The elders will always tell us, Chinese New Year time is the happiest for the kids. They have new clothes, angpows (red packets) and plenty to eat. True, especially in those days, when it happened once a year! I mean when we as kids to got have new clothes, angpows (even if it was 40 cents) and more to eat.
Looking forward to the Chinese New Year, somehow, to me, it was all fun. Including more work assisting Mum with all the chores than came with the Chinese New Year. A week or two before the Chinese New Year, preparation began. I would follow Mum to the nearby wet market at Narcis St. We were living at Craig Rd in this house which had some four or five families, each squeezed into one room each. Sometimes, Mum would go to the Gu Chia Chwee (Gnau Chair Shui) wet market along the streets of Smith St and Trengganu St.
I never asked Mum how or where she got the money to buy. We kids were oblivious to their financial situations, and parents didn't share. All I knew was it was time for a chicken and a duck. We probably only ate chicken something like three or four times a year - Chinese New Year, Hungry Ghost Festival, and the time when we had to give offerings to our ancestors.
This was some 50 years ago, and fridge was a rarity, and so, we ate most things fresh. For the chickens and ducks, we could buy them alive and bring them back. Mum would go to the stall in the market, eyed a few healthy looking chicken, grab one by one and felt the body beneath the feather, despite the products from the squawking chicken. How did one handle the chicken? Grab them by holding the beginning of their two wings. The ducks were more noisy and they would bite.
The stallholders would tie the legs of the chicken and hanged them to their Chinese scale and weigh. Mum looked closely to make sure that the guy did not cheat on the balance of the scale. But of course, because of years of business he was less likely to cheat. But one never knows and well, the ladies love a hard bargain.
Carrying the duck and chicken home was a challenge. They were not light for a small build that I was then. And this was amongst the many things being bought. Chinese New Year Reunion had to be the biggest feast in our lives each new year, not that it was big, compared to what is available nowadays.
Imagine all the neighbours within the same house buying one chicken and one duck each. All the noises in our constantly wet common kitchen add to the commotion of activities as each family got ready preparing for the Chinese New Year. From the time we brought the fowl home and the Chinese New Year eve, we tried our best to fatten them up. We believed that cockroaches would do the trick. And so, it was the tasks of us youngsters to catch the cockroaches to feed them.
[WARNING: Gory details here, not meant for the faint hearted]
Come eve of the Chinese New Year, there was no time for sleep. Up early, I was to help Mum to kill the chicken and duck. Under the supervision of Mum, I either held the chicken by the head and body to make it still while Mum used a sharp knife to slit the throat, or the other way round. Once the blood started flowing out, I was to make sure that the blood flowed to a bowl. Yes, it was edible and nothing was to be left to waste, save the feathers.
Trying to take out the feather (defeather?) was a task. Hot boiling water was to put into a basin and the dead bird put into the hot water and then, to the cold water. It was to help plucking out the feathers. Taking out the big feathers was easy. Taking out the fine ones was a chore. And so, that was left to me to do. With a "plucker" (akin to the tweezer), I sat on a tiny stool and worked on my assignment. Taking out the fine feathers from the duck was more challenging than the chicken. And I had to do a good job or we might have feathers when we ate.
Came midday, Mum had started cooking and were getting the dishes ready. No, it was not yet for eating. They were meant as offering to the Gods in the house (we had a Tua Pek Kong then) and then the Ancestors. The chicken and duck were either steamed or boiled and placed complete (no chopping off) as offering. Chinese tradition dictates the offering of three components of offering - fowl (chicken and/or duck), animal (pork in this case, and mainly we would have a slice of the roast pork bought from the market) and fish (hence a deep fried fish like a garupa). One traditional dish seemed to be rice with blood made into cubes (you can still see this in Taiwan). The spare-parts (innards of the chicken and duck) were cooked with a can of peas. Together with the usual Chinese New Year cakes like Huat-Kueh (Fa Gao) or Guey Nern Go (Steamed egg cake, like the Japanese Castila) and Ang Ku Kueh (Red Tortoise cake filled with green bean paste or crushed peanuts), these were offered. We kids were waiting for the praying to end. And so, we offered to throw the divining blocks (in those days, we used two 50 cent coins or 20 cent coins) to ask if the Gods or the Ancestors were done with their eating. A head and a tail of the coins showing up after the throw would be affirmative.
When we got the answer, it was another fun time for us kids. We would bring the joss papers to the road side to burn them. Using the tea and wine from the offering, we would throw them around the burning joss papers to indicate that the joss papers were proprietary, only for the intended ones.
Back upstairs, where we lived, Mum had started the second phase of her job. The steamed chicken was to be chopped to be eaten like the "Hainanese Chicken Rice" that is very popular these days. For the duck, she would chop it to make soup, our favourite Kiam Chye Tng (salted vegetable - pickled mustard green) or Tim Itek as known to the Peranakans. Teochews and Hokkiens are known for their Kiam Chye Tng or Ark (duck). The deep fried fish would have the sweet and sour gravy poured onto it.
We were ready for the Reunion Dinner which was eaten earlier than usual. Mum still had more things to do to welcome the new year. While it was the belief that we should try not to sleep over the New Year Eve (so as to achieve longevity?), for us kids, it was a challenge. But at the same time, it was a luxury to stay past midnight. Our matriarch bibik landlady would normally switch off the lights by 11pm. For the new year eve, it would be an exception. It is believed that the house should be kept lit throughout the night.
Fire crackers would have been exploding all over, more as the 11th hour approached. Hmm, to the Chinese, the 11th hour (11pm) is the beginning of the new day. And despite the din, with a full stomach with all the delicious and good food, we felt to sleep, knowing that we were going to get some angpows the next day, even to the very strict looking and sharp-tongued Bibik.
These days, it would be almost impossible to have the opportunity to kill a chicken. not that anyone ones. (^^)