A diverse Chinese New Year celebration


Balanced family: The Lees are a Chinese-Filipino family. Granddaughter Arielle is celebrating her third Chinese New Year. Photo: The Star/Norafifi Ehsan

In the Lee household, little tot Arielle rules the roost. Doe-eyed and angelic, the two-year-old scampers around the living room, clutching Mandarin oranges in her small hands. The only grandchild in the family, her grandparents and aunt lavish the tiny songbird with love.

This will be her third Chinese New Year.

“She can run about – she’s dancing, she sings – and she goes up to people,” her aunt Amanda Pasaoa Lee Xing Xin says. Twenty-one-year-old Lee is a student at Monash University. Her name is a unique blend of Chinese and Filipino, a tribute to the mixed heritage she now celebrates. It didn’t always come so easily.

“Growing up, I didn’t like the Pasaoa name, because people made fun of me. It was only later that I took pride in being half-Filipino,” she says. “In primary school, kids would brag about how much ang pow money they got, but I only got ang pows from one side.”

All grown up now, she wishes that her Filipino family could celebrate Chinese New Year with her Malaysian family.

“I wish that my mum’s family could celebrate with us and experience this Malaysian Chinese culture.”

Her mother, Marissa Perez Pasaoa Lee, 46, was once a singer who left the Philippines as a teenager. She married Lee’s father, Andy Lee, and began a new life here. Fluent in Tagalog and her native dialect, she soon learned a handful of languages and dialects. Like a multilingual magpie, she picked up a smattering of Hokkien, a mouthful of Malay, and a smidgen of Mandarin.

“But my children would always make fun of me when I spoke!” she laughs. She also learned about Chinese culture and traditions. In the Philippines, she was accustomed to boisterous celebrations on the street, where neighbours would go from house-to-house during Christmas and New Year. She found celebrations in her new home quieter.

The children always look forward to receiving ang pows. Photo: The Star/Azhar Mahfof
The children always look forward to receiving ang pows. Photo: The Star/Azhar Mahfof

“It’s interesting, different from the way Filipinos celebrate. It’s louder there,” she says, thoughtful. “I discovered that the Chinese New Year reunion dinner was very important, everyone gathering. But the spirit of family gathering is the same.”

“She just blended in, and she adapted to Chinese culture pretty well,” her husband says. Executive secretary at the Malayan Edible Oil Manufactures’ Association (MEOMA), he confesses that he speaks very little Tagalog, but feels that his mixed marriage has been “a blessing” because he’s been able to “learn about another culture.”

His wife agrees. “I think our family is more balanced and blended. I bring the Filipino side, and he brings the Chinese.”

This new year, the family will take a trip down to Singapore to celebrate with their son and his wife, little Arielle’s parents.

“It’ll be interesting to see how Singapore celebrates Chinese New Year,” Arielle’s aunt says.

Coming together

All in the family: The Chuas celebrate Chinese New Year in Klang with their extended family. Photo: The Star/Azhar Mahfof
All in the family: The Chuas celebrate Chinese New Year in Klang with their extended family. Photo: The Star/Azhar Mahfof

For the Chuas, ushering in the new year with their large extended family is the norm. Adam Chua Abdullah, 56, and his wife Rusmawati Che Wah, 54, live in Klang, surrounded by a network of relatives. The Chinese-Malay couple has been married for close to 30 years; over the decades, they’ve accepted and appreciated the differences in their cultures.

“Malay and Chinese traditions are different, so we have to adapt to each other’s celebrations. When you’re in a mixed marriage, you give and take, respecting each other’s cultures,” Rusmawati says. The retired housewife used to attend office Deepavali and Chinese New Year gatherings, while also visiting Indian and Chinese friends.

“For me, it was very biasa,” she says. But when she got married and celebrated Chinese New Year with her new family, she was pleasantly “surprised” by the significance of the reunion dinner, or the “big makan”, and the fireworks at midnight. Long-held traditions like not sweeping the floor on the first day baffled her – “I asked how to clean up the mess!” – but her husband’s family was welcoming.

“My family is very open-minded,” Adam says. “She gets along very well. It’s the same for Hari Raya. There’s no problem for us. I think the way we celebrate is very modern.”

Quote from Hanee: Every year we celebrate Chinese New Year with the Chinese side of my family. We have our “makan besar”. Quote from Kusyairi: My wife has a very big family, and they’re very receptive. At the reunion dinner, her grandma has a separate table for us with halal food. - AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star
Quote from Hanee: Every year we celebrate Chinese New Year with the Chinese side of my family. We have our “makan besar”. Quote from Kusyairi: My wife has a very big family, and they’re very receptive. At the reunion dinner, her grandma has a separate table for us with halal food. Photo: The Star/Azhar Mahfof

The businessman is one of eleven children, so the first two days of the new year are spent going from house-to-house. When there are potluck reunion dinners, his wife’s rendang is a huge hit with the family.

Their son, Harith Chua, 22, is a business student at Taylor’s University.

He considers his mixed heritage an advantage, especially when it comes to collecting ang pows. “I get to celebrate two festivals. I obviously get more ang pows!” More seriously, he adds that he has “a better understanding of both cultures.”

His eldest sister, Hanee Shereen Chua, has a 20-month-old daughter with husband Kusyairi Ariff Mohamed Ishak, 33. The 28-year-old housewife is most excited for her daughter Heidi.

“Nowadays, because I’m a mother, it’s more for my child,” she says of the festivities. “After I got married, I started giving ang pows.”

Heidi, adorable in pig tails and pink ballet slippers, clings to her grandmother, whom she calls “nanny”.

“I plan to send her to the University of Nottingham’s China campus. I’m one kiasu mother!” Hanee says, chortling in amusement.

Unity in diversity

The Peris siblings, Francesca and Michael, come from a diverse cultural and ethnic background.

Their mother, Elizabeth Yeow, is Chinese, while their late father was Portuguese Eurasian and part Chinese.

Christmas and Chinese New Year are the two major celebrations on their calendar. In their home, a long Christmas garland winds up the stair railing, red Chinese ornaments dangling from its pines.

It’s a lovely physical metaphor for their mixed heritage.

Tossing for luck: The Peris family tosses yee sang for luck. Grandmother usually does the cooking, helped by her daughter. - YAP CHEE HONG/The Star
Tossing for luck: The Peris family tosses yee sang for luck. Grandmother usually does the cooking, helped by her daughter. Photo: The Star/Yap Chee Hong

“We look forward to the change of decorations from Christmas to Chinese New Year,” Michael, 25, says. “It’s the small things that matter.”

“We were brought up in more of a Portuguese Eurasian household, but our mum’s Chinese. So Christmas we celebrate with my dad’s side, and Chinese New Year with my mum’s,” Francesca says.

The 27-year-old is a busy operations manager who relishes the time she gets to spend with her family. “There’s a lot of bonding, jokes, and fun. There are no family disputes; everything is put aside for the celebrations.”

Their maternal grandmother, Theresa Niap Sui Moi, is a sprightly 77-year-old. She’s a human encyclopaedia of family recipes – Nyonya, regional Chinese, Portuguese Eurasian – and is the designated chef. With her white cauliflower perm and clinking jade bangles, the family matriarch is a fountain of old-world wisdom.

“I cook a lot for Chinese New Year. I cook sea cucumber, yee sang, fish, prawns,” she says, barely pausing for breath. Then she explains the meaning behind each dish, its symbolism and place on the table.

Her daughter will help her with the cooking this year. The 54-year-old midwife has worked in Saudi Arabia for the last 15 years. This will be her first Chinese New Year back home.

“This is the first year where mum and I are both cooking,” Yeow says. “I made yee sang in Saudi Arabia. I invited other staff – South Africans and British – to celebrate with me.”

Her sister Agnes Yeow and husband Bernie Wong are also preparing for the festivities, along with their three-year-old son Fidel.

“It’s mainly about the family gathering, where we catch up with family members and find out what’s going on,” Agnes says.

“I celebrate with my wife’s family, because my own has passed on,” Wong says. He is of Chinese-Filipino descent.

“He is also of Indian descent,” his wife reveals.

“It’s a rojak; all of us are rojak,” Francesca chimes in.

“There’s unity in diversity,” Wong says. “We all come together from different backgrounds and we celebrate together. That’s something special.”

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