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A Chinese New Year Love Story

I was dreading this Chinese New Year. I didn’t want it to arrive.

Chinese New Year was my favourite time of the year. I loved the family gatherings, dramatic Blackjack games with my cousins, and feeling nauseous from overeating Kong Kong’s secret bak kwa stash. But my most cherished part of CNY was the second day, when I visit mum’s side of the family.

I absolutely loved visiting Poh Poh when we all gathered at Uncle Lawrence’s house in Port Klang. That little single-storey terrace house with the grey cement floors and a short mango tree at the front was too small for too many of us. We’d had to rotate between watching TV in the crowded living room, or eating Auntie’s delicious nynoya cooking in the kitchen. It was the same routine every CNY, but this year everything was different. Suddenly, I didn’t know how to welcome CNY anymore.

Poh Poh passed away at age 92 on June 6, 2018; a week before my birthday and a month before my second brother’s marriage. She had left us to join her first son, my Uncle Lawrence, in heaven.

My cheeky grandmother with a big grin

My maternal grandmother aka Poh Poh, Chong Chai Lian (15 Oct 1927 – 6 June 2018).

With Uncle Lawrence and Poh Poh gone, that too small home in Port Klang suddenly became too big for Auntie who was left there alone. So she returned the house keys to the landlord, and went to live with her daughter in Kuala Lumpur. The family ancestor alter was safely relocated to a Guan Yin Temple. It felt like the end of an era.

I couldn’t understand how to have a Chinese New Year without Poh Poh, without admiring her newly-tailored Kebaya, without playing our little game of tango where I force my ang pow into her soft, wrinkled hands, and her pushing it back to me.

A selfie with Poh Poh and I on our last Chinese New Year together. Feb 2018.

A selfie with my camera shy Poh Poh and I on our last Chinese New Year together (Feb 2018). It takes a village to get her to look at the camera!

I didn’t understand how to celebrate Chinese New Year without Uncle Lawrence’s home in Port Klang, without Poh Poh sitting quietly in the corner watching over all of us, without feeling claustrophobic in the warm house and leaving sooner than we really should.

Last Chinese New Year, for the very first time we held a simple tea ceremony for Poh Poh. She had the brightest smile on her face as her 5 daughters and grandchildren kneeled before her presenting her tea. My mother and her sisters wanted to keep this new tradition going; no one expected it would be the first and last time.

Chinese New Year tea ceremony

A simple tea ceremony during last year’s Chinese New Year at the old home in Port Klang. Look at the smile on her face :)

I did not want Chinese New Year to come this year. I did not know how to celebrate Chinese New Year without my grandmother.

I did not want Chinese New Year to come this year, but the pages in the calendar continued to turn.

Feb 5 ; The first day of Chinese New Year arrived, red and hot and loud. It felt the same, but different. Instead of the usual cheong sam, I donned a blush pink kebaya top with a white sarong. My relatives commented I look so “Malaysian”; kebaya was an odd clothing of choice.

I didn’t tell them I had spent a month searching for the perfect kebaya, like the one my Poh Poh used to wear. When I was 19, mom gave me a set of kebaya Popo wore when she was my age. It was dark blue with exquisite red flower embroidery and it came with a bright pink sarong. Back then, I thought the vintage kebaya set was beautiful; Now, it is precious.

Perhaps I was grappling at any memory of Poh Poh to make this Chinese New Year feel regular again, anything physical to fill the hole that she once filled. Carrying her in my heart only suddenly felt insufficient. I wanted to hold her again, honour her. Somehow, the kebaya felt comforting, like a hug.

Chinese New Year in Malaysia

A kebaya for Chinese New Year 2019

I went to see Poh Poh on the first day of CNY, at the Guan Yin Temple where she now rests. “Poh Poh!!” I shouted to her in my heart the same cheeky way I used to. I searched the vestibules of my mind to hear the way she called my name in her thin voice – “Ah Mei!”. Even though I was speaking to a wooden plate with her name printed on it, it felt reassuring.

I did not want the second day of Chinese New Year to come, but it did, red, hot and chaotic as it always was. I wore Poh Poh’s vintage blue kebaya top that I had been keeping in a plastic cover. My mum’s sisters immediately recognised it. “Poh Poh’ shirt…” they said softly with a bittersweet smile, admiring the red flower embroidery.

Perhaps I grappling for Poh Poh’s presence, anything that would make it feel like she was in the room with us. Somehow, wearing her old kebaya felt soothing.

There was no home in Port Klang to go to this year, all the people who loved Poh Poh – her children, her grandchildren and now, great-grandchildren, gathered at the home in Sri Rampai where Poh Poh lived with my aunts till her last days. I had been avoiding this neighbourhood since Poh Poh passed away. Driving on the road I used to take to her house alone had been difficult, the thought of going to her house but seeing her absence seemed impossible.

Poh Poh in her younger days.

I took off my shoes and stepped into the house – Poh Poh’s single bed in the living room was gone. Her chair in the corner was gone. Yet, the house looked normal, as if no death had occurred just 8 months ago. I was blown away by how regular, and full, and cozy the house was without Poh Poh and her odd collection of medicine. We all spilled into the house, around 20 of us, comfortably sprawled across the air-conditioned living room and the dining area.

This house was much bigger than the old Port Klang home. I looked around to see my aunt busy serving everyone barley drink; my brothers and their wives huddled together watching TV; baby Tyler and baby Joshua playing together; my cousins ooh-ing and aah-ing at the silly baby antics; my mom and aunts chatting in the kitchen. A photo of young Poh Poh on the TV table looked over us as she would if she were alive. She was watching her family gathered happily, as they always did, this time in her memory. Poh Poh may be gone but her children honoured her by keeping the family ties strong and alive… My heart was full.

Second day of Chinese New Year with mum’s side of the family at my aunt’s house in Kuala Lumpur

I had been busy worrying that CNY would be different without Poh Poh I had not seen that different can be good. Behind the pain of loss there was so much joy to be found – my new sister-in-law, baby Tyler and baby Joshua, and the joys and traditions they create as the family grows.  Traditions are always evolving, sometimes due to sad circumstances, but traditions can also become better.

In the case of my family, the house in Port Klang may be gone, but that just means we gather in a bigger, more comfortable house where the memory of Poh Poh is very much alive. We may not be in the old house anymore, but we are still one big happy family and that’s what matters.

You know what, I can’t wait for Chinese New Year to come next year.

Happy Chinese New Year

Happy Chinese New Year, everyone! Gong xi fa chai!

READ MORE STORIES LIKE THIS:

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