In the old days, before the innovation of modern technology or social networking tools, the only time of the year for singletons to meet a potential partner was during the Lantern Festival. On that particular day, young girls were allowed to leave their houses to see colourful paper lanterns in the street and join in competitions to solve traditional riddles in Buddhist temples, perform prayers and set adrift lanterns – bearing good wishes – on tiny boats. Young men would then take this opportunity to get to know the girls. Hence, the lantern festival, which falls on Chap Goh Mei (meaning 15th night in Hokkien dialect), is also dubbed as Chinese Valentine’s day celebrated by all Chinese around the globe.
The festival – on the 15th night of the first month of the lunar calendar, is also known as the Yuan Xiao, usually celebrated with a family meal, fire crackers and decorations similar to the reunion dinner.
The tradition goes back more than 2,000 years since the Han Dynasty with different versions of its legendary origins. One legend has it that villagers hung red lanterns, set bonfires, set off firecrackers, to pretend that the world was ablaze to avoid being burned by the heaven troops sent by Jade Emperor to incinerate the village. Since then, people have celebrated the anniversary of the 15th lunar day every year by carrying lanterns on the street and setting off firecrackers. Another more romantic version was a girl, named ‘Yuan Xiao’, sneaked out from the palace to meet her lover on this particular day.
It has since then evolved to include different customs in different parts of China and different parts of the world now, including stealing green onions, walking on bridges to cure sickness and drumming.
The tradition of throwing mandarin oranges can be traced back to the rituals performed by the Hokkiens in southern China during the 19th century. There is a saying in Hokkien that goes “tim kam; chua ho ang”, which means the act of throwing mandarin oranges will get you a good husband.
Today, Malaysians tend to congregate to light lanterns, inscribe Mandarin oranges with their names and their contact numbers, and then throw them into lakes or ponds, hoping that their future spouse will fish out the oranges, more as a fun activity rather than superstitious belief. In a similar vein, men also throw bananas with their contact details written on the fruits, hoping that the women who pick the fruits up will end up as their wives.
“I have never known anybody who actually meet their spouse through inscribed oranges or banana,” said Chong in her 50s. The Hakka housewife said Chap Goh Mei has always been a family affair, where families celebrate with a feast at home or in restaurants, and eat ‘Tang Yuan’ (glutinous rice balls which symbolize completeness and togetherness). Even lighting up lanterns with well wishes on it, has only become a scene in Kuching in recent years, causing much unwanted pollution in the city.
“We didn’t have the custom of throwing tangerines or lighting up lanterns to the sky in the past. I only heard about this in recent years,” said Penghulu Shey Hiong from Siniawan, who is now preparing for the upcoming Chap Goh Mei celebration at the old town some 30 minutes from Kuching.
It has been the tradition of Sui Yue Gong, the oldest temple in Siniawan, to organise Yuan Xiao festival for the past 140 years. This year, it will be a grander full day celebration with the biggest fireworks planned for March 5. In the morning, there will be a street parade consisting lion dance, dragon dance, Monkey King and other deities’ parade and other some 30 groups, to tour from the temple to all eight villages in Siniawan. In the evening, the street parade will see a bigger group consisting of a lantern parade, performances, decorative cars to tour the old town to celebrate Yuan Xiao – one of the biggest Yuan Xiao celebrations in Sarawak.