Celebrating Chinese New Year the Baba-Nyonya Way

loading The 15th day of Chinese New Year may be the most exciting day for young Baba-Nyonyas – it is not just the first full moon of the Lunar New Year, but the Chinese version of Valentine’s Day as well.

Chinese New Year is one of the most important festivals to the Baba-Nyonyas. Given their long history of assimilating into the local non-Chinese community, certain Chinese New Year traditions naturally differ.

The Similarities

Traditions and taboos

Red packets of money symbolising luck and prosperity must be given by married couples to children as well as unmarried teenagers and adults – especially during home visits and open houses.

They should also wear new clothes and avoid profanities or sweeping the floor for at least the first two days. Another familiar taboo practiced by some families includes abstaining from using shampoo during showers; but with Malaysia’s hot weather, it is unlikely for everyone to endure this practice.

Celebrated over 15 days, each day has a different significance – the first and second days, for instance, are most auspicious for organising open houses and visiting relatives and friends; while the fourth day is the day to welcome the Kitchen God and other gods through food offerings and religious items.

The ninth day is the birthday of the Jade Emperor – a loud occasion, as firecrackers are lit throughout the night. The celebrations come to an end on the first full moon of the Lunar New Year – a day also known as the Chinese Valentine’s Day, when unmarried Baba-Nyonyas could meet with the hope of finding their other halves.

Food

Food is a key offering in many rituals – especially during the eve of the Jade Emperor’s birthday.

The sharing of food is of utmost importance during the celebrations. Family members flock home for their annual reunion dinner on the eve of Chinese New Year. Some families today prefer to eat out rather than cook at home – always an arduous task should there be many dishes planned – but they still come together to eat as a family at the end of the day.

When visiting relatives and friends on the first or second days, Baba-Nyonyas will exchange an even number of mandarin oranges as buah tangan, or gift, to offer their blessings.

They may present snacks or desserts to their relatives and friends as well. Some examples are kuih bakul, known as tnee kuih in Hokkien, which is a typical Chinese-style rice cake made especially for the New Year; kuih wajik, a sweet sticky ricecake which is a Malay delicacy; and Nyonya agar-agar (jelly).

Food is also a key offering in many rituals – especially during the eve of the Jade Emperor’s birthday, when a variety of fruits and Nyonya food and kuih have to be prepared.

In traditional Baba-Nyonya families where the gender division of labour is clear, the responsibility to cook always falls into the hands of the women, who have to learn the recipes and pass them down to the following generation.

Too thor th’ng, or pig’s maw soup, is traditionally prepared by the southern Chinese. For the Baba-Nyonyas, one of the most important ingredients of too thor th’ng is white pepper, which is added to warm the body and at the same time improve one’s health.

The Baba-Nyonya community is testament of Penang’s past as a spice island, and spices and herbs feature prominently in their cuisine. For acar, a spicy pickled vegetable dish, chilies, shallots, ginger, garlic and lemongrass are often added. Stir-fried yam beans with cuttlefish, or jiu hu char, requires onions, garlic and pepper. For kerabu, a spicy Nyonya-style vegetable salad, sliced shallots, chilies, ginger and lime are a must.

Hybridity

The Baba-Nyonya’s hybrid Chinese and Malay culture is easily observed on the 15th day of the celebrations – during the first full moon of the Lunar New Year.

Baba-Nyonyas are taught to obey the traditional customs during the 15-day celebrations of Chinese New Year.

The morning is spent enjoying the delectable pengat, a bowl of colourful tubers, yam and ripe banana cooked in sweet coconut milk. It is traditionally eaten to celebrate the sweet and romantic Chinese Valentine’s Day, but is hardly served in any Penang restaurants nowadays.

In the past, young ladies would dress themselves in beautiful Nyonya kebayas and colourful sarongs to join the evening parties by the sea, and throw mandarin oranges into the water in hopes of getting good husbands. With changing times, this tradition has evolved into a fun and enjoyable community activity.

The dondang sayang, a traditional Malay singing performance, is also performed on the night of the 15th. It is based on pantun, or poems, and uses Malay and Western musical instruments. The performers’ ad-lib responses to each other are unrehearsed, so they have to be quick and witty.

Recently, Baba-Nyonyas have also adopted the yee sang, a local Chinese-style raw fish salad which consists of a variety of fruits, chips, peanuts, smoked salmon, shredded vegetables and sauces, as part of their menu – especially served on the seventh day of the Lunar New Year as an auspicious dish.

Although their culture endures, the number of Baba-Nyonyas is slowly diminishing in Penang – with modernity, their lifestyles have become distanced from their traditional beliefs and practices, and many of their offspring, now scattered around the globe, do not, for whatever reason, return to celebrate Chinese New Year with their parents.

But, being neither Chinese nor Malay, the Baba-Nyonya culture is inclusive – to say the least. For that reason, it may be hoped that the people of Penang, inspired by their forebears’ intricate dresses and sumptuous cuisine, on top of the myriad eclectic traditions, will see a revival of this unique hybrid culture.

Pengat Recipe

Ingredients:

50g sweet yellow potato

50g orange sweet potato

50g purple sweet potato

120g yam (peeled)

100g tnee kuih

50g tapioca jelly gems, cut into diamond shape

2 bananas

800ml water

200ml coconut milk

100g sugar

2 pandan leaves

Steps:

    1. Cut potatoes, yam, bananas and tnee kuih into bitesized cubes.
    2. In a pot, add 2 tbs sugar and boil the potatoes until soft and set aside.
    3. Using the same pot, boil the yam until soft and set aside.
    4. Knot the pandan leaves.
    5. In a pot, bring water to boil and add sugar and pandan leaves. Simmer for 10 minutes or until fragrant.
    6. Turn the heat low and add the potatoes, yam and coconut milk. Simmer for 5-10 minutes*.
    7. Add the bananas, tnee kuih and tapioca jelly. Simmer for another 5-10 minutes and turn off the gas.

* Do not allow the coconut milk to come to a boil as this will make the broth sticky.

Serves 3-4

The writer would like to convey her gratitude and heartfelt thanks to Nyonya Lily Wong Chiew Lee, Nyonya May Lim Siew Seng and Baba Michael Cheah Ui Ghim for help rendered towards the completion of this article.

Lim Sok Swan is currently focusing on heritage studies. She believes that more understanding among different groups and cultures can make Malaysia a better home for all.



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