Saturday, February 9, 2008

Chinese New Year's Eve

First of all, Giong Hee Huat Chye – Happy Chinese New Year – to everyone out there. May you have good health and the company of your loved ones in the Year of the Rat.

This year, our family’s New Year celebrations began, as it has done as far back as I can remember, on the morning of the Eve (Wednesday, Feb 6), when Mum woke up early to offer prayers to our departed ancestors.

Mum cooked some vegetarian dishes for the offerings, and after her prayers, the family had some of the food for breakfast. I had woken up earlier, and was famished, so had gulped down a packet of instant noodles by the time breakfast was ready . Bad move, that!

It used to be that the highlight of the Eve was the reunion dinner, when every member of the family, no matter how far away they lived, would return to their parents’ home to partake in a feast. Some years ago, Sister and Brother-in-law offered to host an expanded reunion dinner at their home, which was fine by us, since it allowed us to shift our nuclear-family dinner to lunch, and enjoy a bigger feast with the extended family a few hours later!

And so, the morning was spent preparing for lunch. Mum used to do all the heavy lifting, but with her advancing years, everyone else stepped up to ease her load. Second Sis took care of some of the prep work…

… while Brother manned the wok to whip up a delicious meal.

Even Lychee (one of our five dogs!!) lent a hand, if “waiting for scraps” qualified as helping out with the workload.

We had pek zham kuay, or boiled chicken (with golden yellow skin), …

… some very fresh and crunchy beans; fish maw with bamboo shoots and chicken stir fry (a very Hokkien dish); braised pork trotters and ribs with sea cucumber (another classic Hokkien dish); a soup; and tee ah ker, a springy steamed flour cake that goes incredibly well with the sauce from the braised pork trotters.

What a spread!

Dinner that night brought together two extended families – ours and that of our aunt and her four children (our first cousins), and their families (four generations in total). The meal kicked off with a lo hei

… in which everyone gets together to toss a yee sang (a raw fish salad) – the higher you lift the ingredients with the chopsticks and toss it while uttering auspicious wishes, the better your fortune will be. There were so many of us that we couldn’t all get around the table!

After a hefty meal (I am too zonked out to go into the details) and some wonderful time catching up with cousins we haven’t seen in a while, we returned home to wait for midnight.

We cleared the living room, opened the front door, and laid out an altar facing out, preparing to welcome in the New Year.

Our prayer table has become streamlined over time (note, though, the two characters that Brother had a calligrapher pen for us the day before). When Grandma was alive, she practised a religion that was typical of Chinese families – a fusion of Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism that is more a way of life than a compartmentalised “religion”, as the term is understood today. Our New Year’s altar table then reflected the richness of the syncretic way of life/religion – it was elaborately stocked and decorated, and we burnt a lot of gold and silver paper money as offerings (the kids’ job was to fold these “gold and silver paper” in certain ways). We would be setting off all manner of fireworks, creating a welcome din (deemed to be auspicious).

Mum inherited and continued these traditions, but over time, she moved closer to a purer form of Buddhism, and the family rituals lost some of their (Daoist) elements. Time (and a government ban on firecrackers!) has tempered the more flamboyant aspects of Chinese New Year for us!

At the stroke of midnight, Mum would start her prayers, and family members would light a set of joss sticks to pray alongside her.

After the short ceremony, we would usually sit around and chat for a while, while the incense burned. We would wish each other Giong Hee Huat Chye, Sin Teh Kong Kian (Have a Prosperous New Year and Good Health) or something to do with passing exams if we were still in school. Mum and Dad would hand out ang pows to us, too, which was always worth the staying up!

This year, the Eve had been a long day for the family, and all of us were more than a little tired. Still, it was good to be part of the ushering in the New Year again after so many years of being away.

1 comment:

Jen L. said...


Wish I was there.