The Lunar/Chinese New Year is the biggest festival for Chinese all over the world, celebrated on the first day of the first month in the traditional Chinese calendar. Every year, families spend a lot of time preparing for the festivities, spring-cleaning their homes, putting up decorations and stocking up on food, snacks and drinks with which they will ply friends and relatives who come to visit.
The most important part of the celebrations is the Reunion Dinner. Held on the eve, families come together to usher in the Chinese New Year with good food and laughter. Everyone stays up and at midnight, they let off fireworks and firecrackers. It is an important part of bonding for families who may have spent the year far away from each other.
By tradition, the dinner must include fish, chicken, and the seaweed fatt choy. The dishes should have other sumptuous delicacies to mark this special occasion, like abalone, scallops and prawns. Every family has their own favourite dish for the Reunion Dinner, a must-have that is made for special occasions. For me, that is the Hopo Duck.
What makes it unique is the stuffing, which is a mixture of ginger, five spice powder and pounded peanuts. The stuffed duck is first steamed to partially cook it, for about an hour. This is usually done in advance of the Eve. On the day, it is then fried. Frying the duck is quite a challenge and takes skill. I have to hand it to my wife who has mastered this dish, and makes it every year for our Reunion Dinner.
I’m proud that these are traditions and a heritage that I have passed on to my children, and they to their children. But I also cherish the traditions that we as a family have made for ourselves. On the morning of Chinese New Year’s Day, the first meal is usually sweet, usually fried nian gao or the Chinese New Year Cake, which is a traditional offering to the Kitchen God. For my family, this has extended over the years into a feast of chocolate.
This is chocolate that we buy on our travels so we enjoy the chocolates from many places around the world. Now, to my grandchildren, New Year’s morning is about mandarin oranges and chocolates, and of course, the joy of receiving angpows.
Now, no Chinese New Year would be complete without a lion dance. In many neighbourhoods and malls, you will hear the dong-dong-chiang of the drums, cymbals and gongs that accompany the performing lions as they caper and leap around. Most of these lions are from the southern tradition, with attractive fur and movable eyelids.
For a lion from a different tradition, visit the Hopo Cultural Museum, and you will find a Hopo Lion (河婆狮). It is a part of the emblem of Hopo Cultural Museum and there is an exhibit inside. You won’t commonly see them in Malaysia, and some have said that even in Sarawak, where Hopo Hakkas predominate, it is becoming rarer. To me, the Hakka lions are somehow more ferocious looking, and the Hopo lion is the most ferocious.
From the Hopo Cultural Museum (translated by Joseph Tan)
“Noticeably different from the Chinese lions we often see on the street and on the screen, a traditional Hopo lion has its own distinctive design and colour. A Hopo lion head takes a squarish form and its face is predominantly painted with green, which represents the wish for favourable weather, for good crops yield, peace and prosperity. The Chinese character ‘王’ (king) crafted on the forehead speaks for its superiority as the king of the animal kingdom. Its nose has bells attached, its lower jaw is attached with a long red strip and its body is made from fabric of five different colours. The lion also has a relatively larger mouth, which looks like a rectangular box when it’s open. Therefore, it’s also dubbed the ‘open mouth lion’ (开口狮) and ‘box lion’ (盒子狮).
“A Hopo lion dance squad consists of a few important parts – the lion, a person playing the role of the ‘deity of prosperity’ (财神), a person playing the role of the ‘auspicious monkey’ (吉祥猴) as well as the drum and gong players. Typical movements of lion dance include greeting, hopping, kicking, rolling, scratching, hair grooming, picking ang pow, praying and others.”
In the video below of a lion dance in Kuching, Sarawak, you may see one in action.
The Museum is open from 9am to 4pm on weekdays. You can arrange for weekend visits by appointment.
Hopo Cultural Museum
Address: 65 & 67, 1st Floor, Wisma Hopo, Changkat Thambi Dollah, Off Jalan Pudu, 55100 Kuala Lumpur
Telephone: 03-2148 6567
Fax : 03-21426567
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