Festive season with a difference

Looking back to our epic family reunion for Chinese New Year 2020, we comfort ourselves knowing that we had a most meaningful and memorable time together.

Grandfather with cousin Jessie on his lap,
and other grandchildren in this precious CNY
photo captured by the side of the badminton
court at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng
Last year, family members reunited in Johor Baru all the way from Australia and the UK, as well as Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, for a truly epic reunion here.

From the start of the nationwide lockdown under the Movement Control Order (MCO) on March 18, 2020, all annual festivals, religious and family events in the past 12 months took on another form.

The global pandemic has limited our traditional celebrations and gatherings, but it cannot stop the people from finding creative ways to meet and participate virtually for both happy and sad events.

Last year, I also had my first ever experience of attending a wedding ceremony virtually and when I joined a family bereavement during the MCO, I felt a double dose of sadness because attendees were limited for the wake and funeral.

Like many weddings, many funerals were also held with limited physical attendees but were virtually attended by many from all over the world.

My sisters, cousins and I
were dressed in the
same dress design one CNY

From the experience garnered since the start of the global pandemic, scientists have identified how the virus was being spreading by contact.

And to protect the vulnerable members of our families, we were advised to limit our movements, so it is best to stay safely at home.

If there was some benefit to gain from the limited movement control in the past year, it must be more knowledge and awareness of a whole calendar of annual celebrations in our multi-cultural community.

We are a nation of multi-racial groups, so it is good to learn to differentiate between cultural and religious celebrations of each race, whether they were religious prayers or ancestor worship obligations, and approach them with due respect and sensitivity.

It is timely to discover the difference between Thaipusam and Deepavali, Hari Raya Aidil Fitri and Hari Raya Aidil Adha, Vesak and Ponggal, Ching Ming and Hungry Ghost Festival, the various harvest festivals and that the Lantern Festival is often called the Mooncake Festival.

Grandmother with her five daughters and
her five sons-in-law on a visit to 
Uncle Billy's home one CNY
There is a whole lot more to learn about the cultural and religious practices of the Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and the many indigenous groups who call Malaysia their home.

But there is one thing in common: Families are important in every community.

Movies have been made and songs were written with themes of going home for the holidays and it is no different here as in everywhere in the world.

At every major holiday like Christmas and Thanksgiving, Hari Raya and Chinese New Year, there will be exciting plans for going home to be with the family for the festivals followed by an exodus of people heading for home in the tradition of balik kampung.

Another precious photo of the five sisters
and their spouses on a CNY home visit

While it was significant to be with family and loved ones on the day itself, for the Chinese, the most meaningful time together must be on the eve of Chinese New Year to enjoy a festive feast and usher in the dawn of the new year together.

Reunion – as the word describes – reunites members of the family as a tradition, usually in the home of the family patriarch, for a festive feast dubbed the Reunion dinner.

Over the years of gathering in grandfather’s house to enjoy a sumptuous family feast lovingly homecooked by grandmother, I took it for granted that it was just an annual gathering where I would meet our cousins and play with them.

It was much later that I realized that the reason why our family was among the people gathered in grandfather’s house for the Reunion dinner, was because dad did not have any father’s house for us to balik kampung to!

Puffed rice crisps - a festive favourite of mine!

I discovered that based on tradition, our family should go to dad’s father’s house for the Reunion dinner but because dad was an orphan, so mum’s parents were the only family he had.

It was also traditional for married daughters to be with their in-laws for the Reunion dinner and the first day of the lunar new year. They would visit their parents later, usually on day two of the lunar new year.

The Chinese have an important tradition of the Reunion dinner, quite unlike many of my Muslim friends who have an amicable agreement with their spouses to spend the first day of Hari Raya with his parents for one year and in the next year, the first day of Raya with her parents.

From day two of Chinese New Year onwards, we will visit relatives not only in Johor Baru but also across the Causeway and to districts like Kulai and Kota Tinggi.

More festive favourites: pineapple tarts,
love letter rolls, cookies and cashew nuts

Dressed in new clothes and carrying dainty handbags, my sisters and I enjoyed meeting our relatives and happily received fortune money lai-see in red packets, hong pau (Cantonese) and stored them safely in our handbags.

In modern Chinese homes which practice ancestor worship, they have a family alter where joss items are burned, and a generous spread of food offered to the ancestors and Jade Emperor as part of the New Year celebrations.

After grandfather’s passing, the tradition of family gatherings continued but with a difference.

Grandmother would enjoy the Reunion dinner on the eve of Chinese New Year with the family of our eldest uncle – her eldest son.

And on the first day of the lunar new year, other family members would converge at his home to pay respects to grandmother and eldest uncle, who had inevitably taken over the role as the family patriarch.

A fully-loaded pineapple tart!

By this time, grandmother’s sons were all married with families of their own so they graduated to become the family patriarch where their sons and families would gather for their Reunion dinner.

By then, two of our aunts’ in-laws had passed on and our aunts were no longer obliged by tradition to spend the eve of Chinese New Year with the in-law side of the family.

Instead, they decided to gather in the home of their eldest sister – our home – and we chose to have our own version of Reunion dinner with an untraditional menu prepared by mum.

Our most memorable Chinese New Year eve meal was a simple yet delicious menu of nasi lemak, chicken curry and spicy sambal ikan bilis which we enjoyed eating together in our garden.

I also have fond memories of visits to homes of our relatives and the delicacies they traditionally served guests during Chinese New Year.

Freshly made kueh bahulu, sponge cakes

While it is easy to remember festive favourites like pineapple tarts and puffed rice crisps, I cannot forget the visits to the home of our grandaunt in Singapore where they served an aromatic Almond jelly.

The aroma of disgusting cockroaches may be appealing to some, but it was (urgh!) an absolute turn-off for me.

So whenever we visited this grandaunt, I always remembered to politely decline when this platter of Almond jelly was offered to me.

This year, we will not hear crashing cymbals and the rhythm of drums for traditional lion dance and dragon dance performances because they have been banned to discourage large gatherings, avoid close contact and possible infections.

This year, we can watch lion dances performed
from previous recordings, only on television...

As eldest uncle and his wife had passed peacefully in 2020, Chinese New Year 2021 will be different in yet another way because we will no longer have festive gatherings in their home.

Due to travel restrictions nationwide and the border between Singapore and Malaysia still closed, many family members are also unable to travel back to have Reunion dinner with their parents and loved ones.

With families separated at this special time of year, we can only look back and treasure the fond memories of our past experiences together while looking forward to better times ahead.

Meanwhile, we have a schedule for virtual gatherings with various branches of the extended family which started from 12.30pm on the eve of Chinese New Year.

The next virtual gathering is planned for 4pm this afternoon, with more virtual gatherings lined up on day one of Chinese New Year. 

We may be separated by distance, but we certainly remain close in thought.

It is indeed a festive season with a difference so let us obey the guidelines to stay home and stay safe. It is up to us to help break the chain of infection.

Happy Chinese New Year everyone! Kongxi, Kongxi!

Takeaway festive fare from Wan Li

The countdown to Chinese New Year is on again and I am looking forward to this season of feasting and family togetherness. But due to the global pandemic and resulting lockdown situation, celebrations will be different this year.

Takeaway Prosperity Yee Sang prepared
by Wan Li Chinese Restaurant, Renaissance JB

Even though there are limitations to our movement, I am glad that restaurants and caf├ęs are still serving for takeaways and deliveries, so there is still an option to order in instead of spending long hours in the kitchen, preparing a menu of festive food.

We read online that most Chinese restaurants were already serving their seasonal specialties, so my family and I decided to have a takeaway experience for a pre-Chinese New Year banquet – and enjoy a lower Early Bird price.

Having agreed on the estimated time of arrival for the pick-up, I reached the porch of the Renaissance Johor Baru ahead of time to collect my order prepared by Wan Li Chinese Restaurant.

Here they are with my takeaway order from
Wan Li Chinese Restaurant

I told the security staff who approached me with a polite enquiry that I was there to collect my food order from Wan Li. A few moments later, I saw the staff coming out with bags containing my packed order.

I am familiar with the Cantonese cuisine prepared by Chef Linus Mak and his culinary team and was eagerly anticipating the taste of their popular Abundance Treasure Pot along with the eight-course Chinese New Year takeaway set which includes two desserts.

Our festive banquet at home will not be complete without a platter of Prosperity Yee Sang so I guessed that the round box within a Red carrier bag must be our order of this raw fish salad topped with Salmon fillets.

Ready to load up takeaway order into my car!

It is now a tradition to kick off a Chinese New Year banquet with a prosperity toss of Yee Sang, a phrase which literally means raw fish, so it will be fun to savour this festive favourite at home too.

There were three large paper bags neatly packed with takeaway containers with one carrying the claypot for the Abundance Treasure Pot or Poon Choy or Choi (Cantonese), a dish best described as a Banquet in a Basin.

Like the Yee Sang, the Poon Choi are available in two sizes, Small and Large. For our takeaway, I chose the Small size that serves a portion for five diners.

There was an air of excitement as I unloaded the carrier bags from my car and unpacked the food containers on our dining table, probably because this was our first time for a takeaway Chinese New Year banquet experience.

Adding salmon fillets to the
Prosperity Yee Sang platter

It does not matter that there was no fancy crockery in an elaborate table setting because what mattered most was the good food shared with loved ones in the comfort of our own home.

To share this experience with family members who cannot be home for our traditional reunion dinner this year, we made every effort to capture good shots of our meal to share this dining experience with them.

As was the tradition, we started our meal with the Prosperity Salmon Yee Sang prepared with Crispy Shredded Treasures and topped by salmon fillets which the chef had creatively folded into a shape that resembled rose blossoms.

I was privileged to do the honours of adding the side ingredients onto the salad with a praise-worthy attempt at pronouncing the appropriate auspicious wishes as each ingredient was added.

Tossing Yee Sang salad together!

When I poured in the tub of oil, I moved my hand in a circular motion to ensure that the liquid gold flowed in all directions to cover all areas with good fortune…

Above all, we are grateful for such bountiful provisions, for our protection and preservation, for the measure of good health we enjoy and the family, no matter how few of us, who can share this meal together during these unprecedented times.

Then it was time to raise our chopsticks to toss the salad together and give the ingredients a good mix.

It was good to taste the familiar flavour of a refreshing mix of piquant flavours from the colourful shredded ingredients that range from slivers of jackfruit, pomelo beads to pickled radish, tinged with the sweetness of plum sauce along with the crunch from slices of crispy beetroot.

Abundance Treasure Port that serves five diners

With our appetite suitably whet by the appetizing taste of the Yee Sang salad, we move on to admire the ingredients in the Abundance Treasure Pot with its top layer attractively arranged with heads of abalone, whole prawns from the sea and broccoli florets topped with black moss and a sprinkle of golden garlic.

As we eat through the layers below, we discovered slices of sea cucumber, Chinese mushrooms, fish maw, dried scallops, dried oysters, village chicken, roast duck, white radish, Chinese Tianjin cabbage, stewed in the rich flavours of golden garlic and abalone sauce.

In the tradition of treasure pots, the rich ingredients from this Banquet in a Basin were distinctly selected for their symbolism and prepared in portions sufficient to satisfy each diner.

Look at all these rich ingredients in the
Abundance Treasure Pot!

As we savoured the tasty ingredients, it was also an opportunity to introduce my niece to some of the ingredients that she was unfamiliar with.

For instance, faat choy, a black moss that resembles strings of black hair, its symbolism and why these ingredients are featured in Chinese New Year dishes.

By this time, the soup – still sitting in the takeaway containers – was cooling down so we emptied the portions of soup into a saucepan to warm it up before we savoured the comforting taste of the Double-Boiled Village Chicken Soup brewed with American Ginseng.

This festive menu included auspicious dishes of poultry, fish, vegetables, prawns and fried rice wrapped in a lotus leaf – and finally, two desserts.

Our takeaway pre-Chinese New Year banquet

Even though the dishes were laid out on the table, we chose to eat each dish one after another, taking our time to savour the flavours as if they were served course by course.

The portion of Wan Li Roast Chicken came with a box of crispy prawn crackers, packed air-tight for us to enjoy the crisp crackle of the crackers with the chicken.

For a change from the usual Steamed Sea Garoupa fish in Soya Sauce, this takeaway menu served a Deep-Fried Sea Garoupa and a side of Teriyaki Sauce with Garlic and Scallion.

Before starting on the fish, we drizzled the sauce over the deep-fried fish. In the privacy of our home, we had no qualms about rolling up our sleeves to dig in with our fingers and chewed every morsel of flesh from its bones.

My niece – a great fan of prawns – marveled at the size of the gigantic prawns and did her duty in de-shelling a prawn to serve her grandmother.

Meanwhile my eldest sister – not a fan of prawns – graciously offered her share to my niece who accepted it without hesitation and thoroughly enjoyed the wok-fried Sea Prawns soaked in the rich and fragrant garlic ginger sauce.

The vegetable dish was Broccoli with (big!) braised Mushrooms and Pacific Clams. These vegetables comfortably complimented the vegetables we enjoyed in the Yee Sang salad and happily finished it to the last bit.

The meal came to a fitting close with fragrant Fried Rice with cubes of Smoked Duck, Chinese Sausage and Yam, served wrapped in Lotus Leaf.

Then we cleared the table and took a break before serving the double desserts of Chilled Sea Coconut with Red Dates, Ginseng Herbs and Longan Soup, and crispy Nian Gao, a traditional rice cake made from glutinous rice.

It was like a taste of nostalgia when I sank my teeth into a slice of the rice cake, sandwiched between a slice of sweet potato and a slice of yam, then deep-fried coated in a crispy batter.

Chewing on it not only evoked thoughts of dad, who was such a fan of this rice cake (that he could enjoy eating it on-its-own!) but it also reminded me to (again!) share the belief about Nian Gao and the kitchen god...

Legend has it that the gooey consistency of this steamed sweet rice cake was to seal the lips of the kitchen god and stop him from giving a bad report about the family when he goes to meet the Jade Emperor a week before the dawn of the new year…

Double desserts of Sea Coconut with
Red Dates, Ginseng Herbal Longan soup
and crispy Nian Gao 

So each year as families gathered for reunion dinners and festive feasting, this and other folklore will be shared among the family from generation to generation, in a tradition that builds strong bonds and family togetherness.

As we put down our chopsticks, we agreed that while a takeaway Chinese New Year banquet was a different experience, it was pure pleasure to savour festive favourites with dear ones in the comfort of home.

To place takeaway orders, Tel: +607 – 381 3388 or +6017 – 771 3327. Email: henry.lee@renaissancehotels.com

Wan Li Chinese Restaurant is on the lobby level of Renaissance Johor Baru, at No. 2 Jalan Permas 11, Bandar Baru Permas Jaya, 81750 Johor Baru, Johor. 

Review: One-Legged Football and Other Stories

In loving memory of her husband, Dato’ Dr Lim Kee Jin, Datin Patricia Lim Pui Huen has compiled a collection of short stories and published a charming book titled, One-Legged Football and Other Stories. Born in 1923, Dato’ passed peacefully in 2015.

Datin Patricia, or Datin Pat in short, is a professional librarian and historian who has authored several historical books including, Wong Ah Fook - Immigrant, Builder and Entrepreneur (Times Editions 2002) and Johor – Local History, Local Landscapes 1855 to 1957 (Straits Times Press 2009). 

We also know Datin Pat as the great-grand-daughter of Wong Ah Fook and her research into Johor history has given her clear insights into the social life of Chinese immigrants and their role in the development of Johor Baru from virtually a jungle into a thriving township.

While she has earned a strong reputation as a historian and author of academic books, Datin Pat also ventured into writing short stories, one of which was published in the Southeast Asian Review of English (SARE), No.50, a special issue on Malaysian and Singaporean Literature to celebrate SARE’s 30th anniversary.

Dato’ Dr Lim was posted by the Ministry of Health to the Johor Baru General Hospital (JBGH now known as Hospital Sultanah Aminah) as the Consultant Physician in 1958.

While Dato’s assignment in JBGH started as a short-term government placement for a few years, it turned out to be life-long attachment because he found much satisfaction in training young doctors under his supervision and moulded many into respected medical professionals.

In fact, the first post-graduate medical center in Malaysia was established in the JBGH in 1969, founded by Dato’ Dr Lim Kee Jin, and assisted by Dato’ Dr T Sachithanandan and Dato’ Dr Sam C E Abraham.

On his retirement from government service, Dato’ established the first private hospital in Johor Baru, Johor Specialist Hospital, a hospital that had developed into present-day, KPJ Healthcare Group, a leading healthcare provider in this region.

Meanwhile, Johor Area Rehabilitation Organisation or JARO, is a registered charitable society established in 1952, where the disabled are given opportunities to be gainfully employed in the sheltered workshops for bookbinding, basketry, tailoring, and handicrafts.

Dato’ Dr Lim was elected Chairman of JARO in 1962 and was popularly re-elected from 1962 to 2007 to the role which he held for the next 46 years. 

When he stepped down in 2008 due to health reasons, Dato’ Jimmy Low Boon Hong took over as Chairman of the JARO Management Committee, while Datin Pat continues to be a committee member.

My family and I are regular customers at JARO and are familiar with its proud heritage. It is an established brand for quality products that are handmade by people with disabilities and every JARO product is special because its quality and workmanship is matched by the effort and determination put into its creation.

In April 2013, I had the privilege to witness the official renaming of the JARO building, the Lim Kee Jin Wing, as a tribute to Dato’ Dr Lim’s commitment and contribution to JARO.

A sculpture by Dato' Dr Lim
Kee Jin which was dubbed,
'The Crouching Boy' by his sons

For the many years of training and employing the disabled and helping to give these artisans dignity in their lives, the social work by JARO was recognised by the Iskandar Malaysia Social Heroes Award (IMSHA) as the recipient of the prestigious Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi Iskandar Malaysia Ultimate Social Hero Award in 2014.

With JARO as the inspiration, One-Legged Football and Other Stories, has a collection of eight short stories that reflect the humane values and compassionate spirit of the late Dato’ Dr Lim. These stories include the heart-warming tale of, The Wind in his Face, which was first published in SARE.

Published by Areca Books, the Foreword in One-Legged Football and Other Stories is by JARO Chairman, Dato’ Jimmy Low Boon Hong, while the Introduction is written by Professor Koh Tai Ann, a Senior Associate with the Centre for Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Besides medicine, Exploration in Wood will give readers a glimpse into the other passion that Dato’ Dr Lim had in wood sculpturing – a self-taught skill that yielded beautiful creations. Photographs of his wooden sculptures are inserted in between each story.

Another sculpture created from
Tembusu wood

Datin Pat has skilfully woven interesting stories around fictional characters based on her experience with people who are differently abled, characters who have the same desires and aspirations as you and me.

Except for Habibah’s Wedding, all the stories are fictional pieces, each written in very readable language, rich with respect, sensitivity, and a touch of pathos.

It is an eye-opening read to better understand people with disabilities who also cope with everyday problems like love, marriage, family, work and even looks, and how they rise above them.

I got to know them one-by-one as the stories kick off with Dol Tongkat in One-Legged Football, Jaya and Her Beautiful Eyes, Zul with The Wind in his Face, the deaf-mute in Ripples, Joo-Nee in a Daughter or Daughter-in-Law, the blushing bride Habibah at Habibah’s Wedding, the double-life of May Lan in Black Cat, and the moving legend of Si Badang.

With Johor as a picturesque backdrop, the familiar names mentioned in the stories evoke a sense of belonging and the nostalgia of a bygone era because many of these places no longer exists or have been developed into something different.

It is easy to connect with the stories and picture the scenarios at familiar places like the Causeway, Lido Beach, Bukit Jepun, Bukit Chagar, Princess Elizabeth School for the Blind, Holiday Plaza, Selat Tebrau or the Johor Straits, and even our famous, Yong Nasi Padang!

In keeping with Dato’s legacy of care and compassion, Datin Pat and the Lim family will donate to JARO, the proceeds from the sale of this book.

Priced at only RM38, this 104-page hardcover book, One-Legged Football and Other Stories, is truly a labour of love.

One-Legged Football and Other Stories is available from Areca bookstores, online from arecabooks.com and from Johor Area Rehabilitation Organisation (JARO) located at No. 18 Jalan Sungai Chat, 80720 Johor Baru, Johor, Malaysia. Tel: +607 – 224 5632.

For more information on Areca Books and JARO, please visit webpages: arecabooks.com/product/one-legged-football-and-other-stories and jaro.org.my

A version of this was published in The Iskandarian on 21 January 2021.