A Malay Learns About Chinese New Year. And Then Some

By Latisha Merican

When I got married to Michael, whose family celebrates Chinese New Year, I did not only learn about culture and tradition, I had a crash course on taboos as well.

It’s CNY folks and apart from the red and gold trimmings at these stalls in Petaling Street, Chinatown, the celebration brings out a whole lot of taboos which were quite alien to the writer at first. – Photo credit: Latisha Merican

We all know that one shouldn’t sweep the floor on the first day as it is tantamount to sweeping one’s luck away. However, there were others that were not so obvious, not to me, anyway. Michael was an easy-going person so he didn’t sit me down and tell me, “now listen here, you can’t do this.” Perhaps he didn’t want to scare me, but then I had to learn some things the hard way, which frightened me even more. I had so many questions: what if I drop or spill something on the floor? Can I use the vacuum cleaner instead? What if it’s something sticky?

The first thing I learned was the importance of the reunion dinner, which signifies family solidarity and cohesiveness. Because the woman marries into the man’s family, she faithfully returns to his parents’ on the eve to enjoy dinner with her in-laws. Missing it was a big no-no and the very first year of marriage I did that very thing by being heavily pregnant and was advised by the gynaecologist not to travel the 336 kilometers back to Kuala Lumpur from Singapore.

When the God of Prosperity comes a calling and hands out gold ingots. A bit like Santa during Christmas. – Photo credit: Latisha Merican

In the following years, my parents-in-law Eileen and Joon Kong either hosted the dinner or we would go to a Chinese restaurant. My favourite was China Treasures at the Sime Darby Convention Center for the tastefully authentic food, and price. It was also conveniently close to his sister Michelle and us. Michael’s parents live in Puchong, so sometimes he would pick them up, meet us at the restaurant, then send them back home afterwards.

As the restaurant was a popular one, there were usually two seatings: one at 6pm, and a later one at 8pm. My kids’ bedtime was 7pm, with dinner at 6pm and the later seating would find them asleep midway, faces almost plonked into their dinner plates. Seeing this, my in-laws kindly opted for the earlier one in the subsequent years so that they could enjoy the whole dinner.

Horrified

Part of being autistic means that I am horrified by surprises and Michael slowly understood that I needed to get ready Plans A to Z and calculate for any contingency. I knew that bookings opened in October and were the cheapest then, so I would ask about arrangements. If they decided on China Treasures I would quickly reserve and pay for the dinner package as the price increased by RM100 each month.

The dinner would start with tossing the yee sang, also called yu sheng (prosperity raw fish salad), so called due to its well-thought-out combination of vegetables which either sound auspicious (such as cucumber or ja kua, which sounds similar to “returns”) or have healing and/or antibacterial properties, such as ginger; and topped with fish (yu), associated with abundance. The colourful dish comes in a huge platter placed in the center of the round table. ‘Gold ingot’ bo cui crackers and the sauces, representing wealth and prosperity, were then poured, after which we would each take a pair of chopsticks and toss the mix as high as possible to usher in long life, while wishing everyone health, wealth and happiness. I was a bit taken aback when my mother-in-law said to me, “Latisha, toss higher!” and my wide-eyed kids learned that this was the only time that they were allowed to play with food and mess up the table.

Higher, higher. The higher you toss your yee sang, better your chances of having a good life ahead. – Photo credit: Latisha Merican.

After all the ingredients were properly mixed it is then enjoyed before all the other courses are brought in one at a time, ending with dessert. The next day’s plans would be confirmed before we say our goodbyes.  

If the reunion dinner is in Puchong, my mother-in-law would prepare a scrumptious feast consisting of an assortment of dishes for her multicultural family. Chinese, Indian, Malay and Eurasian backgrounds and upbringing point to an eclectic taste which is represented by the bountiful table. It was spring rolls, satay, grilled chicken, the occasional ‘sharks’ fin soup, fried mee hoon, prawn fritters, acar, wantan dumplings and rendang galore.

On the morning of Chinese New Year, we would dress in red, an auspicious color. I was happy to reuse my wedding chi pao and when I couldn’t fit into it any longer, scoured Chinatown and was delighted at finding a suitable alternative – a beautiful top to be worn with pants or skirt. Black and/or white were funeral colors and were to be avoided. This I knew, but I thought that red had to be donned for the reunion dinner as well. Oops. Another lesson learned the hard way.

Lunch at my in-laws’ is another big spread, and again my mother-in-law has accommodated the different palates of her guests who include her brother Francis and his family, neighbors and friends. There is no pork and the food is halal; there are some vegetarian options and before the Hindu neighbors arrive, any beef dishes are quickly whisked away. Some of the food is similar to the reunion dinner, but tom yum and chicken steamboat, and pie tee have also made appearances.

We would offer oranges, holding two in our hands, and wish our elders a happy, healthy and prosperous new year. The Chinese believe that good things come in pairs; however, the number four is considered unlucky because it sounds like the word “death”.

These days, it is quite common and acceptable to bring goody bags containing the oranges, along with tidbits like peanuts and other treats. Funnily enough, even though I’m not Chinese, I am usually the one to source the best oranges, ang pao packets and gifts. I made sure that the oranges were not bought too early as there was risk of them going bad, but not too late either, as they might run out. Ironically, the sweetest oranges were found at a Malay stall at Geylang Serai wet market, where they were booked early and picked up a day before leaving for Kuala Lumpur. Bengawan Solo has the best cookies packed in elegant containers, with equally gorgeous bags to match. In the early days I fretted a lot as I wanted to make sure that I didn’t unknowingly do something tabooish. I had a panic attack when I realized that the bag for Michael’s parents would contain four oranges; two for each in-law. I solved that problem by first giving the oranges to each of them, and then the bag to his mom.

On the second day, we would visit Michael’s uncle Francis, whose family would thoughtfully either order food in, or we would go out to eat as they have a non-halal kitchen. Quite a few hours would be spent with them as we chit chat and the cousins play together.

Other relatives and friends were visited the following days. The next thing I discovered was that unlike Hari Raya, typically only snacks and packet drinks or soda were served, except if we get invited to dinner at Michael’s best friend’s parents’ house. Tiger, as he is affectionally known, whose brother converted and married a Muslim girl, has a huge family. They are the quintessential Chinese family who play mahjong and gamble during this time, and speak very loudly in Hokkien. The first year, I was quite excited as we parked the car and walked to the gate, only to hear yelling coming from inside the house. I froze, thinking that there was a fight, then tentatively said to Michael that perhaps this is not a good time and that we should come back later. He just laughed and opened the gate. Apparently they were having a normal conversation.

Apart from his family and friends, we also visit my parents. Michael and I decided long ago that whichever festival it was, we would honor both sets of families. Ang paos would be given to my parents and unmarried niece and nephews, and everyone gets treats.

This year, due to COVID-19, we are staying home. A caterer friend of mine is sending some Soto Mejor, a chicken soup dish with an interesting mix of Johor and Medan influences, on Thursday as a gift for my birthday which usually falls on or around Chinese New Year. Thursday is also the eve, which answers the question I initially had for Michael, “what do you want to eat for the reunion dinner?”.

Soto Mejor sounds good. – New Malaysia Herald

A message from the Management and Editorial Team of the New Malaysia Herald: We wish all our readers a wonderful Lunar New Year celebration with the hope that we will be COVID-free soon.

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