Breaking a decades-long tradition and not going home to Kuala Lumpur this Chinese New Year

Security officers manning a roadblock in Kuala Lumpur, amid the country's movement control order, on Jan 13, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - When the Year Of The Metal Ox rolls around next month, I will not be celebrating it with family and loved ones in Kuala Lumpur.

It will be a first for me. Many first experiences are far from unpleasant but this one, breaking a tradition of nearly six decades, is giving me a dose of the blues.

Because of the pandemic, I knew heading up north this year would require a lot of planning and the blessings of my bosses. For the last couple of months, I had been bracing myself for extended periods of isolation (two weeks of stay-home notice in Malaysia upon arrival, two weeks of SHN in Singapore when I return), multiple swab tests and a hole in the pocket. An aunt helpfully told me the trip would easily cost me more than RM10,000 (S$3,280).

My plans, however, were scuppered earlier this month when the Malaysian government declared a state of emergency to tackle the rising number of Covid-19 cases.

"Don't come back; no point because the movement control order bans social gatherings and we can travel only within 10km from our homes," everyone in my family WhatsApp group said.

Things will not get better, friends and family tell me, not when the number of new cases keeps climbing. Last Saturday, there were 4,275 cases, the highest daily infection rate in the country so far.

One of my cousins said: "Let's all be safe. We'll have our reunion dinner by Zoom."

I know many people flee home and country during Chinese New Year to escape - among other reasons - prying relatives and the fuss over meals and hongbao. Not me.

I come from a close-knit extended family and Chinese New Year always evokes memories - both happy and sad - and makes me think of kinship, comfort and identity.

Growing up as one of four children in a poor family, New Year was wondrous: new clothes, red packets, firecrackers, F&N Sarsi and snacks galore. In my teens and 20s, the preoccupations were friends, house visits and gambling sessions.

With time, the complexion of the festivities changed, especially with the passing of beloved matriarchs like my grandmother and mother. Many practices vanished with them; we no longer make love letters and nian gao (sticky rice cake) like they used to.

But other traditions are fiercely protected - like the big family get-togethers featuring dishes like zai choi (a vegetarian medley of various ingredients including white lettuce, mushrooms, black moss and lily buds braised with fermented bean curd) and braised mushrooms from recipes passed down by Granny and Mum.

New traditions get introduced too. Now, no Chinese New Year is complete without the entire clan descending on the Kwong Yee Pagoda temple columbarium in Kuala Lumpur on the third or fourth to pay respects to the departed matriarchs.

An empty Petaling Street in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown is seen, on the second day of the movement control order, on Jan 14, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

I feel a pang of sadness each time I leave Kuala Lumpur after spending the Spring Festival there. I guess my decision to settle here after finishing my studies at the National University Of Singapore comes with a price.

While I appreciate the respite from petty family squabbles, I also feel guilty I'm not around to see young members of the clan grow up or the old ones grow frail.

There is another reason why I long to be home this year: to spend time with my younger, and only, sister whom I have not seen since last March.

Last year was a rough year for her. Barely two weeks after hosting a boisterous lohei dinner for the extended family, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I spent some time with her before the coronavirus forced borders on both sides of the Causeway to close but have not seen her in person since. I could only keep up to speed with how she was faring through texts, calls and video sessions.

The treatments were punishing but thankfully, she responded very well and is now in remission. I rang her a few nights ago and asked if she objected to being mentioned in this column.

"Of course not. I'm doing great," said my sister who now practises qigong every day and has completely overhauled her diet.

A few minutes later, her husband - who had overheard our conversation on the speaker phone - called me.

It's a bummer, he said, that we could not be together but he wanted me to inject hope in this column.

"Your sister went through a hard time, I went through a hard time, you went through a tough time, we all went through a hard time, but we're all still here," he said.

His wife's determination, strength and positivity has been an eye-opener for him, he told me.

"She never lost hope, she is now trying to help others. We just need to rally together and we will get through tough times, including Covid-19."

He's right. I may not be home but I won't be alone. My cousin and a few of my closest friends have already reached out to me to join them for their reunion dinner and other meals.

I have also decided I will beaver away in the kitchen, roast a nice slab of pork and whip up a few dishes for a few friends on the third day.

Yes, it will be a different Chinese New Year this year but it will still be about kinship, comfort and tradition.

Xin nian kuai le, wan shi ru yi (Happy New Year, good luck in everything).

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