MY Chinese New Year (CNY) celebration this year was no different from previous years. Same family reunion dinner on the eve of CNY, visits to the elders on the first day and for the following seven days, continuous lunch and dinner dates with families and friends.
The only difference was in the house decorations. The cute lovely Chinese chicken figurines were replaced by the cute lovely Chinese dog figurines. My dear wife had spent a good part of two weeks shopping for house decors and flowers to give our home a festive feel. She was also responsible for gathering both extended families for our reunion dinner.
Her good friend Thiat was extremely resourceful and managed to secure for me a copy of the elusive Robert Kuok Memoirs which I thoroughly enjoyed reading between heavy meals and many mandarin oranges. What stood out from his memoirs was how he worships his mother for her nurturing love and mentorship. If you had read Datuk Tan Chin Nam’s memoirs, he had a similar close relationship with his mother.
Both Robert and Chin Nam’s father emigrated from China in the early 1900s and became successful businessman in Malaya and Singapore. In that era, being successful and rich means they are entitled to having two or more wives. The responsibility of looking after the children rests with their respective wives and the fathers were generally poor parents to their children to the extent of neglect and instead were self-indulgent in the pleasures of life.
My late father also emigrated from China when he was 10 years old. As he was a lowly paid clerk all his life, my late uneducated mother had to do odd jobs to supplement family income. She single-handedly ran a canteen to put me through university and her determination to see me succeed in life was truly an act of unselfish love that only a mother can give.
The Chinese emigrants to Malaya and Singapore brought with them their cultural beliefs and practices that has been passed on to present generations. The celebration of CNY started in ancient China more than 4,000 years ago. Legend has it that the first emperor of China, Emperor Huangdi invented the Chinese lunar calendar back in 2637 BC, more than 2000 years before the birth of Christianity and Islam. The Chinese lunar calendar is based on the exact astronomical observations of the longitude of the sun and the phases of the moon. How the 12 zodiac animals were picked is another mystical story.
Being Hokkien, my family (when my parents were still alive) celebrates the ninth day of Chinese New Year by offering thanks giving prayers to the Jade Emperor (Thien Kong) the Heaven God. This was based on the belief in history when the Hokkien people hid in a sugar plantation on the eigth and ninth day of the Chinese lunar new year to escape from a ruthless army and was thus saved by the Jade Emperor.
I remember my mother used to placed a table outside on the porch and offered thanks giving prayers and food to the moon/heaven on the eight night between 11pm and midnight. As a young boy, I would innocently ask my mother why she prayed to the moon when the Americans had landed on the moon and found no life forms there?
There are many beliefs and cultural practices to this present day based on historical events and mystical stories. Again legend has it that pork was widely consumed thousands of years ago in the Middle East and Europe until a swine fever epidemic struck the population and killed tens of thousands. To avoid the decimation of the army, instructions were given out to avoid eating pork as it was unclean.
As there were no cure and medical understanding of diseases at that time, the best action was to avoid consuming the main cause of the disease. Similar pandemonium happened when a rabies epidemic occurred. Dogs with rabies foam at the mouth and hence the people were advised to avoid dog saliva as it was unclean. Over the last few thousand years, many common sense solutions and practices for the early years have been passed on through the generations as cultural practices and in some cases as guidance in religious practices. These are snippets of wisdom from past history that has guided the human civilisation that is constantly evolving.
Many cultural practices are based on economic hardships and practical climate reasons. I remember accompanying my father back to his birthplace in Yongchun China in 1993. My cousin treated us to a dinner where all 10 dishes looked the same, braised in gravy and all tasted very salty. My cousin explained that during the Chinese revolution, there was food famine in the villages and they could only afford to cook one dish for lunch or dinner. So they throw everything into the pot and put a lot of soya sauce and salt.
The reason is each family member will only need to eat a piece of salted vegetable or meat accompanied by several mouthfuls of rice. Filling up the tummy was the priority. So over 30 years, their taste have changed to having salty foods.
The Koreans invented kimchi which is preserved cabbage as this was the only vegetable dish available during the harsh winter season. Large amount of kimchi was preserved in large earthen jars to last the whole winter. As there was no refrigeration in the early years, mankind store meat by smoking it so that it can be preserved and consumed over a period of time.
The Chinese have their preserved sausages (lup cheong) and salted ducks and the Italians have their racks of smoked ham and beef. Hence the practice of slicing pieces of meat off the rack when serving during a meal and the balance rack for following meals.
During festive seasons in Malaysia, most commercial entities jointly celebrate the festivities by running corporate advertising campaigns with relevant and appropriate gifts like ang pow packets. Who could forget the endearing Petronas festival TV commercials?
Yasmin Ahmad avoided religious and cultural sensitivities by focusing on ethnic family values like family reunions, filial peity and basic human kindness and love. Her little naughty act as a sign of friendship was in naming the orphan in one of the commercials after me. As an orphan, the boy had not experienced a family reunion before so Yasmin’s message to everyone was to be thankful that you have a lovely family to reunite with during such an auspicious festival.
To the young entrepreneurs, the recent faux paus in some of the advertisements are lessons to be learnt. Replacing the picture of a dog with either the cat or a cockerel in your advertisement might soothe the sensitivities of certain segments of society but it also causes discontentment among other people. It just makes no commercial sense.
If it was my company that placed such an advertisement, I would sack my marketing manager for wasting precious advertising budget on a campaign that delineates certain group of customers and for not knowing that such advertisements dilute my company brand image of which I have spent millions on advertising over the years. No commercial sense and no common sense.
I will also sack my not-so-clever advertising agency who thought they had such a clever idea. Any advertising campaign that does not contribute positive attributes to my brands means they do not have a clue on brand building and local cultures. I will advise them to watch the various telco and banking commercials that focus on positives like family values and heart warming reunion messages that resonates across all races and segments of society.
If you do not have a good advertisement, save your money rather than placing a bad advertisement that damages the brand.
With the upcoming general election, it is going to be silly advertising season again. My advice to the educated public is to ignore the politically motivated advertisements that tend to divide the harmonious fabric of our society. Have a good laugh at bigotry and hypocrisy.
In years time, I will be watching with interest the new corporate festival commercials and new ang pow packet designs. I am sure the next CNY reunion will be filled with laughter and lively discussions as we usher in the year of the zodiac swine.
Happy CNY to those who believe in the mystical folklore of Emperor Huangdi. May this zodiac year bring you a pack of prosperity and bark..ti..ful joy and laughter.