Being of Penang-Phuket Peranakan Chinese ancestry, Chinese New Year (CNY) or Trut Jeen is my family most significant celebration of the year.
Besides the firecrackers, the ‘ang pows’ (red packets), and the ‘sinfully’ rich food, it is also a time of prayers, merit-making, and more importantly the coming-together of the large extended family.
It all begins with the ritual cleaning of the house with lime and lemon leaves. This can start as early as one month before CNY. Rituals aside, it is not easy task — house-painting, cleaning all the windows, scrubbing the floors etc etc.
Symbolically, the most important item to be cleaned is the Buddhist Altar. At my house, on an auspicious day and time, I would usually do the ‘bathing’ of the Phra Puthachao, Chao Meh Kuam Imm and Chenrezig images. This is followed by the tablets of the San Phra Bum Jeen (Teh Chiu Ee Earth God) and the Kitchen God. After all the ritual cleaning and polishing, it is time to re-decorate the altar with ornaments such as red couplets stickers, peacock feathers and host of other offerings.
Usually, one week before CNY, my family would usually make merit (tamboon) at a local Thai Buddhist Temple by offering cash, rice, oil and daily necessities to the Buddhist monks. For a Thai-Chinese family, making merit for CNY accrues among the highest merits. Perhaps, this is the only Buddhist aspect of CNY, the rest being traditionally Peranakan and Chinese.
Later at night on the same day, there would be a special offering of barbeque pork, fruits, nien guo (sticky rice cake), chocolates (Kit-Kat, Toberone and Mars), biscuits, and sugar cane to the Kitchen God. This is a very ancient Peranakan practice and many families have discarded this ritual, but my family still practices this earnestly.
Accordingly, it is believed on the 24th night of the 12th Lunar Month, the Kitchen God ascends to Heaven to report the domestic happenings. This is the time for my family to ‘bribe’ the Kitchen God with sweet sticky stuff (thus the sweet chocolates) for him to report only ‘good stuff’ about the family. Of course, this is also a symbolic prayer for enough food on our dining table for the coming year.
On the morning of CNY’s Eve, just before putting up the ‘chaiki’ (a kind of red cloth) at the main entrance of the house, there is another prayer to honour our ancestor with the ‘Sembahyang Abu.’ (Ash Prayer).
Traditionally, the expensive blue-and-white Peranakan ware would be taken out to offer our ancestors with a most sumptuous feast of pork, duck, chicken, fish and mushroom dishes. But being staunch Buddhist, we only offer vegetarian dishes these days. As we don’t have an ancestral tablet, this ‘Sembahyang Angin’ (Wind Prayer) takes place in front of the main entrance.
On the night of CNY’s eve, my extended family would have our reunion dinner. This is usually celebrated at my grand-parents house with traditional Peranakan Chinese dishes on the tok panjang (dining table) such as ‘kiam chye ap’ (salted vegetable duck soup), ‘pongteh’ (marinated pork knuckles), gulai ayam (chicken curry) and ‘acar chilli’ (preserved and stuff chilli with dried shredded papaya).
However since their passing, my extended family would have our reunion dinner at a hotel restaurant in the city. Bedecked in all our richly- red clothes, it is the time for the family to have the traditional family meal and the ‘loh sang’ (Throw Prosperity). The expensive food and the small talk aside, this gathering is a time for well-wishing for a better year, for better business deals, for job promotions, and for a healthy and prosperous year ahead.
After dinner, the extended family disperses. It is time to return home with only me and my parents. At 12.00am sharp, on the first start of the Chinese New Year, my father would perform the ‘Sembahyang Sambut Kepala Tahon’ (welcome the start of the year) Prayer.
He will ritually offer a golden joss-stick, switch on all the lights at home, open all the doors and windows, and call for Phra Puttachao to symbolically bless our home and the family. Then, there will be three ritual callings of ‘Huat Chye,’ or ‘Tuah -Berkat Mari’ (Come’ye Prosperity) in Peranakan.
On CNY’s morning, after a vegetarian breakfast, we usually start our day with more family prayers. With a ritual lime and flower bath, my family will wear our newest and brightest clothes and make our first visit of the year to the Thai Buddhist Temple. There, it is time for more prayers and blessing from the Phra Putthachao and his Thai Buddhist Monks.
Only after these Buddhist Prayers, in true Malaysian style, we will visit my family’s relatives’ open houses for the pai nien (CNY visits). Traditionally, the women-folk of the older generation, would wear their traditional sarong-kebaya, (a see-through tight traditional blouse) festooned with their huge diamond kerongsang (a three-piece button set) and diamond earrings. Sometimes, I find all these a little too flashy for an octogenarian or a nanogenarian, right?
On the second day of CNY, it is my family’s traditional open house. Thankfully we have a good Malay caterer serving non-Chinese food such as roti jala (a type of Malay deep-fried bread), curry chicken and mee siam (Thai vermicelli). I don’t see how I can cope with more than 150 guests of my father’s relatives, business clients and friends. Also thanks to paper cups, plates and plastic forks and spoons, there is no washing to be done.
Even after the second day, there are still so many CNY rituals like receiving the arrival of the Kitchen God, the prayers to the Jade Emperor and the final Chap Goh Meh. Interestingly, Chap Goh Meh is also the Buddhist Magha Bucha Day which commemorates the spontaneous gathering of the Buddha’s disciples.
(PS – To my non-Malaysian readers, I would emphasize that my family’s CNY rituals and practices are a syncretic reflection of my Chinese, Peranakan and Thai ancestry, I doubt many other Chinese families follow the same rituals.)