|Year of the Water Dragon, 2012.|
Tomorrow is Chinese New Year, 2012, the Year of the Dragon. In China and Malaysia and Singapore it's already 9.30 am of New Year's Day and the children are happily engaged in opening their little red money packets, the 'ang pows'.
I remember how it was over Chinese New Year when I was a child in Malaysia. Customs have not changed much over the years.
On the eve of the Big Day, which actually was less than 24 hours ago in Asia, the big family reunion dinner takes place in the husband's family's place. So there could be any number of people: sons and their wives and children, unmarried sons and daughters and the 'venerable old couple'. All the married daughters would be with their husbands' families.
On the actual day, Buddhist/Taoist families have a vegetarian dinner. Those who don't have the vegetarian dinner will have the grand feast on this day, when the married daughters would be home with their spouses and children. For the vegetarians of New Year's Day, the big feast will be on the second day of New Year.
The temples are crowded with the faithful, the smell of incense and joss sticks pervade the atmosphere. All will be praying for a good, prosperous, healthy and happy New Year.
|ang pow, little red packet with money , given|
to unmarried children on New Year's Day.
Everybody has a new dress or outfit on, and new shoes. Oh, no shoes are worn in the house of course, only outside. Dirt from the street is never walked into one's house in Asia. Doesn't that make a lot of sense?
There is great excitement in the house. After an early breakfast of all the goodies made in the preceding weeks, the children will be out of the kitchen, either outside playing or indoors being looked after by the older ones, who might also be playing cards or board games. There is no fighting or any ill feelings allowed, for the bad luck it will bring. There are plates of New Year goodies on the tables - the yummy sweet biscuits and cakes that have been made and stored for weeks before the New Year. And oranges and plates of red-dyed melon seeds, 'kwa chee'.
|Plates of 'nian gao', oranges and ang pows.|
Image Courtesy Google. Nian gao sliced, dipped
in egg and flour and fried.
. And the absolutely unique New Year's cake 'nian gao', made from glutinous rice flour, coconut milk and brown sugar (or 'wong tong' in Hakka ) and steamed in a tin lined with banana leaf. In its newly cooked form it is very thickly sticky and yummy, but it is not really eaten that way. Instead, it is made way ahead of Chinese New Year and put out in the sun every sunny day to dry. When dry, it is, well, dry. And fairly hard. I like it sliced, dipped in egg and flour, fried on both sides till brown and rolled in freshly grated coconut. Mmmm!
Dinner is the gargantuan feast everybody has been looking forward to and cooked by mother/mother-in-law and daughters/daughters-in-law. One dish I loved and which my mother made unbelievably well was the five-spice roast or deep fried chicken. If I may borrow a phrase, 'oh, m-a-a-a-n!' Then there is the lettuce leaf roll: take a leaf of lettuce (large leaf type), put into it bits of meat, cooked vegetable, whatever you want from the table. Fold or roll up the leaf to enclose the titbits, dip in hoisin sauce. Bite into the bundle. Wow!
We kids also had an extra treat at the New Year's dinner: fizzy orange squash or sarsaparilla, sodas we hardly ever had the rest of the year (except Christmas). The adults could have a little wine or beer, but we were teetotallers in my family.
The rest of the day was spent just socialising within the family, catching up on the extended family news and gossip and eating ourselves into a delicious euphoria.
|Gifts of food are exchanged at visits between neighbours|
On the seventh day, everybody is one year older. This is called 'yan yat', 'people's day'. Temples are again crowded with the faithful praying for a great year. They usually go to restaurants to celebrate their birthdays.
|The gorgeous lion dances|
The last day of the New Year's celebration is the fifteenth day, there is a final celebratory dinner, and then life returns to normal. A wonderful tradition has been celebrated again, family ties have been renewed and reviewed and hopefully strengthened.
These are just some of my memories of an important tradition of a long-ago period of my life.
The fifteenth day is also called, with its Hokkien name, Chap Goh Mei. Traditionally, this night is the only one in the whole year when single maidens are allowed out in the streets but only if accompanied by a chaperone. Single youths, too, are out in hopes of meeting the young maiden and asking for her hand in marriage. Presumably they must have met previously.
In modern times, on Chap Goh Mei night, young ladies dress up and go to temples to pray in hopes of finding and acquiring a sweetheart. Another courtship activity has young ladies writing their names and phone numbers on oranges and casting them into a lake, river or other body of water. This signifies they are available for marriage. Chap Goh Mei is known as the Chinese Valentine's Day.
|Lion dancers taking a bow.|