Chinese New Year family togetherness


Chinese New Year celebrations officially ended with Chap Goh Meh, the 15th day of the first lunar month but in Johor, the festive season does not end until after the annual Johor Chingay, a religious celebration of the Johor Old Temple.


Lo hei prosperity toss of Yee Sang at
the start of our family reunion dinner 2022

Having gone through two years where Chinese New Year celebrations were significantly toned down, the celebrations this year were upbeat as the Chinese community seemed to be doing everything to make up for the lost time.


Even though the temple celebration and street parade proceeded under strict conditions, the Chinese were pleased that this annual tradition was allowed to go on.


Early in the festive season, city malls were gaily decorated in auspicious Red for shoppers to feel the festive vibe that was further enhanced by scheduled performances of traditional high-pole lion dances and dramatic drum shows.


Traditional glutinous rice sweet
cakes, kueh bakul or nian gao

The lively mood continued into homes where much effort went into the annual Spring Cleaning, an activity which was conveniently overlooked in the past two years, probably because no Chinese New Year visitors were expected…


This year, however, extra effort went into the decluttering of items accumulated over the long lockdown periods. And after cleaning and dusting their homes, traditional decorations in Red were put up again to usher in the new year.


About a week before the dawn of the new year, traditional Chinese refreshed their home altar and made an offering of nian gao (Mandarin), a glutinous rice sweet cake or kueh bakul to the Kitchen god.


It was believed that the Kitchen god would soon leave for heaven to make an annual report on the family to the god of heaven.


My siblings and I with mum and cousin Bernice
on Day One of Chinese New Year 2022

And to ensure that he does not make any bad reports and risk losing any blessings in the coming year, the Chinese would offer the Kitchen god this sticky rice cake that aimed to seal his lips from making any report, especially when they knew that it was quite impossible for their report to be good!


As restrictions were lifted for inter-state travel, family members could travel across the country – from North to South and East to West (and vise-versa!) – to have their much-missed traditional family reunions.


Finally, family members could meet for meals and have home visits and it was a joyous occasion to be together again instead of just chatting through video calls.


Bernice with my mother and hers on a video call

Thanks to modern technology, these video chats have indeed, been very helpful in keeping family and friends in touch during the lockdown periods in the past years.


Once again, we were blessed with festive gifts of home-made cookies and traditional snacks like delicate love-letters folded into fans, presented in air-tight metal tins (not plastic see-through jars with a red twist-on cover) just like in the olden days.


Baked pineapple tarts came in various forms – open tarts or covered ones, tubular or artfully shaped like plump pineapples – for connoisseurs to savour and decide which were their favourites in terms of the taste and texture of pastry and jam.


Popular cake and cookies for Chinese New Year

Even as the country’s borders have reopened with Vaccinated Travel Lanes, our relatives across-the-straits have opted not to travel for now and we continued to meet-up virtually with video calls.


Meanwhile, cousin Bernice made a special effort to come all the way from the UK and when she had completed her home quarantine, she turned up in Johor Baru with her parents to join us for our reunion dinner on the eve of Chinese New Year.


According to Chinese traditions, daughters who were married would gather with their husbands’ family in the home of their father-in-law or mother-in-law. After all, they had changed their surnames and were counted as a member of that family.


Traditional love-letter folded into a fan shape

These married daughters would pay their respects to her parents with her husband and family, traditionally after the first day of the new year.


For married daughters whose spouses were not Chinese or whose in-laws were deceased, they could join the reunion dinner at her parents’ homes, if they so wished.


Our family had a flexible arrangement for our reunion dinners and while dine-in was allowed in restaurants, we still opted for takeaways or delivery of our favourite festive food to enjoy the meals comfortably at home.


It was indeed, meaningful to share this meal with elderly family members especially when they were advancing in age and deteriorating in both health and strength.


Our takeaway Poon Choy, banquet in basin

This year we chose to dine on Poon Choy (Cantonese), a banquet-in-a-basin which had a humble origin but have now earned a reputation for its high-value ingredients, often served for special occasions like weddings, birthdays or Chinese New Year.


This elaborate dish is said to have originated in Hong Kong during the late Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) when Mongol troops invaded China and the young Emperors, brothers Zhao Shi and Zhao Bing, fled to the area around Guangdong and Hong Kong.


The brothers and their imperial entourage were welcomed by the local people and to feed them, they collected and cooked a variety of their best ingredients.  


Raising our glasses for a toast with
refreshing pineapple juice. Cheers!

But as they did not have a bowl large enough to serve all the food, had to use the only large receptacle – a big wooden basin, traditionally used to wash clothes – and this was how the big basin banquet or Poon Choy was invented.


In traditional village celebrations like religious festivals, rituals and weddings, Poon Choy was served in metal wash basins simmering over stoves, large enough to feed 10 to 12 persons. 


A basin banquet may comprise between 9 to 18 courses of various ingredients that were separately cooked by stir-frying, deep-frying, boiling, braising or stewing. 


Now Chinese chefs may assemble each layer within a claypot that included high-value and exotic ingredients like abalone, prawns, roast meat, mushrooms, dried oysters, fish maw, dried seafood, goose feet and vegetables. 


After these ingredients were assembled in the basin, they were further stewed for laborious hours to bring out exquisite flavours that are fit for Emperors. 


Another prosperity toss of Yee Sang!

It was also fun to start our reunion dinner with a refreshing platter of Yee Sang, a salad dish created by four local chefs in Singapore as a symbol of prosperity and good health for the lunar new year back in 1964 when Malaysia and Singapore were still one country – Malaya.


Yee Sang was traditionally served on the Seventh day of the first month in the new lunar year but due to its popularity, many restaurants now served this dish throughout the festive season and was even available for takeaways. 


It was a dish designed for businessmen who wished to toss the salad to great heights, a ritual adopted at the start of the new year that was believed to augur well for greater prosperity and wealth in the year ahead.


Nephew, Thomas Ng [Left]
with Rafael Nadal [Right]

This prosperity toss was dubbed Lo Hei (Cantonese) simply translated as Tossing for Greater Wealth and the Chinese would often chant, “Huat-ah!” the Teochew or Hokkien word for ‘prosperity’ while they were tossing this salad higher and higher.


As none among us were involved in business, the well wishes uttered during our salad toss were focused on the fulfilment of our desire for good health and strength, success in careers, more grandchildren and for everyone’s wishes to come true.


While our reunion dinner was in progress, the television was on but instead of Chinese New Year variety shows, it was on the Sports channel when the final games of the Australian Open 2022 was being screened in a live-telecast from Melbourne. So technically, Rafael Nadal also joined us for our reunion dinner.


Among the greatest fans of Nadal were our aunts, Aunty Polly (with us in Johor Baru) and Aunty Sylvia (then in Kuala Lumpur) who stayed in touch through WhatApp to exchange comments as they thrilled to the final scores in this match.


At Nadal’s winning stroke, the shouts of jubilation between these aunts plus those from family members who follow the game, echoed through their telephones and I was sure, around our neighbourhoods too.


The first Red packet I received this
year, from cousin Richard and wife

This celebratory high was only overshadowed by the ear-shattering explosions from the firecrackers set off by our neighbour, who ran their own family business.


After I bade farewell to our dinner guests and had sent them off, I was retuning indoors when our neighbour - their son and daughter – greeted me with, Happy New Year and kindly informed me that they would be setting off firecrackers at midnight.


Even though it was going to be just a brief burst of noise, they were concerned that this fiery explosion may shock our aged mother – and our pet dog – so I thanked them for their kind consideration to forewarn us.


Having been forewarned, we remained calm when the explosions happened at the stroke of midnight. This noise was echoed by other similar sounds from around the neighbourhood but only for about half an hour at the dawn of the new lunar year.


Bernice presenting a traditional
Red packet to nephew, Ivan
Day One of Chinese New Year 2022 started with home visits, complete with the exchange of festive greetings, mandarin oranges and seasonal gifts of barbecued meat, snacks and herbal tonic, along with traditional fortune money wrapped in Red packets or hong pau (Cantonese).


Traditionally, Red packets were presented by the elders to their children, whether married or single, while single people were entitled to receive from all and sundry, mainly from married relatives.


From childhood, we were taught never to open Red packets when they were received but to open them later at home. After all, it was never about the contents but all about the well-wishes presented with those packets wrapped in auspicious Red.


Another tradition about Red packets was how it was only given to those who came in person to visit and greet the elders with well-wishes in the tradition of filial piety.


My sister, Pearly, presenting Red 
packets to her grandchildren,
hand-carried by Bernice to the UK

Back then, there was no such practice as to pass the Red packets to someone to give to their children or family members who did not come to give their wishes in person.


The global pandemic, however, had caused an adjustment to this tradition as the elders decided to send their Red packets to those who could not travel nor visit during the season, through relatives to present on their behalf.


[As cousin Bernice would be returning to the UK, we could not only send our Red packets through her but also gifts to our sister, Pearly and her family who live there.


To reduce the bulk of items for Bernice to pack on her return, I kept my gifts to our grand-niece and grand-nephew, small enough to each fit into a large Red packet.]


One of my favourite festive foods during Chinese New Year must be a simple meal of rice steamed with two types of Chinese sausages, stuffed with minced pork and the other filled with duck liver, served hot and drizzled with a dollop of dark soy sauce.


Steamed rice fragrant with Chinese sausages
drizzled with dark soya sauce

The aroma of this fragrant rice and its nostalgic taste brought back fond memories of the large pots of rice steamed with Chinese sausages and waxed meat that our grandmother used to prepare for Chinese New Year at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng, in a bygone era.


Grandfather’s house in Johor Baru remains a precious memory especially as many members of the extended family now live outside of Johor and abroad in the UK, Europe and Australia.


Then we learnt that Thomas, son of cousin Dennis whose family is based in Melbourne, had met with Rafael Nadal in a restaurant while having lunch there, a few days prior to Nadal’s massive win the night before.


My grand-nephew, Jamieson, with
my gift of a dragon made of Lego

It was every young fan’s dream to meet this tennis superstar in person and I believe his photograph with Nadal, would be a treasured memento forever. [Check out this screen-shot from Thomas’ LinkedIn post.]


On Day Two of Chinese New Year, my brother and his wife hosted a family lunch in their home with a few more guests, cousins Shirley and Felicia with their families.


Our small gathering was particularly joyous as it was a special reunion of family members who had not met each other for just too long. It was so good for us in JB to finally meet with relatives from Kota Kinabalu, Senai, USJ and the UK.


Meanwhile in KL that very morning, Aunty Sylvia, who had their own family reunion the previous night, was pleasantly surprised when her younger son, Ryan, decided that they would take a drive to JB to visit us.


My grand-neice, Thea, with my
gift of a panda made of Lego

It was a snap decision but Aunty did not hesitate to pick up her bag of mandarin oranges complete with Red packets, and hopped into the car with her son and husband for a smooth drive to JB.


And they turned at my brother’s house for a very pleasant surprise to all gathered there. After dinner, they had another smooth drive back to KL that same night.


With small group meet-ups for home visits, Chinese New Year celebrations this year was indeed, very different from those of the past two years.


All too soon the celebrations had passed and cousin Bernice had arrived safely back in the UK to present our Red packets and gifts to my sister and her family.


As the global pandemic continues to rage around the world and the virus is mutating into dangerous variants, we are ever grateful for the blessings of good health and strength, and the privilege to meet up again to make more memories together.   

Caring continues at Impiana Senai


In 2017, I had the pleasure to witness the grand opening of Impiana Hotel Senai when it was declared open as the first business hotel in Senai, in an auspicious and memorable 10-10-10 event, held at 10am on the 10th of October.


Hotel General Manager, Mahadi Mathana 
[5th from Right] and team members with
representatives from the beneficiaries
When the hotel had settled into its rhythm of serving the needs of business and leisure travellers in this region, I had the opportunity to review the hotel facilities and was pleased to publish my story in Life & Times Jom, the Travel section of The New Straits Times in 2018.


During my stay experience, I had the privilege to meet with members of their team who were familiar with My Johor Stories and who showed much interest in my 2017 Bestseller, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage.


I remember talking to them about Book Two, my book sequel that would feature some stories from Johor towns like Kluang, Muar, Batu Pahat, Kulai, Kelapa Sawit, and Desaru, and even a Senai story.


In December 2018, My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and Inspirational People was published and its contents featured my story on the Wong’s, the founding fathers of Senai town.


Over the years, I was often back at Impiana Hotel Senai for events and food reviews.


While their team members may have changed, this hotel continues with its commitment to their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) towards the community.


The hotel understands that the global pandemic and nationwide lockdown periods in the past two years had certainly taken a toll on the economy.


As people have tightened their belts to brace themselves for the challenges ahead, charity homes are facing an even greater challenge to manage their work with the needy.


Donations presented to the 
five charity organisations

In an initiative to provide support to charity homes that are facing financial difficulties, Impiana Hotel Senai recently held an event in conjunction with Chinese New Year 2022 where donations were presented to five charities as part of its CSR efforts.


The five beneficiaries who received donations were:


Persatuan Penjagaan Kanak-Kanak Terencat Akal Johor Baru, in Saleng, Johor, a home for special needs children with under-developed mental abilities and physical skills.


Grace Covenant Community Care, a shelter for orphans, single parents, abandoned and underprivileged children.


Yu Shan JB Disabled Welfare Centre, a shelter dedicated to adopting and helping children with mental or physical challenges.


Pusat Jagaan Warga Istimewa Kempas, a welfare organisation for mentally-challenged, handicapped and physically ill residents.


Pusat Jagaan Anak Yatim Amitabha Centre and Caring Shelter, Putuo Village in Kulai, a shelter, medication and education provider for low-income families and children in need.


“Impiana Hotel Senai aspires to be more socially conscious as a responsible corporate citizen in all of its activities. With these donations, we aim to lighten the burden of the organisations as well as bring good cheer and happiness to all the beneficiaries,” said Impiana Hotel Senai’s General Manager, Mahadi Mathana.


We encourage the Johor community to join us and actively participate in giving back to those in need. Together we can make a difference,” he added.


Impiana Hotel Senai is located at Jalan Impian Senai Utama 2, Taman Impian Senai, 81400 Senai, Johor. For more info, visit website:

Different Chinese New Year do at JARO


Every year, the staff of the Johor Area Rehabilitation Organisation (JARO) will look forward to celebrating Chinese New Year with a buffet lunch hosted at the New York Hotel, Johor Baru.


The Reception Desk and pay-point at JARO

This special outing to the hotel restaurant for their Chinese New Year lunch was a treat that the staff enjoyed, generously sponsored by the hotel for the past eight years before the global pandemic reached Johor.


To meet with health and safety requirements during the pandemic for the past two Chinese New Years, some 50 staff from the three workshops in JARO – tailoring, basketry and book-binding – could not have their annual outing to the hotel.


While dine-in was allowed in restaurants this year, JARO Chairman, Datuk Jimmy Low Boon Hong, and the administrative committee in JARO, decided to host a celebration with a difference, held in the recently renovated premises of JARO.


Shopping in the JARO showroom

For safety and protection, the committee arranged for the staff to receive lunch boxes to enjoy a leisurely meal held in their staff canteen located on the lower ground section of the premises.


Meanwhile Datuk Jimmy and JARO committee members welcomed a few guests and well-wishers from the Johor Baru Tiong Hua Association to a simple buffet hosted in their event hall.


In his welcome address, Datuk Jimmy gave a brief introduction about how JARO provides training and employment for people with disabilities in workshops that create quality, custom-made handicrafts and book-binding services.


Dato Jimmy Low presenting his welcome 
address to guests at the Chinese New Year event

It was encouraging that some of the trained staff who were able to find employment elsewhere, had left JARO to pursue their own careers.


In addition to receiving training, employment and a salary, JARO also provided staff with EPF savings and SOCSO insurance coverage.


He, however, expressed his concern for JARO’s future due to the financial toll caused by the global pandemic that had affected businesses and NGO’s like JARO.


In fact, the long periods of lockdowns had badly affected the sale of JARO’s handicrafts and quality products and with corporations struggling to survive and everyone tightening their belts, JARO hardly received any donations in the past two years.


Striking a pose in the elevator,
[L to R] Datin Janet Yap,
Datin Seri Jenny Cheng and
Datin Seri Yong K H
This Chinese New Year lunch was among the annual celebrations in a calendar of social events that JARO has with their staff, like Hari Raya Aidil Fitri and the International Day for the Disabled.


The annual Chinese New Year gathering was always a joyous occasion where the JARO staff would look forward to receiving traditional gifts of Ang Pau or Red Packets of fortune money from well-wishers.


This year, however, instead of presenting the Red Packets to the staff members individually, generous well-wishers including Datin Seri Jenny Cheng, Datin Seri Yong K H and Datin Janet Yap, handed their gifts to the JARO Management for distribution to the staff. 


JARO Honorary Secretary, Mrs Sumedha Sehgal, was pleased that guests who came to the Chinese New Year event, had the opportunity to visit the showroom to buy a selection of quality handicrafts.


She was also pleased that an elevator was installed in the renovated premises to facilitate more convenient movement of their staff who were physically disabled.


Useful quality handicrafts created by the 
Tailoring workshop in JARO

She explained that the installation of this elevator was made possible through a generous donation from the former Lord Mayor of London, Alderman Allan Yarrow, who personally presented the gift to her when she visited him at his office in London in 2016.


This was a courtesy call to him as a follow-up to his visit to JARO with his wife in 2015 while he was on a two-day working visit in Johor.


The work of JARO and other charitable organisations for people with disability, was close to his heart not only because his mother, Paula Yarrow, once volunteered at JARO but also because his son also suffers from cerebral palsy.  


Yarrow has a special bond with Johor and JARO because he was born in Johor Baru in 1951 and lived his first six years here.


A range of products in a section of the showroom

His family was in Johor because his father, Colin Yarrow, founded Metal Box Company, a can making factory in Woodlands in 1948. [Note: Malaya and Singapore were then, still one country.]


In 1952, JARO was established as a sheltered workshop for recovered tuberculosis patients, then known as the Johor Anti-Tuberculosis Rehabilitation Organisation and his mother used to help out as a volunteer. From 1955 to 1956, C. D. Yarrow took over the role of Chairman of JARO from the founder, Dr Beryl Wilberforce-Smith.


While the Chinese New Year celebration in JARO this year was toned down for very good reasons, it was encouraging to see the refreshed showroom stocked with a wide range of quality handicrafts and souvenirs along with the generosity of shoppers and well-wishers during this difficult time.


Visit the JARO showroom for your next handicraft and souvenir shopping spree. Open from Sunday to Thursday, 8am to 5pm. Closed on Friday and Saturday.


Johor Area Rehabilitation Organisation or JARO is located at No. 18, Jalan Sungai Chat, 80100 Johor Baru, Johor. Tel: +607 – 224 5632.

Revival at JB's Heritage Quarter


Over the long periods of lockdowns in the past two years, it kept people indoors, businesses closed and the city was silent.


In the heart of the city, Postcode 80000

With the gradual reopening of the economy, many businesses reopened while most restaurants still served takeaways even though dine-in was now allowed.


It was like a breath of fresh air to walk through the city’s Heritage Quarter to visit old friends at their businesses and to see for myself, how the old town had changed.


Businesses were hard-hit by the lockdowns so it was so good to see established businesses reopened and people going about their business just as their forefathers did generations ago.


An ancient arch still standing in one
of our city's cleaned back lanes

But now, among the distinct differences were the signposts and stickers/markers for physical distancing and of course, the quintessential presence of that QR code for scanning at every entrance.


These were stark reminders that we are living in the New Normal, where wearing a face mask was mandatory and that everyone was equally responsible in doing our part to maintain the health and safety in our community.


As I walked along Jalan Trus, I was pleased to see that the City Council had made good use of the time to improve the pavements and completed the projects in the long-neglected back lanes to make our city more walkable.  


In some places, construction was still in progress but I could see new pavements outside Hua Mui Restaurant, a popular coffeeshop located at the corner where Jalan Trus meets with Jalan Dhoby.


Please keep our pavements clean
and unobstructed for pedestrians' use

I saw that this restaurant seemed to have gone through a facelift and even its signboard looked refreshed. This was a promising sign (pun intended!) because it was an established brand that should continue to serve its loyal customers.


During the lockdown, I supported local businesses by ordering-in food and the traditional Chicken Chop by Hua Mui was one of the comfort foods that I enjoyed.


Meanwhile, Jalan Dhoby was now a one-way driving route, designed with a wide pedestrian path.


Staff packing my takeaway orders at
Adam's Nasi Padang in Qin Garden Kopitiam

Just as I always did, I dropped in to buy takeaway food from Adam’s Nasi Padang, a popular Malay food-stall located within Qin Garden Kopitiam.


This business’ namesake, Adam Soroso, was seated with friends at one of the tables in the coffeeshop and when he recognized me behind my mask, came forward to have a chat.


As expected, he echoed the sentiments of fellow businesses that I heard in every neighbourhood, and expressed his struggle to meet the challenges to revive and rejuvenate his business after the lockdowns and changes in the economy.


Still a generous portion of that familiar taste
of It Roo's famous Chicken Chop

Further along Jalan Dhoby, the traditional bakery run by the Sallahuddin family was also opened to serve regular customers.


Directly opposite, I saw that It Roo Café was welcoming in diners.


As the time was just ahead of lunch hour, I decided to pop in for a quick meal of their famous Chicken Chop before its small dining hall became too crowded with diners.


An old place with a new identity

With my stomach comfortably full, I wandered across to Jalan Tan Hiok Nee to visit the familiar places on this Heritage Walk.


Along this route, one cannot miss the dramatic sight of the Red House, recently refurbished with a fresh coat of Red paint and was incidentally, the corporate colour of Marrybrown, the business which now occupies these premises.


Red lanterns adorned the Heritage Walk for the Chinese New Year season and just outside Hiap Joo Bakery & Biscuit Factory, two gentlemen – calligraphy artists – had set up a table to write traditional couplets on strips of Red paper.


Red lanterns on the signpost

It was a Chinese tradition where poems and phrases that augur well for good fortune would be put up on the doorposts of the front entrance of homes and businesses to usher in best wishes for the new year.


I discreetly watched as a customer discussed what he wanted written and the calligraphy master lifted his paint brush, daubed it in black ink and started to write large Chinese characters on that Red strip of paper.


When I turned to meet my friends at the bakery, I thought that the sight of this traditional practice was one that illustrated hope and promise of the revival of life and business activities in the Heritage Quarter of our beloved city.


Keeping a tradition alive in JB

My visit to the old town was not complete without stopping to buy Hiap Joo’s famous banana cake. For me, the inimitable taste of their family recipe for this soft and fluffy cake, just hits the spot.


I had the privilege to get to know the Lim family, who still runs this traditional bakery, and have documented their story in my book, My Johor Stories 2: Interesting Places and Inspirational People.


Across the road from the bakery, I saw a new signboard for the shops opened as a modern café/restaurant and was pleased that this offered yet another dining option here.


While many shops in the Heritage Quarter remained closed, the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum and Museum for the 24 Festive Drums were opened to welcome visitors.


Buy banana cake from this window

Since its opening in January 2020, the Museum for the 24 Festive Drums did not have any opportunity to interest visitors due to the nationwide lockdown in March.


With the gradual reopening of the economy, this proudly Johor-born tradition of dramatic drumming had the privilege to present itself at the city’s popular Mid-Valley Southkey Mall during the Chinese New Year season.


Recently when I was in the Mall, I saw familiar artefacts displayed at the concourse, like a sample of the Chinese drum used for this art of drumming and a collection of their souvenir books and videos.


A young man who was at this display, showed me their flyers and told me they were inviting people to join drumming classes held at their Drums Centre in Bandar Baru Permas Jaya.


Traditional Chinese drum on display
at Mid-Valley Southkey Mall

In that display, there was also a video screen that featured the co-founder of the art of the 24 Festive Drums, Tan Chai Puan, who was speaking in Mandarin (I guessed) about this unique art of drumming.


I am familiar with Tan because I had the privilege to feature him as an exclusive story under Portraits in my 2017 Bestseller, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage.


When I mentioned this to the young man, his eyes widened with recollection because copies of my book, opened to Tan’s story, were also displayed in the Museum of the 24 Festive Drums.


During this festive season, Mall shoppers had the opportunity to watch and enjoy an experience of Johor’s art of the 24 Festive Drums when their drum troop presented exciting performances at various time slots.


As new life was trickling back into the old town, I am confident that recovery was on its way as the city’s commercial and business sectors were being revived and more visitors were arriving to explore and experience the charm of our Heritage Quarter.


Note: My Johor Stories books are available from MPH bookstores nationwide and online from website: mphonline.