“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?