In loving memory of my late Chinese grandmother, I’m jotting down my childhood memories of Chinese New Year. After marrying into a Chinese family, I discover even more about Chinese culture since my mother-in-law does an excellent job of upholding tradition.
Chinese New Year Eve food offerings
On Chinese New Year Eve, my grandmother and aunties would be REALLY BUSY preparing all the food for prayers. I can remember seeing something like 3 wooden tables set up in front of the altar where the Kuan Yin (Goddess of Mercy), Tee Kong (God of Heaven) are set up. There is a third statue but I forget who he is…
The tables would contain:
- 2-3 roast pigs with their heads, legs and tails intact! (ordered from the pig butcher neighbour. I think I loved the salty bits near the bone the best);
- a few steamed chickens (home grown & slaughtered as my Ahma had a chicken coop next door. I helped feed them a few times but “chickened” out since they stink and also I read that snakes love chicken eggs!);
- a pot of meatball soup with dried mushrooms, white cabbage;
- pink steamed plain bao (dumplings)?
- pink and white sweets/candy shaped like pagodas, animals and etc;
- platters of fruit usually grapes, apples and oranges;
- traditional Chinese biscuits twisted like ropes (my Ahma’s favourite snack!);
- thick, yellow mee;
(photo from here.)
Fireworks and fire crackers!!!
A really thick (like a coconut tree trunk?) joss stick with colourful dragon effigy stuck on it would be burning outside the house. While the womenfolk prepared the food and the men helped to carry the heavy stuff, we kids would be outside playing firecrackers!
Boy, do I love the various ones my uncles used to buy (these are the days before the Government banned them) – the boring sparkling sticks you wave around in circles; a “chicken” which lays eggs; those little pods that spark when you throw them on the ground; thin or thick stumps that “poofed” with pink, yellow, green sparks and of course, the traditional RED fire crackers.
Although I hate the loud sound the red fire crackers make, it’s fun watching my uncles / cousins string the ends together to make it as long as possible and attach it to a stick. One uncle would then climb onto a tall petrol tanker to wedge the stick in and light it at around 11.45 pm or so.
A FESTIVE AIR
Everyone tries to stay up until midnight to welcome the New Year – it’s really fun because my Ahma’s house was in a Chinese village so everyone lounges outside their front door in rattan, plastic or string chairs in their PJs, t-shirts and shorts and slippers!
By 12.10 am, everyone is tired from the excitement and late bedtime. The children troop off to bed while the aunties and uncles help Ahma to clear all the food stuff. The next day, the pig butcher would come over to chop up the roasted pigs and she would distribute them among her neighbours and friends.
On Chinese New Year Day, everyone will wake up a bit late at around 8.30 am or so (except for Ahma who is up by 6 am). She and my aunties would have made the black coffee and prepared / bought breakfast from nearby shops. Or, she’d take a simple breakfast of kaya on white bread.
Then, everyone dresses up in their new clothes and hang around either eating mandarin oranges and other goodies. Ang pows would have been given out by then and uncles who lived elsewhere show up that day. The aunties would show up on the second day according to custom.
I relish those Chinese New Years for the fun of having all my uncles, aunties and cousins together under one roof. We’d just play together or when we became teens, chat or tease each other. It’s been years since I’ve seen some of them – be nice if we could joke and laugh like we did when we were kids.
Chinese New Year at mother-in-law’s house
Each year, I celebrate Chinese New Year at my mother-in-law’s, with some slight variations. My MIL cooks ALL the dishes for the reunion dinner which include that meatball and mushroom soup, a beef rendang, a beef stew, ngor hiang/lor bak (minced meat and carrots etc rolled up in beancurd sheets and deep fried) and stir-fry green vegetables.
We’ll all gather around the table and my father-in-law or brother-in-law would bring out a bottle of Australian wine to celebrate. Since I only drink port (or some sweet, non-dry liquor), I’m not THAT excited! My father-in-law would give a little speech and then we eat. As my MIL is a good cook, dinner is delicious.
Then, family members sit around and chit-chat with each other. They don’t stay up until midnight and usually by 11 pm or so, everyone’s in bed.
The hardcore Chinese neighbors are still awake and alive – I can hear the usual fireworks.
I’ve asked Hubby before if they played any fireworks (they did) but because father-in-law is a law-abiding citizen, he doesn’t encourage fireworks. Hehehe…I’m gonna pretend I have NO IDEA about this because once he is 4 years old, this Mum is going to get Hubby’s friends to get some fireworks for him!
Boring, right, with no fireworks???
On Chinese New Year morning, we all go to church for Mass. The Mass is quite festive because there are live Chinese cultural performances, hong bao and mandarins!
Then, we go home and have the Foochow (Fuzhou) meesua cooked in chicken soup, spiked with brandy! Yum 🙂
After breakfast, we wait for visitors because my parents-in-law are the eldest siblings around. They love her mee suah, which is why even though she’s talked of celebrating Chinese New Year elsewhere many times, she can’t bear the thought of her visitors arriving at an empty house.
We used to have many visitors because they still practise the “open house” concept and I had fun helping to serve the people drinks, food, oranges, cookies and sweets. When you visit my in-laws’ home, you get a proper lunch or dinner!
Visitors can enjoy white rice with her beef stew, beef rendang, lemang, satay, stir fry veggies, ngor hiang/lor bak and even a chicken curry if she’s up to it. Entertaining visitors for “open house” is a new experience for me as my parents are not that sociable.
Hubby and I would then help father-in-law wash the plates and cups…
On the second day, we will visit Hubby’s uncles’ and aunties’ houses, which is quite fun because we get to see what “new” activities or items they’ve got after a year of not seeing them. Hubby’s family is quite a jolly bunch although they lapse into Fuzhou language every so often.
Sometimes, Hubby or mother-in-law or cousin will translate but often, it’s just a bunch of bad words scolded in reaction to something someone said! That’s the beauty of the Fuzhou language…
We’ll be booked for dinner at least 2 nights because our in-laws or the aunties or uncles will organize a dinner at a restaurants. Knowing this pattern after a few years, I’ve learned to ensure that I’ve got decent outfits for these outings. No t-shirt or jeans allowed here!
On the third day, we’ll go visiting Hubby’s friends’ homes only after checking with in-laws that NO auntie or uncle has invited the family to the home. Through the years, I’ve come to know Hubby’s friends and their wives as my friends although it’s weird to only meet them once a year. They are a fun group though with really interesting characters.
And there you have my Chinese New Year then and now.
Now that I have a kid, I believe that the boy will have fond memories of Chinese New Year thanks to my mother-in-law. He certainly likes Christmas for the family gatherings so I wonder what he thinks of Chinese New Year…
We’ll know soon 🙂
Here’s wishing everyone a happy Chinese New Year! Xin Nian Kuai Le!