How a 4-generation family keeps Chinese New Year traditions alive

Matriarch of the Low family Tan Kim Yoke (centre) with some of her family members - including Ms Dora Low (back row, in dark green top), Ms Serena Low (third row, wearing Jurassic World T-shirt) and Umeko Yip (front row, in Jurassic World T-shirt) -
Matriarch of the Low family Tan Kim Yoke (centre) with some of her family members - including Ms Dora Low (back row, in dark green top), Ms Serena Low (third row, wearing Jurassic World T-shirt) and Umeko Yip (front row, in Jurassic World T-shirt) - at her home in Jalan Bahagia. The Lows make it a point to gather for the Chinese New Year and those based overseas fly back every year for the reunion dinner.PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

For the four-generation Low family, Chinese New Year is a time for 'long life' noodles, new clothes and family bonding. Janice Tai looks at what the festival means to the family.

Madam Tan Kim Yoke, 88, is looking forward to tucking into a steaming bowl of "long life" noodles this Chinese New Year.

For 60 years at least, her family has been observing its very own tradition of eating salted wheat flour noodles, or mee sua, on the first day of festivities every year.

The first day of Chinese New Year this year is Feb 16.

"It is important to me that this practice is passed down through generations," said Madam Tan in Mandarin. " I am sure they will do it even when I am gone," added the great-grandmother of eight.

Madam Tan used to cook the dish, but her second daughter Dora Low, 67, took over about 30 years ago. "We have the noodles with hard-boiled eggs and my mum used to tell me the peeling of the shell symbolises throwing away all that is bad and leaving behind the good," said the retiree, who used to work in logistics.

Ms Low's version differs from her mother's in one key way - chicken is used in place of pig's stomach as it is hard to clean the innards.

PASSING IT ON

It's not easy because things are very different now compared to the past, but we want the children to understand and appreciate the meaning behind certain things.

MS ADELINE LOW, on the family keeping various Chinese New Year practices through the generations.

But her niece, administrative executive Adeline Low, 36, misses the old flavour. "I call it 'Grandma taste'. Somehow, it brings comfort and memories back for me but only Grandma knows how to clean it in such a way so that the pig's stomach doesn't smell," she said.

Madam Tan, a widow, has seven children, 12 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. The youngest is three years old. The family has kept various Chinese New Year practices through the generations, sometimes by reinventing them.

"It's not easy because things are very different now compared to the past, but we want the children to understand and appreciate the meaning behind certain things," said Ms Adeline Low, who has two daughters, aged three and five.

One tradition that the Lows have continued, with slight modifications, is wearing new clothes for the new year.

Madam Tan used to make clothes for her husband and children using her trusty Singer sewing machine, daughter Dora recalled. "She will use the same cloth but come up with different designs for each of us. The dresses she made seemed like for parties, very poofy," she added.

The Lows have continued to make it a point to don new clothes, just that these are now largely store-bought and not homemade.

Ms Adeline Low said she looked forward to Chinese New Year when she was younger as she got to wear new clothes instead of hand-me-downs. Her children no longer get the same thrill from new clothes.

"My mother-in-law buys them new attire almost every day, so they are not as excited," said Ms Adeline Low, who nonetheless makes sure the whole family will be decked out in chilli red this new year.

"It's a form of respect for the elders who believe that bright colours are auspicious," she said.

Her attitude now is a far cry from her teenage years, when she would wear black to look slimmer. Her sister, Serena, who is now 40, was also scolded for wearing black lipstick in the past. Both rebels have since become guardians of certain customs.

 
 
 

Ms Adeline Low, for instance, tells her children to stay up as late as possible on Chinese New Year's Eve, as this is said to translate into a longer life for one's parents.

For some young families, it has become almost fashionable to "bi nian" - avoid Chinese New Year visiting - and go abroad for holidays instead. Some people find it a chore to answer relatives' questions about their academic results or single status.

The Lows, however, make it a point to gather for the festival.

Family members take turns to visit Madam Tan, who lives with her domestic helper in a three-room flat in Whampoa, every single day of the 15-day stretch of Chinese New Year celebrations.

Those based overseas fly back every year for the reunion dinner.

The younger ones have also started their own "traditions", said Ms Serena Low's daughter, Umeko Yip, 13, with a shy smile.

Each time the children step into their aunt or uncle's house, they zoom in for a piece of paper strategically pasted on the wall. It contains a magic code that never fails to light up their eyes: the Wi-Fi password.

"I am very excited to play with my cousins but sometimes, we also use our mobile phones," said Umeko, who is in Secondary 1.

The young ones have also upped the ante in the annual blackjack card games. They bet about $1 each round, while their parents used to put up stakes of just 10 cents.

The practice of addressing relatives by their status or position relative to one another - such as San Ku for third aunt - has also evolved. As the family grows bigger, the grandchildren now keep things simple by calling their elders "Uncle" and "Auntie", and the great-grandchildren go with "Gong Gong" (grandfather) and "Po Po" (grandmother).

"It helps because I sometimes also forget their names," said Umeko.

But the grand old dame clearly continues to hold court.

During a recent visit, Umeko and her younger cousins greeted her with hearty shouts of "Chor Chor!" (great-grandmother) as they pressed their faces against hers.

Said Ms Adeline Low: "Chinese New Year perhaps means different things to them but I am glad they are excited about the right things - meeting family."

SEE LIFE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 11, 2018, with the headline 'Keeping traditions through generations'. Print Edition | Subscribe