“It is alarming that Chinese has many hidden rules that even I am not aware of. Until I was recently made aware that the paint color used on tombstones, if it is gold, represents dead relatives and red, signifies the living. Thus on the grave of my grandparents, upon my discovery, my beloved cousins, siblings and I, have been dead for more than half a century already . Cant get more incredible than this years Cheng Beng. Drown me please somebody !”
Tok Tiok Tharng
Reunion is held on the first day of Chinese New Year. The servings on a reunion table according to Chinese tradition signifies abundance. Hence it is customary to have as wide an array of food available on this night. In contemporary society, fad and convenience has taken over tradition. Rarely does one still find whole chickens, suckling pigs, sharks fin, abalones, sea cucumbers, and all kinds of mushrooms and fishes being served except on important occasions as appeasing deities on the altar tables.
On the first day of Chinese New Year as Confucianist practice dictates, the entire household of an extended family would tidy themselves up, all nicely coiffured before presenting themselves to the head of the household, (generally the matriarch) to receive special blessings and ang pows (red colored packets containing money symbolizing good luck, prosperity, great health and joy). As receiving ang pows is hierarchical, so it is with the givers, each taking turns distributing whilst juniors kow tow and wish ‘Keong Hee Huat Chye’ as a mark of respect to the givers. In our family we went a step further by serving tea to the elders. It is also customary that once a child got married, they are obligated to give ang pows to their parents. The unmarried are exempted from ang pow giving because to the Chinese, they are still rated a child. Thus, any family members can receive ang pows for as long as they remained single. In our Hokkien tradition, only the womenfolk gives away ang pows. Reason is that the menfolk are supposedly the breadwinners of the family whilst the womenfolk are in charge of household affairs.
This is my extended family.
1st pic- my grandma Gek Kee, receiving blessings from my great grandma, matriarch Saw Kit, at Boon Siew Mansion. Generally as a senior in the family herself, my grandma is no longer entitled to ang pows but I guess that also depends on the generosity of individuals and the wealth of each family.. Matriarch Saw Kit’s life sized bronze statue still graces the Home of the Infirmary, Penang.
2nd pic- Aunt Guat Eng, Aunt Gim Ean (deceased), Aunt Guat Hong, Aunt Loh Ean, Uncle Kah Poh (deceased), unidentified Aunt and my mom (deceased). Aunt Guat Hong and 2nd Tniau Seng Leong kow towed.
3rd pic- Tiny tots group pic with matriarch. Kah Heng (deceased), Kah Bee, and Kah Kheng (deceased).
An extended family has added advantages except for privacy and at least three generations of one household lives and stays together. That was the in -thing of that period for well to do family’s with big houses.
Images copyrighted. Circa 50s.
“The Peranakans weren’t Chinese immigrants who adopted the culture of the Malay archipelago. The word “adopted” as opposed to “adapt” is similar but not the same. It was more of an intercultural amalgamation at a time which saw different communities living together happily which resulted in the assimilation of local lingua into their colloquial and vice versa but of course there are amongst them, intermarriages, which saw Malay maidens being welcomed into the Chinese household. The Peranakans were and is truly Chinese whom at that time are pseudo-Buddhist hence their Confucian and Taoist values, rites, beliefs and practices. Cuisine is purely Chinese but a little experimentation with local spices and adaptation of cooking styles of other inhabitants led to newer recipes considered distinctive to the Peranakans. The comparison of taste from different curries will tell you. However, the many claims by die hard peranakans with regards to recipes such as Jew hu char, bali juak, kiam chye ark and curry kapitan has no basis simply because they were truly Hokkien and Hainanese dishes and not as claimed by these pseudo Peranakans. Most of these recipes were and is still found on the altar and offering tables of the Hokkien community during cultural and divine festivities which were by and large the single largest grouping ever to span the Straits Settlements thence comprising Penang, Malacca, Singapore, Cocos Keeling Islands and Dindings in Perak. Marital, birth and funerary rites were strictly pseudo-Buddhism celebrated in compliance to the Chinese calendar. The Peranakan’s ostentatious taste of finery, garnitures, crockery, embroidery, clothing and furniture are mostly commissioned from countries within and beyond the Malay archipelago, the most obvious being namwood furnitures from China and Czechoslovakian designed coffee shop chairs and enameled tiffin carriers. However it must be noted that highly skilled local craftsmen of Shanghainese origin were also producing pseudo-Victorian era furnitures and architectural motifs to cater to the taste of their English-speaking ponytailed clienteles. These often comprises sideboards, roofing gables and umbrella stands and they usually spot marble tops, claw feet and barley twist balustrades. The habit of chewing tobacco and betel nut is not Malay but archipelagic as observed from the designs of the sireh cutter which were folkloric to the Hindus. Peranakans has their own perkakas. The habit of wearing Baju panjangs and kebayas were a fashion statement of that time. However it should be noted that the keronsang that adorns the blouse differ in taste and make and so are the appliqués .
“Most Peranakans are Straits Chinese but not all Straits Chinese are Peranakans.
For one to be a Chinese Peranakan (also known as Baba Nyonya), one needs to be born of Chinese/Malay parentage as a result of intermarriages between Chinese towkays of that era with local ladies without so much of religious restrictions and as a result, these local ladies adapted themselves to the Chinese way of living learning the husbands customary culture from the matriarch (her mom or grandmom in law) whilst raising her own family thus cross pollinating her own cultures in whenever the need suits them whilst her husband works or took care of matters outside the home. As a result, a new lifestyle bloom alongside a strangely mixed lingo of Hokkien and Malay (Hokkien was a widely accepted dialect amongst the Chinese then)- a culture identified with its unique food recipes, and a preference for ostentatious taste in fashion and lifestyle; most certainly an adaptation borrowed from friends and neighbors of different cultures also rooted in the Straits (Burmese, Thai, Laotian, Indian, Ceylonese whatever) which found acceptability with these Straits Chinese and thus became fashionable. The Straits Settlements is a British colony comprising mainly of Penang, Malacca and Singapore and to a lesser extent the Cocos Keeling islands, Christmas Island, Dindings, Pulau Pangkor and some smaller islands in Perak and that of Labuan. That is the entire British trading influence and how the Chinese within the S.S frequently addressed themselves as. The Straits Chinese community. To be a true blue Straits Chinese, one needs to be a local Chinese born during the British administration of the Straits Settlements from 1826-1946.
This explains why some Chinese families who claims to be Straits Chinese often wonder why they do not have Malay dna in their ancestry lineage. And of how everyday recipes very commonly found in the Straits Chinese household have Malay sounding names especially the ones imbued with local spices though some of these recipes are in today’s context non halal.
One can identify a Chinese Peranakan with their spoken patois very unlike the Hokkien or Malay as how it is spoken today. And generally these Chinese Peranakans are darker skinned and possesses sharper features. I had the opportunity to interact and acquaint myself with genuine Peranakan friends whose ascendants were distinguished personalities from the government fraternity living in then Emerald Hill. They are Western educated which explains how many of them after years abroad have adopted the Western religion unlike the many local Straits Born Chinese whom were and still is mostly Buddhist or Taoist.
I remembered those days as a lad we were taught to address Chinese damsels and lads in strict colloquial standards. We call them ‘Ah Nya’ and ‘Ah Bah’. Though I do not have Malay lineage, I often wonder why my grandparents and great grandparents were all heavily bedecked in straits jewelry from kerongsangs to silver belts down to the kebayas, baju panjangs and those heavily embroidered slippers. But I understand them now. They were fashionable in those days.
Btw that’s how antique I myself is. And no, I’m no Baba even though that was the form of address given not only to me but to other lads as well.”
What’s nice about living in the 70’s can’t be replicated today. Like banging the tv to make good a bad reception and sneak hiding oneself when an unwelcome visitor knocks on your door. I particularly missed cars of yesteryears cos they come without air cond allowing the wind to shape my hairstyle and the rain making its way into the car interior from the slit left open on the side windows. Anyone ever experience making funny gargling sounds in front of table fans? The best part is those days we are all telepathic. We can predict who calls when the phone rings and request the one answering the call to tell the caller we are not around..
If we care to look around, there is too much excess of everything. Especially those ostentatious hip cafes crowding the streets with chalkboard menus, coffee makers, cemented flooring, fungied walls, latte art, good words being chosen as names for these so called hip restaurants and motels that don’t do justice to the name, ill mannered waiters that do not speak English, standing there looking suave but does not know what’s inside the menu nor the art of waiting. If I maybe allowed to, I wish for more localized food instead of spaghetti, salads, watery soups and hot buns. As if that is our culture. Lol my list is long…
I grew up with 3 Khaw Sia’s orchid paintings hanging in my home. I remembered
sticking my nose as close to the painting as any kid would just to explore the
magnification with my eyes leaving the tip of my nose imprinted on the glaze. I
was having fun. It wasn’t the colors he uses, or how he paints the leaves and
dewdrops that I was interested in. I was like any child would at that tender age,
merely exploring. But because I was living with it, it was like second nature to
my skin. Because of that, I remembered very well the paper he uses because it
has a peculiar texture on it. Nowadays one could hardly stumble upon this type
of paper he uses anymore but in my younger years, most kids have fun with it.
And it is quite blotty.
Anyone from the 70’s Penang would have known what the term ‘Hala Hala’ means.
‘Hala Hala’ is coined by the locals to describe those broomshaped-cut fashionable
pants known elsewhere as bell-bottoms. To imagine how it looks like, the most
vivid images that came to mind was hip swaying ‘Elvis Presley’ and ‘Englebert
Humperdinck’, each wearing a pair with ‘side-burns’ to match not forgetting ‘The
Osmond Brothers’ and ‘Abba’. The ‘Hala Hala’ era was also an era of jeans and to get
one a nice pair of ‘Hala Hala’ jeans, the most respected shop to be seen buying a
pair was ‘Pitchay Gunny’ situated along Penang Road. They were the exclusive
dealers of Saddle King, Lee and Levis Jeans. As fashion evolves, the preference
for looser jeans at the thighs came by as ‘Hala Hala’ gave way to ‘Baggy’.