THERE are no rousing fireworks, symbolic calligraphy, colourful lanterns or red and gold decorations in the rented apartment. Yet, the festive spirit is unmistakable.
It may be a far cry from celebrations at home, but for this group of Chinese students in Malaysia, the spirit of Guo Nian (Chinese New Year) has to be kept alive no matter where they are.
“Of course I cannot begin to explain how big the celebration is in China. It is an important day of the year,” says Jiang Zhong Qi, 22, who hails from China’s north-eastern Jilin province.
Preparation starts at least month before the New Year, he says, from spring-cleaning and decorating the house to buying new clothes, getting haircuts and preparing special delicacies for the auspicious occasion.
Like in Malaysia, Chinese New Year’s Eve is a time for families to get together for a family reunion dinner or wei lu, which literally means “surrounding the fire stove”.
In China, says Zhong Qi, a fire stove is traditionally placed under the dining table to provide a warm and cosy ambience for the whole family (especially those who have travelled from afar to get home) to enjoy the food and each other’s company.
But being on their own miles away from home, Chinese students have to make do with long-distance phone calls and greetings, while friends become their surrogate family.
In their abode in Petaling Jaya, these students from Stamford College enjoy a warm friendship and camaraderie that leaves little room for homesickness.
As for the special dinner, they try to stick as close as they can to tradition.
“In China, there would normally be 12 to 15 dishes, and preparation for some of the dishes would begin two days earlier,” says appointed chef du jour Huang Bin, 20, from Tian Jin in northern China.
Fish takes pride of place on the dinner table as it brings in profit, while mustard green (“long-year vegetable”) and turnip dishes represent longevity and good luck. Other dishes include roast chicken, mixed vegetables and fruits.
No red meat? It is a tradition to serve food that sound the same as “good tidings”, so typically red meat dishes are not served, explains Huang Bin.
While tantalising to taste-buds, his recipes from home aren't at all complicated, he says. A lot of the ingredients used were brought over from China, while the rest were bought in the neighbourhood supermarket.
After dinner? Like many families in Malaysia, the students celebrate with fun activities, including card games and mahjong. They say that celebrations in China and Malaysia are quite similar, which makes the distance easier to bear. Malaysian television, too, has its share of entertainment programmes for the occasion.
“At home, the whole family sits together chatting while enjoying the special variety shows until the arrival of the New Year at midnight,” Zhong Qi says. Such programmes are prepared specially for the festive period by popular entertainers in China.
Having no television in Malaysia, the students played games on the eve as they stayed up late to greet the New Year.
Simple though their celebration is, the students believe in making the most of the occasion to usher in a good year. What they miss most are perhaps the hongbao, red packets stuffed with money.
“We also miss our families and relatives, of course. Chinese New Year at home is fun because we get together with all our aunts, uncles and cousins at this time,” Zhong Qi reminisces.
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