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Archive for January, 2012

Renri or Yan Yat (Chinese: 人日, literally Human Day), refers to the seventh day of the first lunar month in the Chinese calendar. This year’s Renri falls on 29th January which is today.

According to Chinese legends, Nuwa (女媧) was the goddess who created the world. She created the animals on different days. Chickens were created on the first day, dogs on the second day, pigs on the third day, sheep on the fourth day, cows on the fifth day, horses on the sixth day and humans on the seventh day. Humans were created from the mixture of earth and water. Thus the seventh day was the birthday of mankind. To feed mankind, she then created cereal on the eighth day.

If the weather on Renri is fine, it can be forecast that God will grant good luck to all people on earth while rain means a tough year ahead.

Since the first six days of the first lunar month are considered birthdays of different animals, Chinese people avoid killing these animals on their respective birthdays. Prisoners will not be punished on Renri.

To celebrate Renri on the seventh day of Chinese Lunar calendar, a dish of seven types of salad with raw fish called yee sang “Seven-color sliced fish” (七彩魚生) is eaten both at homes or restaurants. Just toss the ingredients with a pair of chopsticks. The higher you toss them, the better luck you will garner. Don’t forget to utter auspicious phases as you toss the yee sang!

So, Happy Birthday to one and all!

初七人日撈魚生慶生日

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“Please summon all animals, big or small, wild or tame, to see me for one last time before I make my departure from this world,” Buddha instructed Ananda, his closest disciple, one day in 483 BC.

At 80 years of age, The Enlightened One was dying and he wanted to bid farewell to all animals. Of course the animals loved and respected him very much. They were all eager to meet him too.

The cat and rat were good buddies at that time. They play, eat and sleep together. The cat, upon hearing this news, wanted to take a beauty nap first before going because it wanted to look prim and proper. “Remember to wake me up when it is time to go,” it reminded the rat before curling itself up and drifted off to sleep.

This cunning little rodent thought to itself, “The cat is bigger in size than me and its legs are longer, surely it will reach faster than I.” “No, I must run first, or else I will be left behind!” Off the tiny animal ran and along the way, met the ox who was also on his way to meet Buddha.

“Hi Mr. Ox, how about giving me a ride on your strong and handsome horns as my little legs were tired from all the running?” asked the rat.

The ox was a humble and kind animal. He took a pity on the little rat which was panting breathlessly. ”Alright, alright, get on my horns, my little friend, and I will get you across the river!” answered the friendly ox.

When they reached the other side of the river, the little rat jumped down from the horns and ran as fast as it could. It was the first animal to reach Buddha’s death bed. As a result, it was named the first animal in the zodiac calendar. The ox was the next animal to reach and was named the second animal in the cycle.

Of course the cat was furious when it got up and found the rat missing. It felt betrayed by its best friend. From then on, the cat would chase the rat around and eat it up when it sees one.

Meanwhile, a tiger roared loudly on its way, frightening many small animals along its path. They ran helter-skelter to make way for the King of the Jungle. The great feline managed to clinch the third place at Buddha’s side.

A cute little hare hopped and hopped tirelessly to reach the gathering place. It was given a place of honor as the fourth animal in the zodiac calendar.

There was a small village suffering from drought at that time. The villagers were begging for some rain to end their sufferings. The Jade Emperor, upon hearing the people’s pleadings, dispatched the mystical dragon to bring rain to the land. After sprinkling water droplets all over the skies, the majestic creature soared high into the sky before landing at Buddha’s side. It was the fifth animal to make it for the farewell gathering.

A horse came galloping from a faraway land and on its way, met up with a snake. The cunning reptile coiled itself around the horse’s hoof, thus saving itself from having to glide a long journey. When it reaches the site, it uncoiled itself and made its way to Buddha’s death bed. It was given the sixth place while the horse was placed seventh.

After grazing the grasses to its content, a little goat ran over to meet the Buddha. It was the eighth animal to reach there.

The ever greedy monkey swing from tree to tree, plucking fruits and stuffing itself full before making its journey to see the Buddha for the last time. Upon reaching, it found itself to be the ninth animal to arrive at the scene.

“Are there any more animals who wish to see me before I closed my eyes forever?” chuckle the Buddha.

Just then, the rooster came walking in, fresh from his daily duty of waking up the people at dawn. “Ah, so you are the tenth animal that I saw today!” Buddha exclaimed.

Before he could finish speaking, in ran the dog. He was rather late because he had to wait for his master to come home from work before he could take his leave.

“A dog is man’s most loyal, reliable and faithful companion. Although you are late but you did come and I shall honor you with a place in the zodiac, the eleventh place!” Buddha told the canine.

Lastly in came the pig, just aroused from his sleep and reached there in time. It was the twelfth animal and the last in the zodiac calendar.

“Farewell my friends, I wished I could wait longer so that more animals can come but then the time for me to go is already here and I could not wait anymore!” he said to them and closed his eyes, leaving this earthly world for Nirvana, the Land of Everlasting Bliss.

From then on, the Chinese lunar calendar, consisting of a cycle of twelve years, was named after these animals. The rat was always the first while the pig was the last, just like it was on that fateful day when they made their legendary journey to see the Buddha for the final time.

Yes, this is another story Dad told me as we made preparations for the Chinese New Year. Hope you will like this one as well.

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“Run over here and sit on my lap,” Dad gestured to me one evening after a simple dinner.

I was in the kitchen, observing Grandma and Mom making “Far Sang Kok” or peanut puffs with coarse sugar. Grandma was gently rolling a piece of dough with a glass bottle on the table while Mom was sitting on a small wooden stool, diligently grinding some roasted peanuts in a stone mortar with a pestle.

Chinese New Year is just around the corner and we had already cleaned up Dad’s coffee shop the night before. It was time to prepare some delicacies such as “Far Sang Kok” and “Har Bang” or prawn crackers. These snacks go down very well with “Sarsi” or “F & N” and for kids, this is heavenly!

“Come, let me tell you the story why we celebrate Chinese New Year, why we wear red clothes and light up firecrackers,” Dad offered as I sat myself comfortably on his lap. I think he wanted to lure me away from the wok which was filled with hot boiling oil, readied to fry the puffs and crackers.

“It all started with one word – fear,” he said, before going into the story behind the annual spring festival.

“Long ago, in some remote mountains in ancient China,” he began, “lived a ferocious beast called Nian (simplified Chinese: 年兽; traditional Chinese: 年獸; pinyin: nián shòu). It has the look of a lion. Nian loved to hibernate during the long winter months. It slept and slept the days away. When spring finally come, the snow melts and the sun’s rays came shining through. It’s time Nian wakes up and goes searching for food to fill its hungry belly,” my father recounted, tickling my stomach to emphasize how hungry the beast must be and I burst into childish giggles.

“Now, Nian was a carnivorous beast. It loves to devour every little animal in sight. Unsatisfied with this, it would make its way to the nearby villages to prey on the peasants and their families. One by one, children were eaten up and this got the people terrified. The villagers were at a lost as to how to get rid of this dreadful beast. Life became a misery for them,” he sighed.

“One day, a wise old man paid a visit to the villagers. He was actually a benevolent fairy in disguise. He heard that the beast was afraid of red colors and loud noises.”

“Hang some red lanterns and banners outside your homes. Put on red clothes. Bring out your drums, gongs and cymbals. Create as much noises as you can with these instruments. Better still, light up some firecrackers. Red colors and loud noises will frighten the beast away. Give it a try to see whether this method works or not, the old man suggested to the worried people.”

“Left without much choices and living in constant fear of losing more young lives, the people got together and did as were told by the stranger when they sensed that the beast was in their vicinity. They hung red paper lanterns and red cloth banners at their doorsteps. Strings and strings of firecrackers were lit up to the thunderous sounds of drums and gongs,” Dad went on.

“Sure enough, the sight of a sea of red colors and the pulsating noises in the villages sent Nian fleeing as far as its legs could carry it. Seeing the beast had run away, the people were jubilant. They rejoiced by singing, dancing, feasting and congratulating each other for being able to drive the terrible beast away,” he said, locking his fists together to demonstrate how it was done in the Chinese way.

“From then onwards, when winter was over and spring approaches, the people would hang red lanterns and banners outside their doorsteps. They would beat their drums and gongs while letting off firecrackers. All these were done to prevent Nian from coming back. They feared the beast will return to take revenge on them. Of course Nian dare not come back anymore to create havoc when spring arrives,” my father said smilingly.

“Some auspicious terms were coined to describe this annual observation. ‘Nian’ is now used to describe the period of one spring to another, roughly about twelve months or one year. So when you hear somebody says ‘Xin Nian Dao 新年到’ it means a new year has arrived. ‘Guo Xin Nian 过新年’ means moving from the old year into the new one. To congratulate each other for surviving Nian Shou’s cruel onslaughts, we say ‘Gong Xi, Gong Xi 恭喜,恭喜’ when we meet up with friends and relatives. It is a way to express our happiness for being safe from the beast’s path,” Dad explained to me.

“The practice of hanging red items on the doorsteps, beating on the drums and gongs as well as letting off firecrackers soon spread to other villages throughout the empire. Later, lion and dragon dances were incorporated into the celebration too, to create more vibrancy and noises. This practice persisted on to all corners of the globe wherever the people goes,” my father concluded.

So this is what Dad told me and it remained with me all these years. I always think of this story which I heard as a little girl when Chinese New Year is drawing near. My children and I  simply loved it;  hope you do too!

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Back to school

Today is the last day of the seven weeks school holidays. Tomorrow, a new academic year will begin for all school going children in the country. Time really flies!

I think by now most parents have got the basic things ready – uniforms, shoes, stockings, bags and stationery. It is not cheap to prepare a child to school. It is worst if you have a few school going children!

One very important lesson I had learnt over the years is – never ever buy cheap stuffs for your kids. Cheap stuffs don’t last long and if your kids need to use them every day, it is advisable to buy good quality stuffs so that they can be more durable.

Take for instance, the school shoes.

Years ago, I bought two pairs of school shoes from the night market for my son. They looked so flawless and came cheap. But the thing is – they do not have a brand’s name. And guess what? They could not survive a month after school started! The shoes looked like baby crocodiles with mouths wide opened. In the end, I have to buy again. This time I got him two pairs of branded ones. They saw him through the year.

“Cheap things don’t come good and good things don’t come cheap” is true in this case. In other words, a pair of branded shoes is better than two pairs of cheap ones from the night market.

I had just spent several hundreds of dollars on two kids alone. It is roughly a month’s salary of a kindergarten teacher or half a month’s of an office clerk. Yes, it costs that much because secondary school’s uniforms are more expensive than primary’s. This excludes the school fees. So, when you add the school fees into the bill, it will be more than a thousand dollars.

  

It is easier now since many parents have access to credit cards. Just imagine how tough it is for the parents of yesteryear when they do not earn much and have a big brood of children to educate.

I remembered watching my Mom breaking the clay piggy bank in the shape of a rooster and also going to the pawn shop with a few rings or necklaces for some money so that we could start school like the rest. While “First to Bata, then to school” was a popular slogan for many families, it was “First to Weng Fook, then to school” for us. Weng Fook was a pawn shop two blocks from our shop on Hugh Low Street.

  

With five school going children and Dad struggling to make ends meet after our coffee shop had closed down, it was a miracle that we could still go to school and have a decent education. Dad and Mom were both uneducated but they knew the importance of sending their children to school. They were determined to keep us in schools at all costs. The thoughts of taking us out from schools never cross their minds.

We used hand-me-downs uniforms, shoes, bags and books. Since I was the youngest, I was the perfect recipient of worn out uniforms and shoes as well as torn books. But Dad still needs to buy replacements for the elder ones as well as pay monthly school fees. In those days, you have to buy books as government loan books were not available yet.

After getting us started for schools, our parents found that they have no more money left to celebrate the Chinese New Year which normally falls in the same month or a month after school started. So in the end, we did not celebrate New Year for many years.

Those were indeed very tough times for my family although they are firmly behind us now but I can’t help recalling them at times like this when school reopen tomorrow and New Year is just another three weeks away.

Tough being parents but education is so very precious to the kids.

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I woke up early on the last day of the year, had a light breakfast and then sat down to write the last chapter of the book I was working on. Two hours later, I had finished the last paragraph. I had met my own dateline. Eureka, I made it!

Although it was just a draft copy, I felt much relieved. I hope it will get to see the light of day eventually but if it won’t, it is still okay for me. I wrote for the love of it and nothing else.

To celebrate, my family and I went to that famous “yong tau foo” stall on Peel Road for lunch. It was a dilapidated wooden hut that had seen better days but it serves the best “yong tau foo” in Kuala Lumpur. Their food came fresh and tasty, free from monosodium glutamate and the best part is they came in generous portion.

For my readers from overseas who have no notion what is “yong tau foo”, it is actually pieces of food stuffed with mackerel fish paste, fried to perfection and then served with hot white rice. They normally use bitter gourds, eggplants, lady’s fingers, white bean curds or even mushrooms.  You can dip them in chili or sweet sauce for the extra oomph. This is one of my favorite foods.

I spent the afternoon writing down my New Year’s resolutions. You know what, if you just noted them in your head, you won’t get things done. A few months down the road, those resolutions are gone, either forgotten or got procrastinated. I knew many of us are not good at sticking to our resolutions, agree?

So what I did was to write them down in bold on a piece of manila cardboard and got it stuck to the wall, next to the wall clock. Hopefully that way, I can achieve something by the end of the year.

I spend the rest of the evening cooking dinner with my children. We had grilled dory fish with black pepper sauce, spaghetti, mushroom soup, salad and mashed potatoes for dinner.

While many city folks jammed the discos for the countdown, we joined a sea of humanities on the streets near Dataran Merdeka or Independent Square to watch fireworks. Thousands and thousands of fellow Malaysians were out there, young and old, from different ethnicities and faiths, all hoping to have a good time sending the old year out and ushering the new one in. It was like a huge street carnival –noises, colors and lights everywhere.

The police and Federal Reserved Unit were there too, casting suspicious eyes on the revelers but why are they there in the first place? For goodness sake, we don’t need them there! We were having some fun, not committing some crime! Talk of having the wrong people at the wrong place….such spoilsports and eyesores!

A group of youngsters caught my eyes. They were wearing Guy Fawkes masks from the movie “V for Vendetta” and shouting slogans “Justice is coming”. They were disillusioned with the powers that be. They were demanding justice and changes for the country. Good move, be brave, be courageous, be young. Stand up and demand what is right. The streets are the places to voice our discontents. Don’t be timid and accept blindly or else we are all doomed.

When we got home, I pulled down the calendar and torn the last page of the year into smithereens before dumping them into the dustbin. Good riddance, 2011!

After putting up the new calendar, we went to bed with new hopes in our hearts.

Happy 2012 everyone!

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