A Malaysian’s Experience of Celebrating Chinese New Year in a Multicultural Sydney

Tan Peng Peng’s aunt Mrs Selina Lowe (second from left) cooking all the CNY specialties she is famous for, with her three grandchildren, her husband Alan and Tan Peng Peng (third from the right)
By Tengku Noor Shamsiah Tengku Abdullah

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 14 – When the Chinese New Year approached, Tan Peng Peng couldn’t help but feel a rush of excitement tinged with nostalgia.

Memories of the vibrant celebrations and cherished family gatherings from her youth in Malaysia filled her heart with warmth.

Even though she had called Sydney home for nearly 24 years, she still held onto those cherished traditions dearly.

While the Lunar New Year festivities in Sydney might not be as widely celebrated, she saw it as an opportunity to infuse her surroundings with the joy and spirit of her heritage.

Amidst the bustling days of work that coincided with the festivities, she found solace in the small moments of connection and the chance to share her cultural traditions with friends and colleagues.

Each year, she embraced the opportunity to create new memories and build bridges between cultures, celebrating the diversity that made Sydney such a vibrant and welcoming city.

Tan said celebrating Chinese New Year in Sydney has been a very different experience from celebrating it in Malaysia, where she grew up.

“In Malaysia, Chinese New Year is a very big deal. Everyone is in a festive mood, and there are decorations, fireworks, lion dances, and music everywhere. You can feel the atmosphere and the energy in the air.”

According to Tan who is widely known among her close friends and relatives as Peng Peng, “It’s a time to visit your relatives and friends, and to exchange greetings and gifts. It’s also a time to enjoy a lot of delicious food, especially the traditional dishes that are only made for this occasion.”

Tan recalls that when she first arrived in Sydney in 2000, she was surprised by how little Chinese New Year was celebrated or recognised in the city.

She said that there were hardly any decorations, or shops selling festive paraphernalia, and that she had to go to two or three suburbs where there were more businesses run by Chinese owners to find food and decorations related to Chinese New Year.

“Most years, Chinese New Year eve and the first day would fall on working days. Unless your colleague was a Chinese person or was aware of the occasion, no one at work even wished you Gong Xi Fa Cai or happy lunar new year.

“You get used to it. But I still felt a bit sad and lonely, because I missed my family and friends in Malaysia, and the way we used to celebrate together,” she told TNSNews.

Fortunately, Tan has her aunt, Mrs Selina Lowe, 83, who lives in Sydney with her husband, Alan, 89. Mrs Lowe is Tan’s father’s sister, and she moved to Australia in the 1980s. Tan said that her aunt has been a source of comfort and support for her, and that she has helped her to keep the Chinese New Year spirit alive.

“My aunt is an amazing cook, and she makes many of the Chinese New Year specialty dishes that my grandmother used to make when I was growing up.

She makes things like braised pork belly, steamed fish, roast duck, stir-fried noodles, and dumplings. She also makes some Malaysian dishes, like curry chicken, rendang, and satay.

Tan said her aunt is very generous and hospitable, and she always invites me and some of her friends to join her for the reunion dinner on Chinese New Year eve, and for the first day of the new year.

One of the customs that she and her aunt follow is to thoroughly clean their houses before Chinese New Year, as a way of sweeping away the bad luck and welcoming the good luck.

According to her, another custom is to give red packets, or ang pows, containing money, to the children and the unmarried adults in the family, as a symbol of blessing and prosperity.

Tan said even though she is 54 years old, she still receives Ang Pows from her aunt and uncle, which makes her feel happy and grateful.

Two Malaysians , Leong May Ling and Tan Peng Peng (second from left); two Argentinians of Japanese descent, sisters Emilia and Elena Kamiya and one Australian, Elena’s husband Mark Williams – gathering to toss the CNY prosperity salad aka yee sang to usher the lunar year of the wood dragon

One of the highlights of the Chinese New Year celebration for Tan and her aunt is the Yee Sang, or the Chinese New Year prosperity salad, which is usually the first dish that they serve.

The Yee Sang consists of various ingredients, such as shredded vegetables, raw fish, crackers, nuts, and sauces, that represent different aspects of good fortune, such as abundance, health, happiness, and success.

Tan says that the most fun part of the Yee Sang is the tossing, or Lo Hei, which involves everyone at the table using their chopsticks to mix and lift the salad as high as possible, while saying auspicious phrases and wishes for the new year.

“My nephews and niece love tossing the Yee sang. They are very enthusiastic and energetic, and they make a lot of noise and mess. The meaning and symbolism of tossing the salad as high as possible may not fully resonate with them yet, but to watch them perform this act is so heartwarming and ushers in the Chinese New Year celebrations,” she explained.

Friends who join them for the Chinese New Year celebration are from different backgrounds and cultures, and that they enjoy learning about and participating in the Chinese traditions.

Among them are another Malaysian, Leong May Ling; two Argentinians of Japanese descent, sisters Emilia and Elena Kamiya; and one Australian, Elena’s husband, Mark Williams.

“They are all very respectful and curious about our culture, and they ask a lot of questions and try to follow our customs. They also bring their own dishes and gifts, and we share a very multicultural and diverse feast. It’s a very beautiful and harmonious scene, and I think it reflects the spirit of Sydney, which is a very multicultural and diverse city,” Tan said.

Celebrating Chinese New Year in Sydney has taught her to appreciate her culture more, and to share it with others.

Tan said she also feels more connected to her family and friends in Malaysia, and that she calls them or sends them messages to wish them a happy new year.

“I think Chinese New Year is a very special and meaningful festival, and I’m glad that I can celebrate it in my own way, even though I’m far from home. I think it’s important to keep our traditions alive, and to pass them on to the next generation.

“I also think it’s wonderful to celebrate with people from different cultures, and to learn from each other. I think that’s what makes Chinese New Year in Sydney so unique and memorable,” she added.