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Traditional festivities mark Macao life

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Sun, 17th Jan 2010
Meet all the different festivities that mark Macao life. (January 2010)

Lions and dragons dance in the streets. Its citizens parade through in honour of Our Lady of Fatima, dance in honour of Saint Nino and the drunken dragon and remember the Stations of the Cross. They bathe statues of the Lord Buddha and celebrate the birthdays of divinities. They race dragon boats and venerate their ancestors, decorating the city with coloured lanterns, good luck verses and mythical images. They celebrate Christmas and the Chinese New Year with equal fervour. 

Fishermen honour Goddess A-Ma at Lunar New Year 

The Lunar New Year is coming and fishing junks anchor in the Inner Harbour for several days, from the final day of the last lunar month until a specific day in the new year set by divination. On that day, they venerate the spirits of Ancestors, the Sky and the Water. The junks go to the entrance of inner harbour and, in front of the Barra temple, people perform the ritual of worship of the Goddess A-Ma. 

Other rituals take place before the Lunar New Year. One is held on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month; one is the replacement of Chou Kuan, the Stove God, so-called because he lives behind the stove. The believers burn his image so that, through the smoke, he may start his journey to heaven, where he will present a report to the Jade Emperor on the behaviour of families during the year. In order to prevent unpleasant reports, the believers sometimes cover the image of the god with honey or another sweet substance or seal his lips. Some prefer to get him drunk, by offering him wine. Others offer him lavish banquets, so that he will forget their bad deeds. Seven days later, the faithful place a new image of the god in the niche, where it will stay for a year. 

It is not only the image of the Stove God that is renewed. The red and gold lucky papers placed at the entrance to the house are also replaced with new ones; and each house gets a new tangerine tree full of small ripe tangerines, a sign of good luck for the whole family. So everywhere, in markets and small street stalls, tangerine trees are on sale, along with chrysanthemums and peach blossom, both symbols of prosperity, as well as scented narcissi known as Soi Sin Fa or Water Genie Flowers. There is a legend about Soi Sin Fa and its sale at Lunar New Year: an unfortunate young man, who owned only a rocky and muddy patch of land, received a visit from an old man who rose from a pool of water and gave him three bulbs and a flute. He planted the bulbs in the pool, amongst the stones. Afterwards he wandered through towns and villages with his magic flute playing for the people. Later, on his return at the end of winter, he found the pool covered with beautiful ivory-coloured flowers. There were so many of them that he decided to sell them in the flower market. But nobody had ever seen such a flower and, when he was asked what it was called, he replied: “They are flowers that spring up from the stones, they are the Water Genie Flowers." 

People let off firecrackers, beat drums and decorate the city with good luck couplets and coloured lanterns. The city is visited by the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, always accompanied by the Three Stars, or Sam Seng, the Gods of Fok (happiness or prosperity), Lok (dignity or high Rank) and Sau (longevity), a variety of music and dancing lions and dragons. To end the Lunar New Year celebrations, Cheng Ian Chit (Spring Lantern Festival or known a the Chinese Valentine’s Day) takes place on the first full moon of the new year, the 15th day of the first lunar month. Tong un, or glutinous rice balls filled with sugar cane and sesame, are traditional on this day and symbolise the full moon. 

People celebrate the birthdays of the gods, such as Tou Tei, the Earth or Neighbourhood God, Pak Tai, the Supreme Being of the North, a hero immortalised for his courage in fighting the Demon King, the Goddess A-Ma and the child gods Tam Kung and Na Tcha. At all these festivals, held next to their temples, people let off firecrackers and perform lion and dragon dances and Chinese operas. They also offer fruit and flowers, incense and paper money which is to be burnt. 

In October, on the top of a hill in Coloane, in a complex dedicated to the Goddess A-Ma – the A-Ma Cultural Village - another festival is held in honour of A-Ma or Tin Hau, the goddess of fishermen and people linked to the sea. It is called the Festival of Culture and Tourism and includes a procession and cultural activities such as opera performances and exhibitions. 

People hold festivities at the temples of the Goddess Kun Iam, the Goddess of Compassion and Mercy. But it is at Kun Iam Tong, on Coronel Mesquita Avenue, where the biggest number of worshippers gather on the 26th day of the first lunar month, the day on which Kun Iam “opens the coffers” to “lend” money to her believers. This event, known as Kun Iam Hoi Fu, is only celebrated in Macao and Hong Kong. It brings crowds of worshippers to her temples; their offerings include incense, fruit, flowers and windmills, joss paper money and paper gold bars. 

The Feast of the Drunken Dragon 

Tchoi Long or the Feast of the Drunken Dragon, organised by wholesalers of fish and people associated with the sea, takes place on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month. It is at the same time as the “Bathing of the Lord Buddha”, when the faithful clean and purify statues of the Buddha. Both festivals celebrate the Buddha. In the case of the Drunken Dragon, legend has it that, while he was bathing in the river, the Buddha fought a dragon to the death. Later, the dragon’s head and tail were found by a drunken fisherman who searched widely but was unable to find the rest of the dragon’s body. Another version of the story says that the blood of the dragon purified the waters of a river and thus cured the population of an epidemic. In this festival, which begins in the early morning at the Kuan Tai temple next to the Sao Domingos market, fishermen march through the streets towards the Inner Harbour, carrying just the head and tail of the dragon, dancing animatedly in search of the dragon’s body. On their way, they visit store owners and residents, drinking wine and eating rice until they can move no more and are replaced by others as they get drunk. The feast, which also takes place near the Red Market and S. Lourenco market, ends with a large meal of “good luck rice”. 

On this, the eighth day of the fourth lunar month, there is in Coloane a celebration of Tam Kung, the child god that protects people involved in fishing and naval construction. The festivities include a parade through the streets, the letting off of firecrackers next to the temple where people perform Chinese opera on a bamboo stage in the square. 

Dragon Boat Festival evokes Chinese traditions 

The Tung Ng (Dragon Boat) Festival with its famous races on Nam Van Lake, is also known as the “double five” as it always falls on the fifth day of the fifth moon of the lunar calendar. The festival dates back to sometime between the fifth and third centuries before Christ and commemorates the death of the poet Qu Yuan, also known as Wat Yun in Cantonese, a high-ranking counsellor at the imperial court and an honest man. According to legend, Qu Yuan was upset by the corruption and intrigue in the court and killed himself by jumping into a river. Fishermen tried to save his body before it was eaten by fish and monsters, by stirring up the water with their oars in order to scare away bad spirits; they also threw in rice cakes to keep the fish away. The dragon boat races are a symbol of the fishermen’s efforts to find the poet’s body. The Tchong, glutinous rice cakes with smoked meats steamed in bamboo leaves in the shape of a pyramid, are associated with the legend. As the fishermen were unable to find the counsellor’s body, they continued to throw the rice cakes to feed the spirit of Qu Yuan; but they were devoured by the sea monsters. Then the spirit of the counsellor asked the fishermen to wrap the cakes in bamboo leaves, which were as sharp as blades, so that the monsters could not eat them. 

Young single women and lovers also have their own festival, the Maiden festival, which is associated with the legend of Tchek Noi, the lady weaver. The story goes that, once a year, magpies disappear from the earth and with their wings form a bridge in the starry sky so that the lady weaver Tchek Noi and her lover Ngau Long, the shepherd could meet. The Mother Goddess did not approve of their love; she separated them by drawing a line across the sky with her hairpin, which turned into a raging river. On one side of the river – or the Milky Way - there were three stars, Ngau Long and his twin sons, fruit of the forbidden love. On the other was a single star, Tchek Noi, the lady weaver. Moved by so much unhappiness, the magpies decided once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, to form a bridge over the river so that the two could meet. 

People even celebrate souls in grief. Known as the Feast of Hungry Ghosts, this aims to calm roving and hungry spirits that wander the earth. It is held in the seventh lunar month, when the gateway to the Other World is opened on the 14th day and the spirits can roam freely across the earth. These are the souls of the unfortunate people who have no descendants to honour them; they are the restless souls – such as those who died accidentally, who drowned and who committed suicide. These wandering spirits are malicious and should be kept at a distance; to do this, people try to calm them by offering them ghost food, clothing and money. As they are the souls of strangers and not of family members, people always lay the offerings outside the home, on pavements or on the side of the road, where they are burnt. The Feast of Hungry Ghosts or Yu Lan Chit ends on the 30th day of the seventh moon; satisfied and satiated by the offerings, the wandering souls return finally to the Other World. 

Venerating ancestors 

Twice a year the Chinese worship their ancestors: in the spring, it is Cheng Meng, the Festival of Pure Clarity, and in the autumn, Chong Yeong Chit, or “the Double Ninth Festival”. On these days, people go to cemeteries to visit the graves of their relatives laden with gifts and delicacies; they invite their deceased to a banquet that is eaten next to their graves. The origins of Chong Yeong, also known as “Double Nine” as it is celebrated on the ninth day of the ninth moon, go back to the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). According to legend, a virtuous and wise man called Hang Keng lived in a village in China. He studied the arts of magic with a famous wizard, who one day advised him to go with his family to the highest point of the mountain range and remain there until sunset. He explained that, on the ninth day of the ninth moon, a great calamity would destroy the world; he should seek the highest mountain so that nothing would remain between the sky and the land except him and his family. Hang Keng carried out those instructions and went to the highest mountain in the range. He took food and wine flavoured with chrysanthemum, a symbol of the sun, of longevity and of marriage. The following day, when he returned to the village, he found a desolate scene – there was no sign of life and nobody had escaped the tragedy. From that day, the custom of visiting the mountains on the ninth day of the ninth moon was established, together with a festival to commemorate the continuation of life. This festival moved from the mountains to the cemeteries where people visit their ancestors and are never short of food or drink. 

Lanterns decorate the Mid-Autumn Festival 

The Mid-Autumn Festival is held on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month and is called Tchong Chau Chit. It is also called the feast of the moon, feast of the moon cakes or the lantern festival; the night is lit not only by the full moon but also by the many lanterns with which children and adults carry through the streets and parks and along beaches. In China, the moon festival is linked to the moon cake, and is given to friends and family on that day. On the top of the ut-peang or moon cake are images that symbolise the hare, the lunar rabbit or three-footed frog, legendary characters that live on the moon. 

A legend linked to the Mid-Autumn Festival is that of the Lunar Rabbit, which goes back a long time and has its origins in Indian Buddhism. In ancient times, there was a rabbit whose virtues were praised by the other animals, such was his generosity and readiness to help those weaker than himself. The Buddha wanted to meet him, but the journey was a long one. Close to the end and tired, the Buddha fell asleep. Whilst he was sleeping, he turned into a beggar monk, whose appearance was pitiful. All the animals got ready to help him, offering him fruit and fish. But the monk would not eat. Distressed because they saw the monk wasting away, the animals decided to ask the rabbit for help. Moved by the sight, the rabbit offered himself as food for the monk, as he believed that fresh meat could save him. To the surprise of all the animals, just as the rabbit was preparing to cast himself into the fire, the monk once again became the Buddha and stopped him from sacrificing himself. The Buddha then gave the rabbit a place in the lunar palace and his image, known as the Jade Rabbit or Lunar rabbit, is represented by a hare or rabbit with short fore paws and long back paws who pounds the jade or immortality elixir in a mortar. 

Burmese, Thais and Filipinos celebrate their gods and saints 

The Burmese community in Macao celebrate Thingyan or the Water Festival; Thingyan means "to pass from one year to another", with the spirit purified by water. Organised by the Macao Myanmar Overseas Chinese Association, it includes dance and traditional music performances and is generally held on the last weekend in April. For its part, the Thai community in Macao celebrates with traditional dances the birthday of the Four-Faced Buddha, as part of a Buddhist ceremony held in November, next to the Altar of the Four-Faced Brahma on Taipa island. 

The Catholic festivals begin on the third Sunday of January when the Philippine community celebrates Santo Nino de Cebu. To the rhythm of the drums, they dance the sinulog to honour the Child Jesus. Two steps forward and one back, the dancers sway their bodies in imitating the waves of a river. The word sinulog means exactly that - the movement of river water, specifically the Pahina River in Cebu. It is an ancient ritual that pre-dates Christianity but was assimilated by it and to which Santo Nino (the Holy Child of Cebu) became associated; his image was given to Queen Hara Amihan by Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan. The story goes that years later in 1565 when the Spanish occupied the Philippines, a chest was found containing, along with the sinulog idols, the image of the Holy Child given by Magellan; this is the reason it is linked to the sinulog. 

There is another Philippine festival, in honour of San Isidro, the patron saint of farmers. This is the San Isidro Pahiyas Festival, which includes religious celebrations such as Mass and a procession as well as a gastronomic festival, concerts and traditional dance. Organised by the Quezonian Association of Macau, the festival takes place at Amizade Plaza on May 15. 

Processions unique in China: Our Lady of Fatima 

During Lent, festivals are restricted to religious celebrations. On the eve of the first Sunday in Lent, the faithful hold a procession of the cross and take the image of Christ from Santo Agostinho Church to the Cathedral, where it stays for a night of vigil. The next day they bring it back to the church of Santo Agostinho, along the Via Dolorosa. It is one of the most popular Catholic processions, held in Macao for centuries. On 13 May, believers hold another popular Catholic procession, in honour of Our Lady of Fatima; it runs through the streets of Macao between the church of S. Domingos and Our Lady of Penha de Franca. 

June is the month of the popular saints. Saint Anthony is celebrated on June 13 with Masses in Cantonese and Portuguese and a procession from the saint’s church to as far as the Camoes Gardens. Saint John, the patron saint of the city of Macao, has his festival in the S. Lazaro neighbourhood, with food and drink stalls, music and traditional dancing - a very Portuguese party. 

In November, the town of Taipa fills with colour and aromas when people from Portuguese-speaking countries set up kiosks with their cuisine and handicrafts. The Lusofonia Festival includes music and dance performances and traditional games, such as sack races and table football. 

On December 8, there is a celebration of the Immaculate Conception, a day that is a public holiday in Macao. The streets and squares are filled with stands and lights hung like silver chains, heavily decorated Christmas trees and cribs, sleighs, reindeer and snowmen. Like everywhere in the world, people here celebrate Christmas – and Macao residents do it in their own special way, with a rich variety of cuisines on Christmas Eve. 

By Maria Joao Janeiro in Macao

(Issue N. 2, January 2010)

Note: Names of Chinese gods and festivals mentioned in this article are in Cantonese spellings