“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!
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.
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 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.
The first time I took part in a paper effigy burning ceremonywas when I was eight or nine, and Ivividly 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.
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.
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:
Don’t stay out late. – Night is when the spirits are at their strongest, so to avoid anything untoward, avoid staying out after dark.
Don’t go swimming – Angry water spirits might try to drown you.
Don’t swear – you don’t know when a spirit might be lurking around and feel offended.
Don’t wear red – apparently spirits are attracted to the colour red, and might follow you home.
Wash your feet when you get home – to get rid of unwanted bad energy.
Don’t hang your clothes out at night – you might just have an extra guest coming into your house when you collect them
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
We bought a 2-in-1 BBQ/hotpot stove from Lazada, just for this.
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.
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.
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.
All in all, good, albeit on the sour side despite the addition of honey.
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.
I received a nice surprise on the morning of Day 2: my friend H sent me a CNY package!
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.
And finally, to round up our 2nd day, another round of yee sang; this time vegetarian.
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.
Chinese New Year is just around the corner (the first day falls on 12 February), but with the pandemic still raging in many parts of Southeast Asia, celebrations will definitely be more subdued. In Singapore, for example, gatherings will be limited to eight people, no CNY company dinners are allowed, and shouting during lo hei (the act of tossing yusheng, a ‘fish salad’ often served in Malaysia and Singapore during CNY) is also discouraged. Understandable, since no one wants Fourth Uncle’s spit flying all over the place (even before the pandemic, but I guess back then it was… tolerated). Here in Malaysia, the government has yet to announce an extension of our Movement Control Order, but it seems likely to be extended for another two weeks.
I wrote a piece recently about how certain traditions and practices might be observed differently this year, including e-hongbao and online shopping for clothes – and now we can add one more to the list: an app that calls out auspicious sayings like ‘HUAT AH’ (prosperity/good luck) and BU BU GAO XIN (steps to success). If you think about it, it’s actually quite a brilliant solution for lo hei – since saliva is more likely to fall into food what with all the shouting and yelling of auspicious phrases. Also, since many people won’t have the luxury of visiting their relatives, the app is a fun way to liven up the atmosphere – minus the worry of spreading COVID-19.
Created by a kind soul going by the pseudonym DJ Beng, the ‘app’ (they’re calling it an app but it’s really more of a web page, since it only works on Google Chrome) contains 15 auspicious sayings, which you can tap on for the desired phrase. Some of these include the customary “Nian Nian You Yu” (Luck every year) and Huat Ah. There’s also a separate tab for toasting, ie Yamseng. What I find really cute is that the longer you press the “yamm” button, the longer the audio plays: the effect is really reminiscent of actual toasting during Chinese gatherings, where everyone tries to shout yammmmm as long as possible. The audio even includes the typical ‘out-of-breath’ effect you get from people trying to sustain their shouts, so it sounds very realistic!
Best of all? There are both Mandarin and Cantonese options for the lohei. For Cantonese speakers like myself, this is a joy. Canto is being eroded these days in favour of Mandarin, and it’s always nice to see your own language being celebrated.
You can have a go for yourself at djbeng.com/lohei.html. Note: It only works on the Google Chrome browser on your phone.
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.
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.
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).
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.)
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.
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.
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!
Celebrations have been quiet ever since my grandmother passed away.
I read somewhere that matriarchs/patriarchs of a family act like glue, holding the fam together. Once they’re gone, it’s hard to get everyone together in the same place. Some cousins have migrated, while others are travelling with their own nuclear fams over the festive season. Traditions like cooking for reunion dinner night or praying to ancestors have been simplified, if not replaced.
Sometimes I envy my friends who are close to their extended families, because my cousins and I do not share the same bonds. Maybe it’s coz we only see each other once a year. I’m sure that after my parents’ generation, these bonds might be broken for good.
Enough depressing talk though : here’s what we had for CNY reunion dinner! Not wanting my aunt (who’s 70 now) to go through the hassle of cooking, we booked dinner at Delight Seafood Restaurant in Kampung Jawa, Ipoh.
More and more families are doing away with cooking at home in favour of convenience. Restaurants do brisk business during this period, so much so that you have to book a ‘slot’ ie the resto divides diners into two sessions. Ours was at 6.30PM and we had to be out by 8PM to cater to the next round of customers.
To start things off – the customary yee sang, a raw fish salad that is tossed and mixed while diners utter good wishes for the new year. The version here had jellyfish, pomelo, fish cake, crunchy condiments, peanuts and onions. Presentation was sloppy but the taste was pretty good.
Fun fact: Yeesang has roots in Malaysia/Singapore, not from China.
Traditionally, Chinese banquet meals are served plate by plate, but since the resto was rushing for time, they decided to serve everything at once. Not a good strategy since there was barely any space left on the table. We were resigned to eating uncomfortably, bowls cramped to the left and right.
(Clockwise from top) Steamed fish, pork knuckle, soy sauce shrimp, stir fried vegetables and (centre) glutinous rice with waxed meats.
The food was okay, but the only real standout was the glutinous rice, which came with three different cuts of waxed meat – pork, liver and mixed. The pork knuckle was pretty good too, especially the part with the crisp, crackly skin and tender meat underneath layers of fat. Fish was not cooked thoroughly with flesh still sticking to the bone.
The experience could have been better imo, but then again it’s a very busy period for restos and you can’t expect top notch service.
DELIGHT SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
26, 28, 30, Jalan Dass, Kampung Jawa, 30300 Ipoh, Negeri Perak
At the stroke of midnight on the first day of CNY, loud bangs and blasts were heard all over Ipoh: the sounds of fireworks being set off to usher in a new year and new beginnings.
Ten years ago I might have been among the revelers, but at 28? Tucked snugly into my mattress by 11PM. When the fireworks started, I was mildly annoyed and dimly aware of my uncle, auntie, cousin and mom talking in the living room. Then I went back to sleep lol.
Yep, middle-aged aunties and uncles have more stamina than me these days.
The upside? Woke up early, in time to catch the beautiful view of the sunrise! Since the cousin’s place is an apartment and there are no tall buildings around, I had an uninhibited view of the surrounding limestone hills. Beautiful ❤
The bro came out from the room and upon seeing this scene, we simultaneously started singing the theme from Lion King.
Busy, busy day! Time to visit relatives, a practice known as Bai Nian. There were some years where we visited some relatives but not others due to time constraints / frail health (it’s complicated. Me mum’s always sick /depressed) but this year, we went the whole hog and visited every single one of my maternal relatives.
We picked up my second aunt (Ah Yee) from her house, while my uncle and his fam tagged along. We went to visit my Dai Yee (eldest aunt), who is my mum’s half-sister from my grandfather’s previous marriage. She’s very old now, can barely walk and has dementia. As with many dementia patients, she keeps forgetting recent things and places, but remembers old incidences clearly. She has also reverted to speaking Sei Wui, the mothertongue of my mom’s clan, which none of us of this generation are able to speak anymore.
Dai Yee lives in a traditional wooden house, typical of Chinese villages built during the Malayan Emergency. The walls are mostly plank/wooden panels, with unpolished concrete floors and zinc roofing. Old pictures lined the walls, some of Dai Yee in her younger days, as well as other family members.
OMG there was a mingming. Chinese families don’t usually keep cats so I was super psyched when I saw this handsome kitty sprawled out on the floor of the kitchen. Immediately sat down and gave it some chin scratches.
Also some doggos on the outside. Old doggo (brown) was fierce and kept growling at us, while two smaller doggos sat around scratching themselves.
Sat on the verandah and munched on cookies and snacks while chatting. Then it was off to Gopeng to visit my eldest blood-aunt (I call her Sam Yee which is technically ‘third’, but she’s the eldest among my mom’s blood siblings).
The visits were slightly depressing coz they were all talking about how much pain they were in. Mum has a bunch of ailments like arthritis, insomnia, gastric problems, osteoporosis, mild depression, my second aunt has the same, my third aunt has diabetes and rather severe depression, and my uncle has the usual joint pains and stuff that come with old age. A lot of the stuff is hereditary, so I’m guessing I’ll probably have them as I get older too. Sigh.
Anyway I fell asleep on the couch because there wasn’t much to do. The good thing is that with so many visitations, I got a lot of angpaus lol.
Visiting my paternal family that night. One of my aunt’s had brought her ‘baby’ back – a mini schnauzer by the name of Pepper. The bro attempted to show off some magic tricks.
What a sweetie!
And just like that, the first day of CNY passed by in the blink of an eye!
I think it’s important to spend some time visiting relatives, because who knows how many visits I’ll have left? Many of my aunts and uncles are getting old, as are my parents, and we aren’t close to our cousins, some of whom have migrated or are in the process of migrating. It’s kind of a sad thing. Festivals used to be so much more livelier when my grandparents were around.
It’s much more laid-back than Kuala Lumpur, the people are nice and friendly, and most importantly (for me at least) there’s plenty of good food. But because I come here so often (parents are from Ipoh), I’ve run out of new places to visit lol.
While Googling, I stumbled upon a place called Qing Xin Ling Cultural Village, which literally translates to ‘Forest of Tranquility’. Since we had lots of time to kill before the reunion dinner, the fam and I drove to Gunung Rapat, about 20 minutes from Ipoh town center, to check it out.
Qing Xin Ling is sandwiched between two cave temples, namely Sam Poh Tong and Kek Lok Tong. Unfortunately, the cultural village area, which encompasses a lake and a park, was CLOSED :(((. Spoke to a local there and he said it had been closed for some time now, due to complaints from residents living in the housing estate nearby. Owing to its popularity as a tourist destination, buses had been coming by the loads at all times of the day, ruining the roads and causing a disturbance in the otherwise quiet neighbourhood.
Since we couldn’t go in, we contented ourselves to visiting the Buddhist/Taoist temple and hall just outside the park. The ground floor leading to a community hall area was flanked by four large statues, elaborately carved and decked out in gold colours. Judging from their fierce expressions, I would guess they are door gods or guardians of the temple.
Nothing much on the ground floor except a small library with religious books/CDs that you can take home, in exchange for donations to the temple. They also have an office of sorts and a counselling centre, which was closed for the Lunar New Year. The volunteer on duty suggested we head upstairs, where we found a spacious prayer hall. The floor of the hall is made from a fragrant type of hardwood with a sweet and pleasant smell.
Beautiful lotus-shaped lights threw dancing rays of light across the walls and ceiling, which were painted over to resemble vast blue sky and clouds. Lining the walls were colourful depictions of deities.
The main altar with Buddha, flanked by the Goddess of Mercy as well as several other deities. The hall was warm though so we didn’t spend much time inside.
Lunch time at Ipoh Parade.
Went back to rest at my cousin’s place. He just moved into a new apartment (one of the few high rise buildings that are slowly but surely springing up all over Ipoh) and the balcony view was awesome! One can see the layers of limestone hills forming a ring around the city.
3-bedroom setup with 2 bathrooms. The apartment also had the usual facilities such as a small swimming pool, gym and sauna room.
Reunion dinner that night was at the paternal family’s house.
If you are unaware of Chinese customs, reunion dinner night and the first day of the Lunar New Year are traditionally spent with the father’s side of the family. Daughters who have married only return to visit their own families on the second day or later. In modern times, people are more relaxed about this rule but our fam still practices it.
The day starts early for my Sar Kor (Hokkien for third aunt), who is the only one among my father’s siblings that inherited my grandmother’s cooking prowess. She’s 70 this year, and still singlehandedly prepares most of the food for my entire clan of aunties, uncles and cousins. While the rest of the fam living in other states travel to Ipoh in the morning, she’ll be busy cooking away in the kitchen.
Everyone is usually there by late afternoon, when ancestor worship takes place. The ancestral tablets for my grandparents as well as my great grandfather sit alongside the Buddhist and Taoist deity statues that my fam prays to. Sar Kor will lay out a portion of the food that has been prepped, whereby everyone takes turns to offer joss-sticks. Once that’s done, it’s chill time till dinner time.
We didn’t used to have Yee Sang for our reunion dinner, until the last couple of years. I used to think this dish was meh but it has really grown on me.
Delectable spread of home cooking!
In Chinese culture, dishes for festive occasions are often steeped in symbolism. Since the Lunar New Year marks new beginnings, there is always fish for abundance and shrimp for laughter and happiness – the reason being that the words are homonyms. Fish – Yu (abundance) and Shrimp – Ha (sound of laughter). Also, these two seafood ingredients were expensive back in the day and therefore were considered a luxurious treat that many might only be able to have once a year.
Some dishes are a nod to our Hokkien roots, like salted vegetable and duck soup (which my dad absolutely adores), but there are also are also a few Nyonya specialties that were handed down from my grandma, who learnt most of her cooking from a Nyonya neighbour. These include jiuhuchar (jicama and yambean), lor bak (stuffed beancurd rolls with five spice powder).
Had a great time stuffing my face catching up with the fam, and left completely stuffed. It’s always nice to eat home cooking!
After Chinese New Year, the Mid-Autumn Festival/Mooncake Festival is probably the next most important celebration in Chinese culture. Held on the 15th day of the 8th month in the lunar calendar, the festival has origins dating back thousands of years and is rooted in moon worship.
Today, it is celebrated in many parts of the world where there are Chinese communities, including in Malaysia. Families come together to admire the moon, drink tea, play with lanterns, and of course, tuck into mooncakes.
I was psyched to try out the mooncakes from Shanghai@ JW Marriott KL and Li Yen@Ritz Carlton KL at the latter’s venue, where they had set up a special tasting session for us. Aside from traditional favourites like black bean and lotus paste filling, both restaurants are offering innovative new flavours that include – get this – Moet Chandon champagne and port wine with cream cheese.
First, we sampled some of the items from Ritz-Carlton’s award-winning Li-Yen restaurant. Making a comeback this year thanks to popular demand is the Mini Snow Skin Cream Cheese with Port Wine Mooncake (in purple). The skin was sweet and delicate, infused with the rich flavour of port wine, while the cream cheese added a hint of saltiness that balanced everything out well.
Its easy to see why the Mini Snow Skin Moet & Chandon Rose Imperial Champagne Mooncake (in pink) is a bestseller: there is an elegant and distinctive aroma of champagne, coupled with a silky lotus paste centre.
Traditional variants like White Lotus Paste with Double Egg Yolk, Red Bean Paste, Lotus Paste with Single Egg Yolk are also available, as well as the Li Yen Kam Tui which is filled with nuts and Chinese ham.
A box of four baked mooncakes is priced from RM88 nett, while a box of eight mini mooncakes is priced from RM104nett. They can also be purchased individually at RM13 nett per piece. The promotion is available from September 5 to October 4 2017.
We moved on to sample the painstakingly handmade creations from dimsum chefs at Shanghai @ JW Marriott KL, which featured more baked varieties on top of the usual snowskin offerings. Flavours are decidedly more traditional/Oriental, with the likes of Snow Skin Fermented Black Garlicwith Salted Egg Yolk, delicate Snow Skin Shiro Umeboshi with Green Tea and the Snow Skin Custard Paste with Mint. I enjoyed the custard paste with mint – it was like eating a light cake with a refreshing hint of mint.
Other new creations this year include theBaked Pandan Paste with Salted Egg Yolk and Baked Green Tea Paste with Salted Egg Yolk. Durian lovers should definitely not miss out on the popularSnow Skin Durian Paste with Truffle, made with fresh Musang King durians. Of course, one can’t go wrong with gifts of Baked White Lotus Paste with Salted Egg Yolk, Baked Black Sesame Paste, Baked Bamboo-Charcoal Paste with Salted Egg Yolk and Deep Fried Crispy Yam.
Available from 28 August to 10 October, a box of 6 mini mooncakes is priced from MYR 93.28 nett and a box of 4 large mooncakes are priced at MYR 178.10 nett.
After the tasting, we had a mooncake making session with the chefs. Of course, it wasn’t really cooking since all the pastes/ingredients were ready – all we had to do was roll and stuff the snow skin mooncakes with filling and fit them into pretty molds overlaid with Chinese characters. Brought two to take home!
Numbers/info for both restaurants:
Li Yen: +60 3 2782 9033 or send an email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shanghai: +60 3 2719 8288 or email email@example.com.
*Photos not watermarked courtesy of Shanghai JW Marriott and Li-Yen Ritz Carlton KL