A Malaysian Hokkien Lunar New Year in the 1950s
With the Hokkien community celebrating its New Year today, Alan Teh Leam Seng goes down memory lane, rejoicing in the simple warmth and merriment of the festivity during his childhood
By Alan Teh Leam Seng
The mother puts her index finger to her daughter’s lips cautioning her to remain silent. The little girl looks up at her in bewilderment. They freeze at the sudden sound of a twig snapping nearby, followed by a rustling noise coming from among the sugarcane fronds.
Their eyes cloud in fear as they spy heavily armed men with torches walking in their direction. The men appear to be searching for something — or someone. The marauders begin shouting, trying to scare those hiding in the safety of the darkness to reveal themselves. Despite the threats, the child and her mother remain motionless, not daring to even move a muscle. They’re the closest to danger and if they give up their position, all will be lost. At least a hundred of their clansmen are hiding close by.
After an hour of fruitless searching, the bandits decide to search elsewhere. The villagers heave a sigh of relief but they know that although imminent danger has passed, they have to remain hidden just to be sure it’s completely safe. Fortunately, they had the presence of mind to bring some food along with them. Making do with whatever little sustenance they have, the villagers remain rooted where they are. At the same time, they look up to the starlit sky above and pray hard to the God of Heaven for protection.
It is only days later that the villagers are able to emerge from their hideout in the sugarcane plantation unscathed. To many of them, that day signified deliverance. Despite the fact that it was already the ninth day of the new Lunar Calendar, the Hokkien villagers returned home to celebrate their New Year.
Many Malaysians would have noticed how the sky was transformed into the canvas for a noisy “battle” last night as fireworks exploded in all its majesty and booms are heard reverberating in the darkness. Chances are, it’s the work of the Hokkiens who are continuing with the traditions that began with that narrow escape of their clansmen during the Ming Dynasty.
Last night was New Year’s Eve for the Hokkien community. Celebrations and prayers usually start at 11pm, a time believed to be the hour when their ancestors emerged from the sugarcane plantation centuries ago.
Like many other Hokkiens, my aunts and uncles would prepare a large table in front of their house in Taman Ganding, Malaysia, and deck it with offerings to thank the deity Tnee Kong for helping the poor villagers centuries ago and seek his blessings for a great year ahead. Among the must-haves are huat kueh, tnee kueh and red tortoise buns.
And in line with traditions, a pair of sugarcane stalks would be flanking the table. According to my second aunt, the stalks must be as straight as possible to signify the integrity of the family. Meanwhile, the sweetness of the sugarcane is believed to dispel bitter relationships and help promote harmony.
My third uncle would be tasked with the “duty” of burning the “gold” and “silver” offering paper. He would first place two ancient Chinese coins in their midst and later recover the soot-covered medallions after the ceremony. This ritual is done for good luck.
This coming Saturday will officially mark the end of the Lunar New Year festivities. The 15th day or Chap Goh Meh is celebrated by all Chinese.
Times have changed. Today, it’s no longer celebrated with as much pomp and splendour as in the past. Back in the good old days, maidens (chaperoned, of course) would bring oranges and head to the nearest river or sea. In Alor Star, Kedah in Malaysia, the most popular place would be Tanjong Charlie. Young girls would stand at the water’s edge, cast their oranges as far as they could while uttering the words ‘Tim ho kam, tharn ho ang’ which literally means “Cast a good orange, get a good spouse”.
My mother and her siblings grew up in Pekan Cina in Alor Star, Kedah. She remembers vividly how the Hokkien New Year was celebrated back in the 1950s. “We used to stay up all night to pray to the Jade Emperor. There’d be firecrackers going off until the wee hours of the morning and the streets would be full of people.
At the same time, grandmother would keep herself busy in the kitchen. The entire house would smell of the delicious aroma from her cooking,” my mother recounted to me during one of our strolls along the streets of Alor Star’s Chinatown several years back.
My mother also enjoyed pointing out the different shops that she used to visit as a child during our many walks together. The shop just two doors away from her former home used to be a very famous restaurant. “People would line up outside Kee Heong Koo just to buy their New Year biscuits. They also served very good dim sum in the mornings.
As the eldest child, I used to get 10 cents from my father to buy siew mai here,” I recall her telling me, her eyes travelling to the upper floor of a large shophouse.
She also told me that children were not allowed upstairs. According to her, there used to be gambling and opium smoking activities up there in the 1950s. My grandmother regularly warned the children to steer clear of these places of ill repute.
Lunar New Year in Pekan Cina is best remembered for the lion dance troupe that came a-calling. It was the norm for the lorry carrying the ensemble to make a drive past, with the orchestra on-board playing with gusto. The thunderous sounds of the drums and cymbals were sufficient to announce their impending arrival. The womenfolk would scramble to set a table by the main entrance complete with a red packet, two Mandarin oranges and a stalk of lettuce. The lai see would contain money meant as a donation to the troupe. At the same time the men would station themselves upstairs ready to set the dangling 2.4m-long firecrackers alight the moment the lions had blessed the house and its occupants.
In the past, the lion dance troupe was forced to visit Pekan Cina several times during Lunar New Year. There used to be pockets of die-hard Hokkien businessmen who’d insist on welcoming the troupe only on the ninth day onwards. The amount of money in the lai see would vary according to the size of the business as well as the owner’s standing in the local community.
For the past several years now Pekan Cina and its nearby wet market has been markedly quieter during Chinese New Year compared to the past.
Most of the shops no longer open past 6pm and only a few stalls at the market remain open for business. With so many hypermarkets around, people no longer worry about stocking up on food. Meanwhile, the young, my own children included, prefer to spend time with their gadgets in air-conditioned rooms rather than jostle with throngs of people under hot and humid conditions. Oh, how things have changed.