A New Beginning

This Chinese New Year is the fourth I celebrated with Wuan’s family in Ipoh. Something is different this year. I was embraced by a sense of belonging, a sense of familiarity, a sense of festivity that I have not experienced in a long time, not since my mother’s death in 2003.

In the subsequent years after her passing, I had consciously chosen not to partake in the celebrations. I was simply too disraught to even think of making merry. Festivals were mostly spent in quiet reflections of the sacrifices she made to ensure that I was never in need.

Although the pain of losing her is still as fresh today as it was seven years ago, I realised that the grieving has to end somewhere for the living to begin. The advent of the new spring is as good a time as can be to start afresh. That was what I did and intend to do from now on.

New She Lai Ton Restaurant yee sang
Flavourful salmon yee sang from New She Lai Ton Restaurant.
Photo by Wuan.

We spent four days in Ipoh, taking along Fei Por and Cheeky with us for their vaccinations and annual check-up at the Ipoh Garden Animal Clinic. As for us, it was feasting, feasting and more feastings. Needless to say, the Chinese New Year season is the most difficult time for me to keep to my low-protein diet.

New She Lai Ton Restaurant red cooked pig trotter with black moss
Hung siew chu sau with fatt choy (Red cooked pig trotter with black moss).
Photo by Wuan.

Of all the restaurants we ate at, we liked the food most at the New She Lai Ton Restaurant. We had one half portion of salmon yee sang and three simple dishes as there were only Wuan’s parents and us for that meal. The yee sang came in a very generous serving. We had to confirm with the waitress to be sure it was indeed for us. Of all the yee sang I have eaten this year, this is the best.

New She Lai Ton Restaurant steamed fish with tau kan
Steamed king grouper fish (long tan) with tau kan.
Photo by Wuan.

The hung siew pig trotter with black moss was well marinated and tender. I actually had to stop myself from eating too much. Next up was the steamed fish fillet with tau kan (bean curd sheets). It was done just right despite the restaurant being almost full. The stir-fried lai pak with garlic looked deceivingly plain but was tasty.

New She Lai Ton Restaurant stir fried lai pak with garlic
Stir fried lai pak.
Photo by Wuan.

The food was so good that my mother-in-law is already planning the next reunion dinner and new year lunch at this restaurant. Wuan and I certainly do not have any objection. We all left the restaurant with our appetites fully satiated. Most importantly, the restaurant is accessible from the car park. We usually have a hard time selecting a restaurant that I could get into.

The joy of celebrating the Chinese New Year, the rekindling of family ties and the sitting down for a good meal together have all stirred up that warm and fuzzy feeling in me. Finally, after so many years, I have again found the reason to be happy during these auspicious occasions.

One More Week To The Spring Festival

Chinese New Year is only one week away. The excitement is building up, something that I have not felt in a while. This feeling is also partly due to the fact that the wheelchair has arrived but I am not able to use it yet. Some assembling and adjustments are needed first. I am really looking forward to getting on the new chair as the one I am using now creaks every time I shift my weight.

Nevertheless, the sight of new ang pau packets and the cookies that Wuan brought back, and the thought of being able to savour hou si fatt choy and yee sang has certainly put me in a festive mood. In the midst of all these, I reminisce about the times when I was barely a teenager, excitedly anticipating the arrival of the annual celebration. The was always an unmistakeable crispness in the air as I counted down the days, one that put spring in my steps and happiness in my face.

A few weeks before the day, the larder would already be bursting with groceries for the big cookout for the reunion dinner and new year lunch. My favourites were the puffed cream-coloured pieces of fish maw, dried shiitake mushrooms and waxed goose liver sausages; rare commodities reserved for auspicious occasions during those times. Cans of button mushrooms, lychees and longans together with a crate or two of Anchor beer would line the larder top.

Welcoming the new year could also never be complete without the hustle and bustle of spring cleaning. That was then followed by curtains and cushion covers being replaced with fresh and brightly coloured ones. Greeting cards from relatives and friends and my father’s business associates and clients decorated the metal grille in the living room. The garden was spruced up. Unkempt hedges were trimmed. The final task after all that was putting up the “cai”, the red cloth hung above the main entrance, to signify the auspicious celebration.

Those were the best times of the entire year for me as a kid – new clothes, delicious food, lots and lots of ang paus, and not forgetting the hordes of relatives that came visiting, many I only got to meet during that time. Those excitement and anxiety that I felt then is what I am feeling now. I just cannot wait for the first day of the Chinese New Year to arrive.

My Disappearing Festive Traditions

The march of commercialism is slowly changing the traditions that are passed down from generation to generation. Food that used to be served only during festivals are now readily available long before the occasion or even throughout the year. When I was a kid, Mum would make kuih bahulu just before Chinese New Year together with kuih kapit and kuih bangkit. Walk into any major shopping complex on any given day now and one would be greeted by stalls selling kuih bahulu freshly baked from the oven with the unmistakeable saliva-inducing aroma.

Festivals have lost some of their glamour not only because delicacies associated with them are no longer exclusive. It is the lack of busyness, anticipation and preparations leading up to the festival. The air of festivity was already felt weeks prior to the day proper but not as much anymore now. The once-a-year rite of changing the curtains to the ones used exclusively for the Chinese New Year; the making of paper cuttings to paste on gifts to friends and relatives, mostly on cookie containers and mandarin oranges; the spring cleaning on a day selected to be auspicious for this activity with bamboo stalks fastened to a long bamboo pole; the overflowing of groceries in the larder, especially items like dried shiitake mushrooms, fish maw, canned mushrooms and baby corns; some of these have disappeared completely from my life.

On one part, I lament at the loss of anticipation and excitement for the impending festive season I had experienced as a kid. On the other, I am glad to be still able to experience some of these traditions with Wuan and her side of the family. It is a good thing that Wuan still maintains some of these practices like sprucing up the house with auspicious decorative items, making sure that we shop for clothes to wear on Chinese New Year and generally trying to infect me with the excitement as the day draws nearer. For the past couple of years since we got married, I have been celebrating the the Chinese New Year, especially the “tuen nin fun” (reunion dinner) and “hoi nin fun” (new year lunch), in her hometown with her family. I am glad for these little blessings that still exist in my life. They are all I have left and I am going to savour these moments for as long as I can.