Flames of Fortune: The Chneah Hoay Ceremony at Penang’s Oldest Chinese Temple

By Eugene Quah

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A child enjoying the fireworks. He is standing on a rock with an inscription that recounts the contributions of Madam Tan Say Seang (see Penang Monthly, July 2023 issue) who built a temporary water supply for the village after it was destroyed in a fire in 1907. Photo: Ganesh Kolandaveloo

ON THE EVENING of 23 February, my friend—a heritage enthusiast from Penang Heritage Trust (PHT), Ganesh Kolandaveloo—and I went to see the venerable Chneah Hoay (Fire Invitation) ceremony at Hai Choo Su Tua Pek Kong Temple at Tanjung Tokong, held on the eve of Chap Goh Meh, which is the last day of the Chinese Lunar New Year. Since the early 20th century, the ceremony has been used by the Chinese in Penang to predict economic prospects for the new year.

This Tua Pek Kong temple is the oldest Chinese temple in Penang, having existed in one form or another since 1799. It is dedicated to the spirit of Chang Li, a Hakka scholar and political refugee who fled Chaozhou during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor and settled in Penang. Upon his death, he was worshipped as the Tua Pek Kong deity by the overseas Chinese.

Hai Choo Su (Sea Pearl Islet) was the Hokkien name for the nearby islet of Pulau Tikus (see Penang Monthly, May 2022 issue), just northeast of the temple. The Chinese also called it Pek Su, or White Islet, probably due to the distinctive light colours of its boulders, which probably led to the pearl moniker. The grand Thai Pak Koong (Ng Suk) Temple at King Street is a branch of the Sea Pearl Islet Temple.

Each year, the Poh Hock Seah (Precious Prosperity Society)—formed in the 1890s—organises a procession to bring a sacred incense urn from their temple at Armenian Street to the Sea Pearl Temple at Tanjung Tokong. This fire invitation ceremony has been observed for over a century, from around the time of the formation of the society. However, there are reports of a Tua Pek Kong procession from George Town to Tanjung Tokong as early as 1857.

Ganesh and I took many photos of the village and the ongoing festivities. As midnight approached, and the tide reached its highest, the lights of the temple were extinguished, and the gates closed. The temple committee members, who had been patiently waiting for this very moment, gathered around the huge incense urn. They fanned it and observed the height of the resulting flames. This process was repeated three times. The height of the flames indicated the economic prospects for each of the three periods of the new year.

This year’s economy is predicted to range from average to good.

The temple committee members, led by the Lor Chu (Urn Master), fan the incense and observe the height of the resulting flames to predict Penang’s economic prospects for the new year. This closeup is from last year’s ceremony when I was given a press pass by the Poh Hock Seah.
Fireworks were continually lit in the hours leading up to the Chneah Hoay ceremony around midnight.
Dragon joss sticks, ranging from 1.2m to 4.8m tall and costing up to RM800 each, offered by devotees were placed around the grounds of the temple. One is seen here being lit with a long stick.
Residents of the Chinese quarter of the Tanjung Tokong fishing village gather in front of their houses to celebrate and usher in the last day of the Chinese New Year. This part of the village was rebuilt in 1910 after it was destroyed by fire. The residents are still mostly fisherfolk.
The dragon joss sticks are made of wood glue dust and eucalyptus powder mixed with water, which are then attached to a wooden stick layer by layer. The bigger ones can take up to a month to make. The building in the background is a World War II-era fire director tower built by the British.
This village’s main road is the only road that leads to the Hai Choo temple at the cape. The name, Tanjung Tokong, or Temple Cape in English, refers to this. Seen here is a man dressed up as the Chinese God of Prosperity, entertaining a few children.
The crowd waits in anticipation outside the temple. Only temple committee members are allowed inside while the press are allowed to shoot through the gaps of the temple’s gates.
The temple has existed in one form or another since 1799, having started as a small shrine between big rocks which still stand behind the temple.
The roof of the temple features a traditional dragon and flaming pearl (dragon ball) motif.
Throngs of devotees making offerings and praying amid the carnivallike atmosphere with fireworks and street vendors.
Each year, Poh Hock Seah organises a procession to bring a sacred incense urn (seen here) from their temple at Armenian Street to the Sea Pearl Temple at Tanjung Tokong.
Street vendors sell food, drinks and prayer paraphernalia on the grounds of the temple during the evening of the Chneah Hoay ceremony.

Eugene Quah

is an independent researcher and writer who is working on a book tentatively called “Illustrated Guide to the North Coast of Penang”. He rediscovered the joys of writing after moving back to Penang from abroad.