Sunday, February 11, 2007

5 Things I Do Not Miss About Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year is the favorite time of the year for kids of my time. Since Chinese New Year is just around the corner, I think I will blog about the Chinese New Year of days gone by for the benefit of the young people. But I want to put a twist to it.

My elder brother David lighting a fire cracker on day 2 of Chinese New Year, 1963, in our kampong in Lorong Kinchir, off Lorong Chuan

1) Gambling

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.

2) Superstitions

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.

4) Meats

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.


Unknown said...

I remember Chinese New Year as family affairs where we will embark on various routes that are usually fairly pre-determined. After the years, there is a certain beat and rhythm. Certain things have also changed - like the questions that your uncles and aunties ask. As my brother now has 3 kids and I have one, they no longer pester us about the grandchildren issue. Also, the focus has shifted away from us to the next generation.

Victor said...

You didn't mention anything about the candies, snacks and the hong baos so I guess they were some of the things you do like about Chinese New Year as a kid. I bet all kids, whether of yesteryear or now, like those things.

You gave up gambling only 20 years ago? Hmm... that makes you a gambler until the age of 34? 不要紧,回头是岸。还是一条好汉。:p

Lam Chun See said...

Actually my so called gambling is quite mild by most standards; some even won't consider occasional 4D and 'healthy' mahjong with relatives and friends gambling. Never had the guts for the serious staff like poker. Sometimes win my mother's money must return some more! said...

Of all the 5 things, I don't really care for all of them except for "Meats" -- but maybe as I get older, that'll change too. Gambling used to be fun, as Lunar New Year was the only time when gambling was allowed by my parents (but the novelty soon wore off).

aiyah nonya said...

The 'Lam Yue' you mentioned is known as the red bean curd cheese.
Fermented bean curd in wine,red in colour and very pungent.A must during Chinese New Year,together with fatt choi and hoe see(dried oyster.Available in jars with a red cap in NTUC.

Different from 'Foo Yue'.Which is white(buff coloured)bean curd cubes.Also fermented in wine.Available in NTUC too.
Usually served with a bit of oil,sprinkled with sugar.Anyway that is how my mom does it.

Correct me if I am wrong in any of these.

Fire crackers - my siblings and cousins used to play 'war'/dynamites with it at the playground behind our house.
The CNY now a days seems to be lacking of something - firecrackers going off at every household at the stroke of midnignt.

Anonymous said...

I gave my fresh views to the 5 must-do items in CNY of the by-gone years elaborated by my younger brother Chun See, a 5S consultant. I usually sneaked off with my ang-pow money to gamble 'pah kow' at a temple (keng) nearby. We kids and some youngsters were stupid enough to play with a con-chap and came back empty handed. I only realised this folly after a couple of years later(through my thick skull).
We knew of the CNY superstitions but in order to make the elders happy we just follow them.
We took a lot of soft-drink during the festive season with no harm done, perhaps the beverage then did not contain Asparte.
Perhaps the most unforgetable CNY was when I started work in the port, I worked right through the CNY a week before and after (holidays & Sundays inclusive), trying to score overtime. My Malay officer asked me: "What the hell are you doing here during CNY - go home. I shall ask someone to cover you" with overtime payment intact. Because of my hunger for money, I paid a price for it and was sick for many days, losing 6 kilo in the process.
I think I shall stop here, more stories, especially the fire crackers part later on.

pinto said...

I am with you on stance regarding the 'integrated resort'.

My colleague claims to be neutral about this, and says that the Chinese will find a way to gamble anyway. Saying that there's 4D and Toto, but I don't make noise about those.

Well, those are so well entrenched, removing them will cause total chaos. With the casinos, we shouldn't introduce something we've taken great pains to keep out for so long. And with good reason.

Lam Chun See said...

Thanks for the clarification, Aiyah Nonya. I thot foo yu was a yellow paste. My father loved to have a small plate (sort of like chilli) to go with his main dishes. I also cannot tahan. It reminds me of the stuff you find in baby's diapers.

Lam Chun See said...

Recently there was news about some kids who got into trouble with the law for making 'bombs' with gun powder from fire crackers. If that law had been around in the 50s and 60s, many of us would be in jail.

Chris Sim said...

Superstitious or not, I think we should keep up the traditions, esp the one about not sweeping the floor on 1st day of CNY. I hate household chores! How nice everyday CNY hor? LOL.

I remember the crates of drinks too. My mum used to order them from the grocery stall, and we kids were excited when the delivery man arrived with assortment of soft drink - kikapo, fanta, and some others which I've forgotten leow.

Back then, I dun remember having bakwa. Or maybe my family was juz too poor to be able to afford them.

Anonymous said...

Two cousins of mine residing in one of the present shop houses opposite the Fairfield church (former Metropole theatre) at Tg Pagar, usually paid us a visit during CNY. Instead of using Lorong Kinchir, we took a short cut through a kampong track called 'cui arm lor', beneath lied a huge water pipe. It was cycling through this path at night, without any lights, was a nightmare, chasing by fierce dogs. So one night, I discussed with my cousins how to teach these animals a lesson. I came up with a plan. I would pillion-carried my two cousins (boys), one in front and one at the back, each hold packets of fire-crackers ready for action. Once we set onto the track, in the middle of the night, true enough those brave doggies really came at us from all directions. As they were closing in, I yelled 'fire'. My cousins with stick of incense in one hand, lit the fuses of the fire-crackers using the other, and threw forcefully at those maurauding attackers. Hell broke loose, the doggies received such a shocker that they ran to the bushes as fast as their legs could carry them. My cousins and I took our revenge and shouted: "mission accomplished".

Anonymous said...

Firecrackers! Perhaps my first memory of Singapore was arriving in the middle of the night during Chinese New Year in February 1960(perhaps I will do an article for the blog if Chun See will allow), coming from a cold damp UK it was quite a surprise! But my most shameful memory of playing with firecrackers is on a beach near the then Changi airfield (now well buried under the land extension for the airport and airbase if my google earth picture is correct), my friend Kerry and I used to put one in a crabs claw and light it - I am still very very ashamed of this!

Lam Chun See said...

Yes Brian. Kids our time tend to be more cruel with animals. We too used to catch fighting fish and spiders and let them fight. Read my earlier post here. Good thing kids today are more enlightened in this aspect.

Yes pls share your stories on Chinese New Year. Would be refreshing to hear from a 'Britbrat' perspective.

Anonymous said...

In the fifties many of our kampong kids did not receive a decent education. Some lucky ones manage to complete secondary schools, with only a handful able to make it to the university. I had a good pal, a poor farmer's son who had the chance to eat meat only on festive days like CNY. His routine meals were mostly vegetables (sometime salted) and porridge, surprisingly I seldom found him sick. Most of the time he was bareback, but once he wore a shirt, I knew he was sick. He self-healed without seeing a doctor. Because he was over-aged and unable to go to a govt primary school, his father, with good foresight, sent him to the private seven-day adventist school opposite the present Bidahari cemetry. His father had to sacrifice paying his monthly school fee of $30 an exobitant sum at that time. With a primary school education, he later on became a contractor.

Anonymous said...

One thing I disliked about CNY as a kid was having to visit our millions of relatives (my grandma was from a really large family). I'm not against relatives per se but even when I was young, I didn't like crowds and boy, were the relatives' houses crowded, since everyone was visiting everyone!

Worse, when the aunties (usually aunties but not uncles!) asked you embarrassing things like your test or exam marks or forced you to play the piano for all present, it was torture!

But all the grand aunts and grand uncles were great!

Anonymous said...

When I first started work, one day at a Lorong Chuan bus-stop I met a kampong friend, and the first thing he uttered wss how much I earned, that really put me off. The second question he asked: "I understand your cousin next door has joined the police force. Actually what rank is he in ? " Being a gambler and a shady character, I understood why he asked the second question. Luckily the bus came along and I conveniently avoided talking to him too much.

Anonymous said...

Lam Yu can also be used to cook pork, the part with skin, a little fats and the lean meat - stew for about half an hour. My father loved that.

Hi CS, I wonder if you eat durian - the smell...and it also reminds some people of what fu yu reminds you of.

Lam Chun See said...

Ooh I love durians (see comments section)

eastcoastlife said...

We were poor then, so having F&N orange soft drinks at other ppl's homes during CNY was something we kids look forward with long long necks.

We live in kampong Cheng San. My grandma would light firecrackers on the 1st morning of CNY. I would cry and my Dad would carry me. I miss my Dad's strong arms now. (jeez, wat a teary V-day for me this year.)

Happy Valentine's Day!!!

Anonymous said...

sad to say, these things are not what kids do nowadays.

i used to drink soft drinks from the bottles! i belong to the era! haha! but when i was born, the rule for banning the fire crackers have been implemented.

my dad used to tell me about CNY. and we always love CNY shopping for the goodies when i was younger. now, everything seemed to be quite commericialized.


Pauline said...

Do we get to see the Fire Cracker at Chinatown which they did so last year???

Anonymous said...

Back then celebrating with fire-cracker provided CNY the ideal atmosphere, but unluckily Singaporeans were to be blamed these excesses - firing at random from all directions without due consideration for the safety of human lives and properties. In those days, there was practically an eruption of fire crackers, raining down from high buildings (favourite location being Chinatown). The choice timing for the offenders was from CNY eve to the first day of the festival. Many people were maimed and buildings set on fire by these indiscriminate acts. It was the last straw. The govt decided to use the big stick by banning fire-crackers, vowing never to revoke it.