“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.
To understand the mindset of the Chinese women in particular, one must readily immerse themselves into the many customs, rites and rituals grilled into their thoughts since time immemorial. Collectively, the many do’s and don’ts made up what is known as traditions. And these traditions manifests as good moral behaviours exemplarily found only in the Courts of the Mandarins, Mandarins being people of higher social standing in the world of the Chinese. The whole world describes Chinese as purposeful and enterprising but unknown to many, to be born a women in a Chinese household was to be submissive, not even looked forward to. Heirs must be from the stronger sex and so is the throne.
In olden days China, Emperors are believed to have the mandate from Heaven to govern and rule. And ruled they did, as some of them make rules based on the teachings of anointed people of their times such as Confucius, Lao Tze and the Lord Buddha. Buddhism eventually became a revered religion of the Emperors that spreads its roots from India to the Far East before it was brought to the archipelago of what is today known as Southeast Asia. In Southeast Asia, Buddhism is a tripartite cocktail mix with Confucianism and Taoism. And with religion came steep must-dos and morbid forbids submissive believers adhere to. Some good, others extreme, whilst others are purely bizarre. And with each dynasty, rules bend according to the wishes of such anointed rulers. Some ruled by brawn, others with their brain. Many loyal subjects followed their ruler’s belief, and the rites and practices that goes with it.
There is this age old tradition that womenfolk born into Straits Chinese households of yesteryears are never allowed to straddle beyond the confines of the family home, until the day she marries. They don’t get to go to school because that’s the privilege of the menfolk. So her early childhood education is stifled and fate depended on the matriarch, the maître d’ of the household (who is usually the most senior womenfolk) who taught her rudimentary skills like mannerism and conduct according to the revered teachings of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, rituals, customs and traditions, grooming, seaming, cooking, and cleaning the once fashionable extended family home where three generations of the same family purportedly lived together in a perpetual cyclic motion till fate and time decides the future outcome. All in the course of preparing her to be a commendable maiden for a fleeting finale, to be given away in holy matrimony to a suitor she never had seen nor knew of.
And thank god for the trendy middle courtyard that lungs the passageways, she could play and mingle with her siblings and cousins day and night amid some greenery besides catching the occasional glimpse of the moon, the cold breeze, and the pelting of rain. Not forgetting the daily updates from gossips happening in and out of the kitchen to revitalise and work her sanity.
Womenfolk in the Straits Chinese household never get to choose their own husbands. And so is her wedding date and other preferences. They are the domesticated party to the nuptial agreement by virtue of tradition while the menfolk were encouraged to work hard for a living and raise his own family. Everything is adhered to, in strict century old traditions and rituals of which by now she is routinely acquainted with and her suitor, like an unwrapped gift, comes with surprises and add-ons depending on her luck pre-assessed by her own three generations of extended family headed by the matriarch, after bouts and bouts of cordial discussions between both families with a marriage broker (Mui Lang Po) as their intermediary.
To look for a Chinese wife, the menfolk would cluster themselves along the roadsides and riverbank ready to catch a glimpse of the most likely love interest who would during Chap Goh Meh (or the Fifteenth Moon of the Chinese Calendar), arrive in a motorcade to participate in the quaintest ritual of all- an annual courtship gala of throwing Mandarin oranges (Tim Kum) into the river or sea which is believed to attract blessings of a good marriage for the maidens and likewise for the menfolk who threw apples (Kor) for the same reason- to find a good wife. Once a year, these womenfolks would be heavily coiffured and decked in the finest of jewellery where they were given permission to leave their homes in lure of the pearl of great price. And these Chinese Cinderella’s do not dare leave their slippers behind. Chastity is of great importance and honour to the Chinese household (hence the roasted piglet adorned with a paper-cut tail on the offering table!) what more they must be proven on the wedding night or the menfolk can revoke their consummation if found to be in the contrary. Thus, there is no better way than to keep them in the safe confines of three generations of walking cctv’s than to expect unruly things from happening to a maiden before she got married.
Upon spotting his chosen candidate, the man would then return home and express his love interest to his own family who would then hire a marriage broker (Mui Lang Po) to investigate the maiden’s family background and demands before pairing them up. If fate were to be cordial to them.
Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism rituals reigns thick in these households beginning from the early migration of the Chinese to the southern hemisphere until the late sixties. Therefore the practice of honouring and respecting the elders not forgetting appeasing the spirits of bygone ancestors is encouraged to ensure abundance of blessings to come. These believes and practices were then handed down the generations and faithfully re-enacted year after year.
Where taboo is concern, misfortunes and the mere mentioning of the word ‘death’ was frowned upon by the Chinese. That said, the rites and rituals of appeasing spirits is common place. Thus the Chinese All Souls Day (Cheng Beng) is marked by tomb cleansing, paying homage and a family get together.
These practices continued till the modern day for some families but as the months and years passes by, succumbed by the British Colonialists who took a stranglehold of our motherland, many traditions and customs were gradually weeded out. Not by the British but by the inquisitive repatriators. Progress took on new forms. Dwellers became more liberal. And in came concerns and fairer treatment for the fairer sex.
Nowadays, Chinese womenfolks can finish school, choose their own husbands, travel and as the larger extended family homes became more and more expensive to maintain, each family went their own way leaving behind derelict mansions being consumed by weeds and undergrowths. Whilst some prefer to stay out of town, there are those who strive for a living in the bustling city. There is no longer the once landscaped courtyard that embellishes a family home and a compound of today is no bigger than five strides both-ways. Many of these womenfolk now has the privilege to travel West and as a result, many exchange their wooden clogs and embroidered sandals for stilettos. Many of these privileged womenfolk intermarried with foreigners and never came back.
However, for those who do, many converted and eventually gave up Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism practices. But at the back of the minds of these neophytes stood subconscious moral teachings and observations ingrained into them since time immemorial. When they returned, they too hardly break these laws in front of their elders for fear of being beaten, chastised, or estranged. In consolation, they would assure themselves that these are the customs of the Chinese which has nothing to do with their own belief at all. These includes the annual celebrations of Chinese New Year and All Souls Day. And chastity was surprisingly still a big hit till the early seventies.
“Chiak Thor tau,
Chiak Lau Lau.”
Is a Hokkien Rhyme frequently uttered during Chinese New Year. Translated to mean “Eating groundnuts, ensures longevity.”, it became customary to serve groundnuts during Chinese New Year because of this belief in the rhyme but Groundnuts, as according to old wives tales, is the primary culprit towards the dwindling of our Chinese population because it suppresses the male libido. Perhaps. Since peanut butter is very much paired to Elvis, and his underperformance as stated in Pricilla’s memoir. Anyway it’s just a tale. Nothing serious.
“Mai Khiam Kuay Ni” is a Hokkien saying uttered before Chinese New Year. Translated, it means “don’t defer your debts till the next year”. Though this has no real life connotation as most big companies does owe, it grew into a widespread belief somehow rooted into the community. But no doubt it has its goodness. It’s good practice not to be a lousy paymaster because everyone during the festive season needs cash to prepare for the yearly ritual and celebration hence the practice of giving bonuses a week before Chinese New Year. Just like problems that doesn’t get solved, it will slowly pile up into one big unsolvable package. Below is the image of God of Wealth a deity if placed in your home will ensure prosperity in your household.
“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..