Seriously Kidding

Seeing the light in clan gatherings

I am not particularly attached to my money. I am often happy to part with it, as long as it's for myself and my family (particularly when I'm buying pricey ukuleles for myself, with the comforting thought that they could be heirlooms for my two daughters).

Taking after me, worryingly, is the elder Faith, who has a habit of taking her pocket-money savings with her when we go out as a family.

"What can I buy with two dollars?" she would ask as she walks into a shop. "I like to spend money."

"No," I tell her, "we can afford to have only one person in the family who likes to spend money, and that's me."

But I hate to part with my money when I have to put it into tiny little red envelopes. Hongbao is one major reason why I have always dreaded Chinese New Year (the giving of it, of course, receiving hongbao is no problem with me at all).

Another major reason I look upon Chinese New Year every year with disdain: the major inconveniences caused when shops shut down and taxi drivers go missing from the roads to visit their families.

So while every Chinese Singaporean seems to like the festive season a lot, this Grinch who lives east of the island did not. It could be that my head isn't screwed on right and my heart is two sizes too small (to paraphrase Dr Seuss).

Whatever the reason, I would stare sourly at the onset of Chinese New Year.

If I can't stop it from coming, I could at least stop or deter people from coming to my home.

This year, suddenly, remarkably, I had a change of heart. While Chinese New Year still came with all the inconve- niences of hongbao-giving, closed shops and unavailable taxis, this year it meant something more to me.

This year it dawned on me afresh that Chinese New Year neither comes from a store (that would be bak kwa and pineapple tarts) nor from folklore. Neither does it mean giving hongbao until my pocket is sore.

This year, for the first time in a long while, I managed to organise most of my extended family to meet at the same place, at the same time.

Like an old man, I wanted to see my daughters Faith and Sarah gather with all their cousins and I with all my siblings and cousins. Like an old man, I felt much joy to see this happen.

While I had visited my extended family during past Chinese New Year seasons, I had caught up with them separately because of our conflicting visiting schedules. It was nice but not the same as a huge gathering.

When the clan gathers, there is an overwhelming sense of familial ties, warmth, exceeding goodwill.

Conversations overlap, spanning three generations, braiding into a tapestry of many colours, themes and memories.

If a cord of three strands is not easily broken, what more a cord of many more strands.

Chinese New Year reunions of the immediate family are less meaningful, unless overseas members are involved, because Singapore is so small - don't we meet all the time anyway?

On the other hand, we Singaporeans lead such busy lives that it is rare for the entire extended family to regularly assemble for bonhomie. So when we do, it surely must warm the cockles of one's heart.

Maybe, just maybe, all those cliches about blood being thicker than water are true.

Now that I'm middle-aged and have literally seen some children grow up to become young parents, I better empathise with the many old folks who seem to love to be in the midst of large family gatherings. Not that I completely understand why I should feel this way.

For the tradition-oriented, it is about the continuation of the bloodline, the carrying on of the family name. I'm not wired that way. I have always wanted daughters even if it means they could take their husbands' surnames when they get married.

What this past Chinese New Year gathering of my extended family did was to put a smile on my face to see Faith and Sarah playing with their cousins, the way I once did with mine. It is comforting, for whatever reason I just can't put my finger on.

Upon leaving, our several nuclear families make sincere promises to do this more often. But of course life - in all its myriad businesses and busyness - has a way of scuppering our best intentions.

And that, perhaps, is why Chinese New Year is still important. We have far fewer excuses to not meet up as one large family.

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