Home alone: A reunion dinner of one in Kuala Lumpur this Chinese New Year

'Yee sang' has become an indispensable part of Chinese New Year gatherings and reunion meals. – Pictures by CK Lim
'Yee sang' has become an indispensable part of Chinese New Year gatherings and reunion meals. – Pictures by CK Lim

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COMMENTARY, Feb 11 – It will soon be the Year of the Metal Ox. Depending on which particular Chinese Zodiac you fall under, fortunes could differ dramatically. As they say, your mileage may vary.

Yet even before the new lunar year is upon us, some fortunes are more familiar than others. Many of us won’t be celebrating Chinese New Year with our families this year.

Lest you think it’s just a matter of interstate travel bans, the reasons, I assure you, also vary. Some borders remain closed so there are no cross-continental flights home, wherever home is.

I have friends in Shanghai who won’t be able to return to KL. I have a friend in Taipei who won’t be having her reunion in Kansas. Another is stuck in New York and won’t be returning to Hong Kong.

We are all marooned in our own ways.

For all the horrors the pandemic has conjured up, for all the havoc it has wreaked, perhaps nothing slowly saps the soul more than the loss of human touch, of communion and close community. We are adrift in our carefully crafted bubbles; each household its own castle and moat, cut off from the rest of the world.

For some of us, that household is a household of one.

There will be no tossing of yee sang with others for prosperity in the coming year when you are alone. No spouse – who is the one with the artistic gifts – to practise calligraphy on pieces of red paper.

From modest fare such as 'niángāo' (or New Year Cake) to more luxurious dishes such as the sumptuous 'poon choy.'
From modest fare such as 'niángāo' (or New Year Cake) to more luxurious dishes such as the sumptuous 'poon choy.'

No handmade wontons by my niece, who fries them every year for our reunion meals, knowing they are her uncle’s favourite. No humble niángāo (New Year Cake) or a family-sized basin of sumptuous poon choy.

Mandarin oranges might be one thing those of us who are home alone during Chinese New Year have too many of. There are only that many we can eat before we worry our skin will turn the same shade as a certain former US president's.

Full of aromatic rice and waxed meats, 'lap mei fan' will fill up the bellies of anyone who is still hungry after all the New Year dishes.
Full of aromatic rice and waxed meats, 'lap mei fan' will fill up the bellies of anyone who is still hungry after all the New Year dishes.

Forget about lap mei fan, full of aromatic rice and waxed meats; our waistlines can’t bear the responsibility of finishing this alone with no one to share second helpings with.

Yes, reunion meals this year will be a little different.

Yet perhaps not all that different, if we stop resisting or denying the obstacle and look at it through fresh eyes.

We might be alone at home but we don’t have to celebrate Chinese New Year alone. After all there is FaceTime and there is Zoom, and there is always a simple phone call.

I can be connected to my loved ones in Malacca and in Bangkok, to friends I care about elsewhere in the Klang Valley or even the rest of the world. All without stepping foot outside my home.

Sure, it’s not quite the same. But what is?

This isn’t the first time I have missed reunion dinner with my family. Years ago, I was studying in Munich and home was an airfare I couldn’t afford as a student. My nephew and nieces were still young then; my parents didn’t have so much white hair yet.

I remember calling from a pay phone with a cheap international calling card. (Remember pay phones? The sort of telephone boxes where Clark Kent would change into Superman. This was way, way before the days of FaceTime or Zoom.)

Talking to them, even for a few precious minutes, still felt like a reunion of sorts. Not a dress rehearsal till the real performance later, but that moment itself – that was connection, that was love, that was a renewal of familial bonds.

So, yes, this Chinese New Year I will be staying at home alone. There is no interstate travel, no balik kampung. It’s a good time for me to get caught up on all my reading; I can binge on thick tomes like The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (832 pages) or reread A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (1,474 pages).

There’s certainly plenty of time for it when you’re not busy annoying your nephew with lame dad jokes or annoying the neighbours with the din of all-nighter mahjong sessions.

There’s time to be grateful for what we do have and what we can do.

It’s not about being with the people we love though it is a sore setback that we can’t. It’s knowing that the people we care about the most are safe and sound, and continue to be safe and well and healthy in the days to come.

It might be weeks or months; of course, everyone is praying that this pandemic ends soon. Of course.

But when that day comes, it doesn’t matter that there are no more mandarin oranges from China or Japan left in season. We can have ordinary oranges instead. Or make ais limau with some fresh local limes. (When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, yes?)

Auspicious phrases and characters are painted on red paper; the character福 ('Fú'), meaning “good fortune” is often hung upside down.
Auspicious phrases and characters are painted on red paper; the character福 ('Fú'), meaning “good fortune” is often hung upside down.

There will always be pineapple tarts and peanut cookies all year round. There might even be calligraphy; I found some from past years – pieces with the characters 福 (), meaning “good fortune” and always hung upside down, and 满 (Mǎn) from the saying Jīnyù mǎntáng or “May gold and jade fill your house.”

Sweet treats such as pineapple tarts, almond cookies and mandarin oranges to usher in the coming year.
Sweet treats such as pineapple tarts, almond cookies and mandarin oranges to usher in the coming year.

May health and happiness fill all our houses.

And we don’t need store-bought yee sang or the stuff assembled at a restaurant; we can make our own, perhaps a healthier version, if we want to. We can time our loh sang sessions and toss auspicious sayings together via FaceTime or Zoom or whatever is handy.

'Loh sang' ought to be a shared activity, raucous and joyful.
'Loh sang' ought to be a shared activity, raucous and joyful.

The point is to be with family and friends (even from a distance), to cheer and toss the colourful ingredients and shout out greetings of hope and of love. To gather in safety and with gladness in our hearts and gratitude to have persisted, to have survived and to thrive in all the sweet days to come.

For more slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.