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9 Feb 2014

Mee Koo @ Hoe Peng Lorong Selamat, Penang

Penang [檳城] • FEBRUARY 2014
The Chinese New Year holidays might be over, but the celebrations still continue as thousands of people observe  Thnee Kong Seh (Jade Emperor's Birthday) last Monday  night at the Chew Jetty in Pengkalan Weld here.

The celebration, which kicked off on the night of the eighth day of the lunar new year. As usual, visitors were fascinated by the many offerings presented to the Jade Emperor that  were laid out on a 20-metre long table  by the road.

The turtle buns are actually Chinese steamed buns, shaped into turtles of every size and covered with a coloured layer of pink or yellow. You can pay more for your turtles to be sculpted into fancier displays or have auspicious characters written on their backs (like the turtle family above).

Some will also buy a large number of small turtles, all stacked up as a small ‘mountain’, as an offering to the gods and a food donation to the temple. Aside being a sign of longevity, these hong gwai (‘red turtle’) appear to relate to a legend of a giant red turtle who came to the rescue of the Nine Emperor Gods and ferried them to safety on Tow Boo Keong island.

Among the offerings were huge thnee kong poh (folded gold-coloured paper in pineapple shapes), mee koo (red buns), ang koo (red glutinous rice cakes), huat kueh (pink steamed rice cakes), bi koh (sweet glutinous rice), ngo siew th'ng (pink pagoda-shaped candy), roast pigs and fruits.

Taoism is the ancient indigenous religion of China. Its ideas were first propagated and written by the Shang Dynasty philosopher, Laozhi, 2500 years ago. Taoism gave the world concepts of ying and yang. Taoists believe in the importance of harmony between people, and between human and nature. In addition to the philosophy of life and death as well as morality and nature, an extensive an extensive pantheon of gods and demigods exists in Taoism.

The Sect of the Jiu Wang Yeh is dedicated to the nine sons of Tien Hou or Queen of Heaven (also known as Tou Mu, the Goddess of the North Star), believed to be in control of the Books of Life and Death. Her nine sons, known as the Nine Emperor Gods, are worshipped as patrons of prosperity, wealth and good health on their own right, especially in Fujian and Guangdong Provinces in southern China, a region also known for its ancient sacred rites of spirit mediumship. Worshippers of Jiu Hwang Yeh Sect believe that the Nine Emperor Gods visit the worshippers every year on this day for nine days, and during the duration of the visit, the Gods have to be entertained with traditional opera and dances.

Mee koo was made of flour, yeast and vanilla flavouring without any preservatives.After mixing the ingredients, it is kneaded and moulded, and then left for an hour for the yeast to rise before being steamed for 30 minutes.

It is also an occasion to declare one’s religious devotion and piety so that wishes and favours would be granted for the coming year. The festival is celebrated over the first nine days of the ninth moon in the Chinese lunar calendar. Devotees flock to the temples throughout the country for this religious festival. On the eve of the ninth moon, temples of the Deities hold a ceremony to invoke and welcome the ‘Jiu Hwang Yeh’. Since the arrival of the Nine Emperor Gods is believed to be through the waterways, processions are held from temples to the sea-shore or river to symbolise this belief. 

On the eve of the Jade Emperor’s birthday itself, sales could exceed 1,000 per day

Devotees dressed in traditional white, carrying joss-sticks and candles await the arrival of their “Excellencies”. A carnival-like atmosphere pervades the temple throughout the nine-day festival. During this period of time, the constant chiming of a prayer bell and chants from the temple priests are heard. Most devotees stay at the temple, take vegetarian meals and recite continuous chanting of prayers. A procession to send the Nine Emperor Gods home then takes place to complete the rites of this religious festival. To welcome the Nine Emperors, mediums wielding axes and swords will perform evening rituals on odd numbered days. The spirits of the gods are entertained in the temple grounds with Chinese opera performances and fire-walking sessions. 

On the eve of the Jade Emperor’s birthday itself, sales could exceed 1,000 per day. I also have customers who ordered as many as 300 buns.

The Nine Emperors are the Chinese version of Robin Hood, who during the Qing dynasty robbed the rich and gave to the poor. According to legend, they were cornered at a seaside by soldiers, but a giant red turtle came to their rescue and ferried them to safety on Tow Boo Keong Island.

The mee koo can be kept for up to two weeks in the refrigerator and a month in the freezer. The longevity bun (sou-tao) which comes with two types of filing of either lotus or peanut.
The buns are priced at RM2.60 (small) and RM5 (big) with 10 sen to 20 sen being added to have the Chinese characters ping an (peace) or shou (longevity) inscribed. Some mee koo can be as expensive as RM180 each as it is intricately decorated with small tortoises to symbolise many children.

The steamed buns are also shaped as sau tou (longevity peaches), with pandan (screwpine, my favourite!) fillings in the yellow ones and lotus paste fillings in the pink. All peach and turtle buns are either donated to the temple or brought home for eating. My parents will peel off the coloured layer and re-steam the buns in our rice cooker. While we can eat the peach buns on their own after steaming, the turtle buns are plain with no filling so we’ll usually enjoy these slathered with plenty of kaya or jam.

Steaming hot mee koo (pink-coloured tortoise-shaped buns) on sale at a biscuit shop in Lorong Selamat are being snatched up as soon as they come out of the oven.

Address: No. 99-B, Lorong Selamat, Pulau Pinang, Pulau Pinang, 10400


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