Chap Goh Mei: Food and Traditions
Chap Goh (15th) Mei (Night) literally means the 15th day of the first lunar month. I believe that many of us are familiar with the name Chap Goh Mei in Malaysia, but in many parts of the world, it is known as the Lantern Festival.
An alternative name to the festival would be Yuan Xiao Jie (元宵节). Apart from lighting up red lanterns and savouring delicious Tang Yuan (汤圆) or Glutinous Rice Balls, how much do you know about the food and traditions that are being observed on this special day? Let us take a look!
ONE: Enjoying the Lanterns and Igniting the Firecrackers
Many different origins are surrounding Chap Goh Mei, but the most popular one was about the Jade Emperor, who was angered by his favourite crane’s death that was killed by the villagers. In order to punish the villager’s unforgivable behaviour, the Jade Emperor decided to send troops to incinerate the village on the fifteenth of the lunar month.
Nevertheless, the daughter of the Jade Emperor had compassion and pity towards the village and warned them about their upcoming destruction. A wise man from another village had suggested that every single family should g up red lanterns and set firecrackers from the 13th to 15th day of the lunar month. The imperial troops arrived and saw that the village was already ablaze and reported back to the emperor.
The Jade Emperor was satisfied with the outcome and decided that there was no need for the troops to burn the village. Thus, the people had since hung red lanterns and lighted up firecrackers to commemorate the success of living out of the ordeal.
Today, it is important that we light up lanterns and appreciate them as these are the main parts of the Lantern Festival. One would be able to go out on the streets or to the temple to see lanterns of various shapes and sizes being lit and hung up high.
The lanterns are a work of art, and most would depict the traditional Chinese images and symbols. 灯 (deng), the Chinese character for the lantern is similar to 丁 (ding) in Taiwanese dialect which gives a meaning of lighting up the future and birth
TWO: Guessing Lantern Riddles
Guessing lantern riddles are one of the prominent activities that are exclusive to Chap Goh Mei. Owners of the riddles would write them on a piece of paper and attach them to the colourful lanterns. As people walk through the streets, they can take a look at the riddles and have a guess.
If they think they have the right answer, the riddle can be pulled off to be counterchecked with the riddle owner. If the guess is correct, a little prize may be rewarded for their attempt. Lantern riddles can be dated back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). As these riddles solving are interesting and informative, the activity has popularised amongst the people.
THREE: Savouring Balls of Goodness – Tang Yuan/ Yuan Xiao
Tang Yuan, balls and balls of sweet fillings that are satisfying with each bite. The annual Yuan Xiao Festival is named after a maid who worked in the palace to which the best rice balls are made.
The story was that a homesick Yuan Xiao took the opportunity to go home and reunite with her family when the advisor of the emperor helped her by creating a rumour that the God of Fire would burn the imperial city. To “satisfy” the God of Fire, the people are to make Tang Yuan as offerings to the God to please him.
Tang Yuan is similar to the word 团圆 (tuan yuan), which means the entire family gathering in unity. The Chinese believe that the round shape of the glutinous rice balls symbolises togetherness and wholeness
FOUR: The Lion Dance
An outstanding and eye-catching traditional folk dance, the dance was dated back to the Three Kingdoms (220-280) and has since been widespread to many parts of the world where the Chinese community resides.
The lion, as in Western folktales is a symbol of strength and bravery. People had long thought that the lion is able to ward off evil and protect the people and their livestock. This is why the lion dance is often performed at special occasions for the safety of the entire year and good fortune.
The lion dance requires the expertise of two highly-trained performers in a lion suit. One would position himself as the head and forelegs of the lion while the other as the back and rear legs. They would dance and sometimes do acrobatic movements to the beat of the cymbals, gongs and drum.
FIVE: In Hopes of Finding a Valentine
Chap Goh Mei is not just a night of fun-filled activities and delicacies. The night is also well-known for courtship and matchmaking. Though today, single women are able to walk freely and roam the streets, it was not at all like this during the olden days.
Women of marriageable age were not allowed to step out of their homes, except on the 15th of the lunar month as decreed by the emperor. They had to carry lanterns to trick the God of Fire from destroying their city.
As the years went by, the young ladies would take this chance to dress their best to impress their prospective suitors as they make their way to the temples. Young men would have their hopes up in catching glimpses of these beautiful ladies.
If a young man was able to find someone of his liking, he would hire a matchmaker to ask for the lady’s hand in marriage. Yue Xia Lao Ren (月下老人) or rather, Yue Lao (月老), is an old lunar matchmaking god who was said to tie red strings on the ankles of fated one and help them in one way or another.
The matchmaking tradition is not really required in modern days. A tradition of single women throwing mandarin oranges into the sea or water is one popular event during Chap Goh Mei. People believed that in doing so, they would find a good husband for themselves.
The throwing of mandarin oranges also means that these women are available for marriage. If the floating tangerines are picked up, these women are able to find a good spouse. Be surprised because this particular tradition originates from our very own Penang Island during the 19th Century!
Chap Goh Mei may be a festivity of old, but it is crucial that we as the younger people learn and keep these traditions to heart in order to be passed down to the next generation. Happy Chap Goh Mei!
Article Written By Evans
Evans Hu is a foody at heart. He is always on the look out to explore best places to dine in Klang Valley. When he’s free, he often goes on a “culinary trip” out of Klang Valley with his friends and family.