More unity in spite of our diversity

All around the world where there is a large Chinese community, there will be an exodus of people travelling back to their hometowns in the tradition of balik kampung during the pre-Lunar New Year days.

Cherished pets dressed up to welcome the
Lunar New Year of the Dog
As we consider the concept of balik kampung where families join their elders to celebrate Hari Raya Aidilfitri, it’s easy to draw a parallel with how the Chinese have a tradition of sitting down to a family reunion dinner on the eve of the Lunar New Year.

From a very young age, I used to look forward to the Lunar New Year because it was that time of year when cousins meet again to play and on the first day of the lunar calendar, we would dress up in new outfits and receive red packets filled with fortune money!

As a child, I did not question why our family went to Ah Kong or mum’s father’s house for the reunion dinner instead of going to dad’s father’s house.

It was much later, when I learnt about the tradition of sons and their wives and families going to their father’s house for the annual reunion dinner that I finally figured it out.

According to Chinese tradition, a married woman would join her husband and in-laws for the reunion dinner and will not visit her own parents until after the dawn of the lunar new year.

It was an eye-opening discovery for me when I realised that we did not have any reunion dinner with dad’s parents simply because he did not have any living family members.

So for our family, it was easy to balik kampung for the Lunar New Year because we lived just a driving distance away from Ah Kong’s house at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng.

But for those who lived away from hometowns, they must plan ahead for the journey, taking into consideration the packing of fresh and cooked food, new clothes and travel plans like making transport reservations or getting the car ready for self-driving.

This entire exercise is similar to how families would return to their hometowns to celebrate Hari Raya Aidilfitri with their elders. The only difference may probably be their destinations because many married Malay couples have an agreement to balik kampung for Hari Raya to either spouse’s parents’ homes on alternate years!
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While we share the same Gregorian calendar – a solar calendar system that evolved from the lunar calendar – with the world, the Chinese have a traditional lunar calendar based on the monthly cycles of the moon’s phases.

According to Chinese astrology, the lunar calendar follows a 12-year cycle where each year is represented by an animal so those born in those years are reputed to inherit the said animal’s attributes.

During my secondary school days, I discovered the astrological signs when I listened to my classmates discussing their horoscopes and which zodiac sign (based on birth month!) they were born under.

It was much later that I learnt that the Western zodiac was unlike that of the Chinese which runs in a 12-year cycle, beginning with the Year of the Rat, followed by Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and ending with the Year of the Pig.

In recent years, as Chinese local and cable television channels broadcast more shows and advertisements to welcome the coming Lunar New Year, the came up with creative mascots or animal icons that represented the coming animal year.

I remember a news report from Hong Kong in the previous Year of the Dog (12 years ago!) which reminded people to be mindful about getting a puppy for a pet for the Lunar New Year because in reality, it means a life-long commitment to care for the pet.

This friendly reminder from the animal-loving community, warned of abandoned pet dogs later in the year when puppies out-grew their cuteness and owners could not keep up the responsibility of caring for them!
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While the Chinese practice a host of do’s and don’ts to ensure the start of a better year, one of their traditional rituals is to set off firecrackers at the stroke of midnight on the eve of the Lunar New Year which originally, aimed to scare away evil spirits.

In Chinese folklore, a monster named Nian (Year) would prowl the village to destroy homes and eat villagers on each New Year’s Eve, so the loud explosions were made to scare aware this horrible monster!

As most traditional Chinese tend to keep this practice, it was like a war-zone in Chinese neighbourhoods where ear-shattering firecrackers assaulted our ears and scared the daylights out of our pets.

Meanwhile, the Chinese would not sweep the red paper from the firecrackers away as the act of sweeping on this auspicious day was like sweeping wealth away!
. . .

Red packets in various creative designs including one
[Center] that features a dog to commemorate the
Lunar Year of the Dog
One of my favourite Lunar New Year traditions must be the tradition of presenting red packets or hong pau (Cantonese) filled with fortune money (lai see). I was taught that it’s not about the contents of the packet but the symbolism of the Red packet.

In Chinese culture, Red is an auspicious colour as it symbolises good fortune, joy and happiness. It is the colour worn by traditional brides, as in the kwa or qipao, as an auspicious colour to ward off evil.

In traditional Chinese colour symbolism, Red generally represents vitality, celebration and fertility.

So Lunar New Year decorations are mostly in Red and Gold as these colours are associated with wealth and prosperity.

Some families decorate their homes with Chinese couplets written in Chinese calligraphy to adorn their doorposts and main door.

On the front door, the Chinese character for “Fook” which means ‘good fortune’ is often deliberately displayed upside-down!

Why? It’s because the pronunciation of the word, upside-down (tow) sounds like ‘arrive.’ So the upside-down position of the Chinese character “Fook” reads as “Fook Tow” (Cantonese) which has the auspicious meaning of, ‘good fortune arrives!’

A platter of prosperity Yee Sang being served by a
non-Chinese member of the serving staff
Good fortune is always welcome so the tradition of tossing the prosperity Yee Sang salad has also been adopted here for Lunar New Year events.

By now, people in our multi-cultural community are already familiar with the art of tossing and eating Yee Sang. Even the non-Chinese serving staff are familiar with the sequence of topping the salad with the various auspicious ingredients.

But my request to restaurants which serve Yee Sang is to train your serving staff to utter the appropriate phrases as they add the ingredients to the platter in order to present a complete Lo Hei (toss for prosperity) experience!

Simple translations of the auspicious Chinese phrases can be paraphrased and learnt in English and even Malay, to make the presentation more meaningful – and educational – for diners from every culture.

Believe me, your restaurant will certainly have an added edge over the others!

Cookies created with cute puppy faces!
To celebrate this Year of the Dog, chefs have exceeded expectations by creatively arranging the vegetables on the salad platter to resemble the image of a cute dog or puppy!

Similarly, bakers also created batches of biscuits designed in cute puppy faces.

But there’s no need to stretch the imagination or be overly sensitive at the appalling idea of eating a dog or pup because these food presentations are but an arty display of the baker’s or chef’s creativity.
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Having lived together for decades, the practice of letting off loud explosions at the stroke of midnight on Lunar New Year’s eve had inadvertently been adopted by every race group in our multi-cultural community.
I don’t think we needed to ward off evil but letting off fireworks at midnight in the New Year tradition seems to be normal practice for every festival here.

Even while the meriam buluh (bamboo cannon) remains a traditional favourite in Malay kampungs, a range of fireworks and explosions help to announce the dawn of the various annual festivals in our community.

In the same way, the Chinese tradition of giving Red packets is now practiced by the other communities by using Green packets for Raya and Purple packets for Deepavali.

While giving duit Raya has always been a tradition, a monetary gift presented in a decorated packet seems to be an accepted norm now.
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The range of cookies we enjoy during the Lunar New Year are not unlike the cookies we eat at Hari Raya, simply because some of the best pineapple tarts served during the Lunar New Year, are made by Malay vendors/bakers!

It’s interesting to see that in many homes besides cookies, there are traditional crisps like spicy kerepek ubi, kueh Ros, rempeyek and even muruku served along with Lunar New Year staples like pineapple tarts and Mandarin oranges!

If we looked a little closer, we will soon discover that after more than 60 years as a nation, there are indeed so much more that we already share that we even forgot that a food item or a tradition, had its origins in another culture.

So in spite of our cultural diversity, let’s seek unity for our common good.

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