Celebrating Chinese New Year amid Covid-19 pandemic, community ushers in the new norms of business and traditions

Kenneth Tee And Soo Wern Jun
·6-min read
Customers walking out of religious goods store CYS Heong Trading Sdn Bhd in Taman Yulek, Cheras on Chinese New Year Eve, February 11, 2021. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Customers walking out of religious goods store CYS Heong Trading Sdn Bhd in Taman Yulek, Cheras on Chinese New Year Eve, February 11, 2021. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 12 — Amid the raging Covid-19 pandemic and government-enforced regulations to curb the spread of infections, the once lively Chinese New Year (CNY) celebrations which usually feature large gatherings amongst family and friends will have to be ushered keeping in mind the new norm.

For many who are stranded and unable to return to their hometowns due to a government-imposed interstate travel ban, the obligation to honour and practise one’s unique customs has not dampened at all as observed by Malay Mail.

For religious goods store CYS Heong Trading Sdn Bhd, its proprietor who only wanted to be known as Lim said she observed an increase in the number of young adults who are unable to return to their hometowns since the government had announced interstate travel restrictions throughout the CNY holidays.

“Unlike their older parents who may prefer lavish celebrations, these young adults have been buying items for simple religious rites such as joss sticks, altar lamps and joss papers for their personal use,” she said when asked whether there were differences on how the business has been this year under the MCO during this period.

Overall, Lim said her business at Taman Yulek, Cheras has definitely been affected by the movement control order (MCO) and inconsistency in the government’s announcement over the standard operating procedures announced earlier this month, partly fuelled by the public’s fear and hesitation over whether they were allowed to perform religious rites during CNY amid the pandemic.

With a more toned-down celebration expected, she also joked that people were making promises to the deities to “repay the differences” next year as they were offering lesser in prayers this year.

Even the once auspicious Caishen or God of Prosperity synonymous with Chinese New Year in boosting one’s fortune, has fallen out of favour amongst devotees, with many of them now wishing for good health and peacefulness instead, Lim added.

Religious goods store Feng Long Trading owner Sam Ying Meng arranges prayer items at his shop for the annual Bai Tian Gong festivities (Hokkien New Year eve) on the 9th day of the Lunar calendar (February 20). — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Religious goods store Feng Long Trading owner Sam Ying Meng arranges prayer items at his shop for the annual Bai Tian Gong festivities (Hokkien New Year eve) on the 9th day of the Lunar calendar (February 20). — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

A street further away, Feng Long Trading owner Sam Ying Meng also mentioned how he had to provide step-by-step tutorials for young adults who are unable to return home to their parents but wished to honour the customary rites associated with the festivities.

“Young adults? Oh yes I get a lot of them this year. In fact, I have to teach them how to conduct the rites like welcoming the God of Prosperity as they were not familiar with it because it's usually their parents who performed them.

“I think I have spent a considerable amount of time this year alone guiding them as compared to last year,” he said when met.

Echoing Lim, Sam also said he received numerous enquiries from his customers as to whether his shop is stocked with prayer items to bless one’s health instead of wealth.

“Oh yes, definitely there were a number of them. Everyone wants to pray for good health this year when it was all about wishing one to be prosperous last year,” he said.

Melvin Chan speaks during an interview at his shop in Kuala Lumpur February 11, 2021. ― Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Melvin Chan speaks during an interview at his shop in Kuala Lumpur February 11, 2021. ― Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

Facing hardships, businesses settle for less this year

This year will be the first time that Fung Wong Biscuits will be shut during the festive season except for the first and second day of Chinese New Year.

According to Melvin Chan, the fourth-generation owner of Fung Wong Biscuits or Fund Wong Global Sdn Bhd, usually, the shop is opened throughout the Chinese New Year celebrations.

“Because business is so bad, if we open, it means spending more money on utilities and baking ingredients.

“Since people can't come out anyway due to the travelling restrictions, by staying shut I think I can cut back on expenses and wastage from unsold items,” he said when met at the shop located in Petaling Street.

This is the only way the business will be able to stay afloat, Chan said, indicating that his business had not been receiving any aid from the government.

As of now, Chan has shifted the business model to accommodate online sales.

“People are scared to come out, and that has impacted our business severely. So when I saw the walk-in traffic has reduced tremendously, I had to think quickly on how to tap on to the online market,” said Chan.

“Instead of them coming to the shop, we are now like a middleman, we help them make the deliveries to their friends and families,” he said.

Ceil Chok Siew Koon speaks to Malay Mail during an interview at her shop in Kuala Lumpur February 11, 2021. ― Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Ceil Chok Siew Koon speaks to Malay Mail during an interview at her shop in Kuala Lumpur February 11, 2021. ― Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

For dried meat bak kwa franchise Oloiya, owner Ceil Chok Siew Koon said they had to venture into other snack food items and even explore uncommon flavours for bak kwa.

“Now we have bak kut teh (herbal tea pork rib soup) flavour, ma la (peppercorn) flavour and one special flavour we make only once a year which is the Guinness Stout flavour, just to jazz things up a little to help sustain the business,” said Chok when met at her shop also located in Petaling Street.

Nearby, Weng Hoa Flower Boutique Sdn Bhd owner Lai Kum Thong said the unpredictable MCO timeframe had resulted in the shop reducing its stock intake by half including the sought-after pussy willows which usually sells the most.

Weng Hoa Flower Boutique Sdn Bhd owner Lai Kum Thong speaks during an interview in Kuala Lumpur February 11, 2021. ― Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Weng Hoa Flower Boutique Sdn Bhd owner Lai Kum Thong speaks during an interview in Kuala Lumpur February 11, 2021. ― Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

“We didn't know what to expect and didn't want to end up throwing out unsold goods, so we only ordered 50 per cent of what we usually bring in during Chinese New Year and try to recommend our customers to get the cherry blossoms and fortune bamboos.

“But since we were only allowed to open only a few days back, many of our wholesale clients couldn't make it in time to purchase their stock from us,” he said, adding that he would organise a future sale to dispose of unsold stocks.

At An Xin's Healthy Meat Shoppe in Taman Yulek, the store supervisor who only wanted to be known as Michelle said sales of their Chinese sausages and bak kwa were encouraging despite the MCO, with several flavour variations having already sold out as of New Year’s Eve.

“Our minced and sliced bak kwa variants have all sold out beginning last week and we have been restocking since as we keep getting repeat orders,” she said, adding that most of her clientele comprised regulars and newcomers.

Customers browsing Chinese sausages and Bakkwa (Chinese pork jerky) at An Xin’s Healthy Meat Shoppe in Taman Yulek, Cheras on Chinese New Year Eve, February 11, 2021. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Customers browsing Chinese sausages and Bakkwa (Chinese pork jerky) at An Xin’s Healthy Meat Shoppe in Taman Yulek, Cheras on Chinese New Year Eve, February 11, 2021. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

Asked how this was possible despite having her business affected, Michelle said this was partly attributed to more people staying home to prepare home-cooked food for reunion dinner than eating out as a family.

For fruit seller Tan Boon Siong at the nearby Yulek morning market, circumstances under MCO has not been kind as well but said one must continue to persevere with business earnings now halved over the same period last year.

For example, Tan said pineapples which are used for prayer rites were usually sold out by this time of the year but that was not the case this year.

However, Tan said the supplies of mandarin oranges synonymous with Chinese New Year were all sold out but lamented that his stocks comprised only half of what he used to sell in previous years.

“Since interstate travel and a restriction on the number of people in vehicles is still enforced, many are not buying or giving away as much as they used to. Those buying in bulk are usually in the business sector, where they give them as gifts whenever they can,” he said.

Fruit stall owner Tan Boon Siong seen here arranging oranges on display at his stall at the Yulek Morning Market. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Fruit stall owner Tan Boon Siong seen here arranging oranges on display at his stall at the Yulek Morning Market. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

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