Saturday, January 9, 2016

PENANG - NEW YEAR CELEBRATIONS

The arrival of a New Year is looked upon differently by each individual. To the young, it could mean that the long awaited door to adulthood will be opened. To the elders, the joy of seeing children and grand-children growing up, when they will soon be living an independent life, away from family homes.

The year 2016 meant the beginning of yet another phase in life. I feel truly blessed being able to relish every moment of what’s left of life, in sound mind, body and spirit. Each New Year commences with a resolution to do better in every way, than what I did in previous years. Gratified I am, that all made possible for me, are by the will and charity of my Beloved Creator. 

(Photo on the right - taken from the balcony of my home in 2015). 

The Yesteryears
There are many fond memories to recall, ushering in the New Year. The most unique experience was a particular year during my childhood, in Penang. What I specifically remember is that, the New Year then was celebrated in a simple yet meaningful way. Families rejoiced, and bonded with one another alongside neighbours, regardless of religious, and cultural differences. 

It was a common belief that the New Year would best be welcomed with joy and laughter, so that throughout the year there would be plenty of smiles. It was a superstition that few would dare to ignore.  What if this was true? It cost nothing to believe, and no one was prepared to risk the repercussions.

The Esplanade 
Here families gathered daily for various recreations, and for all-year-round festivities. The Esplanade was the very site where the British landed and hoisted the Union Jack flag. Penang was declared its colony in 1786. Photo on the right - an effigy of Capt. Francis Light (1740-1794), the founder of Penang. 

This place is etched with many untold stories of  happiness and sorrow of the people of the island.

As a child, I had been here many times, and was really fascinated by the environment. It was particularly fun feeling the wind gently ruffling my hair, while the soothing sounds of pounding waves filled the air. (Right - little me, at age 5). 

Most fascinating sight for me was the cannons, that were strategically placed on the elevated grounds within the vicinity. While I stroked and wondered what they were, I heard many stories of bravery, and misery, that these cannons inflicted on the intruders of the island. 

There were many gory stories too, of the World War, when Japanese soldiers ruthlessly beheaded many citizens, and their allies. This ground was once soaked with the blood of patriots. It was eerie knowing that I was actually standing on the ground, where many souls perished.

New Year’s Eve
Preparations for the outing were made from the early day of the eve. Families prepared food and drinks to last until midnight. It was an excitement that the young could not understand, except that the normal regimented bedtime would be waived for the night.

There were public transports and trishaws. My grandfather’s home where I lived, was a walking distance to the Esplanade. It was fun walking with my grandparents, parents, accompanied by numerous relatives. They carried along the prepared food, drinks and weaved mats, for everyone to sit on.

We arrived at the Esplanade, just before sunset. A strategic spot directly facing a huge clock was conveniently chosen.

The adults began spreading the feast while we waited impatiently, for the food to be served.  We gobbled the food to our hearts content. Strangely, on that particular night, the food was much tastier than anything I had consumed at home.

Soon the huge field was filled with families, generously sharing what little they had with those seated next to them. It was an open-air picnic under a starry night, and the moon was smiling at me. The sky was clear and unpolluted, not like today.

People within the surrounding buildings, and clubs, mostly foreigners and expatriates, were in a celebratory mood, singing merrily. Of course then, I did not understand why they were making exceptional noises. In later years, I found out, that it was because they were highly tipsy!

After sunset, from the rear corner of the field, the Ministry of Information truck began screening foreign and local films by rotation. Nearby, live performances by local singers and comedians kept the crowd humoured and entertained. Children were allowed to roam around from one corner to the other and mingled with other families. Crime was rarely heard of then.

Every hour, the huge clock would pulsate vibrantly to the discomfort of my ears, as I was seated so close by. Then, the long awaited moment arrived. The atmosphere suddenly changed and climaxed into something totally unexpected, as the countdown began. Then the explosive sounds of human voices screaming with laughter, cheering, singing, followed by “Happy New Year” wishes,  echoed everywhere.  Adults were behaving like children, jumping and hugging one another. From across the street, the crowd in the surrounding buildings were merrily singing the “Auld lang syne”.

I could not understand what the fuss was all about. The excitement of being with the crowd, and sharing the auspicious moment with loved ones, was enough treat for me. Strangely, it was the first and only outing we had on New Year's eve, at this particular place. 

I later discovered what the night meant for me. It was the beginning of my school year, and with it came uniforms, books, shoes, friends and teachers!

Celebrations – today
Today, the New Year is celebrated lavishly throughout the world.  Countries compete with one another to be in the limelight, with psychedelic displays of fireworks, unique landscapes, and mind-boggling shows. The New Year is celebrated everywhere - in living rooms, at the palms of the hands, and on computers.

Penang that was once blessed with the ambience of serenity, is now a bustling city. Crime has increased. Unaccompanied children need to be cautious. Fanaticism separates families and neighbours. Family fun corrodes with progress and time - what a heavy price to pay!

For many decades, I avoided visits to Penang during New Year’s eves. Penang has since gained many uncomplimentary publicity for the misconduct of some unruly youngsters. They vandalized cars, mugged tourists  - in the spirit of celebration! 

Today, I’ve moved away from city life and slightly miss the annual fireworks display that normally sprung a few feet above my balcony (picture above).

I am happier though being closer to nature - the home of these gentle vegans. This is the most perfect abode for peace and serenity, to retire.

Epilogue
When prompted, if I had ever wished that the clock is turned back to the good old days - without hesitation, my answer is “no”. I have no complaints. Progress is beneficial, if and when one knows how to blend, and benefit from both worlds.


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