Chinese New Year is the most important in the Chinese calendar; the Spring festival held at the time of the second new moon after the winter solstice
INTERESTINGLY Malaysia is not content with just one New Year festival. The conventional one starts on Dec 31 each year.
The second one -- the Chinese Lunar New Year comes a little later. This year it began on Jan 23.
Malaysia has more festivals and public holidays than anywhere I know, each with its own distinct, intrinsic character and rituals. But, and this is the important point -- shared by all.
We are a very diverse society, but with one significant difference. Elsewhere diversity is managed by assimilation, as in the United States. Here, we opt for the more challenging route of integration. Not just a glib expression. We preserve all the multifaceted cultures of this society in their rich variety and individuality but then unite them by us all partaking in them. Today, we call the concept 1Malaysia, but as a practice it has always been with us.
I'd like to focus now on the current festival. As a kind of case study. You see it has a special significance for me. All three of my adopted children were part Chinese -- Teochew in all three cases. Two are departed, so I'll celebrate on their behalf.
Chinese New Year is the most important event in the Chinese calendar -- often referred to as pinying -- the Spring festival held at the time of the second new moon after the winter solstice.
This year it is looked as the year of the hope -- for revival after the bad times. Revival for the Chinese inevitably means renewed prosperity. The wish today is for good fortune, happiness, wealth and longevity.
In the days before the festival, Chinese homes will have been given a thorough cleaning, sweeping away all the bad luck and making way for the newly arrived good fortune. The brooms and the dustpans will have to be put away on the first day. They don't want the good luck and prosperity swept away.
Our Chinese friends will be spruced up with new clothes, and hairdos -- all symbolising a fresh start.
It begins with the Kitchen God, or the God of the Heart, who will report to the Jade Emperor in Heaven of the household's transgressions and good deeds. Candy will be laid out to "bribe" him. Although the kitchen traditionally is the housewife's domain, it is the men who worship the Kitchen God.
Doors and windows will have a fresh coat of red paint. The occupants will also be wearing red. The colour has a deeper symbolic meaning. Often you may see a red diamond shaped sign outside the house hanging upside down to receive the blessings from on high. Red is an emblem of joy, the symbol of virtue, truth and sincerity. In Chinese opera, the players have painted red faces. The word itself in Chinese sounds like "hong" which means prosperity. Again!
Of course, much of what I relate goes back to the time-honoured new year traditions in China. Hereabouts, the biggest celebrations are to be found in Singapore and Penang, with vestiges still of some of those ancient traditions in China. A few observations:
As a prelude, all of us irrespective of race, share in the practice of yee sang -- tossing the delicious dish in the air with our chopsticks.
The most sacrosanct tradition of all is the family reunion dinner on New Year's Eve. This is the equivalent if you like of the Christmas dinner.
On the day, the women get up at first light to prepare the requisite porridge. The first bowl will be offered to the ancestors and household deities -- then all members of the family. Leftovers will be distributed to relatives and friends. It is a very special breakfast.
Later, they will gorge all day long on pigs, ducks, chicken and sweet delicacies. But must end the night with dumplings (once more symbolising wealth) eaten at midnight. There will be an explosive burst of firecrackers before going off to the temple to pray for that prosperous new year.
Next morning, children greet their parents wishing them a healthy, happy new year and longevity. They receive ang pow in red paper packets. Gifts to visiting relatives and friends include the ever popular mandarin oranges (never pears). Whether it be money or gifts - the number 8 is considered lucky.
Firecrackers in the past would go on a long time -- several days, prolonged by a contest between neighbouring shopkeepers in the belief that the one who sustained these the longest would be the most successful in the coming year. Also throughout the period, Chinese houses will greet you with the dragon dance and sometimes also a lion dance.
I myself make a point of doing the rounds in tribute to my three adopted children. In my office prominently displayed, is a Chinese statue of prosperity. I'm afraid he is yet to deliver.
Chinese New Year for me is also the chance of a reunion with friends -- Siok Choo, for instance, who also reminds me of her revered father -- Tun Tan Siew Sin -- the first Malaysian Chinese I met who introduced me to the Baba Nyonya clan in Malacca.
This is just a glimpse of Chinese New Year. However, it is not from an outsider but one of the thousands of non-Chinese, but real participants
I realise that in this modern era, much of what I've written belongs to history or even to legend. But how do I, a Christian, a Mat Salleh Malaysian of English origin come to know about it? Because in the best Malaysian tradition, it has always been shared by our compatriots.
Chinese New Year will always be one of our most important and distinctive festivals.
And so I end by wishing my many Chinese friends Gong Xi Fa Cai.