Commentary: I wrote this article near the Chinese New Year of 2016 (published on Han Chiang News). It was the first year that we got to celebrate CNY after the mourning period for my late father was over. As the de factor “head” of the Chow clan, I had (after consulting with the “deputy head”, my younger brother) declared that we would not be eating reunion dinner in a restaurant. Instead, we would do a “combo- reunion-lunch” where simple dishes (those that were easily cooked) would be prepared, mainly for the ancestral prayers etc. while the main “dishes” would be the mandatory “yue sang” (tossing of salad with raw fish or “low sang”) which could be bought easily, friend chicken, roast pork, pizza or burgers etc. that we would buy. We would have plenty of time to eat and the “head” & “deputy head” would have lots of time to savour our amber nectar and red wine etc. etc. It worked out well in 2016 and we are repeating the same for CNY 2017!
This writer would like to wish all readers of my blog a Happy Year of the Fire Rooster for 2017.
Growing up in the 1960s and 70s in Ipoh I had the benefit of witnessing the evolving Chinese Malaysian custom of Reunion Dinner for several decades. Up till the passing of my paternal grandfather in 1976, reunion dinner for the Chow clan was an elaborate affair. As my maternal grandparents passed on very early (way before I was born), my paternal grandfather had been opening his home to my mother’s siblings for Chinese New Year and other main festivals for years. Reunion dinner during my childhood was a time when my late mother would be totally stressed out (she worked full time and had to be responsible for the reunion dinner as well!). Luckily for my mother, some of my aunts (from both sides of my family) would roll up their sleeves to offer their assistance. My mother and her “gang” of ladies had to cook for over 30 people and we even had a separate “children’s table” to accommodate everyone during the reunion dinner.
Aside from the main dishes which were used as offerings for prayer to the various Gods and of course the ancestors, there were many other dishes with particular auspicious sounding names in different Chinese dialects (my mother tongue is Cantonese, so the names cited henceforth are in that dialect) as ingredients such as oysters (fresh or preserved) – “Hou Si” (auspicious events); black fungus – “Fatt Choy” (making a fortune); sea cucumbers – “Hoi Sum” (happy) ; pig’s fore trotters – “Wang Choy Zhau Shao” (special fortune is on hand); etc.
As my mother grew more frail in the late 90s, my aunts took on more responsibilities for cooking the reunion dinner but the same “style” was preserved as my mother was still the buyer of food ingredients and the “kitchen director”. After my mother’s passing in 1998, we were faced with a big issue: both my brother’s wife and mine were not exactly great cooks and it was then that I decided in 2001 to eat out for reunion dinner where I would sponsor the dinner for the Chow clan.
Eating out for reunion dinner sounds a great solution for many to get around the “who to cook” (and who does the dishes) issue. But it does come with its own set of problems.
- It costs a big bundle of money to have your reunion dinner at a restaurant. The cost can be easily 100% higher than if you and your family have a home-cooked reunion dinner.
- You must book your table early. Popular restaurants tend to get booked up very fast and if you are slow in making your booking, you tend to get the “very early” (before 6pm) or “very late” (after 9pm) slots.
- You do not get to order a la carte if you fancy a particular dish. It would be a choice from the “set-menu” with different combinations of dishes at differing prices.
- It would be like eating in a “battle field” when it comes to having your actual reunion dinner. You cannot hope to hold a decent conversation as the place will be packed and becomes very noisy.
- You will need to eat your reunion dinner very fast, I mean really fast. Though it is often quoted that the restaurant will allocate 90 minutes for you to complete your meal, often you have got to wait for at least 45 minutes to an hour to get your food served, leaving you with precious little time to enjoy your food.
- Be prepared for all (or at least 60%) of your dishes (usually 8 dishes) to come at once or at most at 2-3 minutes apart. Remember, after waiting for 45 minutes already, you have less than 45 minutes to eat! Be prepared for the next “shift” of eaters hovering near your seats while you are attempting to enjoy your meal.
- Expect non-existence service from the restaurant staff (for your drinks and other needs) as the place will often be overbooked and understaffed. So you are best advised to self-serve your drinks etc.
- It will be akin to eating in a packed commuter train such as the KTM Komuter at KL Sentral at 6pm on a weekday. Due to overbooking, restaurants tend to put in as many tables that they can get away with. If you have booked for a large table for 12, be prepared to be given one for 10 as chaos would be the order of the day. We once booked a large table for 15 persons but were given a table fit for 10 persons only. Recalling this, with a few “plus-plus sized” members, how we squeezed ourselves together on that occasion still remains a mystery to me.
A great deal of what I had described above would hold true and is “replayed” every Chinese New Year. There is only one word to describe the unethical business practices of some of these restaurateurs: Greed. However, it is a “seller’s market”. If you do not like the service and the conditions described above, there are many others who would gladly fork out the money to take over your place! This is especially true for a city like Ipoh where thousands of Kuala Lumpur-based, Singapore-based or even overseas “Ipoh Mali” people (myself included) who would congregate at their home town for Chinese New Year. Thus with so much of yearly businesses coming to these restaurants, the merchants, especially those who are greedy, have no fear of mistreating, misleading and come to think of it, cheating these customers, many of whom would only be visiting their hometown on an annual basis.
So for Chinese New Year 2016 [and beyond], the Chow clan has decided that we would do something different. We will be having our reunion meal at our ancestral home in Ipoh where my younger brother and family are staying. We will have the necessary tossing of salad – “Loh Sang” (strive for prosperity) and the usual press duck, Chinese sausages, roast pork (for prayer to the Gods and to our ancestors). Instead of cooking the other dishes, we would have choices such as pizzas, fried chicken, McDonald’s burgers etc. for all the Chow clan. To facilitate our respective in-laws, we would be having a reunion “lunch” so that we could join our respective in-laws for dinner.
Reunion dinner (or lunch in our case) is a time for family members (and clan) to gather, eat, celebrate and be merry together. What we end up eating should be put in a lesser significance than the togetherness of family members that the reunion meal brings. It should be a time for family members (especially for those like my brother’s family and mine who live in different parts of the country) to meet, share a meal and to remember our departed clan members. It is also a time for us to enjoy each other’s company in a relaxing way (whether we need alcohol for this is immaterial, but for the Chow clan, it is mandatory!). All these could never be achieved if we spend the reunion dinner packed like sardines in an expensive restaurant which limits the amount of time we have to eat, to meet and to enjoy ourselves. It is about time Chinese Malaysians re-evaluate the meaning of reunion dinner and stop patronizing those greedy restaurants which force us to eat eight dishes in 10 minutes!