I think it was Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew who said that the Chinese are incorrigible gamblers. I tend to agree with him. Even as primary school kids, we used to gamble during Chinese New Year using our ang pow (red packets) money. We would play card games like ‘sar ki’ (3 cards) or ‘ban-luck’ (black jack). This was very bad indeed. I am so glad that I have given up this bad habit totally for the past 20 years.
Whenever I see people gambling during the Chinese New Year festive season, I am reminded of one scene at the temple near my house. There was this young lady who was so engrossed in her card game. She was squatting on the floor together with a group of other kampong folks and was perspiring profusely. Occasionally, she would reach for her handkerchief, which she has tucked under her samfoo blouse at the left shoulder, and wipe her sweat. It wasn’t a pleasant sight.
At this point, I want to go on record to say that I am totally against the government’s building of casinos in Singapore. They may call it an ‘integrated resort’, but as one blogger said, A dung by any other name stinks.
Like most of the village women folk, my mum was superstitious about Chinese New Year practices. As such, we were not allowed to sweep the floor with a broom during the first 2 days of Chinese New Year. It was supposed to sweep away the good luck or something. So we had to use a dry cloth to wipe away the dust.
3) Soft Drinks
During our time, soft (aerated) drink was not something most folks could afford to consume everyday. Chinese New Year was one of the few occasions when we had practically free flow of soft drinks to the delight of the kids. My favorites were Sarsi and Ice Cream Soda. (Actually I just came back from dinner in the middle of writing this blog. Guess what I decided to order at the kopitiam to wash down my dinner …. a can of ice cream soda of course!) You might recall me writing earlier that my favorite soft drink was Pepsi Cola. But for Chinese New Year, we usually order the soft drinks by crates like those in this photo. (Thanks to Flickr member The Rocketeer for this photo of glass soft drinks bottles). The famous brand then was Framroz, and hence there was no Pepsi for Chinese New Year.
Those days, the drinks came in glass bottles. When the bottle cap is removed with a bottle opener, it made a ‘pop’ sound. I think that’s why the Hokkiens refer to soft drinks as ‘pok chui’. As to why the Cantonese called in ‘Hor Lan Sui’ or Holland water; I am still clueless.
Of course today I do not miss soft drinks. Firstly they are so freely available. Secondly, they have too much sugar and not good for health.
What I said about soft drinks applies to oily meats like roast chicken, roast ducks and roast pork. In those days, such meats were served only during festive occasions. Let me give you an illustration of how precious meat was. Sometimes, my mother made soup with big chunks of lean pork. After the soup was completed, she would ‘recycle’ the pork, which by this time did not have much taste, by slicing the pork into smaller pieces and frying it with various sauces, and thus create an additional dish.
One traditional dish that our family always served during Chinese New Year was a vegetarian dish cooked with ‘lam yu’ (I am sorry I don’t know the name in English) and ‘fat choi’ (发菜); the black moss that was very much in the news recently because it was reported to contain some toxic substance which could cause Alzheimer’s disease. Everyone who came to our house liked this dish and my mother used to cook a huge pot. After my mother passed away, my sister took over this responsibility. But I never participated because I hated the smell of the lam yu.
5) Fire Crackers
This one does not actually belong to the list because it is the one thing I actually missed about Chinese New Year. Somehow, without the sound, and especially, the smell of fire crackers, Chinese New Year is not the same.
I have always wanted my children to at least have one try at letting off fire crackers. And so, a couple of years ago, when a Malaysian friend invited us to their home for a Chinese New Year gathering, we, both adults and children, jumped on the opportunity to ‘let go’. We had a swell time that year in Pekan Nanas.
But I must say that firing modern fire crackers is not as exciting as when we did it in the 50s and 60s. It’s not because I am now older or that I have been a demolition officer in the army for a number of years. It’s because today’s fire crackers are produced with better quality control. Hence, the burning rate of the fuse is very consistent. When lighting up a fire cracker during the old days, you never know if you might get one where the fuse burns up super fast.
I cannot be sure of this as I am no longer a kid. But thinking back, somehow, I feel that kids growing up in the kampongs during the 50s and 60s enjoyed their Chinese New Years more than the kids of today in 21st century Singapore.