Brainstrummings from a Bug-Eyed Bookworm

Tiff is a PhD student in English literature at UC-Berkeley. She takes no prisoners, bars no holds, holds no bars.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Chinese New Year 2007: Indulging in Nostalgia

One thing that I really do miss about Singapore is the experience of celebrating Chinese New Year. I mean really celebrating it...not with a one-time dinner of Chinese food or a trip to Chinatown to watch some little parade. Like the whole traditional American Christmas experience, with the weeks leading up to Christmas--buying the tree, putting up decorations, making gingerbread houses, building snowmen, and shooting and killing reindeer--the Chinese New Year spirit is in the air for considerable amount of time. Weeks and weeks beforehand, the gaudy red and gold decorations start going up, cheesy Chinese New Year music begins to waft over the PA system of all the shopping centres, lion-dances are held in public areas (to scare away bad spirits), banks start offering their customers red and gold hongbao envelopes, and so on.

My fondest memories are of four things about Chinese New Year:

1. The Chinese New Year Bazaar
This is Lian:
She is another thing I really miss about Singapore. I guess, technically, one would call her my "nanny"...she's been with us since my brother was about a year old, and I wasn't even a separate sperm and ovum. My mother worked a lot, so she took care of us kids. She's super funny and super cool and more like a second mother to us. I will probably dedicate a whole separate post to her sometime in the future. In any case, Mom doesn't do the "jostling with crowds" thing, so Lian (always eager to explore and "get out and about") would take us to the night bazaar in Chinatown. Around this time of year, the streets and alleyways of Chinatown become PACKED with stalls selling all sorts of things--pirated vcds and cds; cheap and flea-marketish bags, shoes, and clothes; miracle herbal cures, the curative properties of which are blasted into your eardrums by salespersons with loudspeakers; cured sweet meat jerky (ba-gua) and sausage (lap-chiong); shaved ice, muah-chee, and styrofoam bowls of steamed corn and butter; tacky Chinese antique furniture and scrolls, etc.

When navigating the Night Bazaar, you don't actually do any "navigating". It often gets so packed that the crowd splits into 1. the stream moving in one direction, 2. the stream moving in the opposite direction, 3. people who are looking at wares in the stalls who have managed to get out of both moving streams. So, essentially, getting anywhere in the Night Bazaar involves pushing the person/people in front of you, so that the stream continues moving in the direction you want to go, and then ducking out of the stream when you find a stall that catches your interest. Lian is particularly good at finding stalls that give out free food and drink samples.

Also, there are often free Chinese Opera shows in the evenings at People's Park Complex. Nieither Lian, nor I, nor my other two siblings (Shaun and Amanda) actually enjoy listening to Chinese Opera, but it's fun to watch, especially for free, with a bunch of elderly people who are far more cultured and who obviously appreciate what, to my ears, sounds a lot like cats dying slow, painful deaths.

2. Making lemper.

My grandparents live right next door to my family, and hold an open house every year for family, friends, and acquaintances to attend, sit around, and eat. It's been a tradition, until recently, for my grandmother to make her special lemper--an Indonesian finger-food consisting of chicken wrapped in sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. Now, she's too old and poorly to make them anymore, but the "lemper-making" for the open house used to start two weeks in advance, and involved a continuous production-line of my grandmother, all the servants, Lian, me, and one of my aunts whom my grandmother kept kicking off the production-line because the ones she made always turned out "funny-looking". Picture piles of banana leaves everywhere, massive woks always filled with shredded chicken, massive tubs always filled with glutinous rice, and little staplers and staples strewn all over the kitchen (which Lian describes as "dark, hot...exactly like hell") and dining-room with which to staple the banana leaves shut. To be fair, being a kid, I would sort of duck in and out of the production-line, so people like my grandmother and Lian who were stuck in the dark, hot kitchen all the time would be a whole lot grumpier about the whole lemper-making process.

3. Receiving hongbao.

Naturally, whenever you have a holiday involving you (a small child to whom $10 is a massive sum of money) receiving red envelopes full of money from older, married people, it's going to be one of the happiest days of the year. The rule for Chinese New Year is that if you're married, you have to give red envelopes containing money (you choose the sum, but it's always better to be generous) to unmarried whippersnappers. If you're a young, unmarried whippersnapper, you don't hold out your hand, but you sort of hover around, acting extremely respectful and wishing them "Happy New Year" and "Gong xi fa cai" several times until they give you the red packet. And then you run away excitedly to the next room to see how much they've given you. Often, the amount the elders give you is directly proportionate to how prosperous the past year has been...the Asian Financial Crisis saw a dip in hongbao earnings. But despite the natural greediness of children, hongbao giving and receiving is supposed to be, and usually turns out to be, fun for all.

4. Gambling

Yes. Gambling. After the open house on Chinese New Year day, my grandfather's friends would come over and we would play either blackjack or baccarat. By "we" I mean everyone, including us kids who would play with our newly earned hongbao. (We usually ended up playing 'baccarat' because it requires no skill at all.) For the sake of the kids, the stakes would be whatever you felt like playing: anywhere from 2 dollars to 50 dollars. And if a kid was running low on money, usually the older people would either waive the debt or "help out" and contribute some money. The most memorable personality at these games would be Uncle Albert--a very jovial middle-aged Chinese man with a booming voice, and a large cigar, whose money usually ended up redistributed among all the children, and who kept jokingly blaming my grandmother for all his bad luck.

Friday, February 09, 2007

It's Aliiiiiivvvvveee!

One might have thought that a twenty-three year old would find the opportunity to design your own M&M character sophomoric and unentertaining. But one was wrong...