The exodus out of KL this Chinese New Year was thorough, since its timing created a long weekend, but I stayed back to honour the long-standing invitations to open houses and take advantage of the wonderfully empty roads. Of all the festivals that don’t apply to me personally by virtue of faith or ancestral heritage (though the family genealogist says I have a Chinese great-great-grandmother), Chinese New Year is the one I am most familiar with – but I’m still learning new things about this great festival every time.
First, I discovered that traditional Chinese families consider the day to begin at 11pm, concomitant with the idea that the 24 hours of the day are divided into 12 blocks of two hours (demarcated by the odd numbers), each block being ruled by a different animal sign – and so I finally understood why the fireworks ignite in such a frenzy an hour before midnight. For Muslims, the idea that the day doesn’t begin at midnight is a familiar one: in our lunar calendar, the day begins at maghrib (sunset) – and similarly, it’s soon after the prayers that fireworks go bang enthusiastically.
For all Malaysian festivals, fireworks remain reassuringly easy to obtain – every family seems to have a shady contact who can obtain the necessary pyrotechnics – but this year I experienced one unusually close encounter with noisy explosives. A line of firecrackers had been tethered across trees, and upon being set off, bits of ammunition splashed into the steamboat metres away. On to the aiskrim potong, then.
In the food department, there were new insights too. I enjoyed yee sang five times, and though I knew that it was a truly local invention (like popiah, obviously) and that the idea is to toss the melange as high as possible without causing excessive mess, I was educated on what each ingredient means, and why various incantations are intoned before adding each to the growing heap. Though the fish is the most important element (symbolising abundance), the methods of preparation seem to be getting more diverse each year. The salmon was raw, smoked, or its skin deep fried – and the garnishes were of tremendous colours – though the all-important crunchy bits (symbolising gold) laced every plate.
A new dish for me was lap mei fan, “waxed meat rice”, originally from the northern parts of China (where it is cold and wintery in February), in which rice cooked in a clay pot is accompanied by cured meats – originally including lots of pork, but I was the happy recipient of a delicious halal version.
Conversations alongside these meals involved horoscopes, of course, and after smiling politely at laa-aame jokes about goats, one could witness the entire spectrum of people who take the incredulously detailed predictions seriously, to those who consider them to be mild entertainment. One’s place in the spectrum seems to be determined by the content of the predictions, and their consistency across sources.
In defiance of these astrological proclamations, more earthly concerns were discussed: the impact of GST, the price of petrol, whether or not Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim will request (and receive) a royal pardon, and, for overseas Malaysians back for the celebrations, how likely it is that they will return to live in the land of their birth one day. Political analysis has truly become a mainstay of the Malaysian open house, but whatever your disagreements with the hosts, you can gorge on all the mandarins you want and if you’re unmarried, ang pows are still faithfully pressed into your hands as you move on to the next house.
These regular gatherings, with their genesis in ancient traditions and originally designed for family members, have come to proclaim and profess a special kind of patriotism. The ancient traditions have evolved to accommodate the modern nation-state (though I also learnt this year that there are still traditional families in Malaysia where the full kowtow is performed by junior members to elder ones), and the definition of family has been enlarged to encompass those who simply partake in the voluntarily exchange of hospitality.
In one of the open houses, I saw the five year-old son of a friend keenly donning his lion outfit, and then proceeding to climb, wiggle and dance on an assembly of stacked furniture, in time with his father’s percussive accompaniment. His friends of all ethnic backgrounds looked on with palpable jealousy: they wanted their own lion costume, or demonstrate something from their own cultural background for their fellow Malaysians to witness.
In an age where faith in many national institutions has ebbed, it is comforting to know that there still remains one great institution that can symbolise and inspire such abundant patriotism.
Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS