CNY showdown at Penang's Chew Jetty
THE Jade Emperor's birthday on the ninth day of the Chinese New Year is always marked in grand style by the unique Chew Jetty community in Penang.
But the fireworks - or, rather, fireworks of the political sort - have started going off around Penang's famous Chew Jetty.
A massive row has broken out between the jetty residents and the Democratic Action Party-led state government over the celebration of the deity's birthday.
It is a raging topic in Penang's kopitiam and the Chinese vernacular media have given it maximum coverage.
Celebrating the deity's birthday has become synonymous with the Chew Jetty which is one of several clan communities living in quaint homes built on stilts over the sea along the Weld Quay stretch.
It has evolved from offering prayers and food to the deity to include an elaborate cultural show replete with fireworks.
The dispute erupted when Tanjung MP Ng Wei Aik of the DAP said he and Pengkalan Kota assemblyman Lau Keng Ee would be organising the cultural show this year. They had also booked the only open space in the area for the show.
Mr Ng used to be Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng's political secretary and his announcement was widely seen as having the blessings of his boss.
Mr Ng has promised a lively programme with fireworks, traditional music, lion dances and maybe even some acrobatics.
"We won't interfere with the prayers. That will be organised by the residents," he said.
The move shocked many in the local Chinese community.
In the business world, it would be seen as a hostile takeover but as far as the Chew Jetty folk were concerned, the state had trespassed into their tradition and celebration.
On Jan 1, the residents' committee met and issued a statement asking the state government to cancel its plan.
To drive home the message, they staged a protest with a long banner that read: "Defend dignity of Chew Jetty. Do not belittle Jade Emperor celebration. Where is justice when our venue is forcibly taken by the authorities?"
Chew Teng Hooi, adviser to the Chew Jetty committee, said: "It is not right, having dual events. Why didn't they ask to co-organise with us?"
The DAP leaders in the state government are said to be furious over the protest which was splashed all over the front pages of the northern editions of the Chinese newspapers.
The irony is that the jetty community, including the Chew Jetty, has been a bedrock of support for the DAP.
So what went wrong?
Up till the 1980s, the jetties, which include a string of other clan names, were a largely working-class enclave. Education and economic opportunities enabled the younger generation to move out and go on to a more comfortable life.
Although the other jetties also have their own guardian temples, the Chew Jetty reinvented theirs into a tourist event.
But it was also the events at last year's extravaganza that caused relations between the DAP leaders and the Chew Jetty to turn sour.
The Chew Jetty committee had invited MCA leader Chew Mei Fun and Penang Barisan Nasional chairman Teng Chang Yeow as their guests of honour.
But not a single DAP leader was invited.
Relations between the DAP-led state government and the Chew Jetty were already rocky by then because of a construction issue. One of the committee members had reclaimed some land to build a carpark for the jetty without approval from the local authority.
When it was ordered to be demolished in 2014, they sought help from the Chief Minister but it was an illegal structure and it had to come down.
The Chew Jetty committee was angry because it had spent some RM400,000 (S$130,000) on the construction.
In retaliation, they did not ask the DAP politicians for funds to organise the celebration and instead approached the Barisan side, which was more than willing to chip in.
The DAP side was stung by the snub. It also did not go down well with some people in the community and the Chew Jetty leaders were criticised for being petty, playing politics and not showing respect for the Chief Minister.
The Chew Jetty chairman - Chew Hock Eam, a mild-mannered sinseh - could not take the pressure and resigned. His replacement is a businessman named Chew Choon Seng.
DAP leaders had the inkling that they were about to be snubbed again this year.
Mr Ng's bid to take over the organising of the cultural show was one of those classic pre-emptive strikes.
This is the 109th year that the Chew Jetty is celebrating the Jade Emperor's birthday and the state government has been cast as trying to steal the thunder from the community.
The state leaders are seen as playing tit-for-tat. The DAP is in danger of being seen as a bully against a neighbourhood group.
It did not help that when asked about the dispute over the use of the open space, the Chief Minister had replied that "this is state government land, not your father's land" and the remark has gone viral.
DAP leaders think the Chew Jetty side should make the first move in seeking a compromise.
As of now, the latter is not budging.
It is understood that the man calling the shots on the Chew Jetty side is Chew Teng Hooi, whom DAP's Mr Lim had slammed as an "opposition supporter".
The adviser is not exactly an "opposition supporter" but his role in clan activities has brought him close to many politicians, especially Gerakan leaders who once ruled the roost in Penang.
He is a big man and he is no pushover. The wealthy businessman is what they call a tai kor (big brother) in these parts.
Some community figures are apparently trying to forge a compromise between the two sides. Even if a compromise fails, the show will go on, fireworks will light up the night sky and the tourists will come.
But it is will not be the happiest of birthdays for the Jade Emperor.
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK