Saturday, February 9, 2008

SENSATIONAL! Ripped from the HEADLINES!!!!

Unfortunately, there isn't any sex, violence or celebrity news here. Just a short item tucked away in the inside pages of today's Star newspaper, about a Malaysian pastor on a ride to raise funds for a school for homeless children in Thailand.

Pastor Cheah (picture copyright,
The Star newspaper).

Pastor Cheah Chee Moon (no, guys, not related to the Moonies) has been involved in helping orphaned and destitude kids in Thailand for over 20 years, and is trying to raise awareness and funds for a permanent home by riding on his dinky little motorcycle from Thailand, through Malaysia, and onto Singapore, before heading back.

Pastor Cheah's story struck a chord in me, for he embodies faith in action. So many folks use religion as a tool, sometimes heavily laced with intolerance, to create "gated" social, cultural and political communities that look inward and that creates a moat between 'us' and 'them', rather than reaching out. It baffles the mind how seeking a spiritual dimension to one's life - seeking God - can lead to such hardening of the heart. When Jesus walked this earth, he didn't hang out with the equivalent of church leaders and religious elite of his day, carving out institutions with high walls that kept out unbelievers. Instead, he walked with the sick, the poor, the reviled - tax collectors, prostitutes, fishermen and the like - ministered to their needs, and was an activist for their physical, social and economic rights, in the face of authority.

A favourite phrase of the 'religious right' has been "What would Jesus do today?", used as a guiding principle to police morality and personal behaviour. Well, Jesus would have gotten onto his rickety motorbike to raise funds for a home the voiceless children.

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.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Chips off the ol' bulb

One of our favourite Chinese New Year snacks is nga ku (arrowroot bulb) chips. Nga ku chips have a distinctive taste, and are very addictive. To satisfy a whole family and the many guests expected over the festive period, we sometimes fry up two or three big batches (the store-bought ones just don’t pass muster).

They’re a bear to make, though. The tedious part of the job is cleaning, peeling and slicing the bulbs (above). Second Sis however has perfected the art; in fact, she’s taken over making most of the snacks and cookies from Mum. The skill lies in making sure the thinly sliced nga ku are fried evenly, with as little oil as possible clinging on to them.

The trick then is to fry in small batches; to make sure the oil temperature is moderately high at first, and to ensure the slices do not hit the oil clumped together, making it difficult for them to be evenly cooked. To that end, we lay out one layer of nga ku slices on a largish platter, making it easier to slide them quickly into the oil almost individually.

Second Sis keeps a hawk’s eye on them, making sure they’re all feeling the warm love evenly. Just as they start to brown a little, she removes them from the wok, and shakes off all the extra oil. Meanwhile, she turns the heat up high, waits for the oil to boil again, then throws the chips in for a last quick fry that browns them evenly and quickly without the oil seeping into the chips. Then it’s up again and onto the side, for any more excess oil to drip away. Yummy!

Safe and sound

When Chinese New Year comes around, Brother usually makes this calligrapher in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown one of his stops. He gets The Master to write a couple of auspicious words for us to paste on our front doors. You can get the pre-written ones, or get a kick out of requesting something done on the spot – be prepared to wait a while, though, since the ink needs to dry. The Master recognised brother, asking him why he didn’t come by last year. Well, The Master keeps moving around, that’s why!!!

The coming year will be the Year of the Rat, and so our man with the brush has the character for rat displayed prominently. Note the tail!! Note too the many newspaper articles about his work on the corner of his table.

Anyway, this year we went with the traditional phrase 平安, which means safe and sound.

It's a red, red world

Chinese New Year is just two days away, and Kuala Lumpur is gripped in a frenzy of activity.

The shops selling lanterns and all manner of festive decorations are crammed with all things red.

Folks are flocking to Petaling Street to stock up on essentials, from flowers …

… to dried seafood stuff for reunion dinner on the eve. Back home, there was some cleaning up to do…

… but at least we had done our annual spring cleaning before Christmas, so we did not have to turn the house upside down to get it ready for the New Year.

Second Sis had finally completed making, over a period of weeks, the many snacks that now sit invitingly on our living room table (more on the snacks later), and she now turned her attention on making those origami birds that dangle from the most unexpected places in our home.

For the birds to be infused with the full dose of prosperity and good fortune, they have to be made from ang pows. Cut the red (or in this case, red and yellow) packets into the desired shape, twist, turn and fold them, and, viola, lil’ birdies all ready to take flight. How’s that for step-by-step instructions?