Lantern Festival

Lantern Festival
Nighttime, Lantern Festival.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Chinese New Year, A Look Back

Year of the Water Dragon, 2012.
  Gong Xi Fa  Cai.                                                                  Written Jan. 22nd.,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.
Back to the ang pows.  The littlest children might get something like fifty cents. What do they know ? It's just the excitement of the grown ups fussing over them and wishing them galactic fame and fortune.The older children will get a bit more, like maybe five dollars, and the teenagers, perhaps twenty dollars.  Not only children, but unmarried adults, too, get gifts of ang pows, and certainly a bit more than twenty dollars.
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
and friends.
The second day of New Year, everybody went visiting friends and neighbours and exchanging cakes and ang pows. The kids really enjoyed this enriching part of New Year's, dressed in their new finery and receiving ang pows whatever house they entered.

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.
 On the ninth day, the Hokkiens celebrate a big thanksgiving, with tables and prayer altars set up in the garden.  The legend is that they were singled out by the emperor (which one) for slaughter as he thought they were barbarians, not being able to speak the common language. They went into hiding in sugar cane fields. On the ninth day of the New Year, the emperor stopped the slaughter, when he realised they were Han Chinese with a different dialect and he had learned enough to understand them. Hence the laden thanksgiving table with a pair of long sugar canes prominently displayed, and joss burning.

The gorgeous lion dances
Fireworks are set off on the eves of the New Year, seventh day and ninth day, and any day between.  We used to have firecrackers, but they are not allowed any more, which is just as well. They are deafening.  All through the season, there are lion dances all over towns, villages and cities, and the drums have to be heard to be believed. Your heart starts to beat in synch with them.

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.

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