When my husband Michael and I got married, we lived and worked in Singapore and never lived in Malaysia in the first 11 years of our marriage. We would travel back for the Chinese New Year, Hari Raya and Christmas holidays but when our family expanded and travelling became difficult, my in-laws occasionally came down to celebrate Christmas with us.
Michael is a Eurasian whose paternal ancestor arrived in Melaka in 1511 from Portugal. His mother Eileen and stepfather Joon Kong are Chinese. I am a melting pot Malay with a dark-skinned father and a light-skinned mom. The first Merican purportedly originated in India (which is quite evident in my dad’s skin colour and features) in the 1800s and other far-off lands while I’m not quite sure of my mom’s origins; however, most of her family settled in Johor. They have pale skin, almond-shaped eyes and wide noses and a quiet dignity about them.
My sister-in-law’s mother-in-law (my MIL’s besan)’s birthday is on 25 December, so occasionally her family is not there to celebrate with my MIL – they would be in Terengganu instead. Apart from the Chinese and the Eurasian, there is one Malay (me) and one Indian (my sister-in-law’s husband, Salmaan) in Michael’s family. Yes, definitely 1Malaysian.
Because both our families consisted of different races and adhered to different faiths, Michael’s courtship, and subsequently our wedding, were quite interesting, to put it delicately. As part of our marriage vows, Michael and I made an unspoken agreement that we would celebrate all cultural and religious festivals both our families did, and respect them, as our religion taught us.
Christmas Celebrated In Singapore
The first festival we celebrated as a married couple was Christmas. I enjoyed the Christmas season in Singapore. There is a palpable air of excitement that seemed to permeate to the farthest HDB flat in the small city-state. One could also argue that it is over-commercialised, as can be seen in the numerous sales offering everything from the religious to every day, and back-to-school items. Whether you went to the luxurious Robinsons or the warehouse sales in Expo, it seemed that Christmas was the festival that everyone, no matter the ethnicity and beliefs, could enjoy or celebrate in their own way. I would spend hours scouring the malls looking for the ‘perfect’ gift for everyone, not only for my in-laws, but also for our Filipino helpers as well as my family, and my children’s teachers.
If my in-laws came to visit, they would usually arrive by bus on the eve. In the morning, Michael and I would drop them off at the nearby church for the morning service and pick them up a couple of hours later. Once we were back home, all of us, including our two helpers, would open the presents and then sit down for our much-anticipated lunch.
For those early Christmas when we played host, I would make prawn noodles (mee yoke) for lunch. Traditionally made with pork bones, mee yoke is a dish that Michael enjoyed immensely and often. After converting to marry me he yearned for it as no-pork versions were non-existent where we lived. My mother-in-law, who has accepted me, a Muslim, into her family, showed this example of acceptance by teaching me how to cook the halal version of this, along with other dishes that Michael misses. She taught me to use chicken bones, simmered for hours together with prawn shells that had been dry-fried, to give it a distinct aroma. Flavoured with rock sugar and soy sauce, prawn mee is enjoyed with yellow noodles and/or vermicelli, lightly fried prawns, shredded chicken, kangkong, bean sprouts, fried shallots and lots of ground dried chillies that have been fried with a bit of oil and shrimp paste (belacan) to give it a kick.
The rest of the visit would be spent at the beach or anywhere my in-laws wanted to go, whether shopping or sight-seeing or enjoying Singapore cuisine. At night, we would drive down to Orchard Road to see the fantastic lights and decorations.
Christmas In Kuala Lumpur
After we moved to Kuala Lumpur, we stopped hosting and went back to the traditional route of going to my in-laws’ for Christmas lunch. My mother-in-law would make a variety of dishes to accommodate the various palates of her extended family.
Christmas meal to me would always be American style, with turkey and cranberry sauce enjoyed in my days in St Louis and that was what I naively looked forward to the first time. Thus I was quite taken aback when it turned out to be assam laksa, a fish and tamarind-based laksa noodle soup, which was something that my mom made regularly when I was growing up. Realizing that Christmas lunch would be Asian-themed with an eclectic selection of dishes took some getting used to. However, I do appreciate that she takes care to cook something for everyone in her family to enjoy. Cooking for Chinese, Malay and Indian (who is Michael’s brother-in-law) appetites, small children, plus adhering to dietary and religious constraints is no easy feat. The result is a table bountiful with Portuguese devil curry, chicken rendang, spring rolls, fried wantans, pie tee, a vegetable dish, not to mention roast chicken and sausages for the children.
After the hearty meal, everyone helps to clean up and wash the dishes, and then the presents are exchanged. We linger for a few hours to chitchat and catch up on the latest news, especially since the next time we would all meet would probably be Chinese New Year, typically two months away.
This year, as per the norm for him, Michael called up his parents to ask what the plan would be, considering the current pandemic. Because of COVID-19, his mom advised staying away as everyone could potentially contract or spread the virus that doesn’t discriminate. Apart from the elderly family members, we also have small children; and others may have preconditions that make an infection riskier.
As for the consequences, I had planned to make prawn noodles for the Merican Nunis family to pay homage to our years in Singapore. However, our Indian neighbour told us not to cook anything as they would send over something to eat. Aunty Elizabeth is a great cook, and she and her husband Uncle Thomas have sent us some scrumptious curries throughout the years for us to enjoy. Always appreciative of good cooking, I can’t wait to enjoy the surprise lunch.
This year looks like it will be a quiet, do-nothing Christmas day for us Eurasian-Malay family. Ah well, at least we are safe and so far, healthy. – New Malaysia Herald