KONG HEE FAT CHOY (THE CHINESE NEW YEAR)

Lantern

“Ah Chai, lu punya hari gaya nanti, wa mau datang lu punya gumah. Nanti bagi angpow tau”, (Ah Chai, when your day of festival arrive, I would like to come to your house. You must give me angpow), ” I shouted at Ah Chai, the Chinese contractor doing some renovation at our kitchen.

(Muarian Malays of my time pronounced every word starting with the letter ‘r’ with a ‘g’ sound. So rumah is gumah, rumput is gumput, raya is gaya, etc.)

Squatting by the side of the drain doing some cementing, Ah Chai smiled widely and replied immediately, “Ok, tentu punya. Lu boleh panggil kawan kawan latang. Kita makan besar.” (Ok, sure. You can bring your friends and we can have a good meal).

I was ten years old and schooling in Standard Four of the Sekolah Ismail School Two. The majority of my classmates were Malays but we had about ten Chinese students and three Indians. We were exposed to our different ethnic background since we were in Standard One and we found nothing extraordinary about it. Even before going to school, I was already mixing with my non-Malay neighbours and together we  had great fun. We understood the Chinese New Year and the Deepavali festivals very much like our yearly Hari Raya festival.

Malaysians are blessed people, living in a mixture of various races each with its own blend of cultures and traditions. Even though the Malays, Chinese and Indians are the three major races in the country, there are other minorities living in various parts of the country. In Malacca we have the Portugese Settlement, whose ancestors came to Malacca in 1511. During the reign of Sultan Mahmood of Malacca, Admiral Cheng Ho and his entourage paid Malacca and visit and trade relations were established. Some of these Chinese did not return home and most of them had transformed themselves to the local environment and needs. The Babas is a fine example. Today these Babas speak among themselves in the Malay language and the only difference is they are not Muslims and they still follow their ancestors’ cultures and traditions. Many of them can’t speak a word of the Chinese language. The Indians were brought into the country by the British when the country was about to have its railway lines as well as the development of many rubber estates. In Sabah and Sarawak we have many other minorities all living together in perfect harmony.

It was the Chinese New Year in the year 1960 and I was ten years old. A few days before there were few advertisement in the Straits Times with the captions of “Kong Hee Fat Choy” and we knew that soon the Chinese would be celebrating their ‘Hari Raya’. This would be my first experience celebrating the Chinese New Year in my hometown. Before going to Ah Chai’s house, we would first be visiting a Chinese neighbour.

“Maniam, kau ikut aku pegi gumah Ah Chai” (Maniam, would you follow me to Ah Chai’s house), I asked my neighbour who lived three houses away along the same road where I lived. “Tak bolehlah Din, aku pun ada gaya Cina nak pegi” (I can’t Din, I have other gatherings to attend to), replied Maniam. On the morning of the Chinese New Year calender, Muar town was deserted and most shops were closed except for those shops selling satay. Some shops mainly owned by the Chinese would gladly accomadate their Malay sub-tenets to open their businesses as satay was the most sought for breakfast in Muar town. The Malays and Indians would fill the town.

In those days we knew only the three major festivals celebrated by the three major ethnic groups; the Hari Raya festival of the Malay Muslims, the Chinese New Year of the Chinese and Deepavali of the Indians. Much as I can remember, the Sikhs too joined the Deepavali celebration back then.

Along the same road where I lived was a Chinese house whose only dog liked to chase kids like me whenever we passed by. But this morning the dog would be chained as visitors would be coming for the New Year celebration. Among these visitors would be me and my three females cousins who lived just a few steps away. It was almost ten in the morning when we were ready to take a walk to our neighbour’s house.

Besides my house was a plot of land belonging to a Malay who lived in Johor Bahru. On this plot of land was two tall durian trees and three mango trees. Beside this land was the house of our Chinese neighbour. During the durian season, these two trees would bear plenty of fruits and the fallen ripe would belong to those who found them first. Every time when the durian season came, those living nearby would strategies how to reach the fallen fruits. It was like a competition among the neighbours. Every time a fallen fruit was heard, we would all run like an Olympic aspirant to the land and upon reaching we would be sniffing for the durian aroma like a dog sniffing for a hidden bone. As it was a no man’s land, everyone had the opportunity to enjoy the fruits. Our Chinese neighbour too was one of the competitors and during this period we became ‘enemies’.

But this morning we were going to be friends. A day earlier, Lim Geok Wang came to my house and invited me and my three sisters to pay them a visit for the New Year. She was a year older than me and was schooling at the Sultan Abu Bakar Girls School (SABGS). She had another sister I can’t remember her name. Much as I can remember, she was a school runner and would always win a prize.

When we arrived at the house, the dog was inside a cage and was starring at us. This time it was our turn to laugh and just walked by as it starred at us perhaps feeling very frustrated for not being able to chase us. Geok Wang was already waiting for us and we noticed there were a few visitors already inside the house and they were all Chinese. We were invited to a table where some cookies were already served. Those days, the Chinese were still serving their guests with cookies, oranges, kwachi (fried melon seeds) and a special type of cookies what we used to call “love letters”. The drinks were normally Sarsi and Ice Cream Soda. Her parents then joined us and later gave each one of us a red packet called Ang Pow. When we held the ang pow we knew the amount and smiled at each other. The three of us received fifty cents each and we immediately knew how to spend it. Fifty cents when I was a ten year old boy could give me enough for a shopping spree at the Mamak sundry shop.

When we arrived, we told almost everyone that we received fifty cents ang pow and the other smaller cousins who did not follow us regretted the whole day.

It was after lunch when we decided to visit Ah Chai. He lived along Jalan Khalidi in one area known then as Kampung Oren. His house was a little bit further from where we lived and we had to walk past few junctions. Ah Chai was in his best clothes and we were a bit amazed at seeing him with this attire as we always imagined him wearing a short, a dirty shirt and small worn out hat that looked like a white songkok. Ah Chai was excited when he saw us approaching and called out loud, “Waaa, mali mali mali” (Waa, come, come, come). We smiled at him and shook his hand. Then his wife came out and immediately invited us in. She had cooked a special fried noodles for us which was already on the table at their small living room. As we entered, we saw our neighbour Maniam and a few other kids. No wonder Maniam could not come along with us because he called Ah Chai by a different name; Ah Wong whose real name was Wong Soon Chai. It was a great feast and we enjoyed our fried noodles. Before we left, Ah Chai gave us each an ang pow in it was another fifty cents. So for that day we had one dollar in our pockets. This was my first experience celebrating the Chinese New Year in Muar town.

On the fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year, there was another special day the Chinese called Chap Goh Mei. In the evening many young Chinese both males and females would flock to Tanjung. According to my Chinese friends, the young ones would be looking for suitable life partners and so we could see some Chinese lads talking to some Chinese girls trying to get to know better of each other. We could observe some of them cycling side by side enjoying the evening by the sea.

In the capital of the State of Johor, there would be another interesting event observed by the Chinese what is known as the Chingay procession. This is a very intriguing event. Let me tell you a little bit what I know of this event.

In the capital state of Johor Bahru some one hundred years ago, the Chinese were not very united. They were very clannish comprising of five different dialects. Each dialect had their own association. The largest was the Teochew followed by the Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese and the Hailam. Each association had their own deities in five different locations all over Johor Bahru town. However, they always disputed among themselves, fighting over territories, businesses and other personal matters like a Hokkien boy going out with a Cantonese girl. Their disputes became so serious that the Sultan heard about it. So he summoned the heads of the five associations to the palace.

Towkey semua apa pasal gaduh, tak mau gaduh gaduh lah”. (Why must you all fight one another, please stop this), the Sultan would tell the five bosses. They then related to the Sultan about their associations while the Sultan listened intently. Then the Sultan came out with an idea. He suggested that one big association to be formed comprising all the five associations. This big association will oversee the activities of the five associations and to draw a proper guidelines. So it was, the Johor Chinese Association was formed comprising all the five major dialects.

Chinese of those days were known to their trades according to their dialects. The Hailam was known to be coffee shop owners and they speak differently like nang boti nang, kuei boti kuei ( you are neither a human nor a ghost). The Cantonese were mainly welders, contractors and worked in many engineering fields and they too speak a different dialect like mow tak teng (that is great). The Hakka mostly sell medicines and herbs. Once they were regarded by the Chinese community as the ‘Jews of the Chinese’ because they were stateless. Then we have the Hokkien who were mainly traders and businessmen. Hokkien too speak a different dialect like wa kalikong lu, wa pak lu see (I tell you if I hit you, you will die). Finally we have the Teochew who were mostly wholesalers for food-stuff and the wet market. Teochew and Hokkien speak quite alike except for some pronunciations. The Teochew is the largest Chinese community in Johor Bahru. Now they speak their Teochew language with some Malay words added. For example; wa balu chiak which is “I have just eaten”. The word balu is Baru in the Malay language. If you hear two people speaking in the Teochew language, you will surely hear the Malay word tapi frequently used.

Now coming back to the Chingay procession. By now the five major dialects were united and the five deities were now placed in one big temple situated along Jalan Terus. The Chinese believe that the Johor Bahru town must be blessed every year and the big association decided that the procession to bless this town would fall on the 21st day of the Chinese New Year. On the 19th day before the procession, a holy man would ride on a beca (trishaw) and would pass along the route where the procession would be held. As he passed the route, he would spray holy waters onto the road until the end of the route. Of course by now the association would have got all the relevant approvals by the respective government bodies.

On the 20th day, these deities would leave the temple during the day and they would proceed to a special place near Ngee Heng. The route to this place would not be too long. At this special place, few operas would be shown for visitors. These operas would tell some stories of ancient China of some two thousand years ago. Many people would flock to this place to offer their prayers. Now many Singaporeans have joined in the prayers.

On the evening of the 21st day, these five deities would return to the temple and this big procession is what this Chingay is all about. They will begin with the smaller association which is the Hailam Association followed by the next biggest four. The procession will include many Lion Dancers and other interesting features like displaying all kinds of lanterns. The most intriguing features of this procession are the wooden compartment where these deities were placed. The compartment would be placed attached to two long poles to be carried by devotees. At times you would notice these compartments would move vigorously, swaying from one end of the road to the other. This is because the deities are War Generals and they are always very fierce. The last compartment would be quite stable because this deity is the Prime Minister or Head of the State.

The procession would normally begins around seven in the evening and would last around eleven or even midnight. Once the procession ended, the town of Johor Bahru is being blessed for peace and prosperity. So the next time you visit Johor Bahru on the 21st day of the Chinese New Year, try not to miss this intriguing procession.

There are many more traditions to the Chinese New Year. How many of you realized that the Hokkiens celebrate their New Year on the seventh day and of course there is a tradition behind it. If you pass by a Chinese house on the 7th day of the Chinese New Year and notice some sugar canes are being placed at the front, the occupants are Hokkiens; thats for sure.

The pronunciation too has changed. From Kong Hee Fatt Choi to Kongsi Fat Choi to Gongsi Fat Chai and now Gongxi Fa Chai.

What a blessed country ours is. So very rich with our own traditional and cultural activities. Let not this traditions be lost into oblivion. The present generations must take more heed of what the past had planned for them.

To all my Chinese friends, Gongxi Fa Chai.

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