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Instead of ‘balik kampung’ for lunar new year, some Chinese Malaysians are opting for a cosy celebration in their Klang Valley second home

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 9 — Going home to Sabah for Chinese New Year has always been an annual event for Emma Liew.

But this year, she and her siblings opted to fly their parents to Gombak in Kuala Lumpur.

“It’s much more cost-efficient too that way and we don’t need to think about the crowd at the airport and when we board the plane,” the 39-year-old who works in civil engineering told Malay Mail.

Erica Chan from Ampang too said her parents will be flying from Terengganu to KL for a change of pace and environment this year.

“If I had flown back, it meant that I’d have to take more days off, in contrast to my parents who are retirees, they can stay here with me for as long as they would like until the festive period is over.

“It’s quiet in Terengganu for Chinese New Year, similarly in Kuala Lumpur, so why not for a change, we explore the city centre here. It may be empty, but quiet is not a bad thing,” the 30-year-old auditor said.

She added that another reason is to celebrate the full zodiac cycle of her mother, who was born in the Year of the Dragon.

“She’s not young anymore. We’ll let the dragon lady put her feet up this festive period while us siblings do the cooking,” Chan said.

Family reunions, clan recipes

For many people of Sino backgrounds around the world, the lunar new year is often associated with family reunions, which often turns into large gatherings of the clansmen and can be quite a chaotic affair.

But as more Chinese Malaysians move to work in the Klang Valley, some are opting to gather just their immediate family or include those relatives with whom they have the closest bond.

Liew, whose family is Hakka, said they were looking forward to home-cooked meals instead of restaurant fare this year.

“The thing with eating out is we can’t customise the cuisine we want to eat, and it’s usually a fixed menu that you choose from.

“Our family is Hakka, and there is not much to choose from if we eat out, there aren’t many restaurants that specialise in Hakka food.

“In contrast, cooking at home would mean that we can decide on how much we need to cook and the type of dishes we want to eat and most of them would be our mother’s specialty dishes,” she said.

Among the traditional Hakka dishes usually served during Chinese New Year in Liew’s home are steamed pork belly with yam, steamed chicken, steamed fish with green onion, braised chicken feet with mushroom and fermented tofu.

Cooking at home serves two purposes, Liew said; spending quality time together while helping them save money since food costs have been soaring.

“If you eat at the restaurant, usually they have booked time slots for each meal served. So after a session is done, you can’t linger around any longer than the 90 minutes or so given, you’d have to vacate the seat so that the restaurant staff can prepare for the next set of guests,” she added.

Marketing manager Timothy Lee said anyone who wants to eat at restaurants during the Chinese New Year period should be prepared to pay much higher prices this year.

“Last Chinese New Year, the restaurants had already started charging quite high prices. A basic dinner set for reunion diners is about RM288 to RM388 for a family of six.

“Now you have to spend about RM1,000 and above for sure if you have a family of 10. At restaurants, dishes are mostly sold as set meals whereby there are a few sets to choose from and in each set menu it will either be a five up to 10-course-dish meal.

“In contrast, if we cook at home we could cut down at least RM500 and we get to choose our own ingredients, we know for sure it will be fresh, and we can have our meal whenever we want it,” said the 35-year-old who hails from Sitiawan in Perak but currently lives in Damansara.

Like Liew, Lee who also does not intend to balik kampung this lunar new year for the local Fuchow specialities, said that traditional clan dishes are hard to come by in Kuala Lumpur, more so during the holiday season.

“Over the years, we’ve managed to make a few Fuchow dishes on our own such as sweet and sour fish maw with bamboo shoots and Chinese red wine mee sua. These two dishes are my family’s favourite dishes.

“It reminds me so much of our childhood days when we wake up in the morning and the first thing we consume is the Chinese red wine mee sua,” he said.

“These are some dishes we can’t find easily in Kuala Lumpur, and definitely not during the festive period,” he added.

Chinese red wine mee sua is a specialty dish which originated from Fujian province in China. Mee sua is a type of wheat noodle, and it goes well with the Chinese red wine that is usually homemade. The red wine broth is usually cooked with chicken.

Timothy Lee shares his family’s homecooked fare from last year’s Chinese New Year that looks as mouth-watering as those served in restaurants. — Picture courtesy of Timothy Lee
Timothy Lee shares his family’s homecooked fare from last year’s Chinese New Year that looks as mouth-watering as those served in restaurants. — Picture courtesy of Timothy Lee

Timothy Lee shares his family’s homecooked fare from last year’s Chinese New Year that looks as mouth-watering as those served in restaurants. — Picture courtesy of Timothy Lee

Breaking with tradition

“We had a huge gathering last year, but we decided this year that we wanted our parents who usually do all the cooking, to rest,” Elaine Yuen, who lives in Subang, told Malay Mail.

“Firstly, we’re not a very traditional Chinese family whereby we rarely sit down together at the dining table and eat together.

“It’s usually a spread of food on the table, we take our food and everyone is seated elsewhere to consume them. So, in a way, it won’t make much of a difference if we had our own meals at our own respective homes, and then after we’ll gather and meet-up with our relatives when we are done with our meals,” the 39-year-old who works in the creative industry said.

She added that with the older generation in her family ageing, it made sense to do away with an elaborate cookout so that more time and energy could be spent on catching up and not toiling in the kitchen.

“We’ve always had huge parties every Chinese New Year, so for once, instead of the same old big party, we’ve decided to sit back and relax this year,” she said.

Eric Pan describes his household as not your typical Chinese family.

The 43-year-old who lives in Kelana Jaya said his family often does what they call a “television dinner”, whereby everyone takes their dinner in front of the television.

“Some families won’t tolerate this, but we’re alright with that. Since most of our families do that, we thought this year, let’s have our own dinner at home and then meet up at a cafe after for coffee and cakes.

“In fact, because we don’t see each other that often, last year we almost ran into a disagreement trying to prepare a dinner spread for 30 of us in the family and extended family.

“Don’t want a repeat of that,” Pan said.

Low Sze Chia’s extended family will be tossing their home made ‘yee sang’ in Klang again this year for better health and wealth to curb the spread of viral diseases and reduce spending with restaurant prices rising. — Picture courtesy of Low Sze Chia
Low Sze Chia’s extended family will be tossing their home made ‘yee sang’ in Klang again this year for better health and wealth to curb the spread of viral diseases and reduce spending with restaurant prices rising. — Picture courtesy of Low Sze Chia

Low Sze Chia’s extended family will be tossing their home made ‘yee sang’ in Klang again this year for better health and wealth to curb the spread of viral diseases and reduce spending with restaurant prices rising. — Picture courtesy of Low Sze Chia

Safety first

Low Sze Chia who lives in Klang, said that her family is looking forward to a quieter celebration at home this year.

Like the others, she agreed that celebrating at a restaurant would be cost prohibitive due to her extended family of 25, which makes it difficult to even get bookings.

On top of that, she said Covid-19 is still around and has spawned so many strains, so she would prefer not to risk the health of the elderly in her family.

“Dragon year or not, I’d like to keep them safe from the virus.

“We won’t get to celebrate much of Chinese New Year if anyone catches the virus,” the 38-year-old public relations employee said.

Liu Yi Choo said her family will stay indoors this Chinese New Year to avoid any possible crowd outside, where the risk of Covid-19 contagion is higher.

“Even though the government says the situation is under control, but every individual reacts differently towards the Covid-19 virus, so it’s still best to take precautions.

“We’re not saying that people who eat at the restaurant don’t care about their safety, but for us, with our elderly parents, I think it’s safer to have our Chinese New Year meals at home this year,” the 35-year-old homemaker from Sungai Buloh said.

Liu said her family of 20 will have their reunion dinner at home, with the dishes comprising home-cooking supplemented by a few others from a restaurant they frequent.

“It’s a lot of work to prepare that much food, but hey, family gatherings are about spending time together, sharing the load and be rewarded at the end with the food that’s laid on the table.

“We have not done that in quite some time, so we’re looking forward to that,” she said.

She added that her relatives will be travelling from Penang to Selangor to celebrate the Year of the Dragon.