Grandma's timeless CNY traditions

First day of CNY 1965 at Ah Kong's house; [Peggy is
4th from Left] Front porch is in the background
I shared many memories in my Jalan Ngee Heng story for the Jan 30 edition of My Neighbourhood in NST Streets but I did not mention that my childhood in our grandfather’s house also included being disciplined by grandma, the family matriarch who literally ruled the roost with an iron hand.  As an active and over-imaginative child I was often at the receiving end of her sharp tongue and of course, her cane.  With a houseful of sports-people and school-going grandchildren, grandma was very strict and because she often put her megaphone volume voice to use, she earned the mean moniker as “the stereo.”

Grandma, who will turn the grand old age of 102 in May, stays with Aunt Polly and Uncle Steven now and while her general health is stable, she no longer sounds like the stereo and can hardly recognise many of us.  A few weeks ago I was with them and even though grandma has more bad days than good ones, I was impressed to see that she could still hold her plastic cup and drink from it.  And as my aunt shared her collection of old photos of Ah Kong or grandfather’s house with me, we had a good laugh reminiscing on grandma’s new year traditions when we lived at Jalan Ngee Heng.

First day of CNY 1967 at Ah Kong's house; Playing
with soap bubbles on the badminton court!
Just like my siblings and I, a few of our cousins whose parents have full-time jobs outside of Johor Baru, also lived with our grandparents to attend nearby schools.  As students, we had our homework to do but grandma also trained us in housekeeping by assigning us daily and weekly chores.  In the days preceding the lunar new year, the house cleaning was intensified in grandma’s Spring Cleaning exercise and I remember how the girls, including my sisters and I, had to dust and sweep out every nook and cranny in the double-storey bungalow as well as polish hundreds of silver trophies that were displayed in two big cupboards!

Aunt Sylvia [Left] and Aunt Polly, putting the
finishing touches of CNY decoration to the
black and white television in Ah Kong's house
Grandma went to the wet market at Jalan Ah Fook (where Johor Baru City Square now stands) on a weekly basis for her regular fresh grocery shopping and we, the children were trained to peel prawns, pluck a variety of vegetables and remove the tails from countless sticks of bean-sprouts.  To feed such a large family of adults and children, the weekly quantity was always huge and to prepare for the lunar new year feast, grandma’s shopping was more than doubled. 

So just imagine the bulk buying involved and the long hours she would be cleaning the food for storage, preparing ingredients from scratch and pre-cooking while she supervised her daughters and grandchildren who were tasked with the peeling, plucking, cutting and the pounding of a range of items the traditional way, without the use of electrical appliances.

Ah Kong’s house was the point of convergence for the family reunion dinner on the eve of the lunar new year and in those days, the idea of eating this meal in a restaurant was simply unheard of.  I would always remember watching our youngest uncle start the fire in a charcoal stove for grandma to slow-boil a huge pot of Chinese cabbage in rich chicken soup.  This was my favourite part of the dinner preparation not only because of the interesting sights but because the air would be filled with the fragrance of mouth-watering smells like waxed meat in steamed rice and the most unforgettable of which must be the aroma of grandma’s delicious lor ark or Teochew braised duck!

First day of CNY 1969 on front porch of Ah Kong's
house with Aunt Polly and Uncle Steven
[Front Left to Right] Pearly, Peggy and Ruby
My mum does not have any in-law’s house to go to so our family was always at this party in Ah Kong’s house.  There was a tangible air of festive excitement probably because the family is together again and all of us had recent haircuts and were taken to shop for new outfits and shoes.  Looking back, it was amazing that with all the busyness in the home and family, grandma and mum always found time to go to the hairdresser’s to get a freshly set hairdo for the new year!

The breezy front porch was the family’s favourite spot to gather for after-dinner relaxation and as the clock ticked later into the night, grandma would usher everyone outside so that my aunts could sweep the floor one final time before the dawn of the new lunar year.  Once the house was swept and the décor arranged for tomorrow, the children were warned not to litter or mess up the place before midnight.  Grandma strictly maintained the practice of keeping all brooms and sharp objects like knives and scissors out of sight and were never used on the first day of the new year lest they swept away or cut short any good fortune!

Visitors at Ah Kong's house on first day of CNY in 1960s;
Grandma [Seated 3rd from Right] and [standing from Right]
Aunt Sylvia, mum with her bee-hive hairdo and Aunt Polly 
We usually went home before midnight because our parents were then based in Masai and before the Pasir Gudang Highway was constructed our journey on the old road by night could take up to an hour.  I remember climbing into bed on the eve of the lunar new year wearing new pajamas and waking up to dress up in a new outfit complete with new socks and shoes.  As we grew older and out-grew our clothes too quickly, mum wisely bought each of us a new outfit for Christmas which we also used again for the first day of the lunar new year. 

The best part of the lunar new year must be the tradition of receiving ang pau or crispy new fortune money in red packets from our parents and elders for as long as we are single.  Mum encouraged my sisters and me to carry our handbags when we went visiting so that our red packets were kept safely and reminded us not to open them until we got home.  I also remember being warned not to bicker, cry or say the word, “die” or risk being severely disciplined because grandma had a tradition of being careful with each utterance at the start of the auspicious new year to ensure that good fortune would follow in the year ahead. 

Uncle Victor [2nd from Left] entertaining his friends who
came to visit on first day of CNY at Ah Kong's house
I can never forget the festive feeling in Ah Kong’s house where we had fun nibbling melon seeds, cookies, crispy love-letters, kueh bahulu sponge cakes and smooth, pink jelly washed down by fizzy orange soda.  Grandma would press a red packet into my hand and say auspicious Chinese phrases to wish me success in my studies but with Ah Kong’s passing and the house demolished now, only fond memories of family bonds in a bygone era remain. 
In her advanced age, the dawn of another new lunar year may just be another day for grandma as she sits quietly but we continue to treasure her and her timeless traditions that are handed down through generations.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 4 February 2014

No comments:

Post a Comment