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