Celebrating Chinese new year in my hometown

Trip Start Jun 27, 2006
Trip End Mar 28, 2007

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Monday, February 12, 2007

This was my first visit to my hometown, in recent years, without my immediate family.  Instead of staying at a hotel, I opted to stay with one of my seven aunts (my father's sisters) and her family.

Tony, my cousin, proved to be a godsent.  Since he was on vacation himself from his job in Sabah, he was practically here at my disposal, 24/7.  He has a car too!

The vast majority (>90%?) of the 200,000 people in urban Sibu is Chinese.  There are also a lot of Sibuans who ventured out to other parts of the state/country, or even overseas, to make a living.  During Chinese new year, which was celebrated during my visit, the population ballooned with these returning residents.  It was quite a happening place.

Chinese new year is by far the most important holiday of the year - it is like the "western" new year (fireworks), Christmas (gift - monetary), Halloween (candy and snacks) and most importantly Thanksgiving (family), combined.  The single most important activity during Chinese new year is visitng homes of families and friends.  Never mind that you were just at my house, and we have already caught up.  I am expected to visit your home as well during the first few days of the new year.  Every host has plenty of snacks and beverages on their seemingly tiny coffee table at this time of the year.

Another Chinese new year custom that I still enjoy to this day is the giving of red envelopes with money in them.  The married couple, as hosts, are supposed to give them to all unmarried guests, regardless of age.  (Don't ask me what unmarried adult hosts do, since I did not come across any.)  Needless to say, I tried to visit as many relatives as possible! 

My many wonderful cousins took extremely good care of me, especially my unsatiable appetite for food.  I tasted all kinds of foods - both local specialties (including fruits) and exotic cuisine like deer and wild boar.

My aunt and uncle always had an abundance of delicious food on their kitchen table, regardless of whether I was hungry or not.  Most of the time I wasn't - but that did not stop me from eating though.  As an added bonus (and surprise), my dirty laundry was hand washed, line dried and neatly folded daily.  They even installed a new A/C unit in the room just before my arrival!

The fireworks and the fire crackers at about midnight were still as incredible as they were when I was a little kid.  Every household seemed to have a generous stock of them.  By 12:30am, after an hour of non-stop light and noise show, the sweet scene of dynamite saturated the air.  The whole town seemed to be blanketed by a thick layer of fog.  All furry pets also seemed to be hiding somewhere.

Bear in mind that none of this display was organized by the government.  In fact, possession of fireworks is illegal in Malaysia!  It is amazing what bribery can do.

Other than my relatives, I also met up with a number of friends from the good old days.  It was such a pleasant surprise to see them, since I intended for this home coming trip to be as low key as possible.

On the 5th day of new year (Feb 22), Paul flew in from Thailand to join me.  A Korean female backpacker that I met in Myanmar also joined us the same day.  I treated us to the best hotel in town (4-star) for the next few nights, at a discounted rate, thanks to an old friend.

We visited the Central Market and sampled all kinds of local fruits, went to visit the countryside (a village called Twenty Four Acres, where my mother grew up), visited a Melanau longhouse, took a speedboat to visit friends (who run a farm) of a friend and spent the night with them at their cottage in Oya (there were 11 of us in the only bedroom that night).

I also show them (and myself) my primary school, secondary school, the apartment that I spent my early childhood and the houses that I grew up in until I Ieft for further studies in Australia.  I also paid respect to my grandmother by visiting her tomb at the Chinese cemetery, since she passed away after my last visit home (ironically that visit was to celebrate her 90th birthday).

Paul only saw one other Caucasian during his 4-day visit to Sibu.

It was sad when it was time to leave.  I was marginally comforted by the feeling that I will come back and visit again, in a few years, God permitting.

Saying good-bye to Tony, my wonderful host / roommate / tour guide / driver / one of the matchmakers-wanna-be, Paul and I took the flight to Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, across from the South China Sea.

To all my relatives and friends who so generously helped made this an extraordinary and memorable visit, a big "terima kasih" to all of you!!
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