Celebrating Chinese New Year
by Chief Alchemist a.k.a Wiley Chin - January 29, 2005 Posted: 12:30:56 PM EDT

What is Chinese New Year celebration to you?

What was it like to celebrate Chinese New Year. 'How is that different now?', someone asked.

A lot.

I should know. I am an expert in this topic. Why? Because I loved Chinese New Years. And I've celebrated for more than 35 of them. Chinese New Year was the highlight of my life, every year. Back then Chinese New Year was all about meticulous preparations and delicious anticipation.

Here's my story. To begin, here's the backdrop.

typical small town

I grew up in a small town called Kulai in the 70s. It was a predominantly farming and rubber small-holdings town. Kulai, the town is 20 miles north of Johor Bahru. I had neighbours who were mostly Chinese (Hakka, Hokkien, Cantonese & Hainanese). We spoke Hakka in the 70s even though I am a Hainanese. The Singapore Broadcast Corporation made us all Mandarin speaking from the 80s onwards but the 'lingua-franca' of Kulai in the 70s was Hakka. I spoke Hakka to my friends and my friends' parents and their grandparents.

About 200 meters from home was 'Kampung Melayu' and further along the railway and across the river where the estates were, lived my Indian friends. As a kid, I went to a 'no-longer English-medium missionary school' but most of the kids of my neighborhood went to the Chinese primary school.

That was 1971.

2 years after 1969.

People were not rich then. But they lived and celebrated their festivals, each and everyone of them. The festivals were important to them as markers of time when life was tough and there wasn't much to look forward to.

You lived, you toiled, you die. In between you celebrate a little.

Every year, for us, there was Ching Ming (Ancestors' Grave Cleaning) in April, Chung Chet in May (Chu Yuan- Dumplings Festival), Kui Chet (Festival of the Hungry Ghosts) around August, Chung Chiu Chet, the Mid-Autumn OR Moon-cake Festival in September. Then it is Koh Tung, the Winter Solstice in December.

When the Winter Solstice was celebrated, with a steamed chicken on the altar (chinese lettuce between its beak) and the sweetish fragrance of rice wine poured over burnt paper offerings, and 'thong yen' or glutinous rice balls eaten at night in sweetened ginger soup with pandan fragrance, you know Chinese New Year is just around the corner.

And Chinese New Year was one event my town celebrate with riotous joy. The sounds, the smells and the colors. The expectant days of fun seemed to come into vivid contrast in my mind. I remember the rituals in preparing for the coming of Chinese New Year was wondrously elaborate.

Before all that, to mark the coming of the New Year, the north-easterly wind must first arrive at our doorsteps, blowing from across the South China Sea. You will hear the wind when it comes, calling out sometimes like the cry of a home-sick child on the Casuarina trees, along the Chinese school grounds. 

And by then, the sky would have brightened from the rainy monsoon nights into sunny hot afternoons, with playful wind that would lift and flap Nyee Sim's (2nd Auntie) pink bedsheets hung out to dry. This is the time of the year to send red and yellow kites into the blue sky specked with white fluffy clouds, kites hand-made with splices of bamboo pulled out from under vegetable baskets discarded at the pasar.

Mom told me the same wind dry the waxed duck and sausages across the South China Sea.

And you will always hear the rustling of the Angsana trees that grow neatly in the 'padang' in front of my house, (they eat colorful kites for lunch, those...) where we play 'police and thieves'.

In the evening, the attap of my neighbour's house will shed pieces of nipah-leaves to the sudden gushes of wind that would curl into the dusty corner against hollowing-out plank walls, where you can see green wasps lead 'obedient cockroaches' into crevices and holes in the walls. And at night, the zinc roofs of my plank-walled home will rattle and creak to the odd interludes of sweeping sounds atop the roof. It was like the branches of the nangka tree were conspiring with me in my restless, joyful anticipation.

And when all of that have come together, the Chinese New year songs will start to play. Over radios and the record players from almost every other house. Over and over and over again.

Loud and noisy songs but oh so joyful a feeling they stirred in my heart! We kids would holler the songs out rascally loud and in unison as we walk along the kaki-lima;

'Tung tung tung chiang, tung tung tung chiang, Gong xi ya gong xi, fa ya fa ta chai, hau yun dao dou, huai yun ya jiu li kai...'

2 weeks before all these begin to happen, Mom would have started rearing chickens. Why was this important, you ask? Because you need a lot of chickens to get through all the 15 days of the Chinese New Year.

OK, here's the 'chicken math' so you understand:
Nen Sam Sit (Eve) : 2 Chickens
Chor It (1st Day of CNY)  : 2 Chickens
Chor Nyee (2nd Day of CNY) 1 chicken
Chor Luk (6th Day of CNY) : 1 chicken
Chor Kiu (9th Day of CNY) : 1 chicken
Chor Sit Ng (15th Day of CNY) : 1 chicken

I might have missed out some details. But as you can see, Mom will need at least 7 chickens to get through the festival. But wait, that's not correct math in a small town like ours. You need extra chickens to give to your relatives and neighbours and to reciprocate when others give you their chickens or ducks.  No, you can't switch chickens and pass them off as gifts of your own. You give away you self-bred chickens only. I know we recycle our birthday gifts, baby full moon hampers nowadays, but in those days, people know their chickens!

Mom will rear about 15 chickens, from little yellow chicks bought at the pasar. She needed only 10 adult chickens. Why rear 15 when she needed only 10? Ah, because chickens can die, my friend... ;-)

Around the same time while the chickens are growing and the noisy CNY songs are being sung, Mom will sun-dry her fish & prawn keropoks in bamboo trays in the afternoons. At least 7 days under the hot and windy January/February sky. The drier the keropoks, the better it is for frying. And on a glorious day, after I get home from school, mom would toss them into hot oil and I would watch the 'magical awakening' of the speckled 'biscuits' into their full glory with joy in my heart and freshly fried keropok in my mouth. 

With keropoks in hand, we will sweep the eaves with extended lidi brooms, throw away old things, tidy up the house and paint the plank walls. The smell of fresh paint wass the smell that marked the nearing for the celebration of those loud, red days.

About 1 week to the Nien Sam Seet, Ah-Por will begin making Nien-gao (kueh bakul). Seeing Ah-Por, in her silvery sam-foo and loose black pants, grinding soaked pulut on her pestle into milky solution and then steaming them in cut Milo & Nestum cans layered with film was a lot of fun. Eating hot, freshy baked, sticky nien-gao from chopsticks like a lollipop was the very essence of the taste of 'anticipation'.

Then Mom will buy 2 crates of F&N Orange & Sarsi, big bottles that are no longer found, for the guests who will come visiting. Ah Ngew, the boy from the sundry shop will bring them strapped behind his big metal bicycle and Mom would ask him to place them under the bed in her dark bedroom. (Why, you know why, they won't survive in open air)

Yes, finally the prerequisite shopping for shirts, pants and shoes at the Pasar Malam or the neighborhood shops. Extra big size so that it will fit  for the next 3 years.

Lion Dance for Chinese New Year

Once all these were set in place, Chinese New Year was ready to be celebrated.

And celebrate we will, with thunderous drums and dancing lions, firecrackers firing in rapid successions from bamboo poles, carpeting the roads and kaki-lima in red. And feasting...

We would feast, morning noon and night. And visit relatives and friends, bearing live chickens as gifts, tied in brown papers, or just a plastic bag of mandarin oranges. 

As you can see, a lot has changed.

We don't prepare so much anymore.

Yes, Chinese New Year used to be very different then…

'Kor nen lor....ah chiau chai, yu tai it nen, chin heh fai lor, yit nen kor yit nen' ***


***It's another year, little kid, you are 1 year older, so fast, year after year...' in Hakka.

13 Comment(s) Link to this blog

hokien-lang said...

Dear Alchemist,

I too have many pleasant memories of CNY. But somehow the thrill of Chinese New Year seems to have worn a little. I'm not sure if its because of age or if the way we celebrate CNY has lost some of its edge?

In Penang in the 70s and 80s it was a time when we used to receive kueh kapit and kueh bakul from our neighbours. And, of course, the public dispalys of lion dance and the tung-tung cheng that came with it. But now it seems that CNY is less thrilling. Could it be because the lion dance is now easily accessible on TV and we no longer need to interact with real people to celebrate our festivities?




Penang Kia said...

I really enjoyed CNY in penang. Everyone in the island willing to spend their money to buy firecrackers nad fireworks to lit up the sky at night especially during the 8th day of chinese new year. The celebration in this day if not better is equivalent as the 1st day of CNY.

After 5 years in KL, I really enjoyed celebration of CNY this year in Penang. In KL, you don't see much fireworks and firecrackers. But in Penang, you can see it everywhere. The whole island is vibrating for the festival.

This is the kind of celebration I have long for. Happy Chinese New Year to everyone. A message to everyone here, if you want to experiance very special CNY in M'sia. Come to penang !



Chief Alchemist a.k.a Wiley Chin said...

Alright Penang Kia, maybe Penang is the place to celebrate CNY :-)

I went back to my hometown Kulai and wow, it was a war-zone on the night of CNY eve. The entire town erupted into fireworks and firecrackers blasted way past mid-night.

Where's the police? ;-)

But I didn't get to eat "Harm-cha", the tea with peanut, ikan-bilis & mint soup I used to makan when I was young.

That would have been perfect!


HT said...


i'd a great time reading your blog. it brings back the memories.i might come from a different state, but the story is a duplicate. i can't believe tat all these traditions will vanish with time. sometimes, it breaks my heart that the younger generation will never experience all these queer but yet amazing moments.



Chief Alchemist a.k.a Wiley Chin said...

Hi HT, I guess our kids will see the world differently but it will be no less memorable. Less quirky perhaps. :-)


Jen from Singapore said...

Dear Mr Chin

Chanced upon your blog while looking up some info on Kulai for a friend.  Where on earth could we find such a peaceful and rustic place and from reading your blog I think Kulai is indeed one such place.  What my friend told me about the Kulai she vaguely remembered was like this.  She is a Singaporean but briefly lived in Kulai in the early 50s.  She remembered a family by the surname of Liao or Liew and is now wondering if this family is still living in Kulai.  Are there many residents in Kulai with the surname Liao or Liew? Where (i.e. clan associations etc.) can we approach if we want to trace some long lost friends without any info other than their surnames.  Hope Mr Chin can throw some light.  Thank you. 


Chief Alchemist a.k.a Wiley Chin said...

Dear Jen,

Yes, there are the Liews and the Liaus still in Kulai. I think your friend will remember if that family was a Hakka or a Hokkien, etc. That will help very much because you can then approach the Hakka or Hokkien associations still active in the town. 

I hope she still remember where she used to live, eg, near the pasar or in the main-street or at the new village. I think the older people can remember who used to lived where and what happened to their families.

The Kulai I knew is much transformed today. It is no longer idyllic. There are, however, older people who are transplanted into newer housing projects but can still remember the world they lived in. They can form the connections to the past.

Good luck Jen.



Jen from Singapore said...

Thank you Mr Chin for your prompt reply.

The family my friend mentioned is Hainanese and lived in Kulai Baru. Is this place still in existence?

I think the tracing task would be daunting.  Nevertheless, we will give it a try. Would pay a visit to Kulai soon.

Thank you once again for your kind assistance.







Chief Alchemist a.k.a Wiley Chin said...

Jen, you should call Kheng Chew (Hainanese) Association then. Here's the number I googled-up. 07-6639269.

Kulai Baru is still there. It is a bigger town now. However, I am very certain the Kheng Chew association can point you to the right family because it is a very small and tight-knitted community.


Jen from Singapore said...

Thank you.  Your help is invaluable.


Hijackqueen said...

Found your site by accident.  This is a good read.  Something you wrote down and to be refered again years later.  Happy Chinese new Year 2009


StandingStrong said...

Wiley, i really enjoyed reading this CNY article posted, you had a great memorable time during your childhood in Kulai, urbanized child like me from KL don't get to experience, all the noise, excitement, laughter, and most of all the big family/kampung atmosphere.  And in Singapore we can't burn fire crackers, well the battery ones are so palsu !   Can you guess who i am ? 


Chief Alchemist a.k.a Wiley Chin said...

Hi Standing Strong, I am not sure I can guess who you are :-)

How about more hints?



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Wiley Chin
Chief Alchemist
XiMnet Malaysia Sdn. Bhd.

An alchemist of the Internet and marketing strategies, leading the charge to put our creative and software talents into serving companies who are out to slay the global giants. Also known as Chief of Caffeine Consumption and hallucinates between projects. Yes, that accounts for his “giant slaying” stuff.

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