MY FAMILY went on a road trip to Sarikei for Chinese New Year this week, a journey we last made four years ago.
There was quite a lot of traffic on the Pan-Borneo trunk road when we set out on New Year’s Eve; with the number of vehicles travelling in both directions, including a few express buses, it’s really high time for it to be upgraded to a dual carriageway highway.
But I digress.
I should add, though, that large parts of the road had been recently resurfaced, making the five-hour drive quite a smooth and pleasant one.
Sarikei is a small town on the Rajang River, famous for its pineapples — a fact attested to by a large sculpture of the fruit in the town centre.
It is my father’s hometown, so we try to visit it once every few years to celebrate Chinese New Year with our relatives there.
When we arrived in the late afternoon, there was already a festive mood in the air.
Long poles had been put up outside a lot of homes for the inevitable firecrackers and there was a general bustle about as people got ready for the reunion dinner.
This year, for a change, we had our family dinner in a restaurant and the amount of food was a wonder to behold.
I counted at least 10 dishes, not including fruits at the end, from a cold dish featuring seven items, fried noodles and a yam basket of vegetables to crab, fish and pork leg.
We even had Foochow koay teow which had been cooked at home and brought over to the restaurant.
Later that evening a group of uncles and cousins got together in the living room to play guitars and sing oldies while waiting to usher in the New Year.
It was fun, relaxed and informal, just the way family gatherings should be.
The peace was shattered at about a quarter to midnight when firecrackers and fireworks started going off in a raucous cacophony.
As many people commented, it was like a war out there.
I don’t mind fireworks, although they are noisy too and it can be quite unnerving having them explode almost directly overhead.
But there’s something magical about the way they burst in the night sky into golden showers or spheres of bright, colourful sparks.
Firecrackers are something else, sheer noise pollution, especially the ones that sound like cannons exploding.
I can easily do without them, though some might argue that Chinese New Year wouldn’t be Chinese New Year without firecrackers.
But I am sure the family dog agrees with me.
He had crept indoors by the time the first explosions started and was soon trembling in a corner upstairs.
The next day we went to Bintangor to visit some other relatives before driving on to Sibu to call on a friend from Kuching, who was celebrating the New Year at her family home.
Bintangor is an even smaller and often bypassed place, where we spotted a residential area bearing the incongruous name of Paris Heights.
Nowadays, with a couple of new bridges, it takes about 15 minutes to drive from Sarikei to Bintangor.
According to my uncle, back in the old days it would take several hours on slow motor launches plying the Rajang River to get to Bintangor and a full day to reach Sibu.
For me, this trip encapsulates what Chinese New Year is about — family, food and friends.
It is an occasion for family members, who might be scattered around the country and far-flung corners of the world, to come home and be reunited with one another.
And when the Chinese celebrate any occasion, it tends to involve much feasting.
What better way to commemorate the reunion and bring family and friends closer together than to gather around a table and share a meal.
There are also certain traditional dishes that we eat during Chinese New Year.
For my dad’s Foochow family, mee sua — long-life noodles in a chicken and mushroom broth — is something we always have for breakfast on the first day.
From our Teochew-Cantonese friend in Sibu, we learnt that their must-have dishes are fish soup and smoked duck.
This evening we will have another family dinner to celebrate with our Kuching relatives.
Once more there will be plenty of dishes on the table, along with mingling, merriment, the exchange of ang pows and our recently-established tradition of playing board games.
It will be a time to renew and strengthen family relationships while having fun and food.
May I wish all Chinese readers a happy new year.