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Tian Hock Kung – The Snake Temple of Klang

I’ve always had a fascination with temples—and being raised a Buddhist (the faith of which a majority of Malaysian Chinese people profess to), I’ve been to my fair share of unique places of worship in Malaysia. Among them are:

But just when I think I’ve seen it all, my backyard surprises me with a hidden gem — Tian Hock Kung, also dubbed the “Snake Temple of Klang”. I chanced upon some pictures online while doing research; there wasn’t a lot of info available in English, but it was enough to pique my inner travel journalist. So I decided to drag the Hubs, a fellow person of culture, on an impromptu adventure to seek out the place.

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Once the capital of Selangor, Klang is one of the region’s oldest cities, known for its colonial buildings and rich heritage sites. It has a huge Hokkien Chinese population, and as such, there are dozens of beautiful Chinese temples within the city, some of which are over a hundred years old.

Tian Hock Kung is tucked in a quiet locality next to the Klang River, a few minutes drive from the city centre. There are no signs along the way pointing to the temple and the building is hidden from the main road by foliage, but it’s not that difficult to find (you can Waze there, or look out for Klinik Kesihatan Sungai Berthek, which is just next to it).

Even though it was a weekend, and most temples would have seen at least some visitors, it was so quiet that we thought the place was not open to visitors. But since the gate was open, we ventured in cautiously. No caretaker was present; we were greeted only by a skinny black and white dog, ie the informal temple guardian.

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On the outside, Tian Hock Kung looks like an ordinary Chinese temple, with all the elements — curved orange roofs, lots of red, typical Chinese motifs. But as you walk closer, you’ll see why they call it Snake Temple.

In place of dragons or phoenixes, which are common motifs that represent auspiciousness and prosperity, you’ll find dozens of life-like snake statues and carvings; coiled around pillars in menacing poses and perched atop roofs.

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Even for someone without ophidophobia (fear of snakes), looking at the figures can trigger a feeling of uneasiness — even though they are clearly not alive. I think it stems from a primal sort of fear : a NatGeo article suggests that fear of snakes may be hardwired, a remnant from a time when being wary of dangerous animals gave humans an evolutionary advantage. Even though only one in five snakes are venomous (a smaller number are fatal to humans), and snakes are generally shy creatures that would run away from people rather than attack them, I think the natural reaction for many of us towards snakes is to get the hell away from them, lol.

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A large green snake figure surrounded by flowers and plants on a giant wheeled float.

There is also, perhaps, another reason why we fear snakes. Their appearance and slithering movements seem cold and alien; far removed from mammals like ourselves, and so unlike cuddly, furry animals such as dogs and cats.

PS: For those unaware, a majority of the Malaysian Chinese population subscribe to an amalgamation of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, the latter two which incorporates many elements of traditional Chinese folklore and pagan practices of ancestor worship. Tian Hock Kung is primarily a Taoist temple, but it has a Guanyin statue as well, which is worshipped in both Buddhism as a bodhisattva, and Taoism as a deity/god.

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So why does this temple have so many representations of snakes?

Since I couldn’t find a caretaker to answer my questions, I can only rely on info I found online (most of these are written in Mandarin, which I can’t read lol and had to Google translate— so excuse me if I get some things wrong in translation).

The deities worshipped here are three sworn brothers, and like many Taoist deities, they are based on real historical figures. They are Zhang Gong Sheng Jun, Xiao Gong Sheng Jun, and Hong Gong Sheng Jun. You will find their statues inside the temple, with the main deity sporting a green face.

I’m not 100% sure which brother it is (I think it’s Zhang Gong Sheng Jun) but the god has an affinity for snakes and was known for defeating a thousand-year old snake demon. He also carries a magical weapon that used to be a snake which he subdued. You can read about the legend here.

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The interior of the temple is quite spacious, and the ceiling features an octagonal window with a Yin Yang motif — the primary symbol of Taoism — surrounded by other Taoist symbols that represent the different Immortals, such as the fan, gourd, iron crutch, and flute. In the centre of the room are several small but intricately carved wooden shrines with wooden seats on them (I’ve seen this before and I think they’re used to carry the deity statues out on religious parades). During our visit, there were also large stacks of paper offerings, sorted into neat bundles.

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Of course, it won’t be a Snake Temple without at least one resident snake — a huge albino python in a cage in the corner. Apparently snakes used to come here from time to time (on their own). According to a China Press article, in 2011, a six-foot-long python climbed into the temple and made a cozy nook for itself behind the altar, just before the deity’s birthday celebration. However, the snakes don’t come anymore, likely due to the surrounding neighbourhood’s development.

PS2: The northern state of Penang, another Chinese majority place, also has a snake temple, but instead of being in cages, the snakes roam freely around the temple. The history behind that temple is super interesting too, but I haven’t visited, and that would be a story for another time.

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Wall paintings. I think they tell the story of the deities worshipped at this temple.
Not being able to read Chinese characters is a real bummer. :c
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The main altar has been designed to look like a cave, complete with stalactites and outcroppings. There are three nooks, each housing one deity. The main one, as mentioned, has a green face, with a dragon on its back, and many smaller deities at the base. There are also large snakes with glowing LED eyes on each side of the central altar.

Unlike Buddhist statues, which often have serene, calm expressions, Taoist gods can appear quite….intimidating. In Cantonese, we call it having a strong sat hei, or ‘killing’ aura — ie a fierce disposition which is meant to scare away evil. You need not fear if you’re not an evil-doer, but those with evil in their hearts, beware.

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More paper offerings, these in the shape of clothes.
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Why pineapples? Pineapples are symbols of prosperity and good luck — the Hokkien word for pineapple ‘ong lai’, sounds like ‘prosperity comes’.
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The entire time we were roaming around and taking photos, there was not a soul in sight. I would have liked to speak to the caretaker to understand more about the place, but it was also a positive experience in a way, as I could take my time exploring without having to worry about bothering anyone.

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While on my way to the toilet, I chanced upon an area that was almost hidden from sight, adjacent to the main building. Peeking in, I saw that it was a shrine to the Taoist god of the underworld, Yanluo Wang. The entrance was designed to look like the gates of Hell, flanked by Hell’s guardians in Chinese mythology, Ox-Head and Horse-Face. As the name suggests, they have the bodies of men, but the head of an ox and the face of a horse. They are believed to escort newly deceased souls to face Yan Wang’s judgement, where they will subsequently be sent to the different levels of hell for punishment, based on their earthly crimes, or sent on to heavenly realms if they’ve been good people. Trivia: Japanese mythology has similar beliefs, where they are known as Gozu and Mezu.

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If what the temple committee wanted to achieve was to evoke a sense of fear and apprehension, then they certainly succeeded. The shrine was located lower than ground level, so visitors would have to descend steps to get closer (I did not because no way, Jose), and it was also bathed in an eerie blue light.

Instead, I respectfully (call me superstitious if you like, better safe than sorry!) asked for permission to take photos (the husband, a Christian, looked at me with a funny expression at what must seem to him absurd; ie me talking to the air, lol).

There were baskets of paper offerings lined up on one side of the shrine, a small table and chair on the other with some teapots (for mediums to channel the gods, perhaps?) on the other. Like at the main shrine, Yanluo Wang’s shrine was made to look like a cave, with the deity elevated on an outcropping, flanked by his assistants, the Black and White Guards (Heibai Wuchang). Taoism is heavy on balance, and like the concept of Yin and Yang, the Hei Bai Wuchang represent rewarding the good, and punishing the evil.

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Before leaving, I paid a visit to the Na Tuk Kong shrine within the temple’s compound. You might be wondering why there’s a dome resembling a mosque, and why the deity within seems to be wearing traditional Malay clothes. Well, when the Chinese migrated to Malaya centuries ago, they brought their folk worship beliefs with them; that is, paying respects to the local guardians and spirits they may encounter in this new land. Malays probably have another word for it — penunggu.

Klang’s Snake Temple is an interesting look into the Malaysian Chinese community’s way of life, culture, and beliefs. It’s a unique mixture of adherence to long held traditions passed down through hundreds, perhaps thousands of years – combined with new influences shaped by centuries of migration and assimilation. Definitely one of the more unique temples around!

TIAN HOCK KUNG (KLANG SNAKE TEMPLE 巴生天福宫)

Lot 3115 & 3116, Jalan Siakap, Jln Tepi Sungai, Taman Teluk Pulai, 41100 Klang, Selangor

Opening hours: 9AM – 11PM (daily)

PS: I hope you liked this post! Please consider supporting my blog via Patreon, so I can make more. Or buy me a cup of coffee on Paypal @erisgoesto

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Beautiful 130 Year-Old Malaysian Chinese Temple: Kwan Imm Temple, Klang

Mention Klang, and the first thing that comes to mind is probably bak kut teh – the town’s most famous dish comprising pork ribs, mushrooms and beancurd cooked in a complex broth of herbs and spices.

But dive deeper and you’ll find that the royal town of Selangor has plenty to offer, from vibrant cultural hubs – such as the Little India district, where one can shop for spices and sarees, or tuck into authentic Indian cuisine – to beautiful heritage sites like Kwan Imm Teng, a historic 130-year old Chinese temple dedicated to Guan Yin, the Buddhist/Taoist goddess of mercy.

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Founded in 1892, the original temple consisted of a simple wooden pavilion, built by Hokkien immigrants from China who settled in Klang during the tin mining boom. Since then, the temple has been relocated three times, to its current location along Jalan Raya Barat. Today, visitors are welcomed by an impressive outer pavilion, complete with studded wooden doors, lionhead-shaped door knockers, and lanterns.

Video below. Subscribe to my Youtube channel if you haven’t already!

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Entering the temple grounds, you will come to the grand-looking central pavilion. On both sides of the archways are granite stone carvings depicting figures of deities and dragons. Meanwhile, the building’s eaves are tiered and resemble clouds, while the roof boasts the signature Chinese temple look, with curved edges. Offerings of joss sticks may be made and placed into the large urn facing the structure. In the middle of the pavilion sits an intricately carved wooden shrine housing Budai, or the Laughing Buddha.

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Look up and marvel at the richly carved and gilded ceiling, which form a mesmerizing spiral pattern around several sacred symbols made to look like a flower. Coincidentally, you’ll see the colours of Buddhism (white, yellow, red, blue, and green) widely represented here. These colours are also common in Chinese culture and architecture, as they represent the five elements, namely wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.

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The temple’s spacious courtyard comes in handy during religious festivals or ceremonies.

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Moving on to the innermost pavilion, the structure features a more enclosed design, its facade mostly covered in intricate stone reliefs and carvings. Once again, dragons, deities, clouds, and flowers are common motifs — but instead of a curved roof, the inner pavilion’s design is features more tiers, and appears more angular.

Our timing was unfortunate as the hall was closed for prayers. I caught a glimpse of the interior, though, which has an even grander ceiling, as well as a large statue of Guan Yin.

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Fun fact for my non-Chinese friends who are wondering why dragons are so common in Chinese culture. In Chinese mythology and folklore, dragons are considered benevolent creatures, with magical powers that allow them to control wind, rain, and water. As such, they are meant to symbolize strength, power, and good luck. Some Chinese families still consider it auspicious to have babies born in the Dragon Year of the Chinese zodiac (the next cycle is in 2024, so if you want a Dragon baby, plan accordingly :P).

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Just outside the prayer hall you can perform kau chim, an ancient Chinese fortune telling practice which involves asking the divine for answers to any questions that a devotee has. The practice is said to have originated in the Jin dynasty around 3AD. And because Chinese culture has strong Buddhist roots, a lot of these folk practices assimilated into religion — which is why you’ll often be able to kau chim at Chinese Buddhist/Taoist temples.

Each cylinder contains a bundle of sticks, each with a number. Devotees shake the container until one falls out — then match it to the corresponding fortune. Back in the day, it was more common to find a fortune teller on site, who would interpret the fortune written on the paper in context to your question. These days, like everything else, it’s self-service. lol

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Just next to the inner pavilion is a smaller, simpler structure housing two Buddhas. This is actually the ‘original’ building before the temple was expanded, and you can see the foundation stone on one side of the wall.

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We’re not done exploring! Don’t forget to stop by the adjacent Chinese-style garden for some rest and respite from the hustle and bustle of Klang. It comes complete with pond stocked with koi fish, a small bridge, a gazebo, and plenty of greenery.

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A tranquil oasis in the heart of the city.

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To be honest, I’m surprised there isn’t more publicity for Kwan Imm Temple as a tourist attraction, given it’s rich history and beautiful architecture. While locals seem to know about it, I wouldn’t have found out about the place if I hadn’t specifically been googling “places to visit in Klang”.

So the next time you’re in town for a bak kut teh fix, allocate some time to stop by Kwan Imm Temple. Entrance is free. They’re okay with photos, but as with any place of worship, be respectful during your visit. 🙂

KWAN IMM TENG (KWAN IMM TEMPLE) KLANG

30, Jalan Raya Barat, Selangor Darul Ehsan, 41000 Klang, Selangor

PS: I hope you liked this post! Please consider supporting my blog via my Patreon, so I can make more. Or buy me a cup of coffee on Paypal @erisgoesto.

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Attractions in Jenjarom, Selangor – Ban Siew Keng Temple

It has been months since I last traveled anywhere other than a mall for groceries (due to the COVID situation in Malaysia) – but since travel restrictions have recently been eased, the fam and I decided to go on a quick day trip to Jenjarom over the weekend.

Tucked between Banting and Klang, about an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur, Jenjarom is a mid-sized town with a population of about 30,000. The town grew from a Chinese new village – settlements that the British set up during the height of the communist insurgency in Malaya so they could keep an eye on the local Chinese population – which is why a majority of the current Jenjarom residents is Malaysian Chinese, of Hokkien descent. In the 1990s, when youth unemployment soared, the area became infamous for gangsterism and other social ills such as prostitution and gambling.

Thankfully, these days, the town is better known for its tourism, especially from the Fo Guang Shan Dong Zen temple, a massive temple-cum-attraction by the Taiwan-based Fo Guang Shan monastic order. Chinese New Year is a good time to visit, as the temple holds a grand celebration every year, complete with stunning decorations. (I visited in 2017; read about it here.)

Although FGS gets more tourists, there’s actually another temple within town that is worth a visit. Enter Ban Siew Keng, which is located just a stone’s throw away from FGS.

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The story goes that there used to be four small Chinese temples in Jenjarom, each dedicated to a deity. It was costly and difficult to have four celebrations for each deity, so in the 1950s, the villagers pooled their money and resources to build a temple to house all the deities under one roof. Thus, Ban Siew Keng was born. The original building was a simple wooden structure, but it has since been renovated into the grand structure that we see today. The temple grounds have also expanded to include parking spaces, a food court, and a small but well kept park.

Video here if you’re lazy to scroll:

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Even the furnace for burning offerings is beautifully decorated!

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Stone steps leading up to the main shrine, complete with dragon carvings and the customary foo dogs guarding the entrance.
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Ban Siew Keng’s architecture is typical of many Chinese temples, in that it mixes elements of Buddhism, Taoism and Confuciusnism, as well as those of Chinese culture. Think red lanterns, dragons coiled around stone pillars and scenes of Taoist gods like the 8 Immortals hand painted on the walls, fierce-looking ‘door gods’ (they’re deities that guard the temple against evil spirits).

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The design here actually reminds me of Thean Hou Gong temple in Kuala Lumpur, especially the combination of red pillars and green roof tiles with blue and gold dragon motifs. Like Thean Hou temple, Ban Siew Keng also has a ‘dome’ on the ceiling above the altar, with a dragon at its centre surrounded with beautiful carvings.

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I also like the open space they have in the middle of the temple, which resembles the courtyards you find in old Chinese mansions. This allows for plenty of natural sunlight to filter in, so the space feels bright and airy. Despite the sweltering heat outside, the temple is quite cool, thanks to the lofty ceiling and marble floors.

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Scenes of gods and deities in heaven are painted all around the interior of the temple.
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The main altar is a spectacular piece of work, intricately carved and painted over in gold and red.

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The caretaker said it was okay to take a closer look, so I went right up to the front of the altar. Although it was mentioned that the temple was built to house four deities, there are actually five at the altar, including a Buddha. I recognised one as Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy in Taoism and Buddhism. The caretaker mentioned the name of the principal deity, but I forgot coz he told it to me in Mandarin and y’all know my Mandarin sucks, lol. 😛 There are two sets of statues on display. I’m guessing the smaller ones are from the original temples, as they look a bit weathered.

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Aside from the four main deities + Buddha, there are other deities as well, housed next to the main altar.
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In the old days, fortune tellers would setup their shop either within or outside the temple. You would get a ‘cheem’, or fortune stick, by shaking it from a wooden container until one fell out, then take the stick to the fortune teller to have your fortune interpreted. These days, temples use these contraptions where all you have to do is bunch up your sticks and drop them into the hole at the centre – the one that sticks up is your fortune. You then look for the slot corresponding to the number on your stick, and voila! Fortune.

Unfortunately, the fortunes at this temple are written in Chinese, unlike the ones at Thean Hou temple where you also get an English translation. So once again, my banana-ness proved to be a disadvantage.

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You can get a wishing ribbon to toss over the branches of the tree outside. This is more a cultural rather than a religious thing; in the old days, people would write down their wishes on ribbons and if you manage to snag it over a tree, your wish would come true, that sort of thing.

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The park outside is small but good for a short stroll. You can take photos with the 12 Chinese zodiac animals. Guess what my sign is?

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So if you’re coming to Jenjarom for a daytrip, do stop by Ban Siew Keng! FGS is a great place to visit and it’s much larger, but I think Ban Siew Keng has its own charm, and a very interesting history. It stands as a monument to the resilience of Jenjarom’s people, and how they’ve made a life for themselves from a small Chinese new village to the town it is today.

BAN SIEW KENG TEMPLE

Lot 5623, Jalan Sungai Buaya,Sungai Jarom, 42600 Jenjarom, Kuala Langat,  Selangor.

*No opening hours listed.

Getting there

Your best bet is by car, as there doesn’t seem to be a lot of public transport to Jenjarom. According to Moovit, the Wawasan Putera bus 730 stops at Jenjarom between Banting and Klang, and its 734 bus travels the route between Pasar Seni in Kuala Lumpur and Banting, with a stop in Jenjarom.

If you like this content, consider supporting me on Patreon. You can also buy me a cup of coffee on Paypal. Happy travels!

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Hungry Ghost Festival: When The Gates of Hell Open

Come straight home from college after class. Don’t loiter around until late at night.” 

Don’t stare and point at people by the road.” 

Wash your feet properly after coming home.” 

Back when I was younger, these were just some of the things my mother used to caution me about whenever the Hungry Ghost Festival approached. Celebrated in many parts of Asia, predominantly among Chinese communities, the festival proper falls on the 14th day of the 7th month according to the lunisolar calendar (August 22 this year) – but the entire 7th month is generally known as Ghost Month.

During this time, ghosts and spirits are believed to wander the earthly realm, so the living pay homage to their ancestors as well as lost spirits by burning offerings, as a form of merit making. The practice can be traced to the ancient Chinese practice of ancestor worship, but over the years, has evolved to absorb elements of Taoism and Buddhism as well.

Like many young people, I used to think superstitions associated with the Hungry Ghost Festival were a load of baloney – but I guess with age comes the wisdom of hindsight, and an understanding of how cultural beliefs are tied to our identity and our place in the world. These are practices that have been passed down through the generations, sometimes for thousands of years – and in a rapidly modernising world, there’s something to be said about keeping them alive, even though you might not believe in them per se.

While my family is not particularly traditional, we do observe some superstitions and practices which I think are quite fascinating, especially to people of other cultures. There are also differences between how it is celebrated and observed among Chinese diasporas around the world, such as in Malaysia, where I am from. So without further ado, here are some interesting facts and trivia about the Hungry Ghost Festival! 

OFFERINGS

During the Ghost Month, the gates of Hell are opened and spirits roam the earthly plane. Among them are ancestors whom the living forgot to pay tribute to, those who died without a proper send-off, and lost spirits. Because of this, they are ‘hungry’; hence the importance of providing them with food and entertainment so that they won’t cause harm or mischief.

ProjectManhattan, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Filial piety is an extremely important part of Chinese culture, so even after their death, you are expected to honour your ancestors with offerings of food, drink and material goods. It is common for people to burn paper effigies of items like houses, cars, servants, clothes and hell bank notes, in the belief that these can be enjoyed by the deceased in the afterlife.

There are also people who make offerings for lost souls: those who have no one to pray for them, or victims of suicide, murder or accidents. Aside from accumulating good karma, it is believed that it will appease these angry spirits and prevent them from harming the living. Prayers for lost souls are usually held at temples, or by the road – so if you see people huddling over a fire in the evenings with bowls of food and joss sticks, it is best not to point and stare because you might risk offending wandering spirits.

PAPER EFFIGIES

Paper effigies are an inseparable part of the Hungry Ghost Festival – but if you think they’re just rough, crudely shaped pieces of paper, then you’d be wrong. While I won’t deny that some are printed with machines, there are still effigy makers who make it the traditional way by hand. They are often commissioned to create items such as mansions, life-sized effigies of guardians, servants and deities, vehicles, even ‘designer’ clothes. These master craftsmen are artists in their own right, often creating incredibly intricate pieces that take months to complete. It’s crazy when you think about the amount of time and effort that goes into each piece, only to have them go up in flames in seconds.

Paper effigies are burnt in the belief that the deceased will receive them in the afterlife. As you can see, there can be some pretty quirky items – like gold watches, mobile phones and even dentures! Photo: Jorge Láscar from Australia, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The first time I took part in a paper effigy burning ceremony was when I was eight or nine, and I vividly recall the beautiful patterns on the paper samfoo (traditional Chinese clothing for women, usually with floral patterns) that was meant for my late grandmother. Over the years, paper effigies have become more and more creative (?), with items like mobile phones (what service provider do they use in hell, I wonder?), SIM cards, laptops and the like. My colleagues in Singapore even shared a photo of paper durians with me recently. Now, I definitely don’t subscribe to the idea of my grandparents operating mobile phones and texting each other in the afterlife, but it’s certainly a unique part of the celebration.

GETAI

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Chinese opera was the main form of entertainment during the Hungry Ghost Festival, but these have since been replaced with more modern performances. Photo: grungemann/Flickr

In the old days, villages and towns would host large open-air stages, and a troupe would put on a show in the evenings. The benches at the front were always left empty, as they were meant for unseen guests. Over the years, traditional opera fell out of popularity, but the practice of hosting entertainment for the dead did not – instead, it evolved into Getai, or literally ‘song stage’. I’m not sure how it is celebrated in China as I wasn’t able to find references on the net, but in Malaysia and Singapore they are quirky, lively affairs.

Tents are set up in fields or commercial spaces (where I live, there’s one every year in front of a food court). There would be live auctions and a dinner (proceeds usually go to charity). Sometimes there are still traditional opera performances, but you’ll also get stand-up comedy, entertainers singing pop songs or oldies, and even women dressed in skimpy clothing dancing to modern numbers. This aspect might seem blasphemous to some, but I find it very unique because it goes to show how adaptable Chinese culture can be – you gotta move with the times. In Singapore, where 76% of the population is ethnic Chinese, the getai culture is even bigger; shows are broadcast on national TV.

SUPERSTITION

Every culture has superstitions, but the Chinese in particular have many. Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to cut my nails or whistle at night, because it might attract bad spirits. In retrospect, I think there was a hint of logic behind them: electricity (and nail clippers) did not exist in the old days, so it was dangerous to cut your nails in the dark. Also whistling at night would disturb the peace. But because we often parrot what our elders tell us, we continue handing these superstitions down even in modern times when we can turn on the light with the flip of a switch.
As for Ghost Month, here are just some of the common beliefs:

  1. Don’t stay out late. – Night is when the spirits are at their strongest, so to avoid anything untoward, avoid staying out after dark.
  2. Don’t go swimming – Angry water spirits might try to drown you.
  3. Don’t swear – you don’t know when a spirit might be lurking around and feel offended.
  4. Don’t wear red – apparently spirits are attracted to the colour red, and might follow you home.
  5. Wash your feet when you get home – to get rid of unwanted bad energy.
  6. Don’t hang your clothes out at night – you might just have an extra guest coming into your house when you collect them
  7. Don’t tap someone on the shoulder – it is believed that a person has three ‘lights’ – one on their head and one on each shoulder, which ward off evil spirits. By tapping them, you’re essentially extinguishing the light.
  8. Avoid killing insects – the Chinese have a belief that spirits might be reincarnated as insects like butterflies and moths. They could be visiting relatives, so if you just smacked that moth flat, you might have killed grandma.
  9. Be wary of offerings. – Sometimes people leave offerings out by the side of the road (especially in Malaysia) so it’s best to keep an eye out. You wouldn’t like it if someone stepped all over your food now, would you?
  10. Don’t take photos – The idea of photographs and how they can capture spirits is not unique to Chinese culture. So it’s best not to snap any, especially of offerings. I’m sure you’ve watched Shutter.

As the world grows ever modernised and practices that are deemed old-fashioned and superstitious are abandoned by the younger generation, it is heartening to see that The Hungry Ghost Festival still has its proponents. It’s a case study of how culture is fluid and ever changing; where tradition is valued but also adapts to the times.

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How To Gain Weight: CNY Edition

Happy Chinese New Year!

This year’s festivities are much more subdued due to the pandemic, but I still had an enjoyable time bonding (and eating!) with the family over the weekend. To save on the hassle of preparing an elaborate meal for our reunion dinner night, we decided to have hotpot/barbecue out on the porch. We bought most of the ingredients in advance so we wouldn’t have to rush to the market on the few days leading up to CNY.

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Aside from the quintessential pork belly slices (you can get these from the local butcher nicely packed), our hotpot ‘buffet’ also had all the other essentials: chicken and fish slices, pork balls and fish balls, needle mushrooms, squid, seafood cheese tofu, fried beancurd sheets, and for carbs, udon noodles. Moomins opened a celebratory can of mini abalones – they’re especially cheap this year due to a dip in demand.

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We bought a 2-in-1 BBQ/hotpot stove from Lazada, just for this.

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The soup base we used was from Hai Di Lao. We bought the shrimp flavour thinking it would be mild, but it was actually quite spicy. It also had preserved vegetables, which gave it a sour tang. Personally, I prefer something milkier and sweeter, so I will probably go for another flavour the next time around.

I know processed foods aren’t the healthiest, but seafood cheese tofu and bursting pork balls (above) are my favourites whenever I have hotpot. Seafood cheese tofu is usually made from surimi, so the texture is bouncy, and it has bits of creamy cheese within; while bursting pork balls are so called because there is hot soup in the centre, so caution should be taken whenever you bite into them so the juices within don’t spill everywhere and burn your tongue.

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My parents weren’t keen on the pork belly slices, so my brother and I ate most of them. I can safely say that I ate my fill lol. I prefer mine cooked in the hotpot, because they tend to get crispy and hard on the grill (I like mine to be soft so you can taste the texture of the fat and lean meat). Dip them in some soy sauce and chilli, and voila! Magic. We rarely have hotpot at home, so this was a very satisfying experience.

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By the time we finished dinner and the washing up it was nearly 10pm. We had initially planned to have our yee sang right after, but everyone was too full, so we watched Bad Genius on Netflix and waited for midnight.

Instead of the usual salmon yee sang, we got a fruits version this year. My cousin and his girlfriend are doing it as a part-time business, so it was our way of showing support (I also sent two sets to friends). It was basically a fruit salad consisting of green and red grapes, strawberries, mandarin oranges, carrots, pomegranates and dragonfruit (we didn’t add this in because it was too soft and watery), plus toasted pumpkin and sesame seeds. In place of plum sauce was honey.

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All in all, good, albeit on the sour side despite the addition of honey.

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After all that feasting on reunion dinner night, our first day of CNY was tamer affair. Traditionally, many families will observe a vegetarian meal after the extravagance of the previous night – we had a simple meal of udon and mock meat with fried egg for lunch. Also spent the afternoon playing mahjong. Everyone was rusty, because we only do this once a year lol.

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I received a nice surprise on the morning of Day 2: my friend H sent me a CNY package!

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Went out in the afternoon with Pops to Moon Palace Restaurant, to pick up our order of poon choi. For my non-Chinese readers, it’s basically a Cantonese dish comprised of a pot filled with luxurious seafood and meat items, which are then poured over with a rich sauce. Due to the large portions, it is meant to be shared, and you’ll often see it at festive occasions like Chinese New Year and weddings. I’ve only had poon choi once or twice during food reviews, never with the fam, so it was a first for all of us.

Our poon choi came with abalone, dried oysters stuffed with fat choi (a type of cyanobacteria with the appearance of human hair – it sounds gross lol but tastes like seaweed), roast duck, poached chicken, brocolli, huge shiitake mushrooms, abalone mushrooms, prawns, yam, scallops and roast pork. The oyster sauce that was to be poured over coagulated slightly from the cold, but otherwise everything was excellent. I especially liked the abalone mushrooms: they were thick and juicy. It’s no wonder people use them in making imitation meat – the texture is very similar.

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And finally, to round up our 2nd day, another round of yee sang; this time vegetarian.

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Bonus: Air-dried clay Mandarin Oranges my brother made for fun.

While this CNY lacks the cheer and pomp of yesteryears, I think I actually enjoyed it more. The weekend was spent bonding with the fam, playing Divinity 2: Original Sin, embroidering (new hobby!), and just eating. Like a lot. I think between Pops, the brother and I, we finished five cans of snacks and a dozen canned drinks. Also, I got no exercise in at all, so it’s not surprising that I gained 2kg.

It’s back to the grind tomorrow, and I’ll be getting back into my workout routine as well.

Hope you all had a good celebration!

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This “App” Calls Out Auspicious Sayings For Chinese New Year – So You Don’t Have To

Chinese New Year is just around the corner (the first day falls on 12 February), but with the pandemic still raging in many parts of Southeast Asia, celebrations will definitely be more subdued. In Singapore, for example, gatherings will be limited to eight people, no CNY company dinners are allowed, and shouting during lo hei (the act of tossing yusheng, a ‘fish salad’ often served in Malaysia and Singapore during CNY) is also discouraged. Understandable, since no one wants Fourth Uncle’s spit flying all over the place (even before the pandemic, but I guess back then it was… tolerated). Here in Malaysia, the government has yet to announce an extension of our Movement Control Order, but it seems likely to be extended for another two weeks.

I wrote a piece recently about how certain traditions and practices might be observed differently this year, including e-hongbao and online shopping for clothes – and now we can add one more to the list: an app that calls out auspicious sayings like ‘HUAT AH’ (prosperity/good luck) and BU BU GAO XIN (steps to success). If you think about it, it’s actually quite a brilliant solution for lo hei – since saliva is more likely to fall into food what with all the shouting and yelling of auspicious phrases. Also, since many people won’t have the luxury of visiting their relatives, the app is a fun way to liven up the atmosphere – minus the worry of spreading COVID-19.

Created by a kind soul going by the pseudonym DJ Beng, the ‘app’ (they’re calling it an app but it’s really more of a web page, since it only works on Google Chrome) contains 15 auspicious sayings, which you can tap on for the desired phrase. Some of these include the customary “Nian Nian You Yu” (Luck every year) and Huat Ah. There’s also a separate tab for toasting, ie Yamseng. What I find really cute is that the longer you press the “yamm” button, the longer the audio plays: the effect is really reminiscent of actual toasting during Chinese gatherings, where everyone tries to shout yammmmm as long as possible. The audio even includes the typical ‘out-of-breath’ effect you get from people trying to sustain their shouts, so it sounds very realistic!

Best of all? There are both Mandarin and Cantonese options for the lohei. For Cantonese speakers like myself, this is a joy. Canto is being eroded these days in favour of Mandarin, and it’s always nice to see your own language being celebrated.

You can have a go for yourself at djbeng.com/lohei.html. Note: It only works on the Google Chrome browser on your phone.

*Cover image: Getty Images

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Celebrating Chinese New Year In The Middle Of A Pandemic

Chinese New Year, also called the Lunar New Year, is set to fall on 12 February this year. It marks the beginning of a new year according to the traditional lunar calendar, and heralds the arrival of spring. 

Here in Malaysia, Chinese New Year is a pretty big thing, since people of Chinese descent make up more than 20% of the population (about 6 million people). If this was any other year, CNY decor in malls would have already been up right after Christmas. There’d be cookie displays flooding bakery shelves; Padini/Uniqlo would be packed with shoppers buying new clothes on sale, and we’d all be subjected to the torture of loud, repetitive dong dong chiang music 24 hours a day, 7 days a week across all TV and radio channels. 

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Unfortunately, we are in the middle of a pandemic – and like all the other people who made sacrifices last year for Christmas, Deepavali and Hari Raya, it is now our turn to give up the freedom that we often take for granted: the ability to travel home to see our loved ones.

On 13 January 2021, the Malaysian government implemented a second targeted Movement Control Order (MCO), restricting travel to and from red zone states. Workers in non-essential services are required to work from home, travel is restricted to a 10 kilometre radius to buy groceries and essentials, and eateries are only allowed to run on a take-away/delivery basis. Of course, celebrations of any kind are no longer allowed, as are things like weddings and other events. (Adding to the whole hullabaloo is the national Emergency which was declared by our King because of political in-fighting, but that’s for another entry lol.) 

The last time we had an MCO was back in March 2020, and it lasted for two months. Although the current MCO has only been announced for the next two weeks, many people are foreseeing an extension, at least for a further two weeks. With thousands of cases daily in Malaysia (at the time of this writing, there have been over 100 deaths in the last two weeks), most (sane) people understand that this is necessary to break the infection chain and ensure public health and safety. 

Since no events are allowed and travel is restricted, many of us will have to make do with a quiet celebration at home this year. While we won’t be able to observe certain traditions, I think that technology has allowed us to adapt (and innovate) in ways that would not have been possible 20 or 30 years ago – and we can use that to make CNY 2021 a memorable one. 

Reunion Dinner 

The reunion dinner on the eve of CNY is an integral part of CNY celebrations – some even consider it to be even more important than New Year’s Day.Traditionally, it’s when everyone gathers to feast and wish for a prosperous year ahead, whilst enjoying dishes with auspicious meanings (usually fish, pork, prawn and chicken – since back in the days meat was difficult to come by and would only be eaten on special occasions).

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Fam reunion dinner from 2018

The food for reunion dinners used to be prepared at home by the women folk. More than just preparing a meal, it was a way for people to bond. When my grandparents were still alive, the kitchen on CNY eve was a battlefield, and my grandma commandeered it like a general: slicing, dicing and supervising her helpers (my aunties). I kind of missed that after she passed away. In the last few years, eating out has become a trend, since nobody wants to go through the hassle of cooking and washing up for 20 people. Now that there are once again dine-in restrictions at restaurants, perhaps it’s time we went back to the drawing board and rediscover what it means to cook, and eat, together. 

For those who aren’t able to attend the reunion dinner night, I think it would be a good idea to set up some sort of Skype or Zoom call with family, so that you’d still be able to ‘eat’ together –  sort of like what I did with the hubs for our anniversary last year. It won’t replace being there in person, but in these unprecedented times, we have to make do with what we can – and it will hopefully stave off some of the loneliness that people who live away from home will undoubtedly feel during the festive season. 

Ang Pau Mali

Another tradition synonymous with CNY is the giving of red packets (ang pau) containing money to unmarried members of the family. As a kid, I was always super excited to receive ang paus (RM100 was a lot of money for a kid in the 90s). Funny thing though: at the end of each visit, the money would go to my mom, who’d keep it for ‘investment’…. And I’d never see it again lol. (Just kidding, I love you mom.) 

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Now that I’m married, I’ll no longer be on the receiving end, sadly. Under normal circumstances, it’s understandable not to give an angpau if you’re not visiting a particular relative. Unfortunately for married folk, the emergence of e-wallet apps and e-angpaus means that some of us won’t be able to wriggle out of it with the in absentia excuse: your nephews and nieces will probably say, “Aiya auntie, send it through e-angpau lah!” 

In With The New 

People usually buy new things for CNY (especially clothes), as it signifies a fresh start. Many clothing retailers are not able to open their brick and mortar shops, so more have gone online to provide for their customers. You can also find nice clothes on platforms like Shopee and Lazada for super cheap.

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There are pros and cons to shopping online. While it’s certainly more convenient and safer (no hour-long queue to get into the changing room, no fighting with another auntie for the same shirt you both have your eyes on at the sale rack), it can also be challenging for people with unusual body shapes/sizes, since they can’t see or feel the material/ cutting prior to their purchase. (Like yours truly. I have huge… shoulders. winkwink.) If you’re going to buy stuff online, best do it early to avoid disappointment, in case your item comes late in the mail. 

Chinese New Year foods in Malaysia

*Photo: evelynquek, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Buying gift hampers for associates, or cookies / treats for friends and family is another long standing CNY practice, and again, online shopping makes it convenient to have your items shipped directly to the doorstep of your recipient. As for treats for personal consumption, if you have the time, it might be a good idea to try your hand at baking/making your own. If you’re enterprising, you can even make a larger batch to sell and earn some extra money on the side. 

Cleaning / Decorating the House

People often underestimate the importance of decorating one’s personal space to elevate the mood. I believe it’s crucial; not to show off, but to re-centre yourself and your frame of mind. It’s one of the reasons why I wear office clothes even while working from home, because it kicks my mind into ‘work mode’. Lounging in pyjamas all day is comfy, but it also makes me more inclined to go roll around on the bed every 10 minutes. Similarly, just because no one is visiting for CNY doesn’t mean your house shouldn’t be clean and tidy.  

Unfortunately, technology has not yet evolved to the point where I’m able to kick back with a nice cup of coffee and a book, while my robot assistant does everything for me. So, manual labour it is.

CNY in 2021 will certainly be different, but if you put it into perspective, it’s not all doom and gloom. Traditions are meant to be kept and preserved, but if that isn’t possible due to circumstances beyond our control, then perhaps it’s time to innovate some new traditions. 

That being said, McD’s Prosperity Burger is back on the menu. 

Some things just never change. 

If you enjoyed reading this post, consider giving me a figurative angpau. Contrary to popular belief, I do not make big moolah from writing – and this will go towards hosting fees and ensuring that I can continue to deliver authentic content for your reading pleasure. Thanks for stopping by!

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Review: Delight Seafood Restaurant, Kampung Jawa Ipoh

Happy Chinese New Year, folks!

Celebrations have been quiet ever since my grandmother passed away.

I read somewhere that matriarchs/patriarchs of a family act like glue, holding the fam together. Once they’re gone, it’s hard to get everyone together in the same place. Some cousins have migrated, while others are travelling with their own nuclear fams over the festive season. Traditions like cooking for reunion dinner night or praying to ancestors have been simplified, if not replaced.

Sometimes I envy my friends who are close to their extended families, because my cousins and I do not share the same bonds. Maybe it’s coz we only see each other once a year. I’m sure that after my parents’ generation, these bonds might be broken for good.

Enough depressing talk though : here’s what we had for CNY reunion dinner! Not wanting my aunt (who’s 70 now) to go through the hassle of cooking, we booked dinner at Delight Seafood Restaurant in Kampung Jawa, Ipoh.

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More and more families are doing away with cooking at home in favour of convenience. Restaurants do brisk business during this period, so much so that you have to book a ‘slot’ ie the resto divides diners into two sessions. Ours was at 6.30PM and we had to be out by 8PM to cater to the next round of customers.

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To start things off – the customary yee sang, a raw fish salad that is tossed and mixed while diners utter good wishes for the new year. The version here had jellyfish, pomelo, fish cake, crunchy condiments, peanuts and onions. Presentation was sloppy but the taste was pretty good.

Fun fact: Yeesang has roots in Malaysia/Singapore, not from China.

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Traditionally, Chinese banquet meals are served plate by plate, but since the resto was rushing for time, they decided to serve everything at once. Not a good strategy since there was barely any space left on the table. We were resigned to eating uncomfortably, bowls cramped to the left and right.

(Clockwise from top) Steamed fish, pork knuckle, soy sauce shrimp, stir fried vegetables and (centre) glutinous rice with waxed meats.

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The food was okay, but the only real standout was the glutinous rice, which came with three different cuts of waxed meat – pork, liver and mixed. The pork knuckle was pretty good too, especially the part with the crisp, crackly skin and tender meat underneath layers of fat. Fish was not cooked thoroughly with flesh still sticking to the bone.

The experience could have been better imo, but then again it’s a very busy period for restos and you can’t expect top notch service.

DELIGHT SEAFOOD RESTAURANT 

26, 28, 30, Jalan Dass, Kampung Jawa, 30300 Ipoh, Negeri Perak

Open for lunch and dinner (daily)