Over the years, we have decided that our hometown, Penang,
is no longer the best place to be during the festive season. The narrow streets
would be jammed with mostly out-of-town tourists. Being an island, the heat has
always been unbearable this time of the year.
I will miss the island and its food, especially, but the
family will be together in KL, where I have settled down for the past 15 years
and Kuala Lumpur has become a place
I have grown to love dearly. To be more precise, I live and work in Petaling
Jaya but for people in other states, it can only be Kay-El.
Except for a few friends, whom I had grown up with during my
primary school days, my link with the state has grown weaker over the years. I
have become a stranger, in some ways, to my hometown.
My family has long persuaded my parents to move to Petaling
Jaya, where we can look after them better, but being older people, they have
found it hard to uproot themselves and they feel the loneliness of age without
the presence of their friends and relatives.
They do not even want to think about the idea. They dread
the thought of being confined to a cramped apartment, where I used to stay,
even though it was in a nice neighbourhood. Never mind that it was in a
happening place with plenty of yuppies and nice, fancy restaurants.
They hated the crowd, which they found pretentious, and it
struck me that they were right. They wanted real kopitiams with real food
instead of over-priced coffees with names nobody could pronounce. They rightly
did not want to touch the fusion food, which they said was crappy and
confusing. They were again right.
They stayed put in Penang, never mind
the non-existent transport system. They have lived with that all their lives.
Besides, they enjoy the daily grumbling session by Penangites against
But they do look forward to the yearly get-together in
Petaling Jaya. They, too, have found the crowd and congestion in Penang
impossible to live with and gladly tell their sons that they'd rather celebrate
the festive season here.
The notion of visiting each other during the CNY is
increasingly lost, particularly meeting relatives and friends, whom they don't
actually care about.
My job as the host has become easier over the years. Except
for my daughter, who is in Form Three, I do not have to put up with sisters-in-law
who could be preoccupied with the game of one-upmanship, especially when it
comes to comparing whose kid is better than whose in school. Luckily, I am the
only son whose kid is still in school.
My colleagues have a rougher time. They come back from the
exodus home confessing to me how they perform in their anger management tests
when relatives brag about their cars, careers and holidays.
They tell me that I have made the right decision keeping the
tradition alive, yet keeping a distance away from relatives and nosy friends
who ask straight in the face how much you earn and what car you drive.
I pity my single women colleagues. They go through this
traumatic time every CNY, when they have to explain to their relatives why they
are still unmarried or unattached after all these years . If they come from the
smaller towns, it is worse because the neighbours join in the query as well.
To be fair, most of these relatives, neighbours and friends
really mean well. But as with conversations with people you no longer keep in
touch with, except once a year, it has to revolve around these issues.
It doesn't help either if you do not want to keep such
conversations going unless you seriously want to watch the Cantonese kung fu
and comedy re-runs on TV, which seem to be switched on forever, even when no
one is watching. Worse, you hide yourself in a corner and munch endless packs
of groundnuts and drink cans of carbonated drinks with high sugar content.
I am a lot luckier than my colleagues. My wife is also a
Penangite — that means I do not have to put up with the annual fight over where
married couples should spend their holidays. I am talking about married couples
from different hometowns.
My mother-in-law stays with me in Petaling Jaya, which means
I do not have to put up at my in-laws' place, even when I go back to Penang
because it no longer exists. I get to eat home-cooked food, Penang
style, of course.
This time, I had the best food for the festival. My
peranakan mother proved she has not lost her culinary skills with our favourite
jiew hoo char (a typical Nyonya dish that comprises fine strips of cuttlefish,
mushroom, turnip, carrot and cabbage), chicken rendang and kiam chai th'ng
(salted vegetable soup with duck meat). Tonight, it's the turn of my mother-in-law
to prepare the steamboat dinner.
Staying under one roof during CNY can be difficult for many
It's even tougher for parents to decide which son or
daughter or their families should stay in the better rooms, to keep the peace.
The thought of staying in a hotel is unforgivable but it is
a good part of tradition. It reminds us of our humble background.
I know of chief executive officers of public listed
companies who have to sleep on the floor at home during CNY because their homes
are too small, even after the renovations.
But the ancestral home, where generations have grown up,
must be kept. Sometimes it is not possible but the reunion dinner is something
the Chinese community must never let go.
It is not a superficial gathering, as some cynics and
modernists may say, because the act of family members coming together — even if
it's just for a night —reaffirms our belonging and commitment as a family.
That is the spirit of Chinese New Year. Gong Xi Fa Cai!