Amid loss and separation, Chinese New Year traditions take on special meaning

Olivia Shivas

5 Feb 2022

OPINION: Food is a universal love language but for me, it’s about more than the taste of a delicious meal. My favourite foods are always linked to an experience or special memory.

My wai po (grandmother) had a signature dish called yong tau fu. It’s fried tofu that’s been stuffed with minced pork and fish, with chives and spices. It’s one of the many delicious foods that’s served around Chinese New Year in our family. Although I can’t speak Cantonese, and she didn’t speak English, she knew how much I loved it. She even packed a Tupperware container full of it for my birthday one year.

I was born in New Zealand, but have grown up in a mixed-race family; my mother is Chinese from Malaysia and my father has an English and Scottish background.

Western culture has played a much bigger influence on my life compared to the Eastern side, but both are important to me.

This year I was asked by my mum to contribute the most anticipated dish to our family Chinese New Year dinner. And because we can’t travel back to Malaysia to celebrate with our extended family this year, I wanted to make it even more special for my mum. I was feeling a lot of pressure.

Yee Sang (or prosperity toss salad) is another one of my favourite meals at Chinese New Year; it’s a speciality dish that originated in Malaysia and Singapore. In my family, we make it with fresh salmon, pomelo, grated carrot, sliced radish, shredded yam, red cabbage, coriander and pickled ginger. We then pour over a sauce made of honey, sesame oil and hoisin sauce, and sprinkle over Chinese 5-spice powder, peanuts and sesame seeds.

All the colourful ingredients are laid out separately on a big tray, and then everyone uses their chopsticks to mix it all together and ‘toss’ the ingredients as high as possible - yes it gets messy!

The higher you toss it, the more luck you are meant to get. We also yell out Chinese New Year wishes and hope for good health, love, riches and blessings for the year ahead.

Although our family in New Zealand has had plenty of Chinese New Year celebrations away from our extended family in Malaysia, this year is different.

The last time we all celebrated together was January 2020 - just before Covid hit, and I’m so grateful we made it over. The last two years have been devastating for our family. Both my grandparents and an uncle have since passed away in those two years; two of them died from Covid-19

I always knew Chinese New Year would be difficult with them not around, but it still doesn’t feel real because of the distance.

My mum grew up in a small village called Karak; it’s in the Malaysian state of Pahang and it’s around an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur.

My grandparent’s house was double-storied with tiled floors and wooden window blinds. My wai gong (grandfather) built it himself. We would spend hours in the kitchen helping wai po stuff the yong tau fu, and playing mahjong in the living room.

The street it’s on, Lorong 4, was also the only one in the village that would put up lights and lanterns along the street to celebrate Chinese New Year. On the week of festivities, there would be a street party with lots of food, karaoke and lion dance performances.

Just when we thought our family had been through enough last year, in October 2021, my grandparents’ house, along with 50 other homes in mum’s hometown, burned down in a fire. Old photos, crockery, hand-sewn blankets and more. All gone.

But the small town of Karak is resilient. Despite the devastation, they have still put up lanterns to ring in Chinese New Year, although it looks a bit different. And our family will still make yong tau fu and yee sang.

We may have lost relatives and physical possessions, but that just makes this time of year even more special as we keep memories alive with food and family traditions.