February 12, 2006

Chap Goh Mei

Posted in Reflections at 10:56 pm by egalitaria

Chinese New Year came and went. My tabs this year:

1) One Lion Dance

I love the loud booming of the drums. As a child I would run out in search of any lion dance I heard of from afar. Last night I saw my first lion dance of the season. I found it rather strange that the lion was dancing to and around a car, instead of any shop or building or home. Right in the middle of the KL roads, the car must’ve been owned by some bigshot owner of a hotel or club. The lion tried in vain to squeeze through the narrow spaces between the cars around it. The modern lion has to take on new challenges, including opening and closing car doors, pressing on the horn, and taking ang paus from the windscreen wiper. I found the whole affair rather amusing. The many foreigners also looked on in amazement.

2) Three Yee Sangs

I don’t come from a typically Chinese family, so much so that my ‘reunion’ dinner and any consequent dinners with my extended family did not include any yee sangs at all. In fact, the ones I had privy to were related to work and company affairs. It is only tonight at the Chap Goh Mei (15th and final day of the Chinese New Year) that my nuclear family decided that we ought to (reluctantly or un) sit together and have some semblance of a Chinese New Year dinner after all. But let’s look at the yee sang business.

The Chinese yee sang is a traditional food item to be eaten at the start of the New Year. It consists of a number of food ingredients placed together on a plate at the table centre. This includes pomelo strips, brown crisp crackers, oil, sweet-sour sauce, sesame seeds, raw salmon, vegetables, ginger, garlic and other little unidentifiable bits. Family members are to stand up with chopsticks in hand and mix all the ingredients together, saying Lo Hey, Lo Hey and more traditionally Chinese-oriented families continue to quote a string of Chinese sayings that nobody save themselves understands. The significance of the yee sang is that of long life, thus the higher up you lift the food with your chopsticks, the longer you live. This is the only time of the year where children are given free reign to play with their food.

But if we think about it further, this is a rather strange and acquired custom. Only introduced in Malaysia, no other country in the world practices this supposedly Chinese custom of yee sang (which directly translated, means fresh fish, I think). The mainland Chinese have not ever heard of this dish. Typical Chinese dishes during the Chinese New Year, or Spring Harvest Festival, as it is known there, are meat dumplings boiled and eaten with soya sauce, and Hot Pot (also known as Steam Boat in Malaysia and Singapore).

Reflecting on Chinese customs made me wonder about my own personal identity. How do I truly identify myself as?

In Malaysia, I would say I am Chinese first and only Malaysian second.

But when I travel overseas, the obvious answer to give when asked is I am Malaysian first and Chinese second.

What parts of me are really Chinese in nature? Is there a standardized value system that Chinese ought to, and really do, adopt in general? Are the Chinese in Vancouver, Australia, England, America and Malaysia vastly different from the other? Or is it such that after three generations or so, I have been so surely and steadily absorbed into the Malaysian society such that all value systems and lifestyles taken up by the Chinese are essentially Malaysian in nature?

There are obviously many factors to take into consideration, and neither can be fully explained as either a cause or an effect. The interplay of cultures.

The conclusion I make of myself is this:

1) I am Chinese insofar as my blood and filial ties go.

2) I am Malaysian insofar as my lifestyle preferences.

3) I am Christian insofar as my values, goals and overall outlook of life.

4) I am global insofar as my adoption of new habits, learning new things, absorbing of knowledge and the like.

So, is it sad that I am not part of a Chinese family that usually places much importance on traditional Chinese practices and traditions? Perhaps there is a slow ebbing away of the culture, but the reality is, it has never been ingrained into my system. Sure, I will willingly learn Chinese (which I am still passionate about), visit China (to try and understand my roots) and appreciate its culture (especially the arts, which has an incredible history). But I won’t feel guilty if I don’t know about typical Chinese delicacies like ning gao and tang yuen. I was not brought up that way.

Unfortunate but true, Chap Goh Mei means as much to me as does Thaipusam.



  1. Sivin said,

    wow … nice post on Chap goh mei and great reflections on how culture and Christianity (and a bit on nationality) works in your life.

  2. Trish said,

    Hi Ps Sivin, how’re you doing? I’d like to visit your church one of these days. I heard yr services are done in a nonconventional style.. 🙂

  3. claire said,

    hey trish! how are you??
    we are rojak la. but to me, madly preserving cultural traditions that are only imagined, esp for 2nd and 3rd gen. immigrants, is quite crazy. studying a lot of immigrant narratives this year so this is my pet topic! hehehe…

    Hey claire..how’re you doing. hope that warwick’s treating you well. enlighten us on some of your immigrant narrative philosophies. I’m good 🙂

    In a sense it is quite beautiful to remember certain aspects of a culture’s past, but to force it upon entire generations that perhaps might never appreciate it for any sort of intrinsic value is a redundant practice. As a friend of mine constantly says, substance over form. (Although I still believe in the form). 

  4. ed said,

    yee = fish
    sang = raw

    raw fish

  5. egalitaria said,

    hey ed thanks for the correction.

    doesn’t this show exactly how much of a banana i am?! sigh.

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