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Reunion Joy

As the Lunar New Year approaches, we sometimes forget the true meaning behind the joyous celebrations amidst the loud fireworks, chitter-chatter of relatives and noisy clanking of dinner cutleries. Ellyse Ng takes a step back to see what the night before Chinese New Year truly means.

By: Ellyse Ng

She puts her chopsticks down silently and takes a sip of her tea. Her paper thin skin crinkles as she smiles bravely at her youngest daughter. The whole family sits quietly around the dinner table, staring at the mountains of pork, chicken and dumplings that took my mother an entire day slaving at the kitchen and a whole week planning out. No one dares to move, no one dares to even inhale. The clock on the wall strikes seven, but even our growling stomachs cannot tempt us to pick up our red chopsticks and start wolfing down our rice.

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Red lanterns, nosy relatives asking you when you’ll be getting married and an overdose of delicious food are the norm during every Chinese New Year celebration.

WE ARE F-A-M-I-L-Y

The reason is simple. We are not yet complete. My brother, who is on his way it seems, may only be one person in this large gathering of 15, but he is as important as the next person at the table. The eve of Chinese New Year, as far as I can remember, is a grand gathering for our family. It was the day that no matter which corner of the earth one is at, you’ll be expected to cross every mountain and swim every sea to sit right here at the table for dinner with the family. Anyone who is unable to come will have a place set for them at the table to symbolize their presence (and will one day suffer the wrath of my mother).

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Mountains of food is not unusual during this annual affair.

OF CHICKEN, FISH AND PORK

The dinner need not to be extravagant, but my mother will traverse all wet markets in Malaysia just to find the best whole chicken (big in size, low in fat) and pork (tender, with the perfect proportion of fat and lean meat). A black hair-like algae named fatt choi is also served, signifying wealth and prosperity. Fish is a must, and is intentionally left unfinished, stemming from a play of words “nian nian you yu” where “you yu” means “leftover fish”, though the phrase really means ‘blessings every year’. In northern China, dumplings signify prosperity, and it is Hakka tradition to serve kiu nyuk (sliced pork with preserved mustard greens) on the eve of the Lunar New Year.

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Watching the fireworks on the telly isn’t quite like the real thing, but it’ll do for now!

RED IS ALL YOU SEE

Of course, my family dons red clothing. My mother may sit demurely in her traditional cheongsam, but the rest of us younger ones (and those in denial) rebel in shades of red on top of jeans, cargo pants and miniskirts. As the old year passes and the new one dawns, a mythical beast (as ancient tales tell) roams the streets, harming people, animals and property. Lucky for us mere humans, the beast is afraid of the colour red, fire and loud sounds. Thus, fireworks come in handy to frighten the beast away whilst entertaining the young children. It’s banned in Malaysia, so we usually watch the live telecast of the Chinese New Year’s eve fireworks from China together on the television. 

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Those who said that Christmas is the season of giving have never celebrated Chinese New Year before…

THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR

Whilst everyone receives presents for Christmas, Chinese New Year is when we receive money from parents, older folks and married couples. Money stored in red packets or ang paus are given away for good luck and to ward off evil spirits. The amount in the packet usually contains an even digit, as odd digits are associated with funerals. Well, money is money, and I usually don’t really mind as long as contributes towards my Europe backpacking fund (in planning since 2010 and going on strong). Being single means you’ll be receiving more than you’ll be giving, though judging from my mother’s frown tonight, I’m not expecting much.

THE TOSSING OF THE YEE SANG

The colourful salad sits in the middle of the table, begging for me to just pick up my chopsticks and give it a little toss. Literally translated “raw fish”, its homophone also brings the meaning “increase in abundance’”. Made up of an assortment of shredded vegetables, a variety of sauces, condiments and my favourite raw salmon, the aim of the starter salad is to toss as high as you can as a family, signifying a new year filled with even more abundance, prosperity and vigour. You’re supposed to say your wishes out loud as you toss. Last year’s Yee Sang tossing was filled with “new X-box”, “I want a girlfriend” and “I want to go to Europe”, the latter being mine, of course. 

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Reunion dinners equal family joy and laughter…if everyone comes on time, that is!

DINNER TIME!

The door knob turns, and my brother’s head peeks in, greeting us with his signature sheepish grin. Conveying his apologies for his delay, my brother sits down promptly at the dinner table, avoiding my mother’s angry glares. Raising his tea towards us, he jokes, “I’d rather get hammered later then stay hungry. Let’s eat!” Laughter broke out at the table, and the heavy mood is lifted. We stand up with our chopsticks raised, big smiles on all our faces, getting ready to toss the Yee Sang and usher in the New Year. 

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A festivity filled with tradition, values and history, Chinese New Year can be celebrated all over the world, no matter where you are.

Note: No brothers were harmed during the production of this article, though he was badly scolded right in private after dinner, loud enough for the entire household to hear. He bought my mother an expensive shoulder massager and peace was restored in the household…for the next five hours. 

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CELEBRATE YOUR CHINESE NEW YEAR IN CHINA!