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.   

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