February 7, 2010

MALAYSIA: Holding On To Traditions

. SELANGOR, Malaysia / The Star / SundayMetro / February 7, 2010 Story and pictures by Grace Chen Come Chinese New Year, many Chinese families usher in loads of new things but some choose to hold on to family traditions they grew up with. THE Chinese New Year is a great time to remember – and practise ­– traditions that have been passed down the generations. As children, we looked eagerly to the festive season for so many reasons, partaking of practices that we didn’t quite understand but loved doing anyway. Before the days of hampers and commercially-packed cookies, those celebrating the new year would send their children to the homes of their non-Chinese neighbours to deliver traditional homemade kuih and biscuits on a plate topped with mandarin oranges. And the plate would never be returned empty but filled with sugar or something sweet. Power of prayer: Yap Kok Shan, 81, the temple treasurer, says that in remembering our ancestors, we are reminded of the lessons of hard work, perseverance and determination Before children had new clothes just about every time their parents went shopping, a set of brand new home-sewn clothes, underclothes and even toothbrush and toys were highlights of the year. Before reunion dinners were held at restaurants offering the same old fare, the womenfolk – and sometimes the men too – would toil for days over family recipes and delicacies that would only be served once a year. Such lovely memories of the good old days. Fortunately, in some households, these traditions still hold true. Madam Y.H Lim labours every year over the reunion dinner. She has little choice as her family of four children and 12 grandchildren don’t want any restaurant fare but her once-a-year pork stewed with bamboo shoot, stewed duck, ham choy duck soup and other handed-down recipes. Deep-frying the huge chunks of belly pork to be stewed with bamboo shoot is no mean feat. One year, recalls Lim, the wok cover flew up due to the pressure from the deep-frying; luckily no one was injured. This is one dish no one in the family wants to pick up! “It takes me a few weeks of planning, marketing and cooking. It’s hard work as I have to do all by myself but it’s worth it when I see my family enjoying the food with such relish. “My daughter says if the family loves these dishes, why can’t we have them more often instead of once a year? But then it wouldn’t be a New Year speciality any more, would it?” shares Lim, 68, who learnt most of these dishes from her mother-in-law who came from China. All in the family: The Lims and their children (from front) Masni, 13, Razin, seven, Zulkamal, 12, and Ros, 18, cherish family togetherness and make it a point to ask forgiveness from their parents when they receive their ang pau. Crockery that is only used once a year is taken out of storage and washed while chopsticks are brand new each year. Although meals are eaten daily on plates, rice is served in bowls at the reunion dinner. And because everyone knows how much work goes into that feast, all are warned ahead that they should savour every bite and not rush through the reunion dinner. After dinner, in keeping with the family tradition, all the grandchildren, dressed in brand new pyjamas, line up to receive their ang pau from the grandparents, with an exchange of salutations of “longevity, prosperity and good health” and “be good children, study hard”. Food certainly plays an important part in Chinese homes, especially during the festive season. One family churns out pau in the shape of animals and other symbols for good luck and “ho yee thau”. Modern take: Loh holding up the longevity peach buns which are symbolic of good health and plenty of offspring. For Lee Kian Seong, 22, the Chinese New Year celebration is synonymous with novelty-shaped pau on the dessert table. His mother, Loh Mooi Kim, 43, explains that the longevity peach buns called yi shuen mun tong or”a garden full of grand children” in Cantonese is especially auspicious to the Chinese who put a premium on loads of offspring to ensure the preservation of one’s lineage. This is symbolised by the bigger peach being stuffed with smaller versions which altogether “make up” 19 in number. Again the number is another indication of long life. But Lee, a pastry chef, has innovated and added to the traditional longevity pau. He has introduced pink piggies, chocolate-eared puppies and prickly porcupines, to name a few; and his mum has creatively attributed to each an auspicious meaning. The pink piggies signify the Chinese saying of “chee long yap sui”, which, loosely translated, means “an influx of cash”. The porcupines, which are known as chin chee in Cantonese, signify the constant churn of activity which is necessary to bring in business. The puppies, as suggested by their homophone, aim to wish the diner long life and are also regarded as a sign of friendship as dogs are considered man’s best friend. Honouring the ancestors: Yap with his wife, Tan Siew Sin, 49, son Shang Feng and daughter Jyy Huey pay respects to their ancestors in the family temple Recently, Lee added to his repertoire cat and leaf-shaped pau as the cat in Japanese culture is a symbol of welcome and leaves are synonymous with life and a fresh start to all of one’s endeavours. To usher in the Chinese New Year, Haniff Lim, 46, a Seremban native of Hokkien descent, and his wife, Zulaila Damin, 43, will clean their aquarium and goldfish ponds by changing the filters and giving everything a good scrub. His love for fish started as a boy but with financial independence as an adult, he started to take this hobby even more seriously and to a grander scale. He now has no fewer than 70 goldfish of the ryukin and oranda varieties, to name a few. He also checks on his collection and replenishes his stock before Chinese New Year. As a practice, he replaces every expired fish with at least three new members to make up for the loss. “About a month or so before Chinese New Year, we’ll go to this aquarium called Fengshui Fish in Puchong and look at the latest breeds of fish available to add to our collection. The fact that the general manager is such a good salesman helps to make the decision easier,” says Haniff in jest. The operations manager believes that his fishy friends’ state of health will reflect his personal happiness. If they do well, he and his family will be happy and thrive too, hence his conscientious care for his watery pets. And needless to say, the fish are a great source of pride when visitors come to his home during Chinese New Year and marvel at his collection. While some are very much into auspicious names and symbols, the Yap family prioritises an extensive get together at a family temple. For Yap Seong Kon, 54, Chinese New Year would not be complete without paying respects to his forefathers in the Yap family temple Onn Kay Yeoh San Yap Ser Kah Chuk, off Jalan Ipoh, on the 14th day of the New Year. “The practice of paying our respects to our forefathers is passed down through the generations. To date, there are 3,000 individuals bearing the Yap surname in Malaysia and come the festive season, you will find no fewer than 500 of our relatives gathering at the temple,” says the father of two. He has been going to this temple since very young although it has been relocated several times. And he has kept the family tradition alive by bringing his children to the temple each year. Temple treasurer Yap Kok Shan, 81, shares that in addition to seeking spiritual guidance, praying to the ancestors evokes the lessons of the past. “Though our ancestors are no longer around, they were once individuals who strove to improve the lot of the younger generation. In remembering them, we are reminded of the lessons of hard work, perseverance and determination.” Members of the Yap clan find the New Year gathering an ideal platform to network and be reacquainted with each other. At the same time, it is an opportunity to offer prayers and seek the blessing of their ancestors. Yap, who runs a kindergarten, prayed for his young charges to be spared of the A(H1N1) outbreak last year and, he says, his prayers were answered. His daughter, Jyy Huey, 24, was granted her wishes for good grades in her CLP and a good career while her brother Shang Feng, 19, recalls that a simple wish he made as a nine-year-old for yee sang was granted. [rc] Copyright © 1995-2010 Star Publications (M) Bhd