by Jim
on Feb 18th, 2007

Happy Chinese New Year!

Angela and I made it to Penang fine and are now enjoying the first evening of Chinese New Year. We set off from Christchurch last Thursday, spent one night in Singapore at her sister’s house, and arrived in Penang on Friday morning. Ellen and Lena arrived later Friday evening. Saturday, Chinese New Years eve, began with the practice of praying to family ancestors, and this was accompanied by an offering of food–an entire meal placed in the front doorway of the house. Along with setting out food, a phenomenal number of joss sticks were lit which basically smoked us all out of the entry way. Once the prayers at home were complete, we all went to the columbarium to pay respects to Angela’s father who passed away in 2004. Again a large offering of food–this time to him–accompanied the prayer. I’m learning very quickly that food plays a large part in Chinese New Year customs.

Both Angela and I were jet lagged and turned in early last night, but sleep was soon interrupted by the crackle and pops of fireworks going off at midnight. We had purchased some of our own, but they were going to have to wait until the next night.

This morning, the first day of Chinese New Year (CNY), we all reluctantly changed out of our comfy shorts and T-shirts and into proper holiday clothing. (This is Malaysia… hot and humid every day!) Having donned our Sunday best, we drove to Angela’s aunt’s house for our first visit. We weren’t the only ones either, as a steady stream of relatives trickled in to snack and mingle. This was my first encounter with ang pow in action. Ang pow (red packets) are just little envelopes with some money inside, and they seem to be the main currency of CNY gift giving. Everyone is giving everyone else ang pow instead of wrapped gifts, and the amounts depend on the family relation, age relation, marital status, etc. I merely took my marching orders and gave out ang pow to the lucky chosen ones, for the rules were far too complex for me :(. At one time I was somewhat critical of the ang pow idea, because it seemed somewhat pointless everyone giving everyone money. But now I’ve come around, and the simple process of giving an ang pow packet seems like a good alternative to the usual Christmas gift buying/giving chaos. Would you prefer your Christmas shopping reduced to just getting a package of envelopes and a stack of new dollars bills from the bank? Me too.

We then moved on to another house for visiting and lunch. Lunch was a CNY traditional meal called “steamboat”, which is also called simply “hot-pot”. This is a steaming broth with fish, pork, and a variety of vegetables served in a large heated pot, similar to fondue. As bits were plucked by the guests, the host added more goodies, including other fish and even whole crabs. Because the overall level of the hot-pot never seemed to go down, we all ended eating way too much, until there was finally a general cry for, “no more!” We moved to the front room and sat around mingling for a little while more before moving on. Angela, her mom and the aunt who served us lunch went to visit another relative, while the rest of us headed home to relax around a movie. By this time the Malaysian sun was blazing, so sitting around doing nothing, once again in shorts and T-shirts, was appealing to all of us.

Later in the afternoon, the visitation was flipped around and there were two groups that came to the Tan house. The routine was similar with the host offering drinks and snacks, everyone giving ang pow as needed, and then just sitting around chatting. The last group wanted to gamble, so we broke out the cards and played and slightly skewed variation of blackjack. Some odd rules were issued, like no double-down or splitting (usually a player’s advantage), and everyone having to hit until at least 16, so my blackjack practice and standard play strategy was of no use. The dealer, who both proposed playing the game and set the rules, walked a way with a decent portion of everyone’s money… but it was all good fun and my RM 20 stake in the game equated to only about $6 USD.

The $4 spent on gambling (I didn’t lose it all!) was well worth it, because money and games work across languages once the rules are explained. Sitting around while the family talked was a bit more difficult for me, and it was during the family chatting that I was most prone to zone out simply because of language. Most of the Chinese population in Penang speaks a dialect called Hokkien which is different than Mandarin or Cantonese, and not nearly as widely spoken. My fluency in the language is about six words, and though most of the Chinese also speak some English, their family reunions are obviously conducted in rapid fire Hokkien. This was uncomfortable for me the first time I was in Malaysia, but I’ve since gotten used to it and have learned to smile and act somewhat engaged while not understanding a single word.

After sunset we lit off our illegal fireworks. The correct time would have probably been at the stroke of midnight a day earlier, but fireworks are set off randomly throughout CNY so we weren’t out of place at all. After a half hour of burning the street and sidewalk, and surviving a few near misses, we headed in–injury free–and chose to wrap up CNY in a most orthodox way: head to Starbucks to play more cards and use their free WiFi! Hey, without this modern twist you wouldn’t be reading this.

So far so good with my CNY experience. I’m learning a lot, having fun, and haven’t thought about work for more than about ten seconds, which definitely is cause to celebrate.

4 Responses to “Happy Chinese New Year!”

  1. jeff the boldon 20 Feb 2007 at 9:21 am

    Since you’re altering the customs of CNY and ang pow into a 21st century version, why not go a step further and replace the cash gifts with direct deposit? I suppose that might make the red packets a bit superfluous, but hey, you could then change the name of the tradition as well. What would be the correct translation for “PayPal”?

    You could do this selectively, of course, so you don’t have to actually see the relatives you don’t like.

    I should sign off now, before Angela decides to hit me over the head with a blunt heavy object.

    (CNY is celebrated in my house as well, obviously. Barbara and I lit off our fireworks and burned our (fake) money last night.)

  2. Erinon 21 Feb 2007 at 7:09 pm

    How about the ever popular gift cards? Apparently in the US giving actual money is “tacky”… like a gift card is any more personal! Don’t get me wrong, I love gift cards… It’s just not particularly personal. 🙂

  3. Jimon 21 Feb 2007 at 9:21 pm

    Since it seems to be based on age, relation and marital status, why not just have the IRS roll it all up and either send you a check or bill once a year? Oh, I forgot, the powerful Red Packet Lobby would never let through.

  4. Angelaon 21 Feb 2007 at 9:38 pm

    Jeff, I found the heavy blunt object to use. Do remind me when I see you again ;-). As for involving IRS, not too sure if the ancient ancestors in the Heavens are well acquainted to Internal Revenue Services. Probably will not get a nod for eliminating the red packet practice.

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