And so the summer ends. Read more
I don’t see myself as deeply superstitious, but I won’t walk under a ladder or clean my flat on the first day of the Lunar New Year. There’s a practical element to not walking under a ladder; not cleaning my flat on New Year’s day, however, is purely symbolic. It’s adhering to the belief that doing so would sweep out the good luck that may come with a new year. As well as this, for my family’s dinner banquet to celebrate the beginning of the Lunar New Year, I pick a red singlet and a red-and-grey striped tie. Red, the colour of danger and passion in Western culture, symbolises luck and fortune to the Chinese. And, according to my mother, it’s the colour that wards off evil spirits.
Taking a quick glance around at the clientele at Chopsticks Delight where my family and I will have a Cantonese-style banquet, I see a mix of those wearing shades of red, and those who have eschewed the timeless tradition of dressing for luck. My mother Leh Guat and Aunty Michelle are adorned in various hues of red, while my cousin Nic and his father, Uncle Lawrence, wear plain pink shirts. Nic’s brother Matt and my father Seng have opted not to wear any red at all.
2015 welcomes the Year of the Goat. No one around the dinner table is a Goat, although if it was someone’s birth year, a random fact gleaned from a webpage or magazine article would surely be brought up and we’d discuss whether it would be a good or bad career year, a lucky or an unlucky year. Lunar New Year astrology has about as much significance to my family as a supermarket packet of fortune cookies, yet wearing some red is important for me and some members of my family: a tie to our diasporic Chineseness.
My brother Sam arrives late, just in time for the cold appetiser of jellyfish with webbed duck feet to be spun towards him on the lazy Susan. I’ve eaten duck meat before, but not duck feet. There is a thin layer of omelette coating the entire webbed foot. I chew slowly through slimy, crunchy gelatin and it tastes a bit like wasabi. My parents, uncle and aunt are all politely savouring their meal of feet. Sam and both of my cousins have left theirs untouched, and are now poking at or nibbling the strips of slippery jellyfish. “The web of the foot is important in the dish,” Uncle Lawrence muses as he holds out his right hand. “Maybe it’s to do with the palm.”
I had naively put a whole foot in my mouth, but it being the first dish of the New Year, I refuse to spit the slimy limb out even though I want to. There’s a deliberate, auspicious meaning to the dish, even if my family and I don’t really know what it is. I’ve eaten chicken feet before, I rationalise to myself, blocking out the image of what I’m chewing. And they’re healthy after all; duck feet have gelatin in them, the nutritional properties of which include strengthening joints, and skin, hair and nail growth. Around the table my cousins and brother banter in solidarity about the difficulty of eating the webbed duck feet. “I think they should have cut the feet into strips to make it easier to eat,” Aunty Michelle offers as she plops another foot into her bowl.
Chopsticks Delight offers an array of Cantonese dishes that, according to my aunt and uncle, can’t be found anywhere else in Melbourne. For New Year, the restaurant has auspicious dishes specially prepared for the occasion. My immediate family can’t speak Cantonese and we weren’t brought up on Cantonese food (my mother, father and Aunty Michelle have Peranakan-Chinese heritage, while Uncle Lawrence is from a Hakka background), but as Michelle and Lawrence can speak varying levels of Cantonese, they translate some of the names of the dishes for me. “The waiter says that the menu is like lines of a poem,” Lawrence explains when the waiter stops by to collect the empty dishes. I try to imagine the poetic Cantonese description of the banquet that comprises prawn mince and taro wrapped in beancurd skin; braised pork trotter with black moss seaweed and dried oyster; and lobster tail in garlic butter.
“See the moss?” My aunt picks up the stringy black seaweed mush with her chopsticks. “Moss in Cantonese is fat choy, which means prosperity, and it’s in the New Year greeting kung hei fat choy. The Chinese also have fish and prawns in their banquet. In this menu they have lobster, because it symbolises the dragon, which can mean luck and plentiful always.” The waiter arrives with a tray of fresh crabmeat and shark fin soup. Matt’s audible relief at a familiar Chinese-restaurant-banquet staple generates a chuckle from his brother, Nic. “Oh good, we’re back to normal Chinese food again”, he sighs as he slurps happily.
When I was growing up at number 3 Jalan Kent Empat, off Jalan Gurney, Kuala Lumpur, red saturated my family bungalow at New Year. A few days before New Year’s Day itself, Sam and I would help Dad move the furniture aside in the lounge room and study, so that we could sweep and mop the burgundy, square-tiled floors. Dad then applied a special varnish which he sealed using a vacuum. When my grandfather was alive, he did the same thing. It was tiring work, bending down and slapping varnish on to each square tile, but for every Lunar New Year the floors would sparkle like a brand new display home. (Later, on a trip to Melaka, I was told that houses designed by Peranakans often have floors that replicate terracotta tiles from China. Terracotta kept the building temperature cool when it was hot, and warm when it was cold. But terracotta was expensive, and so the floor of my childhood home, a home that my grandfather designed, was made of material that only resembled the original.)
To decorate the house, two bunches of fake vermilion paper firecrackers would be shaken out of their dusty casing in the storeroom under the staircase and hung in the main living area. There were real fireworks too, but we saved them for the night when my cousins were around. In memory of my grandfather, we would set up our ancestral altar in the hall, which would be in place for the fifteen days of the Lunar New Year period. My brother or I would help our father unfold the altar table under my grandfather’s framed black and white photo, and red, white, gold and orange chrysanthemums would be arranged in a golden porcelain dragon vase and replaced nearly everyday. Next to the vase, a porcelain blue and white incense holder held our prayers and sandalwood joss sticks.
Weeks before the festive season, my grandmother, Soon Moy would have purchased, prepared and organised everything necessary for the New Year banquet. We had a large outdoor kitchen with a four-burner stovetop, and next to it a table with another gas cooker and a charcoal burner. While we would usually have our meals at the back of the house near the kitchen, for New Year’s the banquet would be laid out on the large study table, near the ancestral altar in the study area. On the table there would be a large bowl of stewed chicken, shiitake mushrooms and potato – called ayam ponteh – made with Melaka brown sugar and taucheo (fermented soy beans). There would be a large bowl of kiam chye soup, which Soon Moy made with duck, pickled mustards and tomatoes. I loved chewing on the salty pickled mustard leaves, choosing between the leafy bits and the firmer stem. My steadfast love of slurping on a variety of broths now is a direct result of my grandmother’s kiam chye soup.
Accompanying these main dishes would be two types of pickles or acar. One of the acars was made with whole green chillies stuffed with grated green papaya. Soon Moy would grate the green papaya and lay them out in the sun to dry on large, flat pandanus baskets weeks before New Year. The other, made from a mix of cauliflower, pineapple, French beans, carrots and cucumbers, appeared like a simple condiment, but the long list of spices used for the paste could rival a main dish – dried red chillies, shallots, garlic, turmeric, galangal, candlenuts, toasted shrimp paste (belacan), lemongrass, coriander seeds and sesame seeds. Soon Moy would pound the spices into a paste on her large mortar and pestle.
From the age of seven or eight, I helped my grandmother make desserts like pineapple tarts and biscuit-type ones like kuih kapit and kuih bangkit. I would be up on a table pressing out the pineapple tart bases from the rolled-out dough with a crinkle-edged pastry cutter. Or sitting on a stool sweating over the charcoal grill as the iron presses baked the thin coconut, tapioca and rice flour batter over the flames for the kuih kapit. When the thin batter was baked, I had to scrape it from the press and quickly fold it into a fan shape or roll it into cigar-like moulds before it cooled down and hardened. For the kuih bangkit, which are animal-shaped cookies made of flour and coconut milk, I was given the task of dotting their eyes red after knocking them out of their wooden animal moulds. For the Peranakans, the pineapple in the pineapple tarts symbolises good fortune, while the rising of the kuihs when baking symbolises abundance.
I miss the rituals that my grandmother and family observed at 3 Jalan Kent Empat in preparation for the Lunar New Year. I don’t crave this memory intensely, but I like returning to it, savouring each memory like a specially prepared New Year’s dish, like a favourite love letter that I keep returning to, for comfort. In the nostalgia, there is a recognition that the people who I love are no longer here, that as I grow older, it is about honouring the family that I have around. Also, in life, there’s always something new to learn, like if I’m not sure about a dish (like webbed duck foot), not to put it into my mouth whole. While black moss seaweed isn’t to my taste, it’s good to know that for this New Year, I’ve eaten fat choy/moss/prosperity for a prosperous beginning.
MORE FROM THE LONGER LIGHT SERIES:
The Longer Light Series explores the idea that our personal rituals – from the mundane to the grand – tether us to special places and particular times. It investigates how our rituals are contingent on the places where we perform them, on the rhythm of the seasons, on the weather of any given day, on what we see and smell around us.
The 12 distinct works of the series detail, document or respond to some sort of ritual (as each contributor interprets that word) enacted during a week of summer days and nights. The works will be published in weekly instalments so that, in concert, they plot the arc of an Australian summer.
The Longer Light Series is supported by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.