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. 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 even 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.
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