Reminiscing about past CNY, Chap Goh Mei celebrations

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Children get all excited seeing the lion dancers during a Chap Goh Mei parade. — Bernama photo

MY late mother’s theory was that the rainy season in Sarawak would last until the 15th day of the Chinese New Year.

“Don’t plant anything before this magic date – it won’t grow! Days will be clear from then on, and the stars will be clearly seen at night, especially at dawn.”

I don’t know if any wise man or a philosopher has ever said anything about this. As far as I am concerned, my late mother was as wise as any philosopher!

Mum was a padi planter, looking for the greenlight from the ‘Bintang Tujoh’ or ‘Ketika’ on when to start clearing the jungle for a rice farm.

This is the cluster of stars called the Pleiades. According to my wife, the Greeks call these stars the ‘Seven Sisters’. Sometimes, there are only six of them because one sister sometimes ‘absconds and reappears as and when she likes’.

For the last 20 or 30 years, I have been noting down if this phenomenon really happens – does the weather improve after Chap Ngo Mei?

I asked some fishermen about the sea conditions in order to find out if there was indeed fine weather after the first full moon after Chinese New Year.

I think Mum was by and large accurate in this matter, as indeed in most other matters. But ask the Meteorology Department for confirmation, and they may have the actual record of rain, wind speed and heights of waves off the Sarawak coast.

Mum’s theory was, at best, an amateurish guess, conventional wisdom, if you like.

Don’t quote her.

Chinese New Year

In my little town of Lundu, the Chinese New Year was celebrated by the Teochews, mainly shopkeepers, and by the Hakkas or Khehs, market gardeners in the outskirts of the town.

These gardeners celebrated the New Year a day ahead of the town people. I don’t know why.

This was the situation in the 1950s anyway.

During the festival, relatives visited one another. The eve of the New Year was reserved for family dinner, while the next day would be earmarked for visits from friends and colleagues at work.

Even strangers were welcomed.

The second day was earmarked for more inter-family visits.

Did they let off firecrackers? Not much in Lundu at that time. I am talking about the time soon after the Japanese Occupation.

All firecrackers were imported from Kuching or Bau. However, during that time of the year (December-January-March), the sea and the weather between Lundu and Kuching were often rough and dangerous for people traveling by sea. They are still rough – heavy swell and foul weather.

This prevented the ‘chug-chug’ launches normally plying between the two towns from sticking to their normal schedules (every week).

The boats, MV Syn Chin Lee, MV Syn Soon Lee and MV Lundu (the third was owned and skippered by Henry Kueh from Kampong Pinang, now Bank Hock Road in Kuching) were the only boats linking the two places.

I miss those launches.

Chap Goh Mei

To the boys from the villages, the day of the Chinese New Year itself was not as important as the Chap Goh Mei.

The town was eerily quiet during the first day. All shops were either totally shut or half closed.

However, on the Chap Goh Mei itself, the town was back to life. At several spots somewhere at the edge of town, there were people gathered for some kind of game. In fact, open gambling.

No gaming licence was necessary. I am talking about the time soon after the Japanese Occupation and the brief period of the resumption of Brooke Raj.

The most popular game was the ‘Chap Ji Ki’ (Twelve Numbers). Don’t ask me how it works.

I preferred the ‘Main Holo’ – a game of lucky pick of sorts. You place your bet on the fish, or the crab, or the cock or the ‘holo’ (image) itself. The operator shakes the dice box vigorously and tips over the content. You win if your fish or crab comes out top.

I liked to watch people playing this game of luck. Only as a spectator, because I had no money for that type of game. My brother, a policeman, had advised me not to indulge in the game and refused to give me money for such a purpose.

However, I enjoyed the fun when one day, one operator suddenly threw up his hands in the air.

He had run out of capital / funds and there was nobody to borrow money from!

It was hilarious! This man was cursing and swearing and, punching his hands into the air, promising to return another day.

He did come back the next day, this time with bundles of notes!

Actually, most people had a lot of money, the Japanese currency called ‘Banana Money’, but it was worthless when the war was over. The administration under the Allied Forces (Australians) did not accept the banana money as legal tender.

‘Ngihing Gunja’

The Chap Goh Mei was the event that most boys were looking forward: it was the parade around the town in the late afternoon or early evening. My Mum called this procession ‘China Ngihing Gunja’, headed by a man called ‘Tuai Pekong’, sitting on several sharp blades of steel on a vehicle and wielding a sword.

The spectators wanted to see what would happen to him, to see if he would get hurt himself in the process.

Never heard of a serious accident.

This ‘China Ngihing Gunja’ was what the boys from the surrounding villages were looking forward to. To the boys, this was fascinating indeed!

Did the ‘Tuai Pekong’ have ‘pengahuh’ (charm)?

The belief among the crowd was to ‘touch him’ was to possess the power of ‘kebal’ (invulnerable) as he is.

Years later, I was told that an Iban boy from a Dayak village had been made a ‘Tuai Pekong’

That was something – an achievement!

Well, the New Year is over, and so has Chap Goh Mei. In Kuching, the last firecrackers have deafened our ears.

Let’s hope it will stop raining soon, so Auntie Di can finally plant a few more flowers in her terrace garden.