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Chinese New Year, Terengganu Peranakan-style

Like the rest of the Chinese community in Malaysia, they celebrate Lunar New Year but with a twist.

Djohan Shahrin
3 minute read
In this quiet, unassuming wooden house in a village in Terengganu, a Peranakan Chinese family is ramping up preparations for this year's Lunar New Year celebrations.
In this quiet, unassuming wooden house in a village in Terengganu, a Peranakan Chinese family is ramping up preparations for this year's Lunar New Year celebrations.
Chia Soon Thye climbs a ladder to hang red Chinese lanterns on the beams holding up the zinc roof of the porch, helped by his wife, Lua Tse Ling.
They also paste pieces of red card on the walls bearing good wishes for the year to come. While the family, like other Peranakan Chinese in the state, have adopted many aspects of Malay culture in their lives including the language, they still maintain the Chinese traditions in celebrating the New Year.
Seventy-two-year-old Yee Choo Im, fondly known as ‘mek’, joins in the fun, hanging the Chinese character for ‘prosperity’ upside down according to traditional beliefs that this will help riches shower down on the family. Yee was originally from Kelantan but moved to Terengganu after getting married in 1966.
Yee sits on a raised platform at the threshold of her house. Since her husband’s death in 2015, she has celebrated New Year with her sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. She has been looking forward to this year’s celebrations as it has been two years since their last big do.
Yee sets out food on plates ahead of her guests’ arrival, helped by her niece, who is decked out in a bright red kebaya in honour of the occasion.
Together, Yee and her daughter-in-law, Lua, produce plate after plate of delicious food from the small, simple kitchen at the back of the house.
Yee carefully carries a large platter laden with food for her guests. Here, traditional New Year food includes nasi lemak, nasi dagang and a large assortment of Malay kuih.
But there is also the ubiquitous nian gao or kuih bakul which Yee makes herself out of glutinous rice flour.
Nian gao, which takes a long time to make, is a must-have during Chinese New Year. It is traditionally an offering to the Kitchen God, to fill his mouth with sweet, sticky cake so that he cannot bring a bad report of the household to the Jade Emperor.
Elsewhere in the house, the womenfolk, young and old, are getting dressed for New Year. For the Peranakan Chinese in Terengganu, the baju kebaya is their traditional outfit during such occasions.
Hanging on the wall overhead are portraits of Yee’s family members as well as her collection of old cassette tapes which can no longer be played but are kept for their sentimental value.
Other portraits taken during weddings and on special occasions hang on the living room walls, illuminated by the sunlight that seeps in through the cracks in the zinc roof.
Yee and Lua light joss sticks to be used during their prayer ceremony.
They also set out small cups of tea and saucers of sweet red dates as an offering to the gods.
Together, they say their prayers for the year ahead before the large altar in the living room.
Afterwards, Yee goes to the wall of portraits to look at the last one in line, showing her and her late husband.
Outside, the guests have begun to arrive, including friends and neighbours who have come to wish Yee a happy New Year. Dressed in colourful baju kurungs and baju Melayu, they greet Yee and her family before entering the house.
Together, they sit around the small table enjoying the snacks and drinks laid out by Yee and her family.
The festivities continue outside, where Yee bustles about making sure that there is enough nasi dagang, nasi lemak, ketupat and kuih to go around.
A young woman dressed in her best red kebaya sits against a wall decorated with cards bearing Chinese New Year wishes.
And, of course, Yee never forgets to hand out the ang pows or red packets which are traditionally given to children and those who are not yet married.