In my family home in Johor Baru, my parents, both Peranakans, celebrate Chinese New Year in a slightly different way from the other Chinese.
A month before Chinese New Year, Mama would have bought cloth to make pyjamas for her six sons and the two daughters. it was a tradition that on CNY Eve, all the children had to don new pyjamas. We also wore new clothes on New Year’s Day.
Mama would be busy making kuih lapis, kuih bangkit and acar and preparing the spices for the chicken dish. On CNY Eve, we feasted on the sumptuous dishes while dressed in our new pyjamas.
There would be a huge pot of duck kiam chye soup – a must-have Peranakan dish – that would be eaten over the course of a week as it tasted better as the days passed by, especially with sambal belacan.
On the first day on CNY, we all wore new clothes.
Papa and Mama would sit at the sofa and, one by one, all their children – from the eldest to the youngest – would kneel before them and wish them a happy Chinese New Year and a long life.
We then squeezed into the car and head to Siang Lim Park in Singapore where my maternal grandmother resided.
All our relatives were in Singapore. We would make a trip to visit my maternal grandmother and her brood, and then adjourn to my paternal grandmother’s house. We had a reunion with the family. This was an annual visit and we were not too familiar with the cousins.
Angpows were exchanged and updates were given on the progress of each family amid the loud noise made by the firecrackers.
Then we went to Siglap Road where the paternal grandmother resided. We were closer in relationship with this side of the family. Everyone here spoke Baba Malay. Fast and furious they conversed in a language so familiar to all of them.
And then it was gambling time. The ladies in their pretty sarong kebaya would start playing mahjong or a card game known as chee kee. The rest of the family played chap ji kee, a game where there was a banker and people would place bets on the number he had set aside. If your number matched his, you would win.
There were shrieks of laughter as both young and old laid their bets.
From time to time, they would change bankers. Some bankers lost their capital and others wanted to have a go at being the banker.
At lunch time, each family would whip out their own tiffin carriers which they had brought from home. There was too big a crowd for the host family to feed everyone.
Mama brought out her tiffin carrier with her homemade acar, soup, chicken and other dishes, and our family would eat these. Mama had tied red threads on our cutlery so that it would not get lost among the others.
Strangely enough, the dishes from the other families were similar to ours – all nyonya-style food. The cooks, all sisters-in-law, had a taste of the other families’ food and gave their comments.
The cookies that they brought also did not differ. Homemade tarts, love letters, kuih semprit, kuih bakul… Nothing was bought; all lovingly made at home.
Gambling continued till it was time to go home There was a check on who the losers and the winners were. Everyone had a great time gambling and this only happened once a year. The young were permitted to gamble alongside the older ones.
This CNY celebration happened six decades ago but the lingering memories of the fun the family had will forever be etched in my memory.
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