PETALING JAYA: Though able to see dragon dances, lion dance troupes and firecrackers in several suburbs around Melbourne, Melysa Soo-Hoo thinks the Chinese New Year mood there is mellow.
She said this was because of a lack of Chinese New Year decorations or music in the malls in the city.
Also, as Chinese New Year is not a public holiday in Australia, schools, government offices, banks and other offices remain open as usual.
“Malls are not decorated and no ‘tong tong chiang’ music is playing in the background. Basically, you don’t feel the excitement building up towards the actual day of celebration.
“So, to get into the mood and in keeping with Chinese traditions, a lot of the Chinese here make their own festive food.
“Bak Kwa (barbecued sweet meat jerky usually made from pork) is very expensive here. Two small-medium sized pieces are sold for A$5 (RM16) or more,” Soo-Hoo said in an email interview.
Because Soo-Hoo and her husband can hardly find any Chinese New Year snacks, cookies or delicacies, they resort to making them on their own.
For those who are familiar with Chinese New Year snacks, cookies and delicacies, most of these food items are very difficult to make and require a lot of time and patience.
“Not many people back home make Bak Kwa. People usually buy it, although it isn’t very cheap either back home.”
Bak Kwa symbolises good luck and is believed to ward off negative energy. It is sold locally for RM50 and above per kg.
“But Bak Kwa is an essential part of Chinese New Year, you only eat it and see it sold abundantly once a year. It took me about eight hours to complete baking 3kg of minced meat,” Soo-Hoo said.
Soo-Hoo misses the festive mood that she had grown up with in Malaysia and because her extended family members are not located in Melbourne, she usually has a small dinner with immediate family members.
“This year we just wanted to have it on our own (two of us and our cat, Friday). Dad was supposed to be here, he couldn’t make it at the very last minute due to visa issues. So, no big dinners here and we even make our own Yee Sang,” she said.
Her love for old-school Chinese New Year delicacies also got her making her own Kuih Bangkit (tapioca cookies), Kuih Kapit (Chinese love letters), almond cookies and a Hokkien dish, Jiu Hu Char (stir-fried yam bean with dried cuttlefish).
“The kuih bangkit requires a tedious process. It takes days to make. You need to dry the flour in the oven a few times to ensure that it melts in the mouth.
“I started making kuih bangkit because I really love old-school stuff. I love the wooden mold. It makes me feel like a traditional Chinese wife,” Soo-Hoo said.
Kuih bangkit was originally made in the shape of the currency of ancient China, it was used as ancestral offerings or for a newly-departed to “spend” in the afterlife.
Today they are made in animal and floral shapes with unique symbolism. For example, a goldfish symbolises prosperity, while a chrysanthemum symbolises fortune.
“I miss Chinese New Year as a kid celebrating it. All the cousins gathered together, playing fireworks and sparklers, dressing up in our Chinese New Year best, the daily ‘gambling’ sessions.
“Chinese or not, we all celebrated together. I miss the ‘muhibbah-ness’.
“I think because we are in a country where these festivals are not so hugely celebrated, we do what we can to hold on to some old traditions.
“We even bought stuff to fill our ‘sia na’ (Chinese tiffin carrier) with items that are related to old tales, such as sunflower seeds (for growth), sweets (for a sweet life) and mandarin oranges (kam or gold for prosperity),” she said.
First time away from home
In contrast, Dawn Lee, who is currently studying in Surabaya, Indonesia, is celebrating Chinese New Year away from home for the first time.
According to Lee, although there are many ethnic Chinese in Surabaya, they do not celebrate Chinese New Year elaborately.
“I was told by my Indonesian friends here that because of historically-related reasons, the Chinese avoid celebrating Chinese New Year openly. They would usually just have dinner at home with their family and relatives.
“You can’t find any Chinese New Year cookies or snacks, people don’t make them here,” she said.
Although Indonesia no longer recognises racial divisions, the Chinese in Indonesia still face some discrimination.
It has been previously reported that Chinese Indonesians were effectively banned from participating in politics and the military, while their children found it hard to enter public schools or universities.
“My friends tell me that such discrimination still exists today in certain parts of Indonesia. However, being an international student, they treat me nicely, as they do other students from overseas.
“If you stay close to your Indonesian friends, you’re safe from any form of discrimination,” she said.
Lee believes another reason why the festival is not celebrated openly is that the Chinese are afraid to do so.
“Last Christmas, there were pockets of demonstrations to stop Christmas celebrations. My friends tell me that they are anticipating similar demonstrations to happen, although we are hoping that it will not take place,” she said.