It just jumped out at me. Out of the blue from a nondescript apparel store in Jurong East Mall. “Gong Xi Gong Xi” repeated to the power of infinity, doled out in shrill children voices. When that ordeal was finally over, it was followed by another sung to the tune of a 90s hit Chinese number by Sally Yeh <<潇洒走一回>>, replacing bluster and bravado with wealth, happiness and good health.
It was Boxing Day, a day after Christmas. The silver and blue decorations were still up, with at most a day more before they were to be replaced with red lanterns and ang bao fish. But it’s not entirely unsurprising, given the large sales volume around festive periods. This year, it’s a tight race to sell as many cookies as possible in just 6 weeks. Stores have already extended their shelves out into public spaces and are actively lobbying for attention with mammoth loudspeakers. But no one really complains. Especially on the first two days of Chinese New Year (CNY), the roads in Redhill would be packed with illegally parked cars for hours on end but no summons would be issued.
I wonder if it’s happenstance that my favourite kueh bangkit is all the way at the bottom of the stack?
3 years ago on the second day of CNY, I took a picture of my extended family gathered at my grandparents place. We had just finished dinner, well into the night. The television was showing yet another festive Hong Kong movie that traded plot logic for an opportunity to feature all their top actors. Packed into the small 3-room flat, there were 2 Mahjong tables with children attendant on the side and a bigger group of cousins and aunts playing ‘Dai Di’ (Hokkien for Big Two) on the floor. Stakes were small but every reaction was hyperbolic, cries of anguish and jubilation. And mind you, my relatives have powerful lungs. Thankfully, like the illegally parked cars, everyone is a little more forgiving during Chinese New Year.
My aunt turned to me, curious why I had stopped to take a picture. I replied, “It’s not often that we do this.” My mum smiled at me.
2 years later, the mood was a lot more sombre when the same Mahjong tables were set up at my grandfather's funeral. He was 92.
The following Chinese New Year, no one wore red. By tradition, there were no bright colours and no red packets. Grandmother still went about tending to everyone, making sure we were all fed. The same Mahjong tables were set up, albeit with one less player. We still spoke of him. We talked about how we would knowingly relinquish the tiles that he wanted and deliberately let him win. Not that it was hard for me, I was always bad at Mahjong. Though the younger grandchildren had to be schooled, to learn that winning is not everything, that it’s ok to give up your ang bao money to your grandfather, even if he could barely remember your name.
It was never really the same after he left. It felt like we had less reason to celebrate. My cousins and I were deeply cognizant that the ties that bind us are slowly unravelling as our elders fade into the night. And unless we knowingly make that effort and deliberately come back to that 3-room flat in Redhill, one day we would pass each other by, almost as strangers.
So this year, everyone is coming home, from Shanghai, Bangkok, Boon Lay (It’s almost Malaysia) and other parts of Singapore. To reunite, to eat pineapple tarts and to play Mahjong.
Happy Chinese New Year. Wishing you wealth, happiness and good health.