‘Huat ah!’ How we celebrate Chinese New Year now, after living through a pandemic

COMMENTARY, Jan 26 – My nephew knows how to bring the house down.

Or at the very least, invoke the fury of his mother when he hollers, “Huat ah! at the top of his lungs.

Translated from Hokkien, it literally means “Prosperity ah!” It’s an assertive way to wish prosperity and good tidings to everyone around the table, to say the least.

Can’t blame my sister though; he doesn’t stop at one bellow but goes on and on like an incessant foghorn.

Can’t blame my nephew either; Chinese New Year is one of his favourite times of the year. This is when our family will gather around the reunion table to feast and play catch up on everyone’s busy and separate lives.

It’s time to 'loh sang!'

It’s time to ‘loh sang!’

(It helps that he usually limits his huat-ing to our loh sang session… but not always.)

Some years I join in in telling him to tone down his battle cries, often drowning out other auspicious sayings such as “Cái yuán gǔn gǔn! (May wealth keep pouring in!), “Lóng mǎ jīng shén! (May you always be full of energy and in good spirits!) and “Nián nián yǒu yú! (Wishing you abundance every year!) as we toss the yee sang, splattering the table with jelly fish and sesame seeds.

Some years I just grin, happy that he’s having a good time. I’m sure my sister, in her own way, is also enjoying berating him gently. It’s part of our family ritual every year during reunion. It wouldn’t be the same without this.

Not everything remains the same, however. Anyone who hasn’t lived under a rock the past three years will have felt the impact of the pandemic and its ensuing consequences.

It has become a bit of a kopitiam chorus to hear neighbouring tables bemoaning how hard times are nowadays.

It is increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Salaries remain stagnated while the costs of living are soaring. Even economy rice isn’t that economical anymore as I feel like I have to pay more and more with each passing week or month.

(Be thankful for small mercies though. I can’t be the only one to rejoice when their favourite affordable eats didn’t attract any attention from the Michelin Guide.)

Many of you will feel the same pain. The pinch that squeezes our wallets tight.

But it isn’t just money (though that is huge enough a deal already). We are all worried about our health.

I’m not only thinking about Covid-19 and whichever new variant happens to be the flavour of the month. As we get older, so does the frequency of us getting news that someone we know has been struck ill or worse, passed on.

Not only the elderly but my peers or even those younger than me. Heart attacks and stage four cancers. More visits to the doctor, more injuries when I exercise.

This, you say, is par for the course. People live and people die. It has always been this way.

Perhaps you are right. Yet if there is anything good to come out of a pandemic that has robbed almost seven million lives worldwide, it is this shared notion that our time on this Earth is both brief and very fragile.

Accepting that any of us can go anytime is a boon; it reminds us to live fiercely and vividly while we are here. To love deeply and unconditionally. To stop being petty. To not be afraid of looking silly; none of us brings our shame with us when we depart this mortal realm.

A macabre and sobering notion for the happy season, you say? Hardly. I believe there is no better way of cherishing what is before us than to see things for the miracles that they are.

“Fruity” fresh prawn salad.

“Fruity” fresh prawn salad.

Steamed Canadian cod with soy sauce.

Steamed Canadian cod with soy sauce.

The tangibles, such as course after course of our reunion meal: From “fruity” fresh prawn salad and steamed Canadian cod with soy sauce to puff pastry tarts stuffed with baked crab meat and cheese. A whole roasted suckling pig. Stir-fried abalone with assorted vegetables and my father’s favourite lap mei fan (fragrant rice with preserved meats from Hong Kong).

Puff pastry tarts stuffed with baked crab meat and cheese.

Puff pastry tarts stuffed with baked crab meat and cheese.

A whole roasted suckling pig.

A whole roasted suckling pig.

The intangibles: My two nieces whispering into each other’s ears, sharing secrets none of us hear. My mother making sure my father has enough on his plate… and my eldest niece making sure her grandmother has enough on hers.

'Lap mei fan' (fragrant rice with preserved meats from Hong Kong).

‘Lap mei fan’ (fragrant rice with preserved meats from Hong Kong).

My father crooning to his beloved Canto-classics thanks to the karaoke system. (Now we know where my nephew gets his pitch and prowess from; like grandfather, like grandson.)

Time passes. We grow and change and take new roles. During and since the pandemic, I slowly realised I have become a parent to both my parents and my nephew and nieces.

The elders share gossip about a neighbourhood I have left decades ago; the younger ones ask me to screen their would-be dates (well, one of the three siblings does at any rate).

Not everything remains the same, no. Some things get more challenging as we get older, as our loved ones get older.

But life is about embracing the challenges and making them a feature, rather than a flaw. What limits us can free us. This year, I will no longer admonish my nephew nor signal my assent passively.

Instead I will join him in his joyous foolishness, celebrate our precious and amazing lives, and roar out: “HUAT AH!!”

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