Colourful Chinese New Year celebration in Brunei

(Top) Guests are delighted with funny antics of a lion dance troupe in Bandar Seri Begawan. (Above) Hundreds of visitors were present to witness a dragon dance performance at the Chinese temple in the capital. Pictures: BT/Zatty Joanda, Rudolf Portillo

Monday, January 30, 2012

LAST week, the Chinese Lunar New Year was celebrated in Brunei as well as in the rest of the world. The year of the dragon is presumably among the most important of all the new years and holds special importance for the Chinese.

The dragon year is considered to be the luckiest of all Chinese years as the year is said to bring much happiness and success. According to Chinese culture, the dragon is the most auspicious and powerful animal among the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac. The dragon is also associated with prosperity. And with this new lunar year being the year of the water dragon which occurs only once in 60 years, this new year is said to be even more auspicious.

In Brunei, celebrations have been held throughout the last one week and will continue for another week. But then presumably the New Year celebrations have been held here in Brunei Darussalam since many years ago. The Chinese had been in Brunei for centuries. In the old days, China was Brunei's trading partners.

The only known description of the New Year celebrations in Brunei about 110 years ago was written by Peter Blundell in his book entitled "The City of Many Waters" published in 1923 about Brunei life around 1890s and 1900s: "... the Chinese opens the New Year proceedings with processions in which dragons, serpents, devils and other creature figures. He lights paper lanterns, lets off fire-works, and pays great attention to his joss. He feeds, till he bursts almost, on birds' nests, sharks' fins, duck and pork, mixed with many curious vegetables. And if he wishes he may gamble all day long without paying any fee or license ..."

There were a number of gambling games then. One of the favourites was "Ti-Chow". "Put and Take" (better known now as Katam-Katam) was another favourite game among Brunei Chinese. In Brunei then, gambling was taxed but during New Year, gambling was free. The Gambling Farm, the Syndicate of Chinese who had purchased it from the government has the sole right to keep gambling tables in Brunei.

In a few days' time, what a number of Chinese do not know is another celebration during the Chinese New Year itself. This is the Pai Ti Kong celebrated by the Hokkien Chinese on the eve of the ninth day of the Chinese New Year. The prayers to the heavenly supreme deity Jade Emperor was said to have occurred because of one legend. Three different versions have been told.

One version said to have occurred during the Song Dynasty, was during a time when the Mongolians attacked Southern China. Hokkien or Fujian Province was especially targeted where the Mongols wanted to kill all the inhabitants in the province during that time. It was a time of great fear. What was left of the tribe hid themselves in a sugarcane plantation in the hopes of being spared from the Mongols.

It was on the ninth day of their hiding that the Mongolians finally gave up searching for them. This is said to coincide with the ninth day of Chinese New Year. The province inhabitants believed that the gods in Heavens had been protecting them. This started the tradition of praying to the King of Heaven on the eve of the ninth day of the New Year.

Another version was to have occurred during the 16th century. It was a time when ships abound and there were pirates operating on the east coast of China. On a Chinese New Year during that era, the pirates were raiding the east coast of Fujian Province. These pirates invaded the east coast from all direction and killed everybody who they came across.

The inhabitants felt so hopeless and were just about to give up, when a sugarcane farm suddenly appeared in front of them. They hid themselves in the sugarcane farm and were all saved. That day was the ninth of the first lunar month. Again, the survivors believed that this was because they had help from the Jade Emperor. In order to present their faithfulness to the Jade Emperor, the Hokkiens started the practice of celebrating on the ninth day of the first lunar month with sugarcane.

The final version involved General Meng. The general was said to have had a special ability of being able to speak and understand the local dialect simply by drinking the water in that province. During that time, he was assigned to eliminate all non-residents in any province. He relied on his special ability to determine if the people were local or outsiders.

During his visit on Fujian Province, his servants mistakenly brought him water from other province. He therefore could not understand the dialect spoken by the Fujian residents. That made him believed that the Fujian residents were outsiders. Based on this he sent an order to kill all the residents. The carnage took place until the ninth day of the first lunar month. He drank the local well water and suddenly mastered the Fujian dialect. It was only then he realised that he had killed the wrong people and stopped the carnage. From then on, Fujian residents rejoiced on that day and believed it was a miracle from the deity Jade Emperor.

Chinese New Year celebrations actually continue until the 15th day, when the moon is at its brightest. Also known as "Yuan Xiao", this auspicious occasion is celebrated with prayers and offerings to mark the end of Chinese New Year.

Business returns as usual for many Chinese communities in the country with "Chop Goh Meh", marking the end of the Chinese New Year. The Lion Dance troupe danced their last dance. For those who had been celebrating Chinese New Year for the last 15 days, it is indeed time to go back to business. It is time to earn those profits so that they can celebrate the next Chinese New Year.

The Brunei Times