Hokkien Chinese New Year Celebration

The recent island wide Hokkien New Year celebration organised by the Penang Deanery Chinese Apostolate on Feb 1, 2020 and held at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Penang, has regrettably created mixed responses among Catholics and others alike.

Feb 16, 2020

Dear Editor,
The recent island wide Hokkien New Year celebration organised by the Penang Deanery Chinese Apostolate on Feb 1, 2020 and held at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Penang, has regrettably created mixed responses among Catholics and others alike. We, as members of the organising committee, feel it is important that we clarify some misconceptions that have been circulating through different means of communication.

The event, organised by the Penang Deanery Chinese Apostolate had two parts: (i) Mass at the Church of the Immaculate Conception; (ii) a dinner for all those who had come for mass at the hall next to the Church.

The celebration of the Hokkien New Year is a cultural and historical event. This was done through a thanksgiving Mass, remembering the time in history when God saved our ancestors during the Ming dynasty. The use of ‘cultural elements’ such as sugar cane, ang pows, oranges, etc. at the Mass,  which is permitted by the Church, were expressions of our proud heritage and history. Though these elements may not be a part of our lived experiences today, they were closely connected to our forefathers, which we gratefully remember.

It has to be remembered that the celebration of the Hokkien New Year is not a religious celebration but a cultural one even though some may have misrepresented this fact. The Church has often integrated cultural elements, for example, language, rituals and symbols – that are not opposed to Catholic faith and tradition as a means of communicating the Gospel to peoples in different parts of the world.

Celebrating such events by no means takes away the utmost respect and worship which belongs to God alone, and our celebration at this event was solely directed to God the Almighty in thanksgiving for all the blessings received.

Some people have taken offence at the gifts that were offered during the Mass but what was offered  came from the sincere hearts of the people who wanted to give their best and express their thanksgiving to God. Among the gifts were flowers, fruits, kuih bakul (ti kueh), and a roasted pig. The gifts offered were none other than our expression of gratitude and thanksgiving to God for His infinite generosity and love.

It was not the intention of the Penang Deanery Chinese Apostolate to create confusion among the faithful but in the spirit of the New Year, merely to celebrate the memory of our heritage and to give thanks to God. That is why we also took great efforts to explain to all those who were present at this event its meaning and stressed that our only focus is God the Almighty, who is the source of all blessings.

Msgr Aloysius Tan
Spiritual Advisor of Penang Deanery Chinese Apostolate

Paul Khor
Chairperson, Penang Deanery Chinese Apostolate February 4, 2020

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TraditionalCatholic
Dear Herald Editor/ Vatican Please allow me to give my humble take with regard to the controversy surrounding the Hokkien cultural practices during the recent Chinese New Year Mass in Penang. Well I applaud Mgr Aloysius Tan for giving credence to what took place during the Lunar New Year Mass last month, I believe that we could have still veered off. To begin this debate, I would like to cite a harvest festival called Onnam, which is rightfully celebrated by the Malyali community – traditional Catholics (whose surnames are Netto, Miranda, Ferrnandez, D’’Cruz, Morais, Pereira etc, etc, etc and the Hindu Malayalis with family names such as Nair, Nambiar, Menon). This festival is similar to Gawai (for Ibans), Kaamantan (Kadazans) and Ponggal (Tamils). But in Malaysia, you will hardly find any Malayali Christians really honouring this fiesta at their individual homes. At the most it is mentioned in passing, with some taking the initiative to join the Hindu Malayalis, who are generally more fervent, as far as this event goes. But demanding that it be celebrated and carried out in the typical Kerala fashion is something you will not hear them do. Why? Simply because we are in a multi-racial society that sometimes, the main events need to be given emphasis while the rest are sacrificed just to maintain some semblance of a mixed society, without causing any inconvenience to the others. But at the rate how traditional issues are evolving in this country, I wouldn’t be surprised that not in the too distant future, Onnam along with the Portuguese celebration – Fiesta San Pedro which is traditionally practiced by these Catholics who mainly comprise the fisher folk in Melaka, will find their way into the Catholic church in the Klang Valley to be celebrated with much splendour with the rest of the other Catholics partaking in it, purely to uphold their religious values, respect for its people’s livelihood and to showcase their culture. The difference between Gawai, Kaamatan, Onnam and San Pedro and the Chinese festivals is that the former are by and large represent raised Catholics. Therefore, there is the adherence to the Catholic faith to the letter! So no confusion there, no matter what. Comparatively, the same cannot be said of the Chinese festivals because those who were raised as Catholics are negligible. The converts who have embraced Catholicism/Christianity initially and for the longest time - though marriage outnumber the traditional Chinese Catholics. Hence, there is the influence of the original practices and reverence of Taoism, Buddhism or Confucianism, gradually creeping into the lives of Catholic families. This is understandable as these converts have grown to recognise cultures such as ancestral worship, joss sticks, sugar cane and roasted pig offering as being part of their festival while they were growing. And without them, these new Catholics are likely to sense a dull celebration given worshipping in church has taken away those spectacular customs that gave them the identity. But if one were to actually speak to some old Chinese couples where both are fervent and are raised as Catholics, we would likely receive some objection to what was carried out at the church in Perak and their style of celebrating the occasion is strictly holding a family reunion, donning red for Lunar new Year, giving out oranges and red packets and perhaps tossing the Yee Sang. I can testify this from my association with them. Sadly, many of them have passed on. Lest we forget, for the longest time in the history of the Catholic Church in Malaysia, and perhaps Singapore, too, the only cultural celebration allowed within the ambience of the holy places have been and were Chinese New Year, Chap Goh Mei (15th day or the last day of Chinese New Year) and Moon cake festival, which of course, is now given a glamorous twist as Mid-Autumn Festival! Why was that so? Ponggal, only found its way within the confines of the Tamil parishes, perhaps three decades ago. However, in the mainstream parishes, it was barely introduced in the last couple of years. Why? The Indians and especially the Tamils, are aware of the underlining reasons behind this stand, in this country called Malaysia. I leave you to honestly search your conscience as to why this scenario has developed such. Wish you a holy Lent season, fasting and praying. God Bless. Thank you.