the laundry, always starching and ironing their clothes so they were
straight as a board. Nobody could do the laundry better. She worked for many
years and saved everything she earned. She saved RM $20-30,000 and lived her
entire adulthood in her present house. Seven years ago the house was black
with smoke, now it had been repaired and painted, with a few ceiling beams
replaced. Some of the old antiques are missing--the old clock, the iron, the
old stools and table--people just walk off with them or buy them from her for
a few ringgit. She does not know the real value of things anymore. People
would come and ask her to "kiow kia" (calling back the spirit of the
sick person) for them because she was considered pure and knew the proper
rituals for "kiow kia." They would give her a small "ang
pao" for her knowledge and assistance. 4
Lau Mak found begging at the Goddess of Mercy Temple
Now she is old and bowed over and has cataracts and can't see very well.
She had recently fallen into gutters and hurt her head. She would still go
long distances to get rice and other food products for free when it was given
out to senior citizens. She would spend her days begging at the Goddess of
Mercy temple, since two of her other goddaughters absconded with her savings
after promising her they would see to her funeral arrangements after she died.
Her biggest concern now was dying without being properly buried.
She was the only person in Penang who prayed for us when we got married,
and then she gave us an "ang pao" of RM $40 (U.S. $17.00), and she
bought gold jewelry for my wife. This time she gave our daughter a beautiful
gold necklace and a gold bracelet. Gold was the thing she valued most. She
always wore blue silk shirt and black silk pants and one year we bought her
nice black silk material so she could have pants sewn for herself.
Now she was old and ready to die. I was confused and a little angry, and I
think she was mad at me and not sure of me any more. So we could do nothing
else but take our leave and return to the hotel. I decided that the
tape-recorder and legal consent form routine framed the research in a
disastrous way and removed them from my research design.
That afternoon the old uncle and hotel maid "ahee" (Hokkien
equivalent of "aunty," a term of deference) were cooking grand
"makan" (a "feast of food") for the staff. And they
invited me upstairs to join them in the kitchen. They had converted a back
storage room on the top floor into a kitchen, and one of the shareholders, a
middle-aged hawker woman who sold economy rice in Butterworth, was helping the
"ahee" to cook all the food. Outside on the balcony they had begun
laying out the food. They had roast duck and chicken, pork and mee and eggs
and red "pao" (rice flour buns) and rice and soup on a small table.
Joss sticks were stuck in all the dishes of food and they began praying. Paper
money was folded in a small pile that they put into an old bent, burnt pot and
lit on fire. They let the joss and the paper in the pot burn a little while.
It took about twenty minutes to pray. They tell me they prayed like this once
a month, and cook for the staff to eat. But this time they bought extra food,
and he spent almost RM $200 (U.S. $80.00) on it all.
I looked out over the red tile rooftops of Penang and could see a man in
the distance walking across one of them. Smoke from similar fires were going
up into the blue sky in several places, and on the edge of the city by the
waterfront was the smoke stack billowing black smoke from a cruise ship that
was putting out to sea. I felt it to be a privilege to be made a part of this
We carry the trays of food back down the stairs to the long table in the
main lobby and soon everyone in the hotel, including all of the shareholders,
and taxi drivers who got commission from the hotel, were eating and drinking
and talking. I get the old Cantonese uncle to sing Cantonese songs into my
tape recorder and the managress bought out a karaoke microphone and we begin
singing old American and English songs from a song book. There is plenty of
dark stout and someone is passing around a bottle of expensive brandy. We ate
the food and spit the bones out onto the table beside our plates. We joked and
laughed. I got my other camera out and set up the tripod and the little
air-controlled shutter-release and clicked everyone's photo, which I later
enlarged and gave to the hotel. I didn't want to drink too much but someone or
another kept refilling my glass. It is the one day of the year when the
Chinese quit being serious and have fun.
Later that evening after everyone else was gone or passed out, I sat with
the old singing uncle. He showed me how to pray at the small shrine. He told
me everything must be in balance. Two joss here, two joss there. I pray with
The next evening we were to have dinner with our friend who was a
successful shipping agent. We knew him seven years ago when he was just a
small agent with one or two employees, but now he was a big "towkay"
(literally "boss") with more than twenty-four employees. He had
moved to a bigger, nicer house. He had also moved his office from downtown to
a new office building on reclaimed land where he occupied three offices on
three different floors. He was very devout. We had dinner with him at his
house and brought ice cream for the occasion.
Soon we are with our friend in his car again. He is always on the go. We
end up visiting a nice house where there dwelled a "very pious" man
who is the caretaker. It was an old man who greeted us. He occupied one room
upstairs and inside he had a huge altar with many different icons on it,
including Sai Baba (a living Indian Saint and reincarnation of the first Sai
Baba), Jesus Christ, the Goddess of Mercy (the main Penang Hokkien Goddess)
and a couple of other figures and photos. Flowers adorned everything. He was
meditating when we interrupted him. He meditates all the time. Actually, they
are all worshippers of Sai Baba, and form a small, diverse clique.
Soon, an elderly Chinese man visits who is very fit looking. He shows us a
photocopied article on yoga and he pulls out a couple of small brick-sized
cardboard boxes wrapped in paper. The three of them begin practicing some yoga
positions, especially lying on two bricks, one centered on the square of the
shoulders and the other under the heels, with the body stretched out flat and
not touching the ground. Then they try the same thing with the backs of some
wooden chairs. The Chinese man with a strong looking back and good muscle tone
has been practicing at it, because he can do it a long time. Our friend and
the other old man are not so good at it. They spend some time discussing the
details of the whole thing.
Afterward we are all sitting in the back seat of his car again with his two
children, headed toward another place we know not where. We end up in an RM
$400,000 dollar high-rise flat of a banker, who was a vegetarian, who was the
owner of the house we had just previously visited, and whose vivacious,
smiling wife-hostess has blue-tattooed eyebrows and an Indonesian maid. My
wife afterward said that they were the first bourgeoisie vegetarians she had
ever met. They were both Hokkien. Their home was on the 14th floor and was
over 2,500 square feet with marble tile floors.
They were friendly to us but treated me funny after I refused any food from
them, because it was already late and we were full. I told them that I was
conducting anthropological research and he told me "Oh, I see, like that,
ee." and then he asked me if I liked to ski. He liked skiing in Europe,
he said, but never skied in America. That was all he said to me that night.
They were entertaining other people who lived on their floor--Sikhs, Malays,
Indians--the full rainbow of rich people.
We feel awkward while he and my friend talked. I never saw my friend in a
subordinate position before then, as he himself is a towkay. They were all Sai
Baba worshippers, and they met when they had made a pilgrimage to India
together and stayed at the Sai Baba temple. They were telling me how holy the
Sai Baba was, how he could really read the future and knew what things were in
closed books and how ashes fell from his hands. They all swore to me that
these things were true.
Soon we took our leave again and our friend drove us back to the hotel that
night. He told us he would take us to eat at his house the next day--that was
the ninth day of the New Year (the Jade Emperor's birthday, a big celebration
for the Hokkien of Penang). They celebrate it all night long with
firecrackers, huge mounds of paper money and sugar cane and roast pork in the
middle of the night. He said he was going to stay up the entire night taking
his mother to all the different temples to pray, and his son would join him.
We turn and make our way to the hotel gate before midnight when they close
the grill. Outside, passed out on the ground across the entrance was an older
Indian male lying on his belly next to a puddle of his own urine. No one dare
to wake him or bother him, so we step over him.
Inside the hotel room we find two dead mice on the mousetraps we had set.
They had been crawling above our heads at night and they would jump out of our
luggage in the darkness. I told the management repeatedly but they did
nothing, because extermination was not a suitable thing to do during the
Chinese New Year. So I bought a couple of traps, and ended up catching eleven
of them. I stopped after I had killed a little cicak (house gecko) instead.
The management of the hotel had gone down hill noticeably since our
previous stay. A new woman share-holder had taken over and she had two
drinking buddies who would come and drink in the main lobby and bring
prostitutes every night (even though they were married). Prostitution occurred
discretely almost every night there--usually local middle aged Chinese men
with young women.
Everyone was frightened of these two young men because they were members of
a secret society. Though these two men were reputedly only vegetable hawkers
at a morning market, they always seemed to have extra cash for beer and
brandy. Many nights they took a room in the hotel without paying. They liked
to drill holes in the wall to peek through the walls at women tourists, and no
one could stop them. We warned an American woman traveling with her daughter
about it after they found white plaster powder on their luggage. They had been
frightened the previous night by the screams of a woman apparently being
molested in the back parking lot. Men were standing around but nobody had done
anything for more than a half-hour, until this American called the police. The
American mother and daughter were happy to leave Penang that day.
Unfortunately, we were to miss the festivities the next night as there was
a mix-up with my research visa, and we found ourselves the next day in the
Prime Minister's department in Kuala Lumpur after a fast plane flight, trying
to clear things up. That night in our 7th floor hotel room in K.L., we are
kept awake until about 4:00 A.M. by the noise of the fireworks outside in the
surrounding city. We fly back to Penang the next day with our paperwork
squared away, and a severe case of diarrhea, to put the deposit on our new
Because of visa problems that took us unexpectedly to Kuala Lumpur, we were
not able to attend the final Chinese New Year celebration and missed the all
important Hokkien celebration of the Jade Emperor's Birthday on the 9th day of
the first lunar month. A fifty-one year old man native to the Jetty where we
did most of our fieldwork told us that the celebrations there have been the
same since he was little. One young man from the Jetty later described it for
"On the birthday of the Jade Emperor, at this end of the Jetty (far
end, seaside) the people get karaoke singers. Firecrackers at the other end of
Jetty. Firecrackers by the crate. We don't care if the police come. Runaway
already. Still light firecrackers all ready. We light them off at all the
Chinese shrines. Around 7:00 P.M. children and grown ups take out about 40
tables, wash all the tables out by the temple. The men and children. After
that, they take red bricks, the children bring them, and the men build a round
enclosure half a man's height to burn the silver paper money. It is five steps
in diameter, about half a man's height. At about 8:00 or 9:00 o'clock, a few
men carry out from the temple a large joss stick urn to put it at the end of
the table. They place it at the foot of the table. It is a very big one.
Six-feet-tall. Some people buy joss sticks--10, 12-foot joss sticks. A lot of
people buy them--50 or 60. They put them right in front of the large urn (on
the large cement table in front of the Jetty temple). They don't burn them
yet. At 12:00 A.M. then they burn them.
Around 11:00 P.M., the men bring all the food out. They bring out all the
gold paper money. They don't burn it, but put it under the table. Fruits,
apples, watermelon, pears, pineapple, pink koay, wine, Martel brandy, roasted
pig, 10-20-30 katis. At least 30, over 40 roasted pigs on the table.
And then at 12:00 P.M., they burn joss sticks and pray already. They light
candles, and joss sticks. Individually they pray, not as a group. A lot of
people are praying. A lot of joss sticks. If too many then they burn them in
the brick enclosure. Every time the urn fills up with joss stick, they take
them out and burn them. People keep on praying and praying until 2:00 A.M.,
then use "Sim Poay." (the kidney shaped divination blocks) They
throw it to the ground to see if the King of Jade Heaven says they can burn
the paper money. One open, one closed, yes, then burn gold paper money. Then
everyone burns the gold paper money. Not everyone can burn it at the same
time. They take turns burning it until its all used up.
Then everyone takes their own things back. Then they eat. Cut up all the
things. Ducks, chickens, chicken eggs, duck eggs. Cut it all up and eat it
next morning. People then go up the 1,200 steps to the Jade King Emperor's
temple, the main temple, the biggest one there. Only Hokkien people pray
there. It's the biggest thing for the Hokkiens. The fifth day is the Cantonese
biggest day. The Jade Emperor's birthday is the 9th day.
The eve of Chinese New Year is also big for Hokkien people. It's a must.
They have to come back every year. They string fire crackers from one end of
the Jetty to the other. It takes several hours to finish firing them. Every
house has roast duck and pig. Every sixty years, one time, during the Goddess
of Mercy's birthday, the platform (connecting the ferry terminal to the ferry)
About seven weeks after we settle into our apartment we are awakened one
Sunday morning by a lot of honking and noises outside on the road. We look out
our window to discover a stream of cars going up the hill, bumper to bumper.
This is unusual because there are never more than one or two cars on the
entire road at any one time.
Cheng Beng (29th day of the second Chinese lunar month) is the Chinese
festival in which people remember their dead ancestors by going as a family
group to the grave. They clean the grave, paint the letters red, pray and burn
votive articles, and sometimes picnic, and then go back home. It is a day of
family reunion and togetherness, of bringing out old sentiments that people
keep in closets of the mind. We had not expected the celebration for another
couple of weeks.
We ask the chicken sellers downstairs and they don't know about it. We were
going to market anyway so we walk up the hill to the cemetery to investigate.
The entire road is clogged with traffic and the buses can't get through.
Police are there trying to direct traffic. We discover that Cheng Beng is not
for another week, but people can come to the grave to pray for a couple of
weeks before or even after the actual day. There is a period of time of about
a month in which it is propitious to pray, though the best time is still the
actual day. It is a three day weekend anyway so half of the Chinese in Penang
show up at the cemetery at the same time and with the resulting congestion of
their cars block access to all the roads. The newspaper carried an article on
the stoppage the next day.
The bus we are depending upon to take us to the market never shows up, and
a man sitting next to us is complaining that he had been sitting there over an
hour. We decide we better backtrack down the hill to catch the other bus,
which comes within a couple of minutes of our reaching the bench. We go to the
Pulau Tikus market to buy food. Though it is more expensive, it is only about
half as far as the downtown market. I buy some backup batteries for my camera
and some film, and we quickly return so I can go and take pictures and notes
on the ceremonies in the cemetery.
On the return journey the bus comes back along the hillside route and we
can see that it is clogged all the way down. When we reach our home we get
down and I get the cameras and we scamper back up the hill. The cemetery is a
huge area on the hill. It is covered with graves that go back to the 19th
century. In areas the graves are so thick one can barely step between them. In
the older areas many of the graves are buried or partially covered over with
earth, and erosion has washed away some sites to leave only traces of the
It begins to get hot and my wife and daughter go back down the hill. I end
up spending the rest of the day by myself, tramping around the hills and
graves. I return by myself a few times over the month of Cheng Beng.
The standard Chinese grave is shallow, actually raised above the earth. It
is built with a brick masonry perimeter in a peculiar shape (later ones are of
concrete). The shape reminds me of the sampans and the coffins. At its head is
a marble stone marker with the name of the deceased engraved. Sometimes there
is a small picture inset on the stone. Many of these engravings are painted
over in red, and sometimes gilt. There are a few ossuary markers. A tall one
on the hill is an erected column. I stand under a tree near it seeking shade
from the hot sun when an old man speaking broken English tells me that it was
the goldsmith's guild who, because its members were all poor, were buried in
small graves at the bottom of the hill. Later the guild had their bones
disinterred and reburied under the column in a common grave. There were the
bones of over 30 members there.
Ossuaries for the gold-smiths guild at the Hokkien cemetery
at Mt. Erskine
Another older lady I talk to tells me she is visiting the grave of her
mother who had died when she was young in 1934. She has been coming to clean
her grave and pray every year since then.
I spend the better part of that day, and the next Sunday (the actual day of
the celebration), walking over most of the hills of the cemetery, taking many
pictures, exploring the graves, and talking with people.
A man who turns out to be a local politician told me in jest he had become
a Christian but has just come to pay his respects with some of his relatives.
He tells me his own mother had rented a space in the "Chinese
condos," pointing to the crematorium down on the other side of the broad
expanse, laughing. He told me to go down and check it out, its much more
crowded down there. Smoke is coming from the building as many people are there
praying and the wind brings the occasional distant sound of a gong and horns
playing from that direction.
Some of the graves, especially older ones, are quite large. One informant
tells me the old rich towkays spent a lot of money on their tombs, partly
because land and labor was a lot cheaper. They include the graves of children
and wives who have died. There are places reserved for relatives or wives who
are still living to be buried, and one can tell who is alive and who dead by
whose names are painted in red on the main stone. It is interesting that there
is no separation of the grave sites between rich and poor--a big site may be
surrounded by little anonymous stones and are distributed in a hodgepodge
fashion, almost at random over the entire field. At least one historical
account of Penang (Turnbull 1972:12) notes a similar irregular pattern of the
intermixture and lack of segregation of poor residences next door to rich in
Penang, unlike Singapore. But the graves are strictly separated by dialect
group--there is a Hokkien, a Cantonese, a Hakka and a Teow section, each of
which covers many acres. The overseas Chinese are noteworthy for their trade
and cultural segregation by dialect groups (Tan 1990).
One family brings a roast pig to a tomb. They are walking under black
umbrellas in the hot sun. They visit a nice tomb. Another family is sitting
nearby talking--kids and adults. Family groups walk up from the hillside road.
There is almost a steady stream of people on the dirt road coming and going.
They dig the weeds around the grave and put paper money out over the grave.
This money is sometimes held down with rocks, sometimes with joss sticks. They
pray and burn paper "hell" money and set out food offerings. Smoke
is drifting over the cemetery from a large fire burning below. One family
group spreads yellow paper money over the mound.
Paper Offerings for the Dead being made at the shop on
One young couple comes, puts out the food, spreads paper money before the
grave, lights the joss sticks and candles, and make their prayers, asking
"Mother, we come to pray to you today with all this food. We invite you
to come and eat the food. We also have some spending money for you." They
put the food out, clean the weeds from the grave, paint the letters on the
headstone. After a while, the husband uses the coins and asks "show me if
you've eaten or not" with heads and tails. He takes the coins in his hand
and turns them around the smoking joss stick three times with his hand and
throws them on the ground. If two tails the deceased is laughing, and if two
heads then not finished eating. If it's head and tails, the deceased has
finished.6 They pack the food away and burn the money and set out
some cakes, meat and rice wine, and then they leave.
I make my way over a little ridge beside some trees and old Japanese pill
boxes to find a large sink hole with more graves at the bottom and a large
extended Chinese family with paper articles praying and singing. The son tells
me that they come from different parts of Malaysia. They had been visiting
their auntie who died over 30 years ago. The auntie's widower husband is there
with tears in his eyes. He scowls at me as if I'm intruding upon his privacy.
I back off and ascend the other side of the hill. When I get to the top look
around and see that he is remaining there while all the paper goods burn--a
television set, shoes, quite a few things--and after all the other people have
started back down the hill. He tells the others to walk slowly on, he will
catch up later. I've written in my notes "I feel like I am disturbing his
A few of the tombs have stone statues, lions and goddesses and even
soldiers with their horses. One old tomb hidden behind a knoll and a stand of
banana trees is huge with a wide stone floor. There are full sized guards
standing at either side of it with horses and within its perimeter are other
One can tell the forgotten graves because they are fallen into a state of
decay and overgrown with weeds and bushes. I took to counting the number of
graves people visited (from those which remained unvisited), which was easy to
tell by the paper money. I counted these graves on four separate occasions, in
about as many weeks, until the Cheng Beng period was completely over.5
Newer grave areas were visited much more heavily than the older areas, and the
oldest areas that are the most covered over and decayed, are hardly visited at
all. By the third week close to three-quarters of the newer graves had been
visited. About one-half of the older graves had been visited. You can tell the
difference by their new appearance, design, construction methods and
materials, and their more linear, ordered spacing.
The last time I walked up there I went to count the graves after Cheng Beng
was completely ended. It was late in the afternoon on a weekday and I was
completely alone in the place. A few hundred yards from the road, I could only
hear the distant sound of horns honking. The cemetery was silent as the
shadows began lengthening over the hill and trees and stones. While counting I
thought I saw something looking at me from the corner of my eye. It was about
twenty or thirty feet away. I turned my head to see what it was and it ducked
down behind the stone. I walked over, more curious than afraid, to see what it
might be. I thought it may be a white cat or some kind of animal. When I got
to it I looked around but there was nothing but a bird in a distant tree. The
place was completely silent and empty. I left soon afterward.
Almost everyday in the morning as we pass the cemetery on the bus we see a
new site being constructed at the end of the row of new graves. Almost every
afternoon we pass the cemetery to see a funeral being conducted, with flowers
over the grave. I do not know if this is correct, but one informant told me
there was more land devoted to the dead in Penang than to the living.
Not long after Cheng Beng we passed by an Chinese opera stage that was
constructed on the corner of a small road next to the mid-section of the
cemetery. These opera stages are made of bamboo and wooden poles tied together
with nothing more than raffia string, and mounted on top of a set of large saw
horses. It takes under just two hours to build the entire structure. On our
return a few hours later we got off the bus early at that bus stop and I asked
the opera players if I could photograph them. They told me I would have to ask
the people of the temple across the road because it was their show. They gave
me permission but wondered why I wanted to stand in the hot sun in the middle
of the day. The evening performance was much nicer. My wife and daughter
caught the next bus back while I sat in the sun and watched them perform for
about an hour in the middle of the afternoon. They were performing in an old
style of Hokkien and the words were not as understandable as the local
dialect. They perform in the middle of the cemetery with no audience but one
white man with a couple of cameras. The huge joss sticks are burning, and a
couple of times a caretaker comes over from the temple to pour kerosene on
some sticks that had burned out in order to relight them. The smoke wafts
thickly across the dirt road. They performed in the correct manner, with full
facial expressions and body posture, though no one was watching beside myself.
They would tell you, as everyone there would know, they were performing for
the gods, and not for a human audience.
About a month later we are taking the bus down town when we notice Indian
booths along the road near Waterfall garden. We ask an Indian women sitting
next to us what it's all about and she call's it a "mini-Thaipusum"
or Chitraparvam, which takes place on a "full moon night" on the
15th day of the first month of the Hindu calendar Another friend of ours tells
us its a birthday party for an Indian God (in honor of lord Murugam, or Lord
Subramaniam). They bring out the chariot and a few people carry the kavadi. So
on the way back we decide to stop and walk along the way and take pictures as
we walk. We get down further down the road and there are a couple of Indian
men in wheel chairs on the side of the road watching as people pass.
Buses are coming in from afar carrying entire families. We walk up and hear
the loud Indian music at the booths on either side. The booths are draped with
banana leaves and ropes with green and dried leaves of a tree hanging across
the road. We make the pilgrimage along with other Indian families and talk
with people along the way. Vendors are selling sodas, food, milk, and fruit.
We pass a couple of young male kavadi carriers surrounded by a crowd and lead
by a couple of Indian men dancing and trancing in abandon on the colored
designs painted on the street in front of each booth. The people in the booths
wash down the road in front of their booths before the trancers arrive.
Trancing and Dancing in front of the Kavadi carriers
We stop by an Indian fortune-teller who reads my wife's fortune for a
couple of ringgit. The little parrot pulls a card from a box and he reads the
card. He told my wife all good things--she would come into money in a month. A
visitor was coming from far away. Her stars were all aligned, everything was
fine. There would be no upheavals. We meet an old friend of my wife who is
walking with her 16-year-old daughter carrying cans of milk on their head.
They are walking barefoot and came all the way from town. The stream along the
road ran white with milk. The mother asks me if I would like to drink some
milk and I decline. She asks me why and I tell her I do not feel very thirsty.
We talked to a family taking the pilgrimage and they kindly let me take
their photograph. We come to the green below the steps of the temple to find
families picnicking under the large tree and the chariot parked in high-roof
structure behind a locked gate. Another older man told us he came all the way
from another state to be here. He had carried the kavadi during Thaipusam. He
seemed glad that I was interested in him.
On the 19th day of the third, sixth and ninth lunar months of the Chinese
calendar the birthday of the Goddess of Mercy is celebrated downtown. These
are auspicious days for mothers to have their daughter's ears pierced. It is a
good day to become a god-child of "Po Cho Ma" or "Guan
Yin." To be a godchild one must pray to her regularly, visit her on her
birthday, and not eat any beef. Sometimes shamans tell the parents of sickly
children that they should make the child a godchild of the Goddess of Mercy.
The Goddess of Mercy's temple was built in the 1850's, looking out onto the
sea. I've been there periodically over the years since married. My wife
sometimes prays there and her god mum prayed for us there after we got
married. The first Chinese temple built in Malaya was the Cheng Hoon Teng
Temple in Bukit China in Malacca. In 1704, Chan Li Lock built the main hall of
the temple and placed there the figure of the Goddess of Mercy (or "Kwan
Yin" or "Padma-Pani," Yeh 1936:81-2). The preeminence of the
Goddess of Mercy in the Straits Settlements is important to a consideration of
early Chinese religion in Malaysia. Vaughn (1879; 1971 reprint) details the
design of the Goddess of Mercy temple on Pitt St. in Penang, which dates to
1848, and is still the principle and most active temple of worship by the
Chinese in Penang. Purcell (1948:120-2) gives account of Kwan Yin as "one
of the most popular goddesses in the Chinese pantheon." 7
The Chinese of the Straits must not be mistaken as taking their religion
lightly or unseriously--the pragmatism of their religious devotions has
fundamental spiritual, moral and utilitarian efficacy which is taken quite
seriously by the Chinese. "The woman of over seventy who has the private Koan
Im temple had the following to say: 'Whether these spirits exist or not I
do not know, but there is no harm in presenting an offering. If they do exist,
we are safe, because we have given something to appease them. If they do not
exist, well, it does not matter.'" (Tan 1963:204)
Smoke is thick on the Goddess of Mercy's Birthday
The Goddess of Mercy's birthday is a busy time for the temple. Hawkers set
up vegetarian booths nearby under a large tree and across the street. The
votive sellers along the side do especially good business, as do the beggars
in the courtyard and the young pickpockets. Buddhist priests come to pray and
receive food from people on that day, as do the Hari Krishnas. The temple is
thick with Chinese praying, and the roads all around are stopped with bumper
to bumper traffic.
The two large furnaces outside are burning very hot and their ashes
occasionally spill out on to the ground. The ashes swirl about and the heat of
the fire creates a wind that blows hot against the face and takes ash and
distributes it over the body and hair. I made the mistake of wearing a nice
white shirt the first time I went there. But the heat vortex, the smoke, the
praying, all leave a lasting impression of the moment.
Outside in front of the temple a Chinese opera performs. Between
performances the actors sleep in hammocks hung between the saw-horses in the
shade beneath the stage floor. Their clothes are old and worn and gaudy
looking. Beside the opera is a little Chinese "Punch and Judy"
puppet theater. The puppets are old, but my daughter really enjoys watching
It is about midway into our study and everything is going better than
expected, but not as well as we had hoped for. For a few months I was worried
we weren't going to get much done at all except counting cars and bus riders.
We have all settled in and adjusted as best that we can manage. We are used to
the heat now, or at least know how best not to deal with it, and the
inconveniences of crowded, bumpy buses and rude passengers. We haven't seen
any friends we knew when we first arrived for four or five months, and have
resigned ourselves to being mostly alone during our remaining time.
A lot of things that bothered me at first I no longer pay much heed. The
traffic doesn't bother me as much as it does now my wife. I've learned to be
patient with the drivers and to allow them the right of way they so demand.
I've also grown insensitive to the beggars, the borderlines and the
schizophrenics who I see everyday down town and who frequently bother us, as
well as learning to ignore the lame and injured animals I see everywhere.
Things don't bother me so much and I can even turn away a beggar now without a
twinge of remorse. The beggars even seem to have stopped bothering to ask us
for alms. At the beginning there was hardly a meal we could eat without
someone sticking their hands in our faces.
Another important change has come over me. The reticence and
self-consciousness that initially plagued me about doing fieldwork in public
has gone away. Now I can count cars by habit and ask any person a question or
to do a task for me without a moment's hesitation. And when I am refused it
doesn't bother me in the least. I think at some point I simply resigned myself
to our predicament and our fate as ethnographers, to our limitations and
difficulties of the tasks at hand, and after that resignation it all became
easier for us.
My wife and I were having periodic bouts too, usually over silly small
things that seemed to happen especially on the long bus rides between downtown
and our home on the other side of the island. It would lead to neither of us
talking to each other for a day or two, but would soon make up because we
simply had no one else to talk to mostly. The stress of adjustment and the
difficulty of our lives is probably telling upon our relationship. But the
frequency of these little spats became less and less too as the year wore on,
and we both learned to recognize danger signals in one another and avoid
confrontation when we were both feeling bad.
I am feeling more relaxed too about the fieldwork, as the pieces are
beginning to finally fall into place from the original design, and though
there are some important shortcomings, we are too busy to be concerned with
them. Things on the Jetty are going pretty smoothly, without only a few slow
days among many very busy days.
We devote all our time to our study down on the Jetty now and it is in full
swing. Our daughter is doing well at her day care. She has grown socially a
lot, more independent from us than ever before. And yet she misses things in
her previous life in America, and always asks us when we are returning. I
would occasionally bring back a toy for her, or a "Dandy" or
"Mickey Mouse" magazine.
Mahala with her Barbie dolls and her new cat.
She has begun to get acquainted with the children on the Jetty, and there
she spends her weekends playing with fish and eating candy and running up and
down the wooden gangways. It makes it difficult to get her up for school early
Monday morning, because she is not getting much free time except on Saturday
afternoons when we return early to our apartment and relax, cook a meal of
fresh tuna fish and eat.
In the middle of August we see signs of the impending Festival of the 7th
month of the Chinese lunar calendar (Actually, from the first day to the
thirtieth day of the 7th month). Stages are being built all over town. Flags
and standards are unfurled along many streets. The effigy makers downtown are
working on the God of Hades. Any time during this month local business
associations get together and organize for themselves a celebration in honor
of the God of Hades. The celebration period for an organization lasts about a
This is an important time, especially for the Hokkien businessmen downtown.
It is a time when these people form local associations in their neighborhoods
and vicinity for the celebration in honor of Por Tor Kong (Gluttonous God, or
Tai Su Yeh, or the God ofHades, or the "King of the Ghosts") on the
15th day of the 7th moon of the Chinese lunar calendar. Hokkien hell is called
"im kan" ("te teng" is heaven and "hon kang" is
earth). The King of Hades is called Tai Su Yeh. "It is his real name and
we must use this name--one cannot say all these things" (pray to him by
calling him "Por Tor Kong" because it is a derogatory term and he is
It is the month when the God of Hades releases to earth lost souls and
ghosts over whom he has control. He must be supplicated and propitiated for
good luck and protection. As one informant said, with this King of Hades,
"put a small child on the table and he will 'eat the child' as an
offering to him."
There is a story that a mother with a newborn baby went to pray to him. No
one was there to help her so she left her child under the table with offerings
to the deity while she went to pray. When she came back the baby was dead. So
people said she shouldn't have left the baby under the table because the deity
probably thought the baby was an offering to him and "ate" the baby.
To "eat the child" means to take its soul away. When a person
dies one cannot say that person was eaten. It's different because the person
just passed away. If a god has taken a soul away, then the person's been
Tai Su Yeh is very powerful. A person went in front of him and talked
nonsense, and he became crippled. The family took him to a shaman. After he
apologized to Tai Su Yeh, he could walk again. It is especially important that
children don't go in front of him. Children are not supposed to play near his
temple or show disrespect in front of him, or he will get them. This is
especially so during the 7th month, Tai Su Yeh's special month.
People become ghosts if they are wicked in their life. If good they go up
to heaven and become fairies. If you have some one to pray at your funeral
then you come back to the house, if not you become a wandering ghost.
A person who drowns becomes a ghost, but the ghost is stuck in the
water--it is soaked. The family must do special prayers to bring it out of the
water. They must bring it out of the water or else it is forever stuck in it.8
Some people can see it. On the 29th day of every Chinese lunar month the
Chinese pray at home. "Pai ho hea ti" or "pray to the wandering
spirits." In the seventh month, they must pray more because the King of
Hades has released more ghosts.
If a woman dies in childbirth, then her spirit world will always be in a
vat of blood. She cannot be brought out anymore. If the child survives and
grows up and becomes married, only then can they pray and bring her out. If
the mother and child die, her other children can bring her out. If there are
no children, then her siblings might be able to do it for her.
Tai Su Yeh can also give numbers. During the hungry ghost festival they
pray for the God to control the hungry ghosts during the seventh month and
also for good fortune. So businessmen get together and organize themselves
into associations. They collect money and finance an opera or the showing of a
movie or performance by a band or singer. They set up an awning within which
they erect a large effigy of this God, or a large painting of him, at the feet
of which are stacked huge mounds of paper money and in front of which they
collect many food offerings that serve first as prayer, then as a charitable
distribution to local families. The wealth and extent of these collections and
offerings varies according to the success and wealth of the businessmen who
are members of the committee.
Tai Su Yeh is a powerful God who can release all the ghosts
from Hades, and so he must be appeased and supplicated, and if so, he can
bring good fortune.
One day while drinking some coffee downtown we notice an electrician friend
of ours with a floor cart in the middle of the road hauling an urn filled with
joss and ashes, and with his son who was banging a gong. They walk around a
couple of blocks in a circuit calling different business men to bring their
urns out of their shops so that they can take it to the place on the side road
where they have set up there offerings to the God of Hades along with several
other Gods. They walk around the streets in a large circuit three times, and
come back with several more men and about five urns. About 10:00 A.M., they
sent out the cart and gong to call all the gods back (bring the urns back).
Red and white flags are on the street corners around the area. We walk
around the corner to the side street where the awning is set up to watch the
businessmen praying on the first day. They are choosing who is to be the next
year's caretaker of the urn. Those chosen will definitely have good fortune.
There is a large picture of the God of Hell on the back wall. The Goddess of
Mercy is above it "to control it."
About 10:00 A.M. they send out the cart and gong and to call all the gods
back. They walk around a couple of blocks in a circuit calling different
businessmen to bring their urns out of their shops so that they can take them
to the place on the side road where they have set up their offerings to the
god of Hades along with several other gods. They walk around the streets in a
large circuit three times, and come back with several more men and about five
The middle-aged hawker couple that makes the American breakfast and French
toast on the corner are closed for the day because they were chosen to carry
the pot this year. This is a very auspicious occasion for them because it
means that if you are a bearer of the joss stick urn your business will
prosper. Later we talk with the electrician who had been the keeper of the urn
and he tells us that the previous year he had very good business--in and out
all the time. He said the responsibility was difficult because you always had
to pay money out for the association to help finance the opera or movies. He
had to pay out RM. $2,000 just for this.9
We talk with the son of the secretary of the association and we are told to
wait. We hear from one informant that when his father held the urn he won the
lottery and became very rich, so that is why his son, who now lives outstation
(in the countryside) started coming to pray here. The eyes of all the gods
have been covered with paper so that they cannot see out.
Table filled with
multiple offerings for Tai Su Yeh, in the background with taped over eyes.
I walk around and photograph and try to count all the things on the table
and beneath it. I find there 2 plates of watermelons; 3 plates of bananas; 3
plates of rambutans (a small red tropical fruit, a local favorite); 5 plates
of pineapples; large jack fruit; a plate with mixed fruit (grapes: oranges,
apples, pears, longan); a plate with a pineapple, 3 oranges, 2 apples and 3
pairs of longans (a small round, brown tropical fruit); a plate with
cigarettes and candy mixed together; 2 roast ducks; a plate of longsans; 8
roasted pigs; 4 more plates of pineapples; 2 plates of oranges; 2 plates of
apples; 1 plate of small change; 1 plate of oranges; a plate of koay (rice
cakes and pastries); a plate of 'pao' (steamed dumplings); a plate of ku pao (
pink "turtle dumplings"); 24 bowls of rice; 24 teacups, spoons and
chopsticks; 48 bowls of rice and vegetables, bean thread, mushrooms, dried
fungus and radish. I count approximately 184 red buckets stacked in rows under
the table each containing a "turtle dumpling," a pineapple and
longans. There are also several plates of fried beehoon (very fine rice
noodles) and cooked food.
One man has a long pole with a bottle taped to the end. He fills the bottle
half-full with kerosene and pours it over a couple of the huge joss in front
of the make-shift temple. Then he takes some newspaper and ties it to the end
of the pole and tries to light the joss. Another younger man comes over and
scolds him for doing it improperly. The both fiddle with it until the tall
joss in the front of the place becomes finally lit.
Lighting the huge
joss in front of the temple
My friend the electrician is in charge of the lighting and checks all the
At 12:00 noon there are 17 adults (14 men and 3 women) ready to pray. A
Taoist priest comes with a woven rope whip. He chants and prays. The
businessmen all kneel down in the street and pray, holding six joss sticks
each. They pass around six tea cups ontwo trays with gold paper money and
flowers. The priest is in front chanting. He is reading from an worn old book,
and after each utterance, the people praying loudly answer "Ho"
("good"). He says something else and they respond "Ho"
again. And then again and again, for about 15 minutes.
One older member "kachows" a younger man for sitting on a step
instead of kneeling on the pavement. The younger man makes light of it and
appears to be a bit of a joker. He later knocks the other man for trying to
light the large joss sticks the wrong way. The coffee shop uncle is there. He
was a member who "held the urn" a few years previously and was said
to have won the lottery with it and had good fortune in his business, but he
was stingy about it, another person told me, and didn't want to give away give
away any money to sponsor the organization's activities.
Taoist Priest reading for the members of the business
The priest then uses a long pole with a knife taped to the end to knock off
the papers taped over all the eyes of the deities--the main one and four
guardians--including the God of Opium who is tall and thin and his other
brother who is short and fat. The priest begins chanting and then burns two
yellow talismans at the table in front of the altar. He has a sprig of leaves
on a stem in a bowl of water. He walks around a long table where all the food
is placed, sprinkling the water. He mixes up rice and salt and sprinkled that
a second time. He passes the gold money to the bearer of the joss stick urn.
An assistant lights it and burns it in front of the altar. He asked just the
bearer of the incense to take off shoes and kneel down in front of the large
urn and passed him two divining rods.
He invites the king of Hades out loud with "Is it all right to invite
him now?" in order to proceed with the ceremony. He asks the King of
Hades to call his name and holds up two pieces of wood (siang poay).10
He tosses the wood up and it falls flat side up. He throws the "siang
poay" up two times. The priest takes away the two blocks and holds it
over the large joss sticks, giving them back to the bearer of the joss
sticks--"open and shut" (successful).
He proceeds again and goes to the front of the figures of the deities.
Everyone bends over. "Don't look now." He takes a long stick with a
paintbrush on the end of it and peels off the paper over the eyes. Each time
the group is saying "Ho!", "Ho!", "Ho!". One man
says, "Say 'Ho!' louder." The priest uses the brush with the red
paint, touching the eyes, mouth, cheeks, hands, sleeves, collar, of each of
the deities. The musicians begin playing again.
The next day at the same hour there are 22 people praying in three rows.
The priest arrives, puts on his robe and hat, and chants and reads from his
book, shaking a bell. He has a whip around his neck. The band begins playing a
prayer. He lifts their food offerings on the plates up to pray. The priest
offers teacups. He waves the handle of his whip over the teacups. Then he
waves a tattered violet triangular flag over them. He covers his eyes with the
flag. He pours the tea out around. He turns and waves the flag about for a
minute or so. He sprinkles another cup of tea on the ground. He drinks the
tea, covering his eyes with the flag and spitting out the tea.
This day there are four musicians instead of three as yesterday. One man is
playing two cymbals which he strikes together. The people praying are all
holding their plates of offerings, a bundle of joss sticks and small colored
flags. They stand up and form a line behind the priest who walks
counterclockwise around the long table. They follow him with their plates of
offerings and come back and pray at the alter out in front and then go back
and kneel down again.
The priest prays with about 12 turtle pao. He throws six out over the
table. He throws the others individually out to those who pray and who
endeavor to catch them. Then the priest covers both hands over his eyes with
smaller pao, and then throws them over the table and throws others out over
the people who pray who also catch them. A young girl brought by her
grandmother fetches one of them from the ground. The priest covers his eyes
again and throws out trays of biscuits to the people praying, which scatter on
the ground. The aunty next to me picks one up and eats it.
The priest does the same with the longans. He prays and throws a handful
over the table and then throws the rest to the prayers. The priest then prays
with the rambutans. He covers his eyes. The assistant holds the tray and
throws them out. The crowd scrambles to grab them. The priest prays with
pineapples. He throws them out. People are calling to him to throw them. Then
the priest prays with the candy and the cigarettes. The devotees are
collecting the offerings they get, aligning them at their side.
The priest then puts the end of the joss stick bundle into his mouth and
turns once, waving his flag. He throws two handfuls of candy over the table
and throws the rest of the tray over the devotees. Then he does the same thing
with the money on the tray. People scramble to pick up the candy and coins.
Then the priest prays with flowers and petals, throwing them out over the
crowd. The praying is over. The band stops playing. The bell is still ringing.
The people praying all disperse, although some people continue to pick up the
things remaining on the ground.
The band resumes playing as the priest still chants and shakes the bell.
Nine people remain kneeling. The devotees put joss sticks into the urn. The
priest continues to pray. The band continues playing. The priest holds the
book up to the deity. People are picking up the mats. The priest sprinkles
more water out of the bowl. The band stops playing again. The ceremony is
over. The priest takes off his robes.
The auntie who cooks American Breakfasts tells me about the 7th month
celebration. It is their association's 23rd or 24th anniversary. There are now
over 160 groups in Penang. The group on Hutton Lane is trying to build a
permanent building for the event. They collected over RM $10,000 with a dinner
function. People donate the little red tables as charity.
Roasted pigs in sacrificial offering for Tai Su Yeh. Many
pigs were donated.
People donate the banners and the curtains overhead. They are a couple of
hundred dollars each. They sponsor the performing group during the week at a
cost of about RM $1,500 per night. The more renowned the group the more
expensive it is. She had donated the red table sitting in front with the large
urn on it.11
She tells me about "seng lay"--one ham, one duck, and a strip of
pork back. This can be changed. Without duck one can have ducks eggs instead,
or cuttle fish instead of pork. It is convertible. One can change a plate of
Magi mee (dry instant rice noodles) for the cuttle fish, or a strip of meat.
On the last night they burn only the paper money. They will not burn the
large image of the God of Hell (are done to the large effigies constructed of
paper and bamboo), but they will roll it up and save it for the following year
in order to save money. They cover the eyes with red paper, they
"paint" the eyes with red paper. They have only a small storage
space to keep all the things during the year, and they are looking to find a
better, more permanent arrangement.
I return on the bus that afternoon covered with ash and soot from the
burning joss; people star at me. We did not see the final burning of the paper
money there, but we did witness the burning of another paper effigy that stood
15 to 20 feet tall in the middle of a huge mountain of folded paper money. It
happened in the middle of an intersection near the hotel we had stayed at,
around 11:30 or 12:00 P.M. All the business people nearby were there.
A young girl whose family worked at the shoe shop folded with one hand a
round of paper money and burned it on the ground beside the road. They lit the
fire and it quickly engulfed the entire mound. The heat was so intense we had
to back up several feet, as it cast its light across our faces and around the
street. Malay firemen in a small truck were waiting down the road and one
fireman had a car moved because it was too close to the fire and the gas tank
was heating up. The power lines overhead became burned. An old uncle from the
hotel came down and stood with us and watched the fire. He told us that he
remembered a mound of bodies that the Japanese had piled up burning in the
same place during the war. The next morning the mound was still smoldering in
the middle of the street as cars had to drive around it.
About a month later is the moon cake festival when people give each other
moon cakes and the children go out at night and shine their lanterns with
candles or flashlights. It is a fun celebrations that we enjoyed at home in
company of our landlady and her family. I bought some moon cakes for people on
the Jetty and the students that I was teaching English. It was a way of
indirectly giving face to people without having to be reciprocated. Everyone
will refuse the cakes but they are all secretly happy to get them. Moon cakes
come in all sizes and kinds and can be quite expensive. People spend a couple
of hundred dollars on them, and the most famous bakery that makes moon cakes
does a booming business.
We tried buying there that morning and the crowd of Chinese went out to the
street. One older Chinese woman kept trying to cut in front of the line and
would refuse to take her place behind everyone else. She kept asking everyone
to buy her cakes for her but everybody refused her. Finally she nudged in
front of my wife, but the man served my wife first and ignored her. We were
told that the patriarch of this traditional bakery had died and the children
have begun squabbling over the inheritance, so they decided to close it and go
their separate ways. This was supposed to be the last year they would sell
moon cakes. We went downstairs and lit the candles in the lanterns with the
little girls that night. We ate moon cake and drank beer and soda and sat
under the moonlight. It was one of the brightest nights of the year, and we
talked until quite late.
The final festival of the year that falls in the Chinese 9th month is the
Vegetarian festival (Actually, the birthday of the Nine Emperor Gods, from the
1st to the 9th day of the 9th month of the Chinese lunar calendar). During
this time people are supposed to remain vegetarian for several weeks to purify
themselves. Everything is done in yellow instead of the traditional red, and
the color change makes a striking contrast. Only certain temples celebrate
this festival. One should not enter the temple during this time if one has
been eating meat, so we did not venture into them since we had not abstained
Yellow boat made of
the Vegetarian Festival
On the night of the celebration Chinese undergo self-mortification
and flagellation rituals that are bloody and make the Khavadi carriers look
tame. Several mediums of the temple will go into trance. They cut their
tongues and write talismans with the blood. They dip their hands in hot oil
and flagellate themselves with a ball with spikes in it. They sit on a chair
made of swords upon a float in a procession. A boat is brought down to the
ocean off one of the Jetties late at night where they cast it off into the
sea. A friend from the Jetty who took part in the ceremonies helped cast it
Chair with sword blades in-set for the final bloody ritual
During our time in Penang we missed several of the ritual celebrations. We
never actually attended a funeral, though we had seen numerous funeral
parades. We attended one and a half small weddings. Hari Raya Puasa during
which the Moslems celebrate the end of the month of Ramadan, came and went but
we knew no Malays to help celebrate it. We went down to Komtar where booths
for selling food had been set up for the Hari Raya, and we ate there that day.
The Christians celebrate Saint Anne's Festival on the last Sunday of July,
across the channel on the mainland in the town of Bukit Mertajam. A lot of
non-Catholics (and non-Christians) also worship her. Candles are lit for
favors asked and granted. Some people do penance and beg in front of the
church. At night there is a procession around the church where the statue of
St. Anne is paraded around the church compound.
We did not participate in any Deepavali rituals, the Hindu "Festival
of Lights," when Hindus go to the temple to pray and visit relatives, and
light oil lamps around their homes to celebrate the triumph of light over
We missed Wesak day (May 19th), the Buddha's birthday in which a float with
Lord Buddha's statue is brought out and paraded around some streets of Penang.
It is a big day for all the Buddhists. We missed the Chang day (the
"Double fifth," or the fifth day of the fifth lunar month of the
Chinese Lunar Calendar) when dragon boat races are held and when people make
and give each other dumplings and pray. A couple of families on the Jetty gave
us an abundance of dumplings.
There are numerous other festival celebrations throughout the
year--Christian Easter and Christmas, the Mooncake and Lantern Festival, Tamil
New Year or Varusha Pirapu, Sonkran, the Sikh New Year, Masi Maham, Sang Cho
Koon--far too many to count.
Our relationship with the people on the Jetty where we had done most of our
field work had changed in the course of the year, and toward the end we were
left with the distinct impression by many people that they didn't want us
there and were ready for us to leave. At that point we sort of let go of the
image control business and resigned ourselves to whatever we had already
accomplished. After all, it was not our world.
So we withdrew from the Jetty more and more except once or twice to just
walk around and take pictures. I had a several shipping crates to build with a
few hand tools, and we had to arrange for our return to the U.S. We had little
remaining to accomplish except to get ready for our departure and go to the
market in the morning and to talk with our British friends upstairs.
There was a critical turning point that stands out in my mind as when the
change began in our relation to the Jetty and Penang, that may have marked the
beginning of our withdrawal from it all. This was the point at which my
daughter began having some problems at her Day Care with some of the other
students and with not eating her lunch and crying all day. What we figured was
that the one or two days spent on the Jetty with us was enough to cause a
strong enough sense of contradiction in her life, of appropriate behavioral
responses to different settings, that it made it difficult for her to operate
in the school away from us. On the Jetty everyone had been feeding her by
hand--other children, older teenagers, even adults. On the other hand, there
was an underlying sense of resentment and even anger or frustration sometimes
directed towards her, a sense that was clearly evident in the analysis of some
of the drawings. Children were frequently taunting and teasing her when they
thought we weren't paying any attention. Even adults liked to tease her by
taking her things from her and hiding them. It was Mahala herself who wanted
to stop going to play at the Jetty, even though she seemed to have fun there,
submerged in world of laughing, screaming children.
It turned out that when she returned to school she would refuse to eat her
lunch unless the teachers fed her themselves. We would not permit it any
longer after we found out about it and we suspected that kids at the Day Care,
mostly from upper-middle class backgrounds, were possibly also teasing her. We
seemed to be losing control over the situation. At first I reasoned that she
may be spending too much time at the Day Care, and so I changed her schedule
to 3 days a week. But taking her to the Jetty more frequently threw her
behavior between there and school even into greater imbalance, and her
problems at the school appeared to worsen. So I quit taking her to the Jetty
except infrequently, and her behavior at the school soon got better.
We also were burned out on a lot of things. We grew tired of waiting for
and riding on the bus, or of walking around the dirty streets of Penang in the
hot sun and the rain. We went only when we really needed something. We stopped
going to the morning market, and instead began buying our food at stalls
nearby our house. Mahala had some time ago quit asking us to take her to
MacDonald's and had even taken a liking to char koay teow and to Hokkien mee
without the balachan (chili-shrimp paste).
Mahala in our final
month in Penang, quite adjusted to things.
The last few days before we left we checked into a reasonably priced 3 star
hotel on the resort beaches so I could take my daughter swimming in the pool,
and she could play in the sand. About half the people I taught English to on
the Jetty showed up bearing gifts. We talked, walked on the beach, played some
games on the lawn, watched TV, and went out and ate dinner. British and
Chinese people showed up for the next two nights, and though we had been
mostly alone for the previous 8 months, we did not have one minute to
ourselves our last three days in Penang. On the last day a couple of families
from the Jetty and some British came to visit us. One family came twice,
bearing gifts of food for us to take back to the U.S. Our shipping agent
friend showed up late that night, and offered to take us to the airport early
the next morning for our flight. The next morning we left.
1 Rosie Tan's study (1958) deals with "kramats" as local shrines
dedicated to honored spirit deities, marking often the graves of local holy
men or founding fathers, and the more popular of which attract a great many
pilgrims and supplicants. Private "kramats" do not have a "Dato
Kramat" and therefore require a spirit medium to call upon and intercede
with the spirits on behalf of the worshippers. Worshippers beseech the advice
and aid of the Dato Kramats for a variety of reasons--for husbands, for
children, for health, or for information.
I attended with my wife and her friends a "birthday party" for a
local Malay deity. The party went for three days straight and was attended by
numerous Chinese, many of whom were quite respectable and well-off. The spirit
medium was a Chinese man dressed in the outfit of a Malay bomoh. It was
conducted in a Chinese home in which the Shrine had been erected. The birthday
was given for the benefit of children who had been born with handicaps. Many
Chinese attended and gave offerings of donations in exchange for talismans.
Food was served freely--nasi kunyit (yellow rice cooked with coconut milk),
chicken curry, beehoon. No pork was served--the food was cooked in brand new
pots and pans for purity. The Datuk smoked "cheroot," a heavy Malay
cigar, and went into a trance, danced the "ronggeng" with Malay
dancing girls as well as with Chinese. There was a Malay band. The datok
performed "automatic writing"--giving talismans. People kept note of
what he would mark upon the ground--word of each number spreading through the
crowd like wildfire. An older Chinese matron went into a trance and began
dancing--becoming the focal point for the audience. The ceremony would last
from evening until midnight. In the morning there were prayer sessions which
people would randomly visit. Many people there were very traditionally
Chinese, yet the Malay elements, the structure of the whole ceremony, and the
syncretism of the event, its spiritual importance for a larger urban
community, could not be ignored.
Robert Winzeler records a similar celebration (1983:21-2), as does Tan
Chee-Beng in his description of the Peranakan Chinese from the same area, but
as a Hokkien festival incorporating Thai elements of the menora (1982:42).
The menora or "Nora Chatri," is a local Thai-Malay folk dance
form that derived from the Sudhana-Manohra tale of the Jatakas. Its
features and associated beliefs are strongly linked to animistic and
shamanistic orientations "upon which the Sudhana-Manohra" story has
been planted" (Yousof 1982:53; Khoo 1990:20-24; Tan 1990:16-19).
The dance lasts for three consecutive nights, and is performed for ritual
occasions as well as for entertainment. Part of the performance involves an
opening trance session in which performers and non-performers participate to
the rhythms of the gamelan music which slowly and steadily increases its
tempo. The trancer is possessed by a local spirit who descends to take
possession of the trancer's body. The trance state involves a noticeable
change in behavior--shivering, sometimes violent behavior, and the name of the
possessing spirit is revealed. Following the trance session are the
presentations of sets of lakons, or plays, by the menora dancers.
My wife was taken by her mother to one of these dances in Penang held by
Peranakans (creole Chinese-Malay) in a local town. She went every year. It was
attended mostly by Chinese, except for a Malay man who had married a Chinese.
They attended all three days. The musical instruments would begin around 10:00
in the morning, breaking only for lunch and dinner, and quitting late, after
midnight. Everyday the "gaku" in charge would go into trance, in the
morning, and again in the evening, everyday of the performance. He would sit
on the floor cross-legged, to enter the trance. This is a typical Malay way.
He would wear a Malay shawl, chew sireh, and put Malay tobacco into his mouth.
People would consult him for their problems. Donations were given voluntarily
outside in a box. Different deities would possess him--speaking Thai or Malay
for the respective deities. An older brother always acted as the interpreter.
The last spirit to enter him would be a tiger--crawling around the floor,
picking up food that is given as offerings, and pointing at people to give the
food to--so that everyone who is related to him gets something.
2 A friend wanted to give us this ceremony while in Malaysia because of a
small streak of misfortunes we had been having. My wife gave me a variant of
the same bath during a later period in which we were having a run of hard
times. She mixed the flower petals from seven different kinds of flowers, and
cut half a lime, and poured the water over my head three times. "The
client or the person on whose behalf the client sought the spirit medium's
help, has to have a bath including a hair wash before taking a ritual bath.
The lime is squeezed and the juice is then poured over the body of the person.
The spirit medium stresses that the pulp of the lime must be thrown away after
the ritual bath (Ng 1983:118).
3 The fifteenth night,
We invite our ancestor's to come and drink tea,
The tea is very hot,
We walk and buy bananas,
We forgot to peel the bananas,
We walk and buy books,
We forgot to read the books,
We walk and buy the ink stone,
We forgot to grind the ink stone,
We walk and buy a snake,
We forgot to catch the snake,
We walk and buy wooden clogs,
We forget to wear the wooden clogs,
We walk and buy the Mina birds,
Male Mina bird, Female Mina bird,
Dead children, push it all down.
(scolding children for knocking all the prayer things down)
4 Chinese believe that when a person is very ill, it is because they are
"haun tuek" (met with evil spirits). "Kiow kia" means
"chasing out the evil spirit."
Graves at the largest Chinese cemetery on the island were counted over a
three week period during the first part of April for a week before and a
couple of weeks following what is known as "Cheng Beng." The purpose
behind the count was to see the ratio of graves visited compared to those
which remained unvisited during this season. Visited graves were relatively
easy to identify, with the paper money, joss sticks, candles and other votive
offerings left there after the visitation. Unvisited graves were easy to
identify not only for the lack of these leftovers, but also from the general
lack of up keep, the overgrown state of the weeds and the grass, of the grave
Overall, out of 40 counts of an average of 92.9 graves per count (3717
total) an average of about 34.1 were visited (1,363 total), about 36.8% of the
total. The period was divided into the first ten days and the subsequent seven
days. In the first period, a total of 20 counts had an average of 114.85
graves per count and an average of 31.5 visited graves (27.43%). In the second
period, a total of 20 counts had an average
of 71 graves per count and an average of 36.65 graves visited (61.82 %). It
can be seen that by the last week of this three week period, the number of
visited graves goes from just over a quarter to just under 2/3's of the total
number of graves counted. This difference between visited and unvisited graves
is significant well past the .001 level with a Chi square test of 114.47.
It is interesting that newer graves could also be distinguished from the
older grave sites, and that for the first two weeks average visitation of the
new grave sites was 23.68%, but jumps up to 84.32% by the last week. On the
other hand, older grave sites are visited 28% during the first two weeks, and
go up to 46.72% in the last week. These differences between older and newer
visited and unvisited grave sites are all significant with the Chi square test
past the .001 level. The greater variability of the old grave sites visited is
accountable for because of the different locations of old graves counted--some
of the oldest sections of the cemetery remained unvisited compared with newer
It can be interpreted that more than 3/4s of the newer graves are visited,
and these graves represent mostly second or third generation ascending. The
older grave sites which fall to less than 50 percent visited represent the
termination line between third and fourth generations ascending. It seems that
actual ancestor worship and filial piety extend back at most to the third
generation, but quickly falls away by the fourth generation. As an informant
told us, too old is not good, great grandparents will eat one's children. If
we allow about 25 years for each generation, we can assume that graves over 75
years of age will most likely be forgotten, and that graves over 50 years old
will have only a 50 percent chance of being visited, whereas grave sites less
than 25 years old will have a 2/3's to 3/4 percent chance of being visited.
Children remember their parents, and widowers their spouses and siblings, but
with each successive generation this memory lapses. Another qualitative
difference between older and newer graves are that among the older sites there
are many grand tombs, with many very humble markers scattered in between. With
newer sites there is greater uniformity in both style of construction and in
the laying out. Space is more precious and the density of graves is greatly
6 Similar to "siang poay," which uses to blocks of wood for
speaking with the Gods, "pak puay" uses two coins for speaking with
ones ancestors. Heads and tails are an affirmative response. "Two tails
shows that it (the ancestor) is amused, but it is not ready to stop eating.
Two heads signify that it is annoyed at being hurried" (Chia 1994:29-30).
It is not wise to hurry ones ancestors when eating.
7 Purcell (1948:120-2) makes extensive reference to the origin of the
Goddess of Mercy, who is the counterpart of the Taoist goddess "T'ien Hou
Sheng Mu" or "Holy Mother, Queen of Heaven," from 2587 B. C.,
and who is derived from the Buddhist Bodhisattva Avalokiteswara, from India.
She shares many affinities with the Virgin Mary."Her chief sanctuary in
China is at P'u T'o Island off the coast of Chekiang. In the household shrine
she is a favourite deity. In Penang there are three temples dedicated to her
and she has images in most other temples. In Malacca Kwan Yin's temple is
called T'sing Wan Ting, or Blue Clouds Temple" (Purcell 1948:122).
8 If a woman dies in childbirth, then her spirit is always in a vat of
blood. If the child survives and grows up and becomes married, only then can
they pray and bring her out. If the mother and child die, her other children
can bring her out. If there are no children, then her siblings can do it for
9 We talk with the son of the secretary of the association and we are told
to wait. We hear from an informant that when his father held the urn he won
the lottery and became very rich, so that is why his son, who lives outstation
(in the hinterland), started coming to pray here. The eyes of all the gods are
covered with paper so they cannot see out.
10 "Siang poay"--two kidney shaped, palm-sized divination blocks,
one side flat, the other rounded, used for "speaking" with the Gods.
They are repeatedly thrown up in the air, and until one flat side is up and
the other down. This is taken as an "affirmative" response by the
God ("open and shut") otherwise the God says "no" or is
11 There is no limit on the number of roasted pigs. The cost of each pig is
at least RM $100 to RM $200, and sometimes over RM $300. The smaller the pig
the more expensive it is. The larger the pig the cheaper (per kati). One about
the size of a small 2x3 foot coffee table will cost about RM $220. They
calculate the size of the pig in katis.