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Celebrating in hard times

 | January 22, 2012

As inflation persists, Malaysian Chinese have to sacrifice some customary practices when they welcome the Year of the Water Dragon.

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Inspiration is to writers what the eureka experience is to scientists. It is not something you can invoke at will. It will come when it wants to. I am hoping it will come to me soon because I have to write my obligatory Chinese New Year piece and the clock is ticking away.

How does one write about a celebration when one finds little to be cheerful about? I tried looking for the muse by scouting around the wet markets and supermarkets. All I got was nausea from looking at the prices of those food items that we associate with Chinese New Year.

Many traders are complaining that business has so far been lacklustre, but an optimistic few think it will pick up at the last minute. They say plenty of households are waiting for their delayed monthly salaries and year-end bonuses.

I wonder why people would bother to celebrate when many of them cannot afford even a decent meal these days.

Food prices have been rising sharply for some time now, forcing consumers to forego what was normal fare a few years ago for cheaper and less satisfying alternatives. And that includes foods that have symbolic meaning in Chinese culture and are essential in celebrating the new year. Traders and consumers seem to agree that these items must have risen in price by 50% to 100% over the past three years.

Malaysians can only smirk when the government makes its reassurances about controlling the prices of about a dozen food items widely used during Chinese New Year.  We hear such promises at the approach of any festival and we never take them seriously. Our understaffed enforcement squads and their sporadic raids are no match against the smart and unscrupulous traders.

Would a boycott of the festival help to bring prices down? To many Chinese, the very suggestion is sacrilegious.

A friend chastised me when I raised the question. “Some traditions continue to have validity despite our living in modern times,” he said. “Chinese New Year is a time to remind ourselves to take stock of our actions for the whole year. The practices associated with it inspire us with wisdom.”

Okay, but what have all that to do with elaborate feasts that drain away your already meagre earnings?

It is all about symbolism. For example, there must be fish for a reunion dinner because the Chinese word for “fish” sounds similar to the word “abundance”.  And there must be lotus roots, leeks, kale and cabbage—no matter how expensive they are these days—because they are good omens. And we have not even mentioned the more exorbitant items such as dried abalone and oysters.

However, even in non-inflationary times, Chinese New Year has always been a costly affair. The festivities last for 15 days, culminating in the mother of grand feasts on the night of Chap Goh Meh, which is familiar to Malaysians as the Lantern Festival.

Pragmatism

So how do the ordinary wage earners among Malaysian Chinese cope in these times of high prices for food and everything else?

Well, inscrutability is just one of the attributes of the proverbial Chinaman.  He is also pragmatic and innovative. Many are finding cheaper alternatives without sacrificing much of the symbolism.

“For example, some families are substituting orange-coloured lime for mandarin oranges,” said retired trader Richard Soh, 59. “Their emphasis is more on the getting together of families, the spirit of the reunion rather than the food that goes into the stomach.”

Also, more and more city-dwelling families are having their reunion dinners at cheap eateries instead of congregating at a rich relative’s house for an authentic home-cooked feast.

Fewer and fewer Chinese families are inviting the Deity of Prosperity into their homes not only because of the expenses involved in decorating the house and preparing a feast, but also in order to avoid the bother of keeping to the do’s and don’ts of the feng shui discipline.

Of course, these innovations have their critics, especially from among the elderly.

“Urban Chinese households of the Taoist or Buddhist faiths no longer worship the Kitchen God,” said Teh, a surveyor close to retirement age.

“They treat the traditional practices as if they are on the same level as business practices, simplifying them to suit their own convenience. They celebrate not because they believe in the religious aspects of the festival, but because everyone does.”

Change can be either positive or negative. Perhaps it is true that some traditional values are not in harmony with the times and ought to be replaced by those that resonate with modern philosophies.

Until recent times, there was no word in Chinese to express the concept of freedom either in the philosophical or political sense.  Neither was “equal rights” ever a topic of discussion. According to classical Chinese thought, no man is equal to another; he is only either younger or older.

Nowadays, however, both freedom and equality are favourite subjects among young Malaysian Chinese.

Who knows, the time may soon come when Malaysians can actually celebrate both freedom and equality.

Meanwhile, we can try anyway to have a joyous time welcoming the Year of the Water Dragon.

Stanley Koh is a former chief of the MCA’s research unit. He is a FMT columnist.


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