What it’s like to spend Chinese New Year in Malaysia (Ipoh)

For those who haven’t read my previous blogs, I was born in Malaysia and like many Malaysians, my family is of Chinese descent. We typically celebrate Chinese New Year (CNY) every year. It’s like Christmas on steroids.

Growing up, I used to go back every two years to my hometown in Ipoh to see my family with my mum, dad and brother for CNY. We went every two years because flights back then were much more expensive than they are today. Budget flights didn’t exist and the airline industry wasn’t deregulated then.

Since budget airlines came into existence, my mum and dad have gone back about 1-3 times a year, but sadly since my brother and I have grown up, we have seldomly gone back because…life has gotten in the way.

Life got in the way so much that I hadn’t gone back for eight years and my brother 13 years! So late last year, we discussed going home for CNY this year and made it happen!

Going back after eight years meant a little bit more to me than just celebrating the lunar year with my family. This year, CNY meant coming back to my home town for a long overdue reunion with my grandma and the rest of my extended family. But it also meant confronting my prejudices of what it would be like to return back home.

 

My History. My prejudices.

For me, being raised in a Malaysian-Chinese culture comprises of two key things ~ objectivity and food.

Living in a Chinese culture means dealing with a more objective mentality rather than one based on emotions. You’ve probably heard that Chinese parents are strict with their kids’ performance at school and often want their kids to be a doctor, accountant or lawyer. These stereotypes reflect this objective mindset. My mum certainly had one by showing me her love through cooking for me, giving me a roof over my head and helping me survive financially. She didn’t charge me board to live at home and gave me my first car. She also rarely talked to me about emotions or offered me emotional support, which led me to have to the common difficulty second generation Australian-Malaysian-Chinese kids have in having deep and meaningful conversations with their parents about all the colourful things which happen to us in life.

 

An example of the objective mentality expressed in the show ‘If You Are the One’
Source: https://wishcrys.com/2014/10/28/negotiating-love-and-life-on-fei-cheng-wu-raoif-you-are-the-one-5-family-life/ and If You Are the One (television show)

However, these stereotypes are only partially representative of what Chinese parents are like. My mum fell outside the scope of this stereotype when she never pressured me to get good grades (among other things). Her main concern has always been that I am safe and healthy.

Another common example of this mentality is reflected in how Chinese people deal with appearances. Chinese people will openly say their judgments on a person’s appearance. This is particularly the case if you have gained or lost weight. If you’re in a Chinese family and you’ve gained weight, your family will undoubtedly comment on your weight. There is no hurtful intent behind their remarks. They will just say it like how a person talks about the weather here. I used to be overweight and heard the words “you’re so fat” so many times until I lost weight. (Then my family’s remarks changed to “you’re too skinny”.)

Another funny example of the Chinese objective mindset with weight. Source: https://imgur.com/gallery/kHeNk and If You Are the One (television show)

Growing up in a western culture caused me to really struggle with my family’s mentality because to me, receiving comments about my weight gain was extremely hurtful.

Being Malaysian-Chinese in my family also meant eating virtually anything (except for beef). And growing up, I definitely ate everything except for beef. My family and their predecessors have had this diet for years and years so it’s unsurprising that in Malaysia, it’s very difficult to find a dish without meat in it.

I have been a pescatarian for probably about 2.5 years. This means that the only ‘meat’ which I eat is seafood. The last time I went to Malaysia, I ate everything. This time, I was coming back a very different person to who I used to be and I was apprehensive about going back to Malaysia and not being able to eat 95% of the food.

However, above all else, I was scared of whether my family would accept my dietary choice and judge me for only eating seafood.

 

So what was it like for me to go back to Ipoh this year for CNY?

This year, I got to Malaysia two days before CNY. I arrived at Kuala Lumpur (KL) at 3.50pm and customs and immigration took a LONG time because it was probably busier than normal due to CNY being around the corner. My cousin was there to pick me up and we had a quick bite to eat where we caught up on our lives. Unsurprisingly, we quickly started talking about out appearance and weight goals. We both shared the common goal of losing weight.

By the time we got out, it was about 5.30pm and traffic was horrible (because everyone was going home for CNY). It took us around 4 hours to get home when a ride from KL to Ipoh normally takes about 2.5 hours.

I was excited to reunite with Grandma. She had no idea that I was coming. When we finally arrived at her house, I gave her a big hug and said “hello Grandma” and she hugged me back. My cousin then asked Grandma if she knew who I was.

Her response ~ “No”

We all laughed and my cousin explained that it was me (her granddaughter).

Grandma quickly realised and couldn’t stop laughing, and neither could we.

It was truly a beautiful moment that still brings a smile to my face.

I looked around my Grandma’s place and noticed that not much had changed. There were CNY decorations, lots of pictures hung up and heaps of CNY biscuits, mostly either cooked by one of my aunties or bought from a shop. I couldn’t help myself. I love CNY biscuits but they are indeed extremely fatty.

CNY biscuits made from my auntie – yum!!!
My grandma’s house with the CNY celebrations
Outside of my grandma’s house – exactly the way I remember it to be

After relaxing a bit and talking to grandma with the occasional relative dropping in to either pick up their kid that my grandma was babysitting and talking to my parents and brother, it started getting late so I decided to go to my temporary home at my auntie’s house.

Day 2 – CNY Eve

A huge underlying theme of CNY is ‘new’ and ‘luck’ (and red ~ the lucky colour). This includes completely cleaning out your house and buying at least three new outfits as part of getting good luck for the year. And the clothes usually should have red, especially on the first day.

So what was one of my priorities on CNY Eve? To get new clothes because I didn’t come prepared since I was going to India after Malaysia.

I told my mum and auntie that I needed new outfits and they took me shopping immediately. I quickly found 3 outfits to wear and then we rushed back to Grandma’s house for our CNY Eve dinner.

Many families have a huge gathering and formal dinner where everyone in the extended family attends. But 2018 for my family was a low-key event. My mum and aunties were out the back with my grandma cooking away a huge meal and one by one, different people from my mum’s side of the family came in, ate the food, chat to everyone a bit, prayed to my Grandpa (who has now passed away). Most people were on holidays so they were able to come down to stay in Ipoh for anywhere between 3-7 days to celebrate and catch up with the family. Eventually, everyone left to go home to finish cleaning their home or prepare their red packets/envelopes for the new year.

The lovely meal prepared by my family and the ‘bai sen’ in the background. Bai sen is the Chinese name for the altar. You can see the small figures of the gods and a framed red picture with gold handwriting in the background. This is where we pray to my grandpa. To pray, I usually grab three incense sticks, light them, lower them three times and stick them the bowl which holds the incense, although I’m never really been sure what I’m supposed to think or say when I pray (my parents have never explained to me, but I’ve never asked either).

Day 3 – The Day of the New Year

On the actual day of CNY, we decided to go to our local temple at 8AM to eat breakfast but before we went, most of us met at my grandma’s house so we could go to the temple together. As soon as I saw an elder or married relative or anybody for that matter, I would say the words “gong xi fa cai” which means “wishing you to be prosperous in the coming year”. Usually straight after saying those words, the person which you say it to gives you a red packet with money in it (if they are an elder and married). This is one of the biggest parts of CNY celebrations. Generally, married people put money in these red packets to give to children and unmarried adults to wish them luck for the new year. My mother always taught me not to open the packet in front of anyone and not to spend the money in the first three days.

Me with making a pretty fan with my red packets

By the time we got to the temple, it was packed and no tables were available for our party of about 20-30 people. While some family members were scouting for a table, the rest of us went into the actual praying area where we had to take off our shoes and pray with incense sticks. As soon as we found a table and sat down, a person came out and dropped a bunch of dishes for us to eat. They were all vegetarian and for free (and delicious!)

 

The local temple we went to to eat breakfast and pray on CNY Day 1

Once we were done, most people wanted to go home but I wanted to stay to watch the lion dance which is also a huge part of CNY tradition. It’s always fun to watch ~ a team of people play live music and four talented individuals go under a colourful Chinese lion costume to dance for the crowd. The venue usually sets up lettuce and mandarins around the venue to ‘feed’ the lions.

Once the lion dance was finished, fire crackers were lit up at the entrance. It was festive and awesome (and very loud!)

The aftermath of the fire crackers ~ I didn’t take a video because it was too loud

…and after my uncle took us to a Buddhist temple in a cave.

My cousins took my brother and I out to a café and we walked around the cool strip in Ipoh which was refurbished for tourism. One thing I learnt about Ipoh is that it’s become a bit of a tourist hot spot for its famous food (which I approve of – Ipoh’s food is amazing and there is so much good food you can eat there. But expect to gain weight!)


A very decent cold drip coffee 


The cool new area in Ipoh with funky graffiti, markets and cafes (sorry Ipoh, Melbourne’s coffees are better)

 

The famous street art around Ipoh

This is what CNY is about –visiting relatives’ houses, drinking tea (or alcohol) and eating or spending time catching up (and gambling).

Visiting relatives to chat, drink tea or beer, some food and of course my favourite…CNY biscuits. They’re always in these plastic containers with the red lid.

Above: What a typical home-cooked lunch looks like during the festive season

Undoubtedly, someone will also light fire crackers in front of their house – during CNY you literally hear them everywhere, everyday during the new year period (which lasts for about 23 days)

 

Above and below: My cousin’s restaurant where they made this beautiful meal for us ~ virtually all seafood and vegies!

 
Above: My auntie cooking for us on another day 😊

Day 4 and after

We all went to Taluk Intan, (a small coastal city in Malaysia) to visit one of my uncles and some cousins to have a feast with them by the sea and also visited some other relatives there.

Visiting some relatives in Eng Soon – my mother’s home town (more commonly known as Teluk Intan)

My uncle even took us to Pulau Pangkor Island (below) for a day trip…

Pangkor Islands 1

Pangkor Islands 4

  

…and to a beautiful temple on the way home to Ipoh.

I must say one of the most memorable gatherings for me was on one of my last nights in Ipoh, which was also part of CNY celebrations. The relatives I stayed with hosted a big event for first 8th day of the lunar year – a tradition of the Hokkien people.

My uncle invited our whole family plus his friends and work colleagues. They set up red tents on the road in the front of their house, prepared A LOT of food, bought fireworks and fire crackers. They also prepared and continued folding golden paper during the night to turn it into fake money to burn for the new year (it’s a way to send money to your ancestors).

At the front of their house was a large table covered with a bright red paper tablecloth with a spit-fired pig on top and lots of food surrounding the pig. Any extra food was placed onto the tables which were on the road under the tents. Throughout the night, everyone either watched television, sat around the dining table to eat and drink with one another or gambled. I certainly participated a little bit in a few different card games and lost all the money I bet.

 

My auntie and uncle’s house on the special Hokkien CNY celebration

Eventually, just before midnight, my auntie’s immediate family got together, got some incense sticks and prayed in front of the table where the pig was. Once they finished praying, they lit up the fake money on fire and lit the fireworks. We all gathered out the front to watch the fireworks.

After the fireworks, we continued on…for a little bit. But one by one, we all went home, and my trip to Malaysia was coming to an end…

My thoughts on going back home…

Most of Ipoh was how I remembered it to be with the exception of the renovated tourist area and my family feeling like it’s doubled in size. Barely anything had changed in this town. It felt almost as if time stood still there while the rest of the world continued to develop.

Going back home for 11 days was both wonderful and testing. It was wonderful because it was so nice to see my family again and spend quality time with them.

I cherished having all my family members take care of me and constantly being surrounded by loved ones. I loved that I never felt alone and really felt looked after. Everyone drives you everywhere, takes you where you want to go, takes you out to eat, pays for your food and drinks, lets you stay in their home and cooks for you. You almost feel like royalty and I must say it’s extremely refreshing coming from a western society where we live in a very isolating culture and focus more on ourselves than others.

Definitely one of the biggest highlights of returning was being eating the classic dishes which I have longed to eat for years (roti canai, tofu fa and curry puffs) because let’s be honest – as soon as a traditional dish is taken to a westernised country, it’s usually changed and not as good as what you can get home. I was SO excited to eat the Malaysian classics which are some of my favourite foods in the world.

Ipoh’s amazing food – my favourites roti canai (above) and tofu fa (below)

As for my apprehension about being pescatarian…I was surprised because my family were completely accepting of my dietary requirements. Occasionally they would forget that I didn’t eat meat and offer me food with meat in it and I’m sure I accidentally ate some meat in some cases too but overall, I was able to eat what I wanted the majority of the time without feeling pressured to eat meat so I was very pleased (but I definitely wasn’t pleased with my waistline ~ I gained 3 kilos in the 11 days I was home!)

 

Why was going home testing?

Returning home after all these years definitely tested me because I’ve learnt to comfortable in being alone and have become accustomed to having space…so having to share a room and constantly be around my family 24/7 was quite tough to adjust to.

It also became a little bit overwhelming when my family constantly expressed their concern for me traveling to India by myself. You wouldn’t believe the amount of times I was asked – “why are you going there?” “Be really careful, don’t talk to anyone when you’re there.” “Don’t trust anyone who tries talking to you.” I think my grandma said it at least 30 times.

Overall…I would do it all again 😊 It’s my family and every time I go back, I truly appreciate and enjoy it.

Saying goodbye to my grandma after eight years and moving onto my solo trip!! Oh there were tears :`(

6 thoughts on “What it’s like to spend Chinese New Year in Malaysia (Ipoh)

  1. Mei did you tell your Grandma that Indians are not that bad. I’m actually so concerned about the image my country has outside. Hopefully I can change it one friend at a time.

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    1. Unfortunately not but I gather her and my mum might have slightly different perceptions since I came back alive, with no issues and I really enjoyed my holiday 🙂 it’s very hard to change deep seated beliefs unfortunately so I wouldn’t bother putting in too much effort. It’s better just to let them see themselves from a person with their own experiences. I will be returning this year too!!

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      1. I think that it should go both ways. More people should visit India and Indians should travel around. Although there are lots of Indians everywhere in the world 🙂

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