Honouring tradition away from home


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  • Wednesday, 18 Jan 2017

I HAVE barely formed the habit of writing out 2017 (instead of 2016) when I date things, but yet another new year is already upon us. Next week, we bid farewell to the Year of the Monkey and welcome the rooster.

Yes, Chinese New Year is just around the corner, if the joyful music, bright red colours and Mandarin oranges all around town have not been enough of a hint.

This year, for the first time since I can remember, I will not be celebrating with my family.

Having already been in Kuala Lumpur for a few weeks since Christmas, I would be back in winter cold of Nottingham by the time you read this article.

Missing it has not been an easy decision for me to make.

Although my sisters and I grew up with fairly liberal and modern values, my parents were also very much traditionalist when it came to certain cultural activities.

Unless one of us really could not make it, Chinese New Year was not an event to be skipped, especially the reunion dinner on the eve of the actual day.

For as long as I can remember, the family would gather at the house for a steamboat dinner.

As per tradition, the meal will always include a healthy portion of prawns – not just because the clan generally enjoys seafood, but also because prawns are seen as a symbol of joy and happiness.

Eating it sets us up for a good start for the coming year. Then, we end with some noodles to symbolise longevity.

On the first day of the new lunar year, we’d always be dressed in something new (a new start to the year), preferably red which is an auspicious colour. There will also be no cleaning the house – that’ll be us sweeping the good luck away.

Since they got married and moved out, my sisters Tai Che and Ee Che will come back to the house again in the morning after the reunion dinner for the tea ceremony.

Traditionally, the younger ones would offer tea to the elders, while offering them good wishes for the new year.

There are generally common wishes offered, but they are usually in Chinese (Cantonese, in my household).

However, because of our limited grasp of the language, the wishes made by my sisters and I had become pretty much a joke – we’d translate some of the phrases into English, or make things up.

The grandchildren, two of whom are basically young adults now, have joined in the fun.

After drinking the tea we offer to them, my parents would then give us packets of ang pow.

I can safely say that no matter how old you get, getting ang pow never grows old.

As kids, we were always obsessed with how much we got, although mum would constantly remind us that the money is just a “token” factor – the important bit is the red packet as an offer of luck.

This year, we have done things a bit different. Before I left for the airport last weekend to fly back to England, my mother gave me an ang pow in advance – for Chinese New Year, she said.

I have the ang pow with me, and will only open it on the first day, to activate “the luck”.

I suppose with changing times and circumstances, we need to adapt sometimes.

This will likely be the case on the evening of the reunion dinner which I will not be physically present, but will be there more than just in spirit.

I will appear in a pixelised form, on the screen of a mobile phone, Skyping in.

Over the years, between the number of times my sisters and I have been living abroad for our studies, technology has made it very much easier for us to celebrate with the family on the various occasions – cultural festivities, birthdays or just family gatherings.

Speaking of gatherings, this year I will be hosting my own Chinese New Year do for the first time at my flat in Nottingham.

Mum and I had spent a morning last week at the Petaling Street area buying some Chinese New Year-themed decorations for me to bring back to do up my place.

This includes a nice foam cut-out of the word “luck”, to be placed upside down on my door. That it will be displayed that way itself speaks to another of our old beliefs – the Cantonese way of saying “upside down” is similar to the term for “arrive”, meaning that luck will arrive at my door.

Over the next few days, I’ll be doing a bit of shopping to get myself something new and red to wear when my friends come over.

While in true “Western” style, the party will be BYO (bring-your-own drinks), I made sure I put in my luggage some “local” tidbits for my friends to try – kuaci, preserved fruits, peanut biscuits and dodol – both coconut and durian flavoured! I hope they enjoy them.

Most significantly, they will also all leave with an ang pow each, although the packets will not be filled with cash, but instead, little miniature gold nuggets usually used as decorations. Hey, I’m a poor student!

It’s not worth very much, but like mum said, it’s the ang pow that is most significant.

At the very least, it’s the thought that counts, right?

Gong Xi Fa Cai to everyone celebrating this year. I wish you abundance of prosperity, longevity and good health.

Contact Niki Cheong at www.nikicheong.com/fb


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