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Hungry Ghost Festival: When The Gates of Hell Open

Come straight home from college after class. Don’t loiter around until late at night.” 

Don’t stare and point at people by the road.” 

Wash your feet properly after coming home.” 

Back when I was younger, these were just some of the things my mother used to caution me about whenever the Hungry Ghost Festival approached. Celebrated in many parts of Asia, predominantly among Chinese communities, the festival proper falls on the 14th day of the 7th month according to the lunisolar calendar (August 22 this year) – but the entire 7th month is generally known as Ghost Month.

During this time, ghosts and spirits are believed to wander the earthly realm, so the living pay homage to their ancestors as well as lost spirits by burning offerings, as a form of merit making. The practice can be traced to the ancient Chinese practice of ancestor worship, but over the years, has evolved to absorb elements of Taoism and Buddhism as well.

Like many young people, I used to think superstitions associated with the Hungry Ghost Festival were a load of baloney – but I guess with age comes the wisdom of hindsight, and an understanding of how cultural beliefs are tied to our identity and our place in the world. These are practices that have been passed down through the generations, sometimes for thousands of years – and in a rapidly modernising world, there’s something to be said about keeping them alive, even though you might not believe in them per se.

While my family is not particularly traditional, we do observe some superstitions and practices which I think are quite fascinating, especially to people of other cultures. There are also differences between how it is celebrated and observed among Chinese diasporas around the world, such as in Malaysia, where I am from. So without further ado, here are some interesting facts and trivia about the Hungry Ghost Festival! 

OFFERINGS

During the Ghost Month, the gates of Hell are opened and spirits roam the earthly plane. Among them are ancestors whom the living forgot to pay tribute to, those who died without a proper send-off, and lost spirits. Because of this, they are ‘hungry’; hence the importance of providing them with food and entertainment so that they won’t cause harm or mischief.

ProjectManhattan, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Filial piety is an extremely important part of Chinese culture, so even after their death, you are expected to honour your ancestors with offerings of food, drink and material goods. It is common for people to burn paper effigies of items like houses, cars, servants, clothes and hell bank notes, in the belief that these can be enjoyed by the deceased in the afterlife.

There are also people who make offerings for lost souls: those who have no one to pray for them, or victims of suicide, murder or accidents. Aside from accumulating good karma, it is believed that it will appease these angry spirits and prevent them from harming the living. Prayers for lost souls are usually held at temples, or by the road – so if you see people huddling over a fire in the evenings with bowls of food and joss sticks, it is best not to point and stare because you might risk offending wandering spirits.

PAPER EFFIGIES

Paper effigies are an inseparable part of the Hungry Ghost Festival – but if you think they’re just rough, crudely shaped pieces of paper, then you’d be wrong. While I won’t deny that some are printed with machines, there are still effigy makers who make it the traditional way by hand. They are often commissioned to create items such as mansions, life-sized effigies of guardians, servants and deities, vehicles, even ‘designer’ clothes. These master craftsmen are artists in their own right, often creating incredibly intricate pieces that take months to complete. It’s crazy when you think about the amount of time and effort that goes into each piece, only to have them go up in flames in seconds.

Paper effigies are burnt in the belief that the deceased will receive them in the afterlife. As you can see, there can be some pretty quirky items – like gold watches, mobile phones and even dentures! Photo: Jorge Láscar from Australia, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The first time I took part in a paper effigy burning ceremony was when I was eight or nine, and I vividly recall the beautiful patterns on the paper samfoo (traditional Chinese clothing for women, usually with floral patterns) that was meant for my late grandmother. Over the years, paper effigies have become more and more creative (?), with items like mobile phones (what service provider do they use in hell, I wonder?), SIM cards, laptops and the like. My colleagues in Singapore even shared a photo of paper durians with me recently. Now, I definitely don’t subscribe to the idea of my grandparents operating mobile phones and texting each other in the afterlife, but it’s certainly a unique part of the celebration.

GETAI

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Chinese opera was the main form of entertainment during the Hungry Ghost Festival, but these have since been replaced with more modern performances. Photo: grungemann/Flickr

In the old days, villages and towns would host large open-air stages, and a troupe would put on a show in the evenings. The benches at the front were always left empty, as they were meant for unseen guests. Over the years, traditional opera fell out of popularity, but the practice of hosting entertainment for the dead did not – instead, it evolved into Getai, or literally ‘song stage’. I’m not sure how it is celebrated in China as I wasn’t able to find references on the net, but in Malaysia and Singapore they are quirky, lively affairs.

Tents are set up in fields or commercial spaces (where I live, there’s one every year in front of a food court). There would be live auctions and a dinner (proceeds usually go to charity). Sometimes there are still traditional opera performances, but you’ll also get stand-up comedy, entertainers singing pop songs or oldies, and even women dressed in skimpy clothing dancing to modern numbers. This aspect might seem blasphemous to some, but I find it very unique because it goes to show how adaptable Chinese culture can be – you gotta move with the times. In Singapore, where 76% of the population is ethnic Chinese, the getai culture is even bigger; shows are broadcast on national TV.

SUPERSTITION

Every culture has superstitions, but the Chinese in particular have many. Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to cut my nails or whistle at night, because it might attract bad spirits. In retrospect, I think there was a hint of logic behind them: electricity (and nail clippers) did not exist in the old days, so it was dangerous to cut your nails in the dark. Also whistling at night would disturb the peace. But because we often parrot what our elders tell us, we continue handing these superstitions down even in modern times when we can turn on the light with the flip of a switch.
As for Ghost Month, here are just some of the common beliefs:

  1. Don’t stay out late. – Night is when the spirits are at their strongest, so to avoid anything untoward, avoid staying out after dark.
  2. Don’t go swimming – Angry water spirits might try to drown you.
  3. Don’t swear – you don’t know when a spirit might be lurking around and feel offended.
  4. Don’t wear red – apparently spirits are attracted to the colour red, and might follow you home.
  5. Wash your feet when you get home – to get rid of unwanted bad energy.
  6. Don’t hang your clothes out at night – you might just have an extra guest coming into your house when you collect them
  7. Don’t tap someone on the shoulder – it is believed that a person has three ‘lights’ – one on their head and one on each shoulder, which ward off evil spirits. By tapping them, you’re essentially extinguishing the light.
  8. Avoid killing insects – the Chinese have a belief that spirits might be reincarnated as insects like butterflies and moths. They could be visiting relatives, so if you just smacked that moth flat, you might have killed grandma.
  9. Be wary of offerings. – Sometimes people leave offerings out by the side of the road (especially in Malaysia) so it’s best to keep an eye out. You wouldn’t like it if someone stepped all over your food now, would you?
  10. Don’t take photos – The idea of photographs and how they can capture spirits is not unique to Chinese culture. So it’s best not to snap any, especially of offerings. I’m sure you’ve watched Shutter.

As the world grows ever modernised and practices that are deemed old-fashioned and superstitious are abandoned by the younger generation, it is heartening to see that The Hungry Ghost Festival still has its proponents. It’s a case study of how culture is fluid and ever changing; where tradition is valued but also adapts to the times.

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How To Gain Weight: CNY Edition

Happy Chinese New Year!

This year’s festivities are much more subdued due to the pandemic, but I still had an enjoyable time bonding (and eating!) with the family over the weekend. To save on the hassle of preparing an elaborate meal for our reunion dinner night, we decided to have hotpot/barbecue out on the porch. We bought most of the ingredients in advance so we wouldn’t have to rush to the market on the few days leading up to CNY.

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Aside from the quintessential pork belly slices (you can get these from the local butcher nicely packed), our hotpot ‘buffet’ also had all the other essentials: chicken and fish slices, pork balls and fish balls, needle mushrooms, squid, seafood cheese tofu, fried beancurd sheets, and for carbs, udon noodles. Moomins opened a celebratory can of mini abalones – they’re especially cheap this year due to a dip in demand.

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We bought a 2-in-1 BBQ/hotpot stove from Lazada, just for this.

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The soup base we used was from Hai Di Lao. We bought the shrimp flavour thinking it would be mild, but it was actually quite spicy. It also had preserved vegetables, which gave it a sour tang. Personally, I prefer something milkier and sweeter, so I will probably go for another flavour the next time around.

I know processed foods aren’t the healthiest, but seafood cheese tofu and bursting pork balls (above) are my favourites whenever I have hotpot. Seafood cheese tofu is usually made from surimi, so the texture is bouncy, and it has bits of creamy cheese within; while bursting pork balls are so called because there is hot soup in the centre, so caution should be taken whenever you bite into them so the juices within don’t spill everywhere and burn your tongue.

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My parents weren’t keen on the pork belly slices, so my brother and I ate most of them. I can safely say that I ate my fill lol. I prefer mine cooked in the hotpot, because they tend to get crispy and hard on the grill (I like mine to be soft so you can taste the texture of the fat and lean meat). Dip them in some soy sauce and chilli, and voila! Magic. We rarely have hotpot at home, so this was a very satisfying experience.

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By the time we finished dinner and the washing up it was nearly 10pm. We had initially planned to have our yee sang right after, but everyone was too full, so we watched Bad Genius on Netflix and waited for midnight.

Instead of the usual salmon yee sang, we got a fruits version this year. My cousin and his girlfriend are doing it as a part-time business, so it was our way of showing support (I also sent two sets to friends). It was basically a fruit salad consisting of green and red grapes, strawberries, mandarin oranges, carrots, pomegranates and dragonfruit (we didn’t add this in because it was too soft and watery), plus toasted pumpkin and sesame seeds. In place of plum sauce was honey.

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All in all, good, albeit on the sour side despite the addition of honey.

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After all that feasting on reunion dinner night, our first day of CNY was tamer affair. Traditionally, many families will observe a vegetarian meal after the extravagance of the previous night – we had a simple meal of udon and mock meat with fried egg for lunch. Also spent the afternoon playing mahjong. Everyone was rusty, because we only do this once a year lol.

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I received a nice surprise on the morning of Day 2: my friend H sent me a CNY package!

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Went out in the afternoon with Pops to Moon Palace Restaurant, to pick up our order of poon choi. For my non-Chinese readers, it’s basically a Cantonese dish comprised of a pot filled with luxurious seafood and meat items, which are then poured over with a rich sauce. Due to the large portions, it is meant to be shared, and you’ll often see it at festive occasions like Chinese New Year and weddings. I’ve only had poon choi once or twice during food reviews, never with the fam, so it was a first for all of us.

Our poon choi came with abalone, dried oysters stuffed with fat choi (a type of cyanobacteria with the appearance of human hair – it sounds gross lol but tastes like seaweed), roast duck, poached chicken, brocolli, huge shiitake mushrooms, abalone mushrooms, prawns, yam, scallops and roast pork. The oyster sauce that was to be poured over coagulated slightly from the cold, but otherwise everything was excellent. I especially liked the abalone mushrooms: they were thick and juicy. It’s no wonder people use them in making imitation meat – the texture is very similar.

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And finally, to round up our 2nd day, another round of yee sang; this time vegetarian.

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Bonus: Air-dried clay Mandarin Oranges my brother made for fun.

While this CNY lacks the cheer and pomp of yesteryears, I think I actually enjoyed it more. The weekend was spent bonding with the fam, playing Divinity 2: Original Sin, embroidering (new hobby!), and just eating. Like a lot. I think between Pops, the brother and I, we finished five cans of snacks and a dozen canned drinks. Also, I got no exercise in at all, so it’s not surprising that I gained 2kg.

It’s back to the grind tomorrow, and I’ll be getting back into my workout routine as well.

Hope you all had a good celebration!

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Celebrating Chinese New Year In The Middle Of A Pandemic

Chinese New Year, also called the Lunar New Year, is set to fall on 12 February this year. It marks the beginning of a new year according to the traditional lunar calendar, and heralds the arrival of spring. 

Here in Malaysia, Chinese New Year is a pretty big thing, since people of Chinese descent make up more than 20% of the population (about 6 million people). If this was any other year, CNY decor in malls would have already been up right after Christmas. There’d be cookie displays flooding bakery shelves; Padini/Uniqlo would be packed with shoppers buying new clothes on sale, and we’d all be subjected to the torture of loud, repetitive dong dong chiang music 24 hours a day, 7 days a week across all TV and radio channels. 

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Unfortunately, we are in the middle of a pandemic – and like all the other people who made sacrifices last year for Christmas, Deepavali and Hari Raya, it is now our turn to give up the freedom that we often take for granted: the ability to travel home to see our loved ones.

On 13 January 2021, the Malaysian government implemented a second targeted Movement Control Order (MCO), restricting travel to and from red zone states. Workers in non-essential services are required to work from home, travel is restricted to a 10 kilometre radius to buy groceries and essentials, and eateries are only allowed to run on a take-away/delivery basis. Of course, celebrations of any kind are no longer allowed, as are things like weddings and other events. (Adding to the whole hullabaloo is the national Emergency which was declared by our King because of political in-fighting, but that’s for another entry lol.) 

The last time we had an MCO was back in March 2020, and it lasted for two months. Although the current MCO has only been announced for the next two weeks, many people are foreseeing an extension, at least for a further two weeks. With thousands of cases daily in Malaysia (at the time of this writing, there have been over 100 deaths in the last two weeks), most (sane) people understand that this is necessary to break the infection chain and ensure public health and safety. 

Since no events are allowed and travel is restricted, many of us will have to make do with a quiet celebration at home this year. While we won’t be able to observe certain traditions, I think that technology has allowed us to adapt (and innovate) in ways that would not have been possible 20 or 30 years ago – and we can use that to make CNY 2021 a memorable one. 

Reunion Dinner 

The reunion dinner on the eve of CNY is an integral part of CNY celebrations – some even consider it to be even more important than New Year’s Day.Traditionally, it’s when everyone gathers to feast and wish for a prosperous year ahead, whilst enjoying dishes with auspicious meanings (usually fish, pork, prawn and chicken – since back in the days meat was difficult to come by and would only be eaten on special occasions).

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Fam reunion dinner from 2018

The food for reunion dinners used to be prepared at home by the women folk. More than just preparing a meal, it was a way for people to bond. When my grandparents were still alive, the kitchen on CNY eve was a battlefield, and my grandma commandeered it like a general: slicing, dicing and supervising her helpers (my aunties). I kind of missed that after she passed away. In the last few years, eating out has become a trend, since nobody wants to go through the hassle of cooking and washing up for 20 people. Now that there are once again dine-in restrictions at restaurants, perhaps it’s time we went back to the drawing board and rediscover what it means to cook, and eat, together. 

For those who aren’t able to attend the reunion dinner night, I think it would be a good idea to set up some sort of Skype or Zoom call with family, so that you’d still be able to ‘eat’ together –  sort of like what I did with the hubs for our anniversary last year. It won’t replace being there in person, but in these unprecedented times, we have to make do with what we can – and it will hopefully stave off some of the loneliness that people who live away from home will undoubtedly feel during the festive season. 

Ang Pau Mali

Another tradition synonymous with CNY is the giving of red packets (ang pau) containing money to unmarried members of the family. As a kid, I was always super excited to receive ang paus (RM100 was a lot of money for a kid in the 90s). Funny thing though: at the end of each visit, the money would go to my mom, who’d keep it for ‘investment’…. And I’d never see it again lol. (Just kidding, I love you mom.) 

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Now that I’m married, I’ll no longer be on the receiving end, sadly. Under normal circumstances, it’s understandable not to give an angpau if you’re not visiting a particular relative. Unfortunately for married folk, the emergence of e-wallet apps and e-angpaus means that some of us won’t be able to wriggle out of it with the in absentia excuse: your nephews and nieces will probably say, “Aiya auntie, send it through e-angpau lah!” 

In With The New 

People usually buy new things for CNY (especially clothes), as it signifies a fresh start. Many clothing retailers are not able to open their brick and mortar shops, so more have gone online to provide for their customers. You can also find nice clothes on platforms like Shopee and Lazada for super cheap.

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There are pros and cons to shopping online. While it’s certainly more convenient and safer (no hour-long queue to get into the changing room, no fighting with another auntie for the same shirt you both have your eyes on at the sale rack), it can also be challenging for people with unusual body shapes/sizes, since they can’t see or feel the material/ cutting prior to their purchase. (Like yours truly. I have huge… shoulders. winkwink.) If you’re going to buy stuff online, best do it early to avoid disappointment, in case your item comes late in the mail. 

Chinese New Year foods in Malaysia

*Photo: evelynquek, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Buying gift hampers for associates, or cookies / treats for friends and family is another long standing CNY practice, and again, online shopping makes it convenient to have your items shipped directly to the doorstep of your recipient. As for treats for personal consumption, if you have the time, it might be a good idea to try your hand at baking/making your own. If you’re enterprising, you can even make a larger batch to sell and earn some extra money on the side. 

Cleaning / Decorating the House

People often underestimate the importance of decorating one’s personal space to elevate the mood. I believe it’s crucial; not to show off, but to re-centre yourself and your frame of mind. It’s one of the reasons why I wear office clothes even while working from home, because it kicks my mind into ‘work mode’. Lounging in pyjamas all day is comfy, but it also makes me more inclined to go roll around on the bed every 10 minutes. Similarly, just because no one is visiting for CNY doesn’t mean your house shouldn’t be clean and tidy.  

Unfortunately, technology has not yet evolved to the point where I’m able to kick back with a nice cup of coffee and a book, while my robot assistant does everything for me. So, manual labour it is.

CNY in 2021 will certainly be different, but if you put it into perspective, it’s not all doom and gloom. Traditions are meant to be kept and preserved, but if that isn’t possible due to circumstances beyond our control, then perhaps it’s time to innovate some new traditions. 

That being said, McD’s Prosperity Burger is back on the menu. 

Some things just never change. 

If you enjoyed reading this post, consider giving me a figurative angpau. Contrary to popular belief, I do not make big moolah from writing – and this will go towards hosting fees and ensuring that I can continue to deliver authentic content for your reading pleasure. Thanks for stopping by!

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Merry Christmas!

Christmas has always been my favourite time of the year. Although I don’t celebrate it religiously, I just like the cheer and excitement that comes with the season – the beautiful Christmas decorations, the splendid feasts and festive dishes, the gifts and the gatherings.

The pandemic has certainly put a damper on things, as many people are unable to celebrate the holiday season with their loved ones due to safety/health concerns, work, or travel restrictions. I had been looking forward to my first proper Christmas with N, but since he’s still stuck in the Philippines, we have no choice but to be patient and hope things get better soon. The important thing is that we’re both healthy and safe.

While I wasn’t able to celebrate Christmas with the husband, I still got a bit of low-key celebrating in with a couple of friends. So here’s what I’ve been up to!

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I met up with some ex-colleagues for Christmas brunch, and bought them some pampering items from The Body Shop as gifts.

My office used to have a tradition where we’d all go for a Christmas dinner – usually a buffet at a hotel – where we’d eat and exchange gifts. It’s true what they say about not knowing what you’ve got till it’s gone – I never realised how much I’ve come to enjoy them. It feels a little weird that the company started off with 11 people this year… and now I’m left all by my lonesome. 😦

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More gifts, but for a different group of friends.
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Also took the chance to grab some pampering masks: ChrisZen was having a sale – only RM1 per mask!
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Also, finally managed to clear out the office a couple of days before Christmas. My ex-colleague was supposed to help before he left, but he dropped the ball so I was left to do all of it alone lol.

The main problem was the boxes of electronics and files I had to ship to our main office in Singapore. There were two huge Apple monitors, and I couldn’t find boxes that were big enough to fit them (lesson learned: NEVER throw away your original box). Custom-made boxes are expensive, and it would take time to make them to the required specifications.

In the end, my ex-designer was a lifesaver – she came to the office with two of her friends who do prop-making on the side. They basically cut and put together smaller boxes to make a big one so that the monitors would fit. They also helped to dismantle the wooden cupboard and shelves we had in the office, so I didn’t need to get a lorry service to cart them away. Thanks guys!

I still had to throw a lot of stuff away; 10 boxes of keychains, luggage tags, old magazines, cardboard boxes and stuff. I’m not young anymore so it was torture lugging all the stuff to the big dumpster outside the mall, four floors below. A good workout but my back was killing me for days after lol.

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Rewarded myself for all that hard work @KFry, 1Utama
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Met up with a high school friend, G, who’s back from Ipoh for the holidays. She has three adorable cats. They’re triplets, so they have the same orange and white pattern.

Cats are like people and have unique personalities: which is the case with these three. The oldest, Big Bean, is friendly, playful and affectionate; she loves pets and rubbing on your legs. The middle child, Zhong Fen (Mandarin for ‘centre parting’ – because she has a pattern in the middle of her forehead) is quiet, haughty and antisocial: she shot me a distrustful look when I put out my hand for her to sniff, then promptly turned around and showed me her butt. She also dislikes being manhandled, and protested loudly when my friend’s son tried to hug her.

The youngest, Small Bean, is calm and cool, and likes to observe. The first thing she did after being let out from her cage was jump on top of the fridge, so that she’d have a good view of the surroundings.

I think G’s doing an excellent job with her cats, despite being a first-time owner. They’re all fat, fluffy and clean.

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Zhong Fen
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“Gib pets”: Big Bean
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Christmas Day was spent playing with my DIY candle kit, which I ordered from Lazada. Now, I’m not very good with arts and crafts (or anything that requires working with my hands lol). But the process was actually fairly simple, and I’m happy with the result. Will detail this in a separate post! 🙂

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And finally, I met up with another friend, H, for lunch. It was good to catch up and walk around the mall. Felt almost normal again. The mall was surprisingly empty (we went to Sunway Velocity) – a far cry from how Pavilion KL was over the weekend. The crowd there was crazy. I think people aren’t even worrying about the pandemic anymore. You can’t blame the government when they announce 2,000+ cases if you’re not even practicing social distancing.

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H said: “You’ll probably laugh when you unwrap my present”. Sure enough, I did. It was just really funny that she gift wrapped the Super Rings But it was this simple gift and gesture that, to use the old-fashioned idiom, warmed the cockles of my heart.

So that was my Christmas! I initially wanted to bring a little festive cheer to the house by suggesting we get each other gifts, but was promptly shot down by the Moo. Not giving up though… there’s always next year.

How did you celebrate Christmas? 🙂

Yohoho!

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How To Be A Cheapskate: Christmas Edition

When I was younger, I used to scoff at people who’d go out of their way to get free samples.

“There’s shower gel at home, why on earth would anyone want to take that tiny little bottle that will probably only last for one use?” was basically my attitude to people who took amenities from the hotel after a stay. Spoken like a true spoilt brat lol.

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But as with everything in life, change is the only constant – and now that I’m at that age where the burger boy actually calls me ‘kak‘ instead of ‘cik‘, I can finally understand why.

I come from a middle class family, and growing up, I knew my parents weren’t rich so I’ve never asked for anything. But at the same time, I’ve never wanted for anything – I’ve always had quality clothes to wear, good food to eat, all the books I could ever read. I had a Digivice, a Walkman, a vid game console, and in my teens – a mobile phone – which was more than what most kids my age (at that time anyway) could say they had.

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After coming out to work, though, I’ve come to realise the value of money. Now if I wanted something, I had to work for it. And as you get older and have more commitments (family, household, etc.) you realise that every little thing adds up t – and if you can get something that would help you save, no matter how small, you’d jump on it in a flash.

2020 has, all in all, been a pretty shitty year for a lot of people. I count myself luckier than most (Haven’t been laid off. Yet.) but I’ve also been more cautious in spending.

Since it’s the festive season, though, I wanted to give myself a little treat after a long year of ‘fasting’. So I devised… a little plan.

THE PLAN

The ‘plan’ was actually accidental.

I’m not a girly girl, and I rarely buy makeup / clothes / accessories / bags. My only weakness is body products and fragrances. I love candles, scents, shower gels, lotions, face masks… that sort of thing. Because of this, I follow a lot of brands on social media like The Body Shop, Lush, L’Occitane, etc. It so happened that while scrolling through my feed recently, I happened across an online event by The Body Shop, which promised a free jute bag: all I had to do was RSVP to the event, take a screenshot to confirm that I was ‘going’, and redeem the bag when I next visit any of their physical stores.

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Who can resist a scented vanilla candle and a nice diffuser? Photo for illus only don’t actually put candles on your bed, folks. Via Pexels

So … you know how ad targeting works on the Internet ? Once you’ve clicked on one thing, the system records this ‘interest’ and will recommend (read: bombard) you with related ads. I was suddenly getting dozens of body/ beauty product ads – most of which were offering promos/sales for Christmas. Some were even gamifying their campaigns, to make them more fun and interactive.

With this in mind, I started looking up different brands, to see if I could get a similar ‘deal’ as the one from The Body Shop. My goal was to look for giveaways with no minimum purchase – so I could get stuff for free, with no strings attached.

My second goal was to look for brands that were all under one roof, so I wouldn’t have to go to and fro and waste gas money. Since 1 Utama Shopping Centre is close to my work place, and they have dozens of beauty brands, I used the place as a ‘benchmark’ for my search: by looking up all the possible beauty brands available in the mall’s directory. Yes I know I have too much time on my hands lol.

The first one I found was Kiehl’s. They had made this nice little interactive game, where players had to complete a few in-game tasks like answering questions about their product and playing some mini games, which would then entitle them to free samples. The next was L’Occitane, which had a similar campaign – register, play some games, get samples.

CASHING IN

I went to the office on Sunday to get some packing done, so I dropped by the mall. My first stop was L’Occitane. It was actually pretty fuss-free. I showed my screenshot of the voucher code from their mini game to their staff, and they gave me a packet containing the promised 12 sachets of hair and face care samples. They also invited me inside for a look, although I’m pretty sure they knew I wasn’t there to buy stuff lol. Gotta commend L’Occitane staff though. You know how some staff members treat you dismissively coz they know you’re just there for free samples? None of that here: service was still impeccable.

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will the day come where I’m so rich I can buy stuff without looking at the price tag? We may never know
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Next, Kiehl’s. I’ve never even set foot in a Kiehl’s store before because I know I could never afford their items lol. Still, the brand has a good reputation and it seems like their marketing campaign worked well – because there was a long line of customers waiting to go into the shop. I had nothing better to do so I spent 40 minutes lining up lol. Ask a 20-year-old-me and I’d probably tell you you’re dumb to spend that kinda time for free samples. but like I said, people change.

Again, the staff at Kiehl’s was very profesional – she even explained to me what each sachet is for and how to use them.

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Last but not least, The Body Shop. Unfortunately the 1U outlet had run out of jute bags. I got this from IOI MALLwhile I was out running errands.

WAS IT WORTH IT?

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This might seem funny but I did feel a sense of accomplishment at getting all these samples. While I doubt I’d see much effect from one use, it’s still nice to get what is essentially a treat, and would have cost money to buy under normal circumstances.

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Also, I managed to do a fair bit of Christmas shopping (gifts for friends) while I was at the mall. If it had been solely to get samples, I think I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to do so.

And that is How to be A Cheapskate: Christmas Edition! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it ! And if you have any tips on saving during the festive season, I’d be delighted to hear about it in the comments below.

Seasons Greetings, and have a good one!

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Starbucks Malaysia Reimagines Raya with New Offerings

We’re just a few weeks shy of Hari Raya Aidilfitri. This year’s celebrations will be a little subdued due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Starbucks Malaysia is keen to inject some colour into the festivities – through several exciting new Raya beverage and merchandise offerings.

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I’m sure everyone is missing Air Jagung, which is a must-have at Ramadan bazaars. Taking inspiration from this popular drink, Starbucks has come up with the new Caramel Sweet corn Frappucino – beautifully crafted with premium sweet corn sauce, luscious milk and a generous drizzle of caramel sauce, topped with green tea whipped cream. You’ll feel as if you’re at the heart of the warm, bustling Ramadan markets again!

Starbucks® Chewy Kurma Cookies

Dates are another commonplace during the Ramadan and festive season, and the delectable Chewy Kurma Cookies, a combination of rolled oats, dates and hints of cinnamon, can be enjoyed with close family members at home, or delivered to relatives and friends.

Grab app or Foodpanda app customers can order both items at a special price and have them delivered to your preferred address. Alternatively, order the Starbucks Iftar Together Combo set, where you can get two Grande-sized handcrafted beverages and one slice of cake for only RM29.90.

Aside from its usual beverages, cakes and pastries, Starbucks Malaysia is also offering merchandise through the mobile apps, which can be an option for many if they feel like doing their Raya gifting this season remotely. The brand’s beautifully designed Raya Cups and matching Cup Sleeves for this year are created locally by the Starbucks team in Malaysia and make for wonderful gifts.  The designs combine the very traditions of Malaysian batik with The Fanous, the decorative lanterns that has since become synonymous to Ramadan and Aidilfitri. These lanterns are also significant during these uncertain times as a beacon of hope, and as a light that will keep shining despite the circumstances.

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The local team has also designed a one-of-a-kind Aidilfitri 2020 Starbucks Card. The card’s main feature is its Malaysian Batik pattern with an intricate floral design, and pigments of various shades of green that have been coloured in by hand. The card this year is also unique as it is made from paper, which makes them a more sustainable option. With a minimum activation of RM50, this card is perfect to share with a loved one.

The Iftar Combo Set is available at all stores from 12 May onwards. The Caramel Sweet Corn Frappuccino, Chewy Kurma Cookies and the Aidilfitri 2020 Starbucks Card is already available in all stores nationwide, while stocks last.

For more information, visit the Starbucks Malaysia website at www.starbucks.com.my

9 Must-Have Hari Raya Dishes For the Festive Season

Ramadan Kareem!

Last week marked the start of Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam, when Muslims around the world observe fasting from dawn until dusk. In Malaysia, this is usually a time for Ramadan bazaars – but these have been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some states have come up with innovative ways to help traders, such as through delivery services – and while it may not come close to the festive atmosphere at an actual food bazaar, it’s the best option to ensure that we still get to enjoy some food, help out the traders and most importantly, keep safe and healthy.

After Ramadan comes Eid, known colloquially as Hari Raya Aidilfitri, on May 24. Just like Christmas is celebrated in Western countries as a time for family and togetherness, so is Hari Raya to Muslims. But with travel restrictions expected to be put into place to avoid an exodus of city folk returning to their hometowns (which might cause another wave of infections), members of the public are faced with a very bleak and lonely Hari Raya.

Not all is doom and gloom, however. An essential part of any celebration is food – and I’m pretty sure that we’ll still be able to enjoy some scrumptious Raya dishes: perhaps not at a friend’s open house or a family gathering, but from a restaurant, small-time traders (whom we should definitely support), or if you can make it at home – then all the better!

Rendang 

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Photo credit: Kyle Lam via Flickr

No Hari Raya celebration would be complete without rendang – a spicy slow-cooked meat dish braised in coconut milk and spices. There are many different ways to make it, depending on the state/region you’re from. (One thing it is not, however, is crispy.) Typically, a protein such as chicken, beef or lamb is used, but there are also versions made with seafood like fish, shrimp, crab, squid and cockles. The rendang that I am most familiar with is the regular rendang daging, which is drier than curry but still has plenty of gravy that is excellent with rice. A lot of work goes into making good rendang, with ingredients such as coconut milk (santan) and a paste of mixed ground spices such as ginger, galangal, turmeric leaves, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, chillies and more.

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The rendang from Negeri Sembilan – a state with a large Minangkabau diaspora – has a distinctively Padang influence, with heavy use of turmeric, chilli and santan which gives it a distinctively lighter colour. They also like to use smoked duck as the meat – another Negeri Sembilan specialty. Rendang Tok from the state of Perak, on the other hand, is very dry with little to no gravy, and uses a liberal amount of kerisik (pounded, toasted coconut) and larger chunks of meat that is slow-cooked until tender. My personal favourite? Rendang paru, made from cow lungs. Not very healthy, but t I only have it once a year. 😛

Lemang 

Lemang

Photo credit: zol m via Flickr 

A lot of Hari Raya dishes have strong flavours + gravy, and are made to be eaten with rice. So you definitely can’t miss out on lemang, essentially glutinous rice, salt and coconut milkin a hollowed-out piece of bamboo and grilled over an outdoor fire. You might think it’s easy to chuck rice into bamboo and grill it, but the ‘simplest’ things are often the hardest to execute. The bamboo can’t be too soft or it will break easily, but neither can it be too hard as it will take too long to cook the rice. Maintaining control of the fire and heat is essential, which can be challenging when you’re working with an open fire. The bamboo also has to be turned over constantly, to ensure the rice is cooked evenly and thoroughly. The final result? A slightly sticky, chewy rice with a smoky aftertaste – perfect to go with curry, rendang and serunding (meat floss). 

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Lemang periuk kera, which features rice stuffed into pitcher plants, has become very popular in the last couple of years – although naturalists discourage eating it due to fears that the plant will be over-collected in order to meet demands.

Ketupat 

Ketupat

Photo credit: Sham Hardy via Flickr 

Andddd we have the poster child for Hari Raya – ketupat, or compressed rice. The image of ketupat nasi, housed in iconic diamond-shaped containers woven out of palm leaves, is synonymous with Hari Raya in Malaysia. Like lemang, ketupat is meant to be eaten with all the savoury, curry and gravy-based dishes. Aside from ketupat nasi, there is also ketupat daun palas, which is triangular in shape and made with glutinous rice.  If you can’t get your fill of rice, look out for nasi impit which is basically rice compressed into squares – makes for easy eating! 

Masak Lemak 

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While it’s literally translated to ‘cooked in fat’, masak lemak actually refers to a style of cooking that incorporates coconut milk (yes, we use a lot of that here). The dish is usually prepared with meat such as chicken, beef, fish, seafood and even vegetables. Masak Lemak Cili Api is popular in Negeri Sembilan and has a vibrant yellow colour, with birds-eye chillies thrown in (they’re pretty spicy at 50,000 – 100,000 Scoville units!) alongside turmeric and other spices. For something milder on the palate, there’s Masak Lemak Putih, which is white in colour and often uses vegetables such as cabbage and pumpkin. 

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Masak lemak putih with pumpkin and spinach

Satay

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Satay may not be Hari Raya “exclusive”, but it is certainly part of any Hari Raya gathering worth its salt. And who doesn’t like smoky barbecued meat on skewers, grilled over a charcoal fire? Most common meats are chicken and beef, less common are lamb and seafood. Of course, you can’t miss out on the peanut sauce and nasi impit. Tone down the spice with some cucumber and onions.

Kambing Panggang 

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Again, not Raya exclusive, but you’ll often find it at major festivals in Malaysia celebrated by the Malay community. You’ll often find whole roasted lamb at Ramadan bazaars or at buka puasa/ Hari Raya buffets at hotels, served with black pepper or mushroom sauce.

Sambal based dishes

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Curry-based and masak lemak-based cooking form a large part of Malay and Indonesian cuisine. Rounding it off are sambal-based dishes, which are typically made from a sauce or paste featuring chilli, shrimp paste, garlic, ginger, shallots and other spices. Sambal dishes are very common during Hari Raya – my favourite being sambal sotong (squid), which comes in a spicy, rich and thick, sweet gravy.

Bubur 

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There’s something very hearty and comforting about the humble porridge – perhaps because it is easy to digest, tasty, and warms/fills the belly right up. There are both sweet and savoury variants. Bubur Lambuk, a spiced meat porridge, is a popular dish for breaking fast during Ramadan, and it is also served during Hari Raya. Again, like Rendang, different states have their own versions. The east coast of Peninsular Malaysia uses fish meat and fresh herbs such as fern and cassava leaves, while Bubur Lambuk Utara from the northern states of Malaysia contains egg, shredded chickens and nuts. Personally, I like dessert bubur that uses local fruits and ingredients, such as black sesame, mungbean, red bean and pengat pisang (banana porridge? although it’s more like a stew rather than a bubur per se).

Kuih-Muih 

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Ending this post on a sweet note, we have kuih muih. It’s hard to classify what kuih muih is as they come in all sorts of colours, shapes and flavours –  the best I can describe it is an assortment of cakes, sweets, cookies and snacks. Traditional favourites that are commonly seen during Raya include Kuih Koci – a glutinous rice dumpling with a palm sugar-filled centre, onde-onde (chewy glutinous rice balls with shredded coconut), kuih bakar (baked pandan cake), lepat pisang (steamed banana cake wrapped in banana leaves), talam ubi (tapioca cake) and kuih seri muka (a two layered white and green cake).

 

What are some of your Hari Raya favourites? If you celebrate Eid in other parts of the world, let me know in the comments about some of your traditional dishes!

 

 

 

 

 

Experience Star Wars This Christmas @ Pavilion Kuala Lumpur

As one of the largest and most popular shopping malls in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, one can always expect interesting Christmas decorations at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur come the year-end holiday season. Past celebrations have seen themes such as Christmas Ever After and a Magical Christmas with Disney (featuring hundreds of Mickey figurines). This year, the mall rides on a much-anticipated film releasing in December – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – transforming the Centre Court into a Star Wars-themed exhibition.

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The ‘Starry Christmas’ theme begins at the entrance with a giant pink Yves Saint Laurent tree and a star-shaped gateway. Once you step in, visitors are greeted with booths selling YSL Beaute’s Holiday Look 2019 High on Stars Collection, where you can shop for exclusive gifts for yourself and loved ones.

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The Centre Court is bathed in neon blues and reds to give it that intergalactic vibe. On the sides are giant light sabres rising up to the ceiling, while Sithtroopers guard the Spanish steps.

 

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The centrepiece is the iconic Millennium Falcon, propped atop a giant screen playing clips from the upcoming film.

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Royal Selangor, the homegrown pewter brand, has partnered with The Walt Disney Company Southeast Asia to come up with a Star Wars collection, featuring some of the franchise’s most beloved characters in pewter. You can drop by to view the exhibition, and if anything catches you fancy, buy some to take home.

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And who wouldn’t know this scene?

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Try your hand at the new Star Wars Jedi Fallen Order game at the PS4 booths.

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Or snap a pic in the Cockpit Access and Hyperdrive Tunnel.

As part of the experience, there will be shows and other programmes throughout the month of December, from appearances by C-3PO, R2-D2 & First Order Stormtroopers, Star Wars light shows, as well as the more conventional Santa meet and Greets, carolling, etc.