Extracted from The New Straits Times 2010/02/10 (http://www.nst.com.my/Current_News/NST/articles/20100210172144/Article/index_html)
The Straits-born Chinese strive to remain true to their heritage by celebrating the lunar new year, writes P. SELVARANI.
MY earliest memories of Chinese New Year are the sweet aroma of freshly baked pineapple tarts, crisp rolls of kuih belanda (commonly known as love letters), perfectly moulded melt-in-your-mouth kuih bangkit and bottles upon bottles of F&N orange crush spilling out of wooden crates.
These were the goodies that awaited us when we visited the homes of our Peranakan neighbours every Chinese New Year.
And it was with much delight that I found that these same goodies, and more, awaited me and photographer Khairunisah when we dropped in at the home of Cedric Tan in Subang Jaya recently.
As I stepped into his cosy apartment, walking through the doorway that was draped with the familiar red cloth, it felt as if I was reliving the days of my childhood.
His dining table, draped with a velvet table cloth with colourful floral motifs, was laden with dainty nyonya porcelain plates piled with rolls of kuih belanda, small white morsels of kuih bangkit dotted with the traditional cochineal dye, pineapple tarts (or kuih tair, as the nyonyas would call it), kok cai (peanut puffs), peanut cookies, kuih daisy (which the Malays call kuih samprit), slices of red agar-agar jelly and a jugful of orange crush.
Cedric Tan receiving some cookies from his friend Associate Prof Lee Su Kim, the president of the KL and Selangor Peranakan Association.
As a true-blue Baba from Malacca, Cedric is a stickler for tradition and takes great pains to ensure that all customs and traditions of the Peranakan community are observed and preserved for posterity.
“The beauty of our Peranakan heritage is that it is an assimilation of the cultures of the Chinese and Malays and is rich in traditions and customs which many other Chinese communities in this country no longer observe,” says the affable 45-year-old businessman.
For the Peranakans, the actual celebrations for the Chinese New Year kick off from the date of the winter solstice (Dec 22) when the “Tong Chek” festival is observed.
This is the when a special dish called “Kueh Ee” is prepared and offered to the “Tua Pek Kong” (the God of Heaven).
The Kueh Ee, which is made of rice flour cooked in syrup and rolled into red and white balls, is then stuck on either side of the front and back doors of the house to symbolise that the household has been blessed to celebrate another new year.
“The Tong Chek festival marks the preparation for the New Year as it would take us about a month to spring clean the entire house — given the length of the traditional Baba houses in Malacca — give it a fresh coat of paint, sew the new curtains and begin baking the cookies,” adds Cedric, who is also a part-time Baba-Nyonya wedding and culture consultant.
A week before the New Year, which coincides with the 24th day of the 12th lunar month, the house is abuzz with preparations for the sembahyang datuk dapur where the Kitchen God is “sent off” to heaven with offerings of the sticky, sweet kuih bakul which is made from rice flour and gula melaka.
The idea behind the sticky sweet offering is so that the Kitchen God will neither speak much nor say anything unfavourable about the family when he gives his “annual report” to the Jade Emperor!
On the eve of the New Year, and sometimes even two days before, the Peranakan families hold the sembahyang abu which is an offering of prayers to their ancestors.
“The Peranakans observe this quite strictly.
It is similar to the prayers that the Melaka Chitty (Straits-born Indians) community holds on the eve of Ponggal,” he adds.
For the sembahyang abu, dishes placed at the ancestral altar are offered in sets of even numbers.
The delicacies would include typical Nyonya fare such as babi pongteh, itik tim, hee pioh soup, chicken curry, babi buah keluak, nyonya chap chye, acar and sambal belacan.
According to Cedric, the lauk sembahyang is usually kept for a day and eaten during the reunion dinner.
“That is how Nyonya food is meant to be eaten.
The longer it is kept, the more spices the food will absorb and the tastier it will be!” he says.
Lanterns and the “Chai Kee”, which is a long red piece of cloth, are hung at the main entrance of the house on this day.
The cloth, hung over the main door, serves as a marker that the family has been blessed with good fortune for the year.
The “Chai Kee” is also hung for good luck during auspicious occasions such as weddings.
“Unfortunately, some people now hang it about a week before the new year or at any time of the year and it loses its meaning.
There is a reason for every ritual and there are rules to follow and it’s sad when people don’t observe them,” Cedric notes.
On the eve of Chinese New Year as well, offerings of kuih bakul, sponge cake and a small bowl of rice, (taken from the last cooked pot of rice for the year) are placed at the main altar which is draped with a red cloth, called kain jong.
“When the Kitchen God descends on the fourth day of the new year, the bowl of rice is removed.
The colour of the mold on the rice will then be inspected.
If the mould is orangey in colour, then the family will be blessed with a bountiful year.
But if it is black, it is not a good sign.
That is why we place a stalk of spring onions and a sprig of bunga siantan on the rice for luck,” explains Cedric.
In the old days, the eve of new year was celebrated with the lighting of firecrackers.
The Peranakan community is also particular about the time when the house doors are opened to usher in the new year.
Once the main door is closed on the eve of new year, it should not be opened until the following morning.
Any family member who returns home late will either have to use the side door or back door.
“We usually sambut kepala tahun (usher in the New Year) between 7am and 8am on New Year’s day.
We welcome the God of Prosperity by lighting candles, burning incense and stangi (a home-made incense).
“After this, the family prays at the main and ancestral altars.
Then we will pay our respects to our elders, according to seniority.
The younger members of the family will kneel and bow and wish their elders a Happy New Year and panjang-panjang umur (wishing you a long life).
In return, the unmarried ones will receive the angpow.
Once they have paid their respects, the family will go to the temple to offer prayers before visiting the home of other relatives.
Like most other Chinese communities, wearing black, sweeping the house or using harsh words is a “no-no” on New year’s Day.
For the Peranakans, the eighth day of the new year is the most auspicious and celebrated on a grander scale than the actual Chinese new year day.
“We have a thanksgiving prayer for the Jade Emperor and we place bamboo plants at the entrance of our house.
This is a custom practised by the Hokkien community to celebrate the gift of life as many centuries ago, the community which was under attack by its enemies was saved when they hid in the long sugar cane plantations.”
Unlike the Penang Peranakan community who celebrate the last day of the New Year with dondang sayang singing and the throwing of oranges into the river by fair maidens, it is a relatively quiet celebration in Malacca.
“Some may organise parties but most will bring back huge joss sticks which they had earlier lit in the temple and ignite the oil lamps and candles in their home.
This “transfer of fire” from the temple to the home is a symbolic practice of seeking holy intervention and protection from the deity,” Cedric adds.