New year new traditions

My brother and his wife playfully posed for
a photo under the banana trees during our
recent visit to Uncle Roland's house in
Kota Tinggi, Johor
While I’m sharing nostalgic childhood memories of Chinese New Year celebrations in Ah Kong or grandfather’s house (NST Jan 4), I’m also making new memories and starting new traditions in our family.  With such hectic careers in our modern lifestyle, this annual break to return to our hometowns is a much anticipated trip not only for traditional Chinese but also for members of the extended family who live abroad or outstation.  As some families are expanding with new members through marriage and births, it is also a bittersweet time when the absence of family members who have passed on in the previous year, is especially felt in this season of reunions. 

For families who are going through changes, the Chinese New Year is an opportunity to start new traditions and create new memories.  Those who have suffered a recent bereavement still have to eat and they usually opt for low-key gatherings at home.  This is also an excellent time for bonding and healing as the family comes together to carry on with established family traditions, cook familiar recipes and reminisce on past experiences with their deceased loved ones.

Family members enjoying festive goodies at Aunt
Sylvia's house in Johor Baru
As in all Chinese families, we maintain the tradition of visiting our elders and in the absence of our late Ah Kong, the home of Uncle Roland, our eldest uncle in Kota Tinggi is the first destination for our new year visits.  Our visit usually includes a quick tour of his garden where he has a collection of orchids and fruit trees and visitors from the city cannot resist taking photos of his giant mangoes and auspicious pineapple plants or ong lai which literally means “good fortune comes,” in Hokkien and Teochew dialects.  As my brother and his wife admired the banana trees, thinking of how our uncle will enjoy the fruits of his labour, they also had fun dancing Bollywood style around the trees!

Our aunts serving homemade dessert of Teochew or-nee
or yam paste in New Year gathering in their father's house
Two years ago, my brother and his family relocated to Kuala Lumpur for work and studies and we often tease them that they are now orang kay-el city folks.  Every time they come back to Johor Baru, they head to their favourite street food vendors not only to satisfy their yearning for familiar comfort food but also to tah pau or pack as takeaways, and store in deep-freeze to take back to KL and savour it slowly whenever the craving arose.  It is no different in this new year trip back as they even have orders to pack more portions for our cousins who returned to KL from Australia and the UK with similar cravings for JB street food!
Dad and mum [Left] with grand-uncle Leong and
grand-aunt [Right] during their dating days in
Johor Baru's Istana Gardens, 1953
When I was a child, it was always fun to receive hong pau or red packets filled with lai see or fortune money and then tally up the total to find out how much I collected.  In those days, the only other money we received was our regular school pocket money so the annual hong pau money received was like a small windfall.  Our parents have post office savings accounts in each of our names and my siblings and I were encouraged to bank-in and save our hong pau money. 

As we grew older and could manage our money better, we were given the option to spend the sum on something we deeply desired instead of saving it.  I soon learnt that it’s not the contents of the hong pau that matter but the Red colour of the paper packets that signify the giver’s wish to me for good fortune and success in studies or work.  Over the years, the designs on the red packets have become so attractive and creative that I started a collection and now, every year I look forward to see new and interesting designs more than the contents of the hong pau.

Together again in Johor Baru - CNY 2012
Dad [Left] with grand-uncle Leong,
together again in 2014
At Chinese New Year, we are overwhelmed by the colour Red as it is the traditional Chinese colour for good fortune.  Orange colour has also earned its special place in Chinese traditions because the Chinese translation for the word orange is kum or “gold” which equates to wealth and good fortune.  Mandarin oranges feature very prominently in this season and as a tradition, a pair of oranges is presented to the hosts in home visits to wish them good fortune and before you leave their house, they will reciprocate by presenting you with a pair of oranges to wish you the same.

The Chinese New Year celebration is an opportunity for family reunions not only of the immediate family but also for members of the extended family to meet again at gatherings.  Our family has a tradition to gather for dinner in a granduncle’s house in Johor Baru on the second day of the new year and this is where we can meet family members from Singapore and elsewhere because almost everyone will be there.  As years pass and our elderly become less mobile and more dependent, it is up to younger family members to make the extra effort to ferry them to events such as this. 

It is important to get elderly family together and let them reminisce and talk and laugh about issues common among them to encourage them.  With deteriorating health and memory in their twilight years, such gatherings may even be the last time they can meet and interact with each other so I’m particularly pleased that my dad could share a laugh with granduncle Leong from Singapore.  They share a happy history as they once enjoyed their dating days in the Istana Gardens way back when it was the most romantic place in Johor Baru and their girlfriends then are now my mum and my grandaunt!

After a grueling ride to Desaru, Andrew [Left] and his friends
loading their bicycles onto the car before returning to JB
My nephew Andrew, who is based in Perth, is keen to make new memories this new year, and brought along two of his bicycles for a riding experience in Johor.  He and a few fellow cycling enthusiasts took advantage of the festive break to enjoy the great outdoors of Johor Baru by bike and took a ride to Puteri Harbour as a preliminary exercise. 
The next morning at 5am, his ride that started from Taman Molek to Desaru took more than 4 hours, 3 tube changes, one wheel change plus a 12km "SOS" ride, for him to cover a treacherous 80km ride by the highway.  With the support of a team of “marshals” who were just a phone call away, the valiant riders kicked off the Year of the Horse in a most memorable way with a ride to Desaru on their iron horses!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 6 February 2014

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2/10/2014

    Great to see the family photos...