Happy to stay home for Chinese New Year

This week has a special significance for me. The re-emergence of the Year of the Goat signifies the completion of the full circle of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac since my younger daughter was born in 2003.

Differences in the Chinese Lunar and Solar calendars mean that while Chinese New Year falls on Feb 19 this year, the Year of the Goat kicks in on Wednesday.

So it's rather serendipitous that the return of the Year of the Goat is also the first time Yanbei will be celebrating Chinese New Year at home in Singapore. For older sister, Yanrong, this will be only her second time.

Since 2003, the two girls and my wife have always accompanied me on the long drive north to my hometown in Ipoh to celebrate the Spring Festival with my parents and siblings. Yanrong was less than two and Yanbei barely two months when they made their first trip in 2003 and 2004 respectively. In this respect, both my daughters are seasoned travellers who can endure long rides without getting carsick.

This year, however, we are opting to stay put here as I want to spare Yanrong the discomfort of a long journey following a major back surgery last November. While I'm disappointed at missing the annual extended family reunion, I'm also more than a little relieved that I will not be jostling with the multitudes of people on the road during the festive season.

For this reason, Chinese New Year is often a stressful time for me. To miss as little school time as possible, it is necessary to travel during peak traffic periods.

Last year, we began our journey at 3am on the eve of the holiday because the previous year we were stuck in the car for two hours before the Woodlands Immigration Checkpoint. Traffic had built up from as early as 6am.

The unearthly hour headstart worked a treat as we cleared immigration in no time at all and reached Ipoh in about six hours. At its peak, the journey would have taken twice as long.

But coming back was a nightmare as we were caught in traffic at the Johor Baru checkpoint for nearly three hours.

My daughters are also pleased by the change in routine as they can be present at their respective school's Chinese New Year celebrations, which they have had to miss in previous years.

To be sure, I shall miss my mum's celebrated pen cai, a traditional reunion dish of braised scallops, sea cucumber, abalone, mushrooms, oysters and black moss. But that is no excuse for depriving myself of my favourite Chinese New Year delicacies. My wife, who is as stressed as I am over Chinese New Year travels, is glad we are staying home this year.

She tells me she is more than happy to whip up her own version of pen cai for me.

Our preparation for the upcoming home stay is well under way. Last week, we joined the throngs of shoppers in Queen Street to shop for dry provisions she will need to cook our reunion dinner. We'll be visiting Jurong Port Fishery this weekend to get fresh seafood.

Unlike my mum, we do not intend to cook everything at home. The chicken and roast pork will come from our neighbourhood hawker with whom we have placed our orders.

With fewer dishes to prepare, we shall have more time after dinner to soak in the Chinese New Year atmosphere in Chinatown. I have read stories of retailers clearing their stock of Chinese New Year goodies at a steep discount at the eleventh hour, but never experienced it myself. Maybe beginner's luck will be with me and I'll get to snare a bargain or two.

Yanrong and Yanbei are rather excited about the idea of midnight shopping - all they ever did in previous years was to watch old re-runs of Chinese blockbuster movies on television and then try to sleep through the noise from sporadic firecracker explosions that reverberated around the neighbourhood where my parents live.

It may sound exciting as firecrackers are banned in Singapore, but I have found the inconsiderate and indiscriminate lighting of firecrackers deep into the night more nuisance than custom.

This year, my daughters can look forward to visiting their maternal grandparents on the first day of Chinese New Year. As they grow older and more independent, they are likely to welcome the chance to meet friends over the holiday period.

While this year is a departure from the norm, I reckon we are setting the precedent for a new tradition in how we celebrate Chinese New Year in the future.

dennis@sph.com.sg