Yip Yoke Teng
REUNIONS are greatly emphasised in the celebration of Chinese New Year, but nevertheless, many are required to observe the festival thousands of miles away from their parents due to career or family commitments.
Thanks to the advent of technology and the prevalence of the festive mood in Malaysia, Chinese from China and Taiwan who have to usher in the lunar new year here have managed to find ways to make up for their home-longing.
Chen Ming Hui, 39, will spend his third Chinese New Year in Petaling Jaya, away from his home in Hainan, China.
The director of the Confucius Institute at Segi University and Colleges stays here to prepare for a large-scale celebration slated for the ninth day, as this is the perfect time to promote Chinese culture.
“I will make video calls to my mother, brother and his two children on the eve.
“I feel closer to home knowing that everybody in the family is well,” he said when met in Petaling Jaya.
“With WeChat, I can even give out e-ang pow to my nephews,” he enthused.
Spending the occasion overseas is a unique experience he treasures. Besides visiting friends and immersing himself in the festive mood at malls, he will make dumplings as it is customary in northern China to have the dish symbolising wealth.
“Many of my local colleagues speak Hainanese when I visited them last year, that made me feel at home!”
Many Chinese New Year customs are manifestations of Confucius’ teachings, he said, adding that there were 526 Confucius Institutes globally to spread the sage’s philosophy.
“In China, the festival is all about filial piety with everyone required to return to their ‘old home’ for ancestral worship and reunion dinner, thus the massive exodus,” he said.
A wide array of items are required at the altar of ancestral tablets for worshipping, mainly because they are symbolic of something auspicious.
Among them are sugarcane and Chinese New Year cake for advancement, mandarin oranges and paper ingots for prosperity, kerosene lamp for offspring, and fish for surplus.
“The practice encourages us to care for the elderly and love the young,” he said, which was why the elderly always took the main seats at the reunion dinner that easily involved 40 people in the extended family. Dinner starts only after the ancestral worship.
As such, in China, ang pow is given after the reunion dinner, as children will put the ang pow under their pillows when they sleep as a way to welcome the new year.
Adults will stay up late on the eve, as it is believed that the longer they stay awake, the longer their parents would live. Therefore, almost the entire population would be watching CCTV New Year’s Gala that is aired until past midnight.
Chen said visiting friends with thoughtful gifts reflected benevolence (ren) and courtesy (li) in Confucius’ teachings, while fraternity (di) and bond (yi) were shown in siblings’ gatherings and their shouldering familial duties together.
Most of the university’s 1,500 students from China are away for the celebration, but they will be greeted with festive joy upon their return at the event Chen and his team are organising. The programmes range from dumpling-making, calligraphy writing, lion and dragon dances to ethnic performances by local and foreign students.
“I treasure such opportunities for cultural exchange, I am really fascinated by Malaysians’ 24 Festive Drum and yee sang-tossing,” he added.
Taiwanese Azumi Hsu Chun Mei, 60, spent 36 Chinese New Year celebrations in Malaysia after marrying her sweetheart whom she met at university, but she makes sure her family gets a taste of Taiwan at the reunion dinner.
“In Taiwan, we always make 10 dishes for reunion because 10 signifies perfection, and certain dishes are compulsory if you cannot make 10 dishes,” she said when met at her house in Puchong.
Among them, dumpling is a must and Hsu recalled how her grandparents used to put a coin in some of the dumplings and those who found the coins would have good luck throughout the year.
Other essential dishes include bamboo shoots (progress), pork knuckles (wealth), vegetable soup (luck), fish (surplus), Buddha Jumps Over the Wall (a treasure pot of at least 16 prized ingredients, including yam as the Taiwanese twist) and Taiwanese sausage using fresh meat unlike the Chinese waxed sausages.
“We normally do not even touch the fish to make sure there’s leftover, or because there are just too many other dishes that we forget about it,” she said.
“Most importantly, we always have mullet roe which is in season. It is an expensive dried seafood just like fish maw and sea cucumber,” she added, enthusiastically sharing how the delicate dish should be prepared.
Hsu, who now runs the Jin Taiwan restaurants following friends’ demand for her culinary creations, admitted to having to import most of the sauces and ingredients from Taiwan to get the taste right.
These tastes subdued her homesickness in the early years of her marriage.
“I am someone with a strong personality but I cried many nights when I first settled here, missing my parents in Taiwan.
“But then again, when you have children, there’s no time to feel homesick!” she said with a laugh.
Having been rooted here for decades, she said the family seldom travelled to Taiwan for the festival due to hefty expenses.
Nevertheless, her house is teeming with Taiwanese touches and is a popular hangout among her friends in the Formosa Women Organisation of Malaysia, which has 120 members with over 80 residing in the Klang Valley.
Hsu’s friend, Techtrans Advanced Sdn Bhd strategic planning director Tania Hsu, 50, who is from Taipei, pointed out that the biggest difference between the two places was the celebration of Yuan Xiao – the 15th day.
“Yuan Xiao is the second most important day of the celebration in Taiwan, families will eat sweet dumplings tang yuan and hang up lanterns while the beehive fireworks would be lit at various public places,” said Tania.
Having spent 10 years here, she was most amazed that Malaysians made festive cookies at home while Taiwanese would buy such essentials, including dishes for reunions.
“Malaysia still observes a lot of traditional practices while the Taiwanese celebration has become ‘trendy’.
“The gifts are meticulously packed; we can order dishes online and heat them up for dinner; we even have electronic firecrackers that let out the noise but not fumes,” she said.
Also, Tania was surprised that the celebration of the Ninth Day (Hokkien New Year) in Malaysia was so much more elaborate than Taiwan, although most of them were Hokkien.
“That is probably because in Taiwan, an open space to burn paper ingots and replicas is a luxury as most of them live in apartments,” she said