Red Packets & Yellow Lions

“Has the table been set?,” asks Eldest Auntie as I return to the kitchen for what seemed to be like the hundredth time.

“Yes, and ChuenChuen has counted the chopsticks – we should have just enough for everyone.”

Outside, controlled chaos reigns. The old, laminated formal dining table, peeling at the edges, has been expanded to fill most of the space. Off in the corner of the L-shaped living area, mismatched trestle tables have been set up to form one long continuous counter. Dark brown chopsticks and white ceramic spoons have been rather haphazardly laid out. All the chairs in the house have been pressed into service – plain rickety benches sitting alongside the good dark wood armchairs, bright red plastic stools brought in from outside and wiped down.

Pomelo and altar

The space is filled with people – my uncles, aunts, cousins, their children, all wearing shades of scarlet or yellow – the colours of luck and of money as well as prosperity, all shouting, or gambling, or snacking on New Year delicacies while my Grandmother sits in the corner, imperiously commanding her brood to “bring out more drinks for our guests!” and “fill up the prawn cracker bowl!” The ceiling fan is working overtime, but no one notices, as the sun beats down on the yellow tiles outside and the heat swells.

Lunch time

This is Chinese New Year in Malaysia, and it’s the annual reunion meal at my Grandmother’s house, when the family gathers to gossip, catch up and most of all, eat. The ancestral altar has been newly dusted down, and the electrical candles cast a crimson glow on the bright green pomelo offering sitting by the family’s name plaque. Every time someone new walks in the door, the air erupts with exuberant shouts of “gong hey fatt choy!” and red packets, angpau, stuffed full with money, are handed out to the young and unmarried, who add these to the stash in their pockets or bags.

yu sang

We gather around to eat, standing packed like a group of sardines at the table, chopsticks at the ready. It’s time for the yu sang, a rainbow coloured, salad-like dish of sliced white radish, sweet carrots, red peppers, pink pickled ginger, bright bits of chilli, chopped peanuts, sesame seeds, five spice, and piquant plum sauce. We have ours with raw fish – yu, the Chinese word for fish, being synonymous with “abundance”. My cousins jostle around the table and at the signal, we start tossing the ingredients, loudly enunciating auspicious wishes as we do so. The table is littered with enthusiastically tossed bits of vegetables by the time we’re done.

Chinese New Year colours

Before we can start on the main dishes though, the unmistakable sound of drums stills the incessant talking. A moment’s pause, and a flurry of chopsticks ensues as the children and the young-at-heart race to the windows – a lion dance has started outside. In the blistering heat, there are two lions – one scarlet, the other canary-yellow, both dancing felinely to the beat of a mighty drum. They cock their heads, as if listening, blink and twitch their tails, then leap into acrobatics, swirls of colour weaving around each other.

They are offered a pyramid of orange kam, or mandarins, stacked like golden ingots on a plate, which the red lion proceeds to “eat”, leaving behind an arrangement of peeled citrus sections. On the balcony above, a head of pale-green lettuce hangs. Hidden in this is a red packet of money, which the lions must reach. Forming a human pyramid, the troupe send their strongest, nimblest, most cat-like member up with the heavily embellished yellow lion’s head, the golden details on his costume glimmering in the strong sunlight. Having reached it, the lion places the red packet into safekeeping and “spits” out lettuce leaves over all the spectators, a tradition known as cai ching, before jumping back down again.

Lions CNY

The drumbeats slow, then stop, as the lions leave. We return to our hastily abandoned lunch, the toppled stools, the still-warm bowls of food. In my pocket, the crisp edge of a red packet sits, as warm and welcoming as the promise of prosperity.

This post was inspired by The Daily Post’s Weekly Writing Challenge. This week’s brief was to “incorporate a splash of colour into your posts.” I had been meaning to post about Chinese New Year for awhile now, and what better topic for a focus on colour than a local festival?

What are the most colourful local festivals that you’ve experienced on your travels?

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37 Comments

  1. Wow what lovely colours! For me too, the Chinese New Year festivities happening locally are quite colorful and entertaining. I’m not sure I’ve experienced anything that tops that so far….Congrats on being FP!

    1. Peggy Tee says:

      Every city has its own spin on the Chinese New Year festivities – it’s interesting to see what the similarities and differences are, I think. Thank you for stopping by my blog! 🙂

  2. Much enjoyed this post.. so colorful on many levels..
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!!

  3. What a gentle and beautiful written post. Thank you for having me to Chinese New Year.

    1. Peggy Tee says:

      Twas a pleasure! Thanks for stopping by.

  4. segmation says:

    This seems to top it as one of the most colorful local festivals I have ever heard of!

    1. Peggy Tee says:

      Aww shucks! 🙂 I would love to go to Holi, in India… *that* to me would be the epitome of “colourful” festival, I think! Thanks for stopping by.

      1. segmation says:

        IF you make it there, I can’t wait to read your blog again! http://www.segmation.com

  5. Thank you for an inside look at a celebration that I’ve never had the honor of participating in. You gave us such an intimate experience with your words. I felt like I was there, and it was fun!

    1. Peggy Tee says:

      Thank you very much! I hope you enjoyed it! Gong Hei Fatt Choy! 😉

  6. Wow, really interesting post! Thanks for sharing and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    1. Peggy Tee says:

      Thank you very much!

  7. This is a vivid portrayal of Chinese New Year celebration in Malaysia. It reminds me of the heat, the smell, the colour (dominant red) and the old fashioned (almost painful) Chinese New Year songs from the radio and TV. I remember those days.

    It’s a brilliant post. It so well deserved to be Freshly Pressed. Congratulations!

    1. Peggy Tee says:

      Thanks very much Janet! Luckily my family usually switched off the radio and TV – but I know what you mean… the high pitched music sung by artists in silk qingpao, all repetitive and, as you say, almost painful to the ear! Thanks for reminding me about that, I’d actually blocked it out from my memories! Lol.

      1. Do you remember the rhymes? Gongxi gongxi gongxi ni a, gongxi gongxi gongxi ni……?

        1. Peggy Tee says:

          Lol!! Yes!! Da jia blah blah la… lala! Oh god now you’ve got me humming tunes…

  8. This one! Please delete previous links. Thanks.

  9. Eating Chinese now and so happy you shared. My favorite person is Chinese, and I’m hoping to see her this weekend. Thank you for the vivid reminder. The brightest of reds.

  10. PrettyGee says:

    Lovely and colorful post.

  11. What a colorful way to celebrate. I love experiencing new culture. Very exciting

  12. Joanna says:

    I love Chinese New Years! I love that it brings the whole family together and I love Chinese New Years music!

    1. Peggy Tee says:

      I love having time with the family and the food… not so sure about the music though! 🙂

  13. dorothyadele says:

    I like the vibrant photos and I learned someing!

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  15. Allie says:

    Great post! It’s so fun to read about how people in different places celebrate the Chinese New Year. Every time I read, I find myself happily surprised by the differences in what people do to celebrate although many people (including myself a few years ago) imagine that all who follow the tradition celebrate the same way. Thank you so much for sharing!

    1. Peggy Tee says:

      Totally agree Allie! Growing up I thought every one celebrated CNY the same way my family did it… but it is so different, depending on where you are and what traditions your own family/clan/region has. Thanks for stopping by!

  16. Ahh Pegs, reading your descriptive article has just transported me back home!

    1. Peggy Tee says:

      That was the idea… at least you don’t have long to wait before you can be back home at CNY! x

  17. Your writing brought the dinner table to life, and I felt I was watching the parade from the window with your animated description. The food, the family interaction, the festive atmosphere — definitely a colorful post! ~ Kat

    1. Peggy Tee says:

      Thanks for your lovely comment, Kat!

  18. Beautiful pictures, it makes my dining table look disgraceful!! (After all, it has been chewed to bits by my dogs!)
    I have just taught my children to use chopsticks, that took a while but was well worth it. Everything tastes better now!

  19. Peggy, what a joy it was to read this post! You captured the essence of Chinese New Year and it will be forever etched in my memory. Congrats on the FP – so well deserved. All the best, Terri

    1. Peggy Tee says:

      Thanks Terri! I hope you experience many more joyous Chinese New Years! 🙂

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