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Good food, great company: Family and friends tossing yee sang for good luck during the Chinese New Year.

By: Wong Chun Wai – On The Beat  The Star
Published: Sunday March 1, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday March 1, 2015 MYT 7:28:24 AM

Many of us continue to talk fondly of the past not because we want to relive the good old days but because they remind us about how we, as a young and fledgling nation, could do so well in so many areas of life.

MY family members and doctors banned me from any form of carbonated drinks this Chinese New Year – it is simply ­sugared water to them. Other favourite items regarded as “heath subversives” were canned longan from China and barbecued meat, which are really festive ­goodies.

See how much has changed? Those of us who grew up as children in the 1960s would remember that carbonated drinks were also known as aerated water – simply water where air is added.

This was the era of Fraser and Neave, or F&N as it was popularly known. We had only two choices – orange or sarsi, as sarsaparilla is known still.

These bottled drinks came in a wooden crate, which would be sent to our home by the sundry shop delivery boy. It was an occasion to look forward to. A whole ­wooden crate would be regarded as somewhat of a luxury in the homes of Malaysian families in the 1960s.

Very often, cockroaches would be found trapped inside the empty bottles, and we – the children – had to remove these creepy crawlies before the bottles were sold to the Indian man who collected used items such as newspapers and bottles. We already knew how to reduce, reuse and recycle long before the greenies got into the act.

For a long time, I could never understand why my Cantonese neighbour kept referring to these F&N drinks as “Holland water” or “hor lan soi”. It was only in recent years, thanks to easy research via Google, that I understood that it was because F&N had a joint venture with Holland’s beer brewer Heineken to produce Tiger Beer way back in 1931.

F&N was founded by John Fraser and David Chalmers Neave, who diversified from their printing business in the Straits Settlements to pioneer the aerated water business in South-East Asia in 1883.

Sugar-loaded food was encouraged for the Chinese New Year as the superstitious Chinese families believed it would bring sweet memories and experiences in the coming year.

That’s quite a different line of thinking from present-day Malaysia where many of us practically distance ourselves from sugar, which is now regarded as poison.

That was also the time when Malaysia had only eight million people. Yes, we went through 1969, the black spot in the nation’s history, but most of us still have fond memories of the country we used to know.

There were dark clouds in the 1969 ­general election and we had to live through the horrifying consequences. But we also remember the strong bonds with our schoolmates from other races. It was the strong ties that kept us together, even if the nation was on the verge of being torn apart. Five decades later, many of us still keep that special friendship alive. For those with whom we have lost contact, we still harbour hopes that the friendship forged during the growing-up years would be rekindled. We never looked at race and religion as the criteria for friendship. It was simple – the person was either a good or bad person.

It was common for Malay and Chinese friends to sleep over in Chinese homes, and vice-versa, and we took special care to make sure that food sensitivity was respected. There was no need to say anything else. They were all unwritten rules.

This was the time when most Malays did not have to worry about enrolling their children in Christian missionary schools. No one worried about getting converted or getting copies of the Bible. Some in fact took the Bible Knowledge paper in the public examinations. The cross in every classroom in Catholic schools was never a concern.

In fact, it was one former education minister who ordered the cross removed. The irony of it all is that he is now regarded as a popular opposition icon.

And CNY was a time when many of my friends from St Xavier’s Institution in Penang would come to my home – the ang pow were an inducement, no doubt! Before the festival was over, the entire class, regardless of their race, would be coughing, the result of ingesting too much carbonated water and oranges.

The parents of my Malay and Indian schoolmates also had a request – that my friends would return home with delicacies such as kuih bakul and kuih kapit!

It is such a far cry from today, where we now hear divisive remarks from racist individuals and one controversial Malay-Muslim wannabe, as he is known now, which take the joy out of our celebrations. And so we have to listen to those who proclaim that it is not right to offer greetings to fellow Malaysians of different faiths, and to be suspicious even of the food served or the eating utensils.

I do not recall the term “open house” as it is known now. Homes remained open at all times. This was an era where no one made any appointment for a house visit. Malaysians would just drop by any time they wished. Making appointments would be unthinkable, socially unacceptable and even regarded as snobbish.

Most homes did not have a telephone. It was usually the neighbourhood sundry shop that had the telephone, and we had to pay 20 or 30 sen to make a call. And the bonus was that the number also became our number and people could call us there. It must have been a lot of work for the sundry shop owner to be the neighbourhood operator as well.

Chinese New Year also meant going to the cinemas. I grew up in the golden era of the Shaw Brothers with their sword fighting and kung fu flicks, and for some strange reasons, Malaysians nicknamed the Special Branch police the “Shaw Brothers”.

There would always be one or two special movies made for the CNY festival. Even in the 1980s, there were always the Hui Brothers’ comedies to look forward to.

A little discretion was also exercised during CNY. My father, who abhorred gambling, lifted the ban during CNY. The children were allowed to play cards – and again, I also wondered why everyone kept referring to these simple stacks of playing cards as “Holland cards” or “hor lan pai”. Everything seemed to be linked to Holland and no one was able to give me a good explanation then.

Well, it seems these playing cards started in Holland although some said it was introduced to the Dutch by the French in the 15th century. The strict ban my father imposed on gambling certainly had an impact on me and my brothers.

Interestingly enough, that was also an era where Sports Toto draws were actually broadcast live over RTM (with Datuk Faridah Merican as the host) and people bought Social Welfare lottery tickets because they were regarded as charity, not gambling.

There were only two channels in black and white available on TV, and I followed the programmes to kill my boredom but I never got excited.

Many of us continue to talk fondly of the past not because we want to relive the good old days but because they remind us about how we, as a young and fledgling nation, could do so well in so many areas of life.

We had a sense of unity and purpose, we excelled in trade and commerce, we had glory days in sports, and we also had high education standards.

Today, we see so many wrongs in these very same areas where we once had success. We know that when standards drop, and excellence and ethics are compromised, there will be serious implications in the long run.

We appreciate that there is room given for a diversity of views, but at the same time we wonder why individuals and groups who propagate extremist views are not being reined in.

And then we see the growing scourge of corruption in this country where sums involving millions no longer shock us. Compare that to 1983 when the RM2.5bil scandal involving the Bumiputra Finance Malaysia captured the whole nation’s attention. It was regarded as the­ ­mother of all scandals, and a precious life was lost – that of BMF auditor Jalil Ibrahim.

But what is RM2.5bil compared to the losses involving some of our government-linked institutions today? There was a public inquiry into the BMF scandal. We wanted to know what happened and, more importantly, we wanted to make sure that it would never happen again. We wanted proper rules to be set up so that public funds are protected.

But have we learnt anything from the past, or do we even care? Malaysians must insist on answers and accountability from our politicians on how our money is spent – or perceived as lost. It is not their money, it is the people’s money.

Malaysians are demanding answers and they have a right to do so.

The days of trying to sweep everything under the carpet are over. We may know a bit here and there about some alleged wrongdoing, but in the absence of full disclosure, the situation only gets worse. All we want is to see any form of wrongdoing, especially those involving huge sums of public money, eradicated.

CNY isn’t over yet and many of us, including politicians, are busy making the rounds of the open houses.

We hope there will be a spirit of openness in seeking out the truth. Whether one is a visitor or the host, we should be prepared to send out the right message about what the people truly care about.

Our real concerns should not be drowned out by polite talk and good food. This can still be the occasion to truly listen to the concerns of the ordinary people and to make fresh commitments to make things better.

Chee Wee NgOther NewsCNY,harmony,Malaysia,multi-cultural,multi-racial,unity
Good food, great company: Family and friends tossing yee sang for good luck during the Chinese New Year. By: Wong Chun Wai – On The Beat  The Star Published: Sunday March 1, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM Updated: Sunday March 1, 2015 MYT 7:28:24 AM Many of us continue to talk fondly of the...