WE TOOK a road trip to my father's hometown of Sarikei to celebrate Chinese New Year this week.
Known for its pineapple, Sarikei is a small town on the banks of the Rajang River that barely changed for ages before suddenly sprouting some new commercial developments in recent years.
Our journey on new year's eve took slightly over six hours, thanks to the massive construction site that is the Pan Borneo highway project and getting stuck behind a lorry transporting gas cylinders.
But we arrived in time for the family reunion dinner, which had been scheduled for 5pm at a local restaurant. There were 22 of us in all, so I suppose it was more practical to dine out instead of at home.
At first I thought it might be a Sarikei custom to have the meal so early, but the reason was that the restaurant wanted to close early so that the staff could have their own reunion dinners.
As it turned out, it was so busy that we had to wait quite a long time in between dishes; clearly many families preferred the convenience of restaurant dining.
When we finished our meal at 7.30pm, the place was still packed, so good luck with closing early!
We spent the new year with family and relatives on my dad's side. With cousins coming back from overseas and uncles and aunts we usually meet every two years, it was a time of catching up and exchanging tales of how everyone was doing.
We got to listen to my dad and his siblings reminisce about my late grandfather, a tinsmith who was known for his generosity.
Apparently, if one of them charged a customer RM2 for a job, he would call the customer back and say the price was too high and it should have been only RM1.
It was said that if everyone was like him, there would be no need for policemen in Sarikei and people would not need to lock their doors.
This probably explains the generosity of my father's family and the warm hospitality they extend to us whenever we visit Sarikei.
Of course, there was also plenty of food. Uncles and aunts were always urging us to eat. In fact, the moment we arrived we were ushered to the dining table and plied with snacks, even though the reunion dinner was less than two hours away.
We maintained the Foochow custom of eating mee sua (longlife noodles) with home-reared chicken soup for breakfast on the first day of the new year.
That night we ended up having dinner twice, first with an older uncle and aunt and then with a younger uncle and his family.
Although food plays a big part in the celebration, I'm reminded again that Chinese New Year is first and foremost about family.
Whether you have fancy reunion dinners at a restaurant or a meal at home, whether you're distributing or receiving ang pow, what makes it meaningful is doing so with one's kith and kin.
It's a time for reconnecting with relatives and strengthening family ties, of sharing and celebrating together.
While I'm now back in Kuching, I'm glad we took the opportunity to "balik kampung" and spend time with the kinsfolk in Sarikei.