My grandfather, my “ah gong”. I don’t really know how to start this post, except to say that every single year at Chinese New Year, I miss my ah gong more than you’d expect and surprisingly, more than even I expect.

I never knew him very well ~ I was born in Australia, but we moved back to Malaysia when I was a wee bundle of fat rolls, because he was old and his health was ailing. He passed away in December 1986. I had just turned seven.

So I don’t know if it’s necessarily fair to say that I missed him as a person. But what I miss is what my ah gong represented, what he instilled in me in the short years that I knew him, and what I inevitably will never get a chance to thank him for.

My ah gong

I make a lot of stuff up in my head and from a young age I was already a story teller, even if the stories I ever told were only to myself.

I told myself that my ah gong was the King of his land, because in this tiny little farming village where coconut trees reached for the skies, his house was the biggest and grandest of them all (granted, it was “big” for a village that didn’t even have roads).

He had a large family of 14 children ~ seven boys and seven girls and bless my ah mah (grandmother) who passed away before I was even born ~ and dozens upon dozens of grandchildren. Β He worked hard for what he had, and he shared so very generously with his children and his community, and above all else, he loved and spoilt his many grandchildren.

And so every year, to mark the celebration that is Chinese New Year, my ah gong would open his home and everyone ~ children and grandchildren and friends ~ would travel from far and wide and come home to spend the week where we rightly belonged.

With the head of our family. Our father, brother, grandfather and friend.

Chinese New Year in Bukit Kecil

Chinese New Year used to be hands-down the most exciting part of my year. I know I was only like five years old, but trust me, excitement for children growing up in the Asian schooling system is few and far between, ranging from Oh my god I didn’t get caned today *excitement* to Oh my god I can recount the whole times tables *excitement*.

And I’m not evenΒ exaggerating.

So you can imagine the sheer utter joy of having a week off to hang out at my ah gong’s castle, to play with my cousins who I hadn’t seen since last year and just to be a child. Back then, I don’t think I’d understood my impending obsession with food yet. I just wanted to run around in circles as kids do and now that I’m old and all that, I do not understand the attraction of running around in circles. At all.

Surrounded by his children and grandchildren, my ah gong, though he’d suffered a number of strokes, was in his element. Seated in his chair in the front room of his house, I remember the glint in his eye, and though he could barely even smile any more, I can remember the look on his face when all his little-lings queued up, one by one to wish him gong xi fa chai and receive our red packets, filled with what tiny little bit of money he had, but would share with his grandchildren.

I don’t think that at that age, we fully understand the amount of joy we can bring to one person. At that moment in time, my ah gong would not have traded his life for anything else.

But I, of course, didn’t think about this at the time. I grabbed my red packet, unsealed the glue and foraged within its walls to see how much ah gong had given me that year. Usually, it’s enough for a candy bar or three, which back then was a treat like you can’t even imagine.

Red packets given, the entertainment continued. My ah gong really did put on the best parties.

Back then, before the days of lawsuits, we had Chinese fire crackers, long strands of red fire crackers tied to each other and hoisted high above our heads. When lit, these buggers are absolutely fracking noisy. We closed our ears and watched as the fire crackers ignite from bottom up. Most of all, I remember the smell of the fire crackers. I miss that smell.

After the fire crackers, there’d be the lion dance and crazy men in crazy masks chasing the kids around (again, pre-lawsuit days). To me, it seemed like days and days of endless fun, but sadly the fun did end each year and in the most heart breaking way, it all ended forever when my ah gong passed away quietly one fateful night in 1986.

We tried to continue the tradition. My second Uncle, who lived at my ah gong’s house, really did try. But it didn’t work, and like a strike of vicious fate, he too passed away soon afterwards, right before Chinese New Year.

Chinese New Year has been low key for me ever since. Festivities now are not ever anything more than a family dinner at home, or dinner with friends. Considering somewhere along the line I discovered my deep seeded love for food, this isn’t a bad thing, but nothing will ever replace the Chinese New Years we had at my ah gong’s house, the magic of the festival, the fun of playing with my cousins and the copious amounts of love he showered on all of us.

I want to thank my ah gong, which is something I’ve never done. And if he’s out there in the netherverse reading my blog (stranger things have happened)…


My Chinese New Year

These days, my Chinese New Year is all about eating. And this year we marked the occasion with not one but two enormous eat-ups.

First up was Royal China at Bayswater where we had an epically long banquet meal, with some very high highlights and very low lowlights. And two nights later, we borrowed the private room at Pearl Liang to house 18 of us and not one but two gloriously roasted suckling pigs.

Go drool:

Royal China, Bayswater

roasted suckling pig platter with jelly fish; fresh scallops with honey beans;
braised dried scallops with sea moss; shark’s fin soup with crab meat

baked fresh lobster in butter sauce; new year fortune “e-fu” noodles;
seafood hotpot with Chinese greens; crispy roast chicken Cantonese style

steamed whole sea bass; baked seafood rice in Portugese sauce;
red packets and oranges; traditional glutinous rice cakes

Pearl Liang, Paddington

roasted suckling pig

“cold toss” with pig’s knuckle, beef shin, drunken chicken, arctic clam and jellyfish; salt & pepper tofu; Chinese vegetables; crispy squid

crispy shredded duck; fried noodles;
steamed whole sea bass; grapefruit & mango with tapioca

Gong xi fa chai everyone, and a very special Happy Birthday shout out to my mum! xxx

22 Thoughts on “Chinese New Year memories ~ how it used to be (and how I miss it so)

  1. Lovely post, babe. So heart-felt πŸ™‚ I miss the exact same thing… spending time with my many cousins at my grandparents’. Happy year of the tiger. You’re a great writer.

  2. An utterly touching post, Cat. Thanks for sharing those lovely memories with all of us. I know exactly how you feel because my grandpa was absolutely the life and soul of many a family gathering. Luckily for us, he had many sons and a daughter and so the big family gatherings are still full of love and laughter πŸ™‚ Ah Chinese New Year, I love it. It’s not the same without family, but thank goodness for good friends!

  3. Ps you look so much like your mom!

  4. Melody Fury: Thanks, lovely! And Happy year of the TIGER *rooowwrrr* right back atcha πŸ˜‰

    Charmaine: You’re right ~ thank goodness for good friends and those who go and organise banquets and suckling pigs πŸ™‚ Awww do I? Some say I look like my dad, but I think I look like my mum too xx

  5. I miss those big old firecrackers. Damn those rules and regulations!! You’re not making CNY any easier for all of us away from our families x_x

  6. I miss those huge firecrackers too – granted, I was always too scared to actually light them, but it was so fun and festive when the whole extended family would gather around to watch.

    I really enjoyed reading this post, it really brought back memories of my childhood. So thank you! πŸ™‚

  7. 1. WOW at those meals!!!

    2. Very sweet story about your ah gong. Hopefully when/if you have kids in the future you will be able to make CNY just as special for them!

    xox Sarah

  8. Wild Boar: I agree! Damn those regulations!! I really loved those firecrackers – such a simple thing but so amazing symbolically for CNY πŸ™‚

    Su-yin: I don’t think I dared to light one either, I just closed my ears LOL…

    Sarah: I would love to make CNY special for my kiddies, but given that I am already such a crap Chinese person, I don’t really know how! They will end up learning that CNY is all about eating πŸ˜€

  9. A really lovely and touching read. I haven’t ever had the pleasure of celebrating Chinese New Year back in KL but I fully intend on doing so soon. Glad I could have spent some of CNY 2010 with you.

  10. Really touching post, Catty. My gong gong called me ‘Liggy’ as he couldn’t pronounce my name πŸ™‚

  11. tehbus: Oh you MUST. CNY in any big Asian city is just an experience like no other. If you have a big family in KL, you just gotta try it. I’m also happy to have spent CNY with you ~ and thank you again for organising the crazy pigfest! xx

    Lizzie: LOL πŸ˜€ I am cracking up. I LOVE IT – Liggy πŸ™‚

  12. So touching. Keyboard is soaked with a mix of tears and drool.

  13. Catty, that was a great read. You really made me remember my Grandpa and the influence he had on my before he passed away.

    It’s touching to get a story from the bloggers past and personal life, especially when it’s told with such vividness and heartfelt emotion.

    Then you go and swing the suckling piggy in my face!

    Btw, my Matcha is on it’s way!!

  14. Catty, thanks for sharing your memories. I have similar memories about my grandma, my grandpa had already major strokes so he couldn’t interact so much; but I sure remember the warmth welcome at their house.
    I had the chance to participate to a Chinese New Year celebration myself and it is really lots of fun often better than our New Year celebrations πŸ˜‰

  15. Such a sweet story Catty! He sounds like a remarkable man. I too had the same love and adoration for my grandfather. Although when he died i didn’t cry till like 6 months later… It’ took a while to hit home…!

    Love the family pic xx

  16. Mr Noodles: LOL thank you πŸ™‚ and um, when I drool on my keyboard I find it helps to tip it upside down and leave overnight πŸ˜‰

    Phil: Haha, I’m sorry ~ but what is a story without some culinary gratification? I’m glad I’ve helped people bring back memories of their loved ones too. Often times of celebration in the present are also the times to celebrate our past.

    Alessio: You did? This year?? I’m so glad! And I’m very happy you enjoyed it πŸ˜€

    Bethany: You know what, I don’t think I’ve cried for my ah gong yet, because I was so young back then. But that is definitely not to say I don’t miss him… *sigh* πŸ™

  17. Happy Lunar New Year babe! Major feasting indeed! Your story about your grandfather’s really touching. Grandfathers treat their granddaughters best methinks. Chinese New Year doesn’t seem as meaningful without the grandparents around somehow.

  18. A tremendous post, Kung Hei Fat Choy to you and your family, Catty. My grandma was like your Ah Gong. Man, she spoiled us! Living in London means CNY is a low-key affair nowadays, but this year my kids and I yum char’d with eldest uncle and a cousin visiting from Switzerland. Even though it was a small gathering something about it felt very right. BTW your school quip made me laugh, at my HK kindergarten we had no playtime and the most exciting part of the day was the massed visit to the toilet.

  19. imp: Definitely. Dads and daughters and grand dads and daughters πŸ™‚ CNY is definitely not the same as before.. πŸ™

    sunfug: yum cha would have been lovely and I guess it doesn’t matter where you are as long as you capture the “feel” and celebration of new year πŸ™‚ And LOL – you totally know what Asian schooling is like then!!

  20. PL, very nice post. CNY was really grand and fun during those times. Glad to read that you have such memories of Ah Gong.

  21. Hi! I came across your blog from Not Quite Nigella’s post on your outing to Zumbo in Manly. I’m in love with your blog.
    I particularly love this post. It brought tears to my eyes (I’m reading this at work, mind you). I think I’m getting to the age now where I’m really starting to appreciate the things my paternal grandmother did for my dad and subsequently her grandkids, but she passed away when us kids were all too young to really show her our appreciation.

  22. Sorry for commenting on an old blog.. As lame as this sound reading your blog post made me cry (wah!) I guess it bought back memories of my grandpa – he recently passed away :(!

    Thanks for sharing your story about your grandpa it’s a beautiful one.

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