In Malaysia, every year is a year of festivals

Timing is everything, and for local writer Keith Hockton to have released his book, Festivals of Malaysia, this year, well, one might have thought he had insider knowledge.

Hockton’s book is a meticulously researched, 300-page, comprehensive catalogue of religious and secular festivals. This is a book most people will not read cover-to-cover, but rather will dip into when their curiosity is piqued on seeing a parade in the streets or hearing a particularly boisterous temple celebration. Others may use it to seek out and learn more about the lesser-known festivals that, as this book illustrates, are happening almost continuously in Malaysia. Like Hockton himself, they may have discovered that even some of those celebrating the festivals have only a hazy view of their origins and purpose. The index at the end of the book is an excellent tool for using the book in this manner.

The lion dance is usually performed during the Chinese Lunar New Year and other Chinese traditional, cultural and religious festivals.

The introductory chapters of the book include a helpful overview of the various ethnic groups of Malaysia and their main religious venues in the country, followed by a short description of Hockton’s own five favourite festivals (Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Hungry Ghost, Songkran, Holi and Thaipusam). The festival listings with descriptions are organised by approximate annual chronology and by calendar month, although since many of the religious festivals are based on differing lunar calendars, they “move around” with respect to the Gregorian calendar. This aspect is also lucidly explained in the introduction to the book.

Throughout, the book is illustrated with beautiful photographs, although personally I found it slightly grating that their explanations are relegated to the photographers’ credits section at the very end of the book.

Chinese opera performer during the Nine Emperor Gods festival.

I recently had the opportunity to ask Hockton a few questions about Festivals of Malaysia.

Malaysia declared 2015 its “Year of Festivals”, so the timing of the launch of your book is perfect. Do you think festivals are something that Malaysia should use to promote itself?

Keith Hockton: I do. Malaysia is a diverse and complex country, and the festivals of the numerous communities are layered and contested. Over the centuries, countless groups have settled here, including the Portuguese, Chinese, Indians, Armenians, British, Germans and Dutch, to name but a few. Some have moved away, while others grew and changed, but each has left its mark on the country.

Whether still resident or departed, rich or poor, each group has its stories – stories that are celebrated in the various festivals that take place in Malaysia throughout the year. These festivals preserve, celebrate, challenge and frame community identity. It’s that identity that made and continues to define Malaysia.

Rain man.

Who were you writing for when you wrote the book?

I started writing the book for Malaysians. I wanted the individual communities to get a better understanding of what each of the others’ common festivals were about in the hope that if they had a better understanding, it would bring them closer together. And so far it seems it’s equally popular with Malaysians, expats living here and tourists alike.

With so many cultures living side by side in Malaysia, have any of the festivals of one religion incorporated elements of the festivals of others

Absolutely! Most historians recognise three main phases in the development of religious beliefs in Malaysia. Firstly, there was the period of primitive animism when people believed in the spirits (Semangat) of both animate objects, such as humans and all manner of living things, and inanimate things like trees, rocks, mountains and rivers. The second period was of Hindu influence, which introduced the mythology of the Hindus.

The final – and most important – phase was the period of Islamic influence, which for the first time brought the concept of one God and the associated beliefs that came with it to the area. The first physical evidence regarding the arrival of Islam in Malaysia is a stone inscribed with Arabic letters dating to 1386, found at a spot by the Terengganu River, but Islam was likely here much earlier. It’s only natural when you consider a history like this, that elements will merge.

Are the “diaspora” religious festivals (Taoist, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian) celebrated differently here in Malaysia than in their “home” countries or regions?

Yes they are, and not surprisingly so. When individuals leave a particular community or country or continent, they take with them their own individual understanding of what takes place and what’s important to them. It’s seen through their eyes, if you like, and interpreted so.

It’s only natural then that festivals that have been around for hundreds or thousands of years adapt and change to suit a new community and that community’s environment.

When you publish your second edition, will there be any festivals you would like to include or remove?

I’m not going to include the shoe festival if that's what you are asking (laughs). No, there are none that I would remove, but there are others that I would like to include. I left out some very important Malay festivals that I think are important to the Malay identity and culture, and if I add anything, it will be these.

Festivals of Malaysia is published by Entrepot Publishing and is available at Gerakbudaya Bookshop at 78, Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling.

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