Ringing in a Unique Chinese New Year Celebration in Kuala Penyu


By Amber L. Lanjuat & Azeera Az.

Among one of the many indigenious tribes of Sabah, the Dusun Tatana is a unique tribe that celebrates Chinese New Year as an annual tradition passed down from generations.

When the Chinese traders arrived in Sabah around 1881, they set port in Kuala Penyu and brought along their culture and religion. Since then, interracial marriages between the Chinese and Dusuns of Kuala Penyu adapted to the Chinese’s traditions and even took up Buddhism as a religion.

Dr. Monih Epin (middle) and the owners of Borneo Kuala Penyu Homestay

We were lucky to be able to join Dr. Monih Epin and his friends during Chinese New Year this year to explore and understand the unique ancestral traditions held by the Dusun Tatana community.

The Dusun Tatana performs ritual prayers throughout the day – from the early mornings of Chinese New Year eve until midnight of the auspicious day itself. The first day of the Lunar Year is celebrated by visiting family and friends locally referred to as ‘mongkoyou’. Traditional kuih such as Tinapung, Monimbu, and Tinapung Sasad, are served for guests.

The first day ritual begins at the temple where families will come and place incense sticks in 13 different spots in a specific order to show their respect to the Gods. Later, they will burn joss money which is also known as ‘ghost money’. This is a folk belief from China that has been done for centuries as a means to enable their deceased family members to be able to ‘purchase’ necessities in the afterlife. The ritual continues with the lighting of the firecrackers, a custom belief of scaring evil spirits away.

After prayers, the families will head home to perform another ritual. Each house will display an altar for their ancestors and during Chinese New Year, the family will prepare meals of chicken, pork, vegetable and rice for their ancestors. Here’s a fun fact that’s quite unique about the Dusun Tatana community – they will also separate non-halal with halal meals for their Muslim ancestors! Talk about diversity at its best.

Similar to the ritual at the temple, the family members will take turns burning incense and paying respect to their ancestors at the altar. These rituals are performed as a gesture for the ancestors to have their meals before the family and visitors. Afterwards, they will burn the joss money in front of their house, followed by the lighting up of firecrackers.

The midnight ritual differs from the other two rituals as cooked food are replaced with household food such as rice grains, rice vermicelli noodles, oranges etc as an offering to their ancestors to look after their family’s nourishment and well-being.

Albeit some family continues to highlight this tradition regardless of religion, this tradition is not as much practiced by the younger generation because many have embraced other religions, such as Christianity and Islam. As a sign of respect to their ancestors’ traditions, family members of other religions would perform formal bows in front of the altar without burning incense. 

Fun Facts about Kuala Penyu!

The name ‘Kuala Penyu’ derives from the local story of a turtle (Penyu in Malay) shaped stones situated at a nearby river bank (Kuala in Malay). An inscription of the district’s origin can be found near Sitompok River. The district is inhabited by four main ethnic groups with the Dusun  Tatana forming the largest group followed by the Bisaya, Bajau and Brunei, and a small population of Chinese and others. The main socio-economic activities are agriculture and fisheries.

Kuala Penyu is famously known for their annual Sago Festival, where visitors are able to explore the various uses of Sago trees and also local delicacies such as the Sago worm (locally known as Butod). The district is also gateways to both Tiga Island National Park and Labuan.

Planning a trip to Kuala Penyu? You can get more information about the district here and here.

Where to stay?

Live with the friendly community of Kuala Penyu at
Borneo Kuala Penyu Homestay! The homestay consists of 20 homes around the town area. Visitors will have the chance to experience adventures such as:

  • Traditional food cooking demonstration and tasting
  • Traditional cultural dances 
  • Traditional handicraft demonstration 
  • Roof making from sago leaves demonstration
  • Sago production demonstration
  • Visit Buruok Mud Volcano
  • River cruise and wildlife observation (Proboscis Monkeys / Fireflies)
  • Visit buffalo grazing reserve/buffalo ride
  • Visit to oil palm plantation/fruit orchard
  • Rubber tapping and processing 
  • Padi planting/harvesting 
  • Grating coconut
  • Recreation at beaches
  • Visit weekly market
  • Community programme (Rehabilitation of Mangroves and Sago Areas, and Turtle Conservation)
  • Top spinning (Botubau)

Borneo Kuala Penyu Homestay is registered with Ministry of Tourism Arts And Culture Malaysia

For more information:

Address: Peti Surat 147, 89747 Kuala Penyu Sabah

Dr. Monih Epin (Co-ordinator)
T: 019 – 810 6786
E: monih8926@gmail.com

Monica Gualin (Secretary)
T: 013 – 851 7633
E: monicagualin@yahoo.com