Hornbill Unleashed

February 2, 2011

Chinese New Year when I was a kid

Filed under: Alternatives — Hornbill Unleashed @ 4:00 AM
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chinese new year decorations 120207

Sim Kwang Yang

The happiest time of my life was spent in awaiting the arrival of the Chinese New Year.

I grew up in Kuching not long after Second World War. Malaysia had just been formed in 1963. It was a time of universal poverty, and Kuching was a two-horse town. Nobody was really rich.

The people who owned cars usually drove British models like Vauxhall and Morris Minor, and they were few and far in between. Everybody else went about their business on foot or on bicycle. 

But Chinese New Year was the biggest festival of the year, and all Chinese celebrated the occasion with all they had. The arrival of the New Year was keenly awaited by every child.

There were good reasons for this. The New Year was that special time when the children got to eat a mountain of rich food and gulp down bottles of sweet, aerated soft drinks. These treats were usually denied to young children on other days.

Long before the appearance of Coca-Cola, children were crazy about Green Spot, a festively coloured, orange-flavoured soft drink. At every Chinese New Year, there would always be a supply of this drink in every household and we children would gorge ourselves silly.

The Chinese New Year was also that rare occasion when we children could eat as much meat as we liked, at a time when eating meat was not common at all. There would invariably be a duck, a chicken, and a slab of pork, often offered to an ancestor first, before being consumed by the living humans. We had not seen so much meat at the table for the rest of the entire year put together.

Chinese goodiess

chinese new year 310108 firecracker

There would always be the typical Chinese New Year goodies displayed for guests and visitors. The mandarin oranges were a must, to be presented in pairs to all visitors, on their arrival in the house. Even in those poverty-stricken days, adults would always reserve a small ‘ang pow’ or two for children. The small gift of a ringgit or two was phenomenal wealth for the young children, to be spent on petty gambling.

I remember living in what is now the Kuching Municipal Council (KMC) low-cost housing, known as the Seven Storey Flats at Jalan Ban Hock, in the middle of Kuching. It was the first decent housing that my poor family could afford for the first time in our lives. There, I spent my happiest Chinese New Years with my small growing family.

The event that interested me the most, and gave me the greatest pleasure, was lighting fire-crackers together with a bunch of neighbourhood kids. Being poor, we could afford only to light one fire-cracker at a time so as to make our meagre stock last. For a period of a week or so, all our pocket money would go up in puffs of smoke.

The lion dance troupes brought with them the typical banging and clanging of the sounds of the New Year. The troupes went visiting each house in turn, and each family would give them a small ‘ang pow’.

In recent years, I have watched with sadness in my heart as these lion dance troupes have decreased in number, while the Chinese kids participating in the lion dance have been dwindling too.

chinese new year 310108 lion

During those growing years of mine, there was an undeniable community spirit among my neighbours and friends. People gave assistance to one another in preparing for the festival, and the neighbourhood often shared the expense of making cakes. Unfortunately, such community spirit has mostly vanished in recent years.

Hard work, thrift and education

Looking back to those old days, I am happy that Kuching and Sarawak have come a long way. Those days of dire need and suffering are mostly gone now, as nowadays most urban Chinese enjoy a middle-class living standard.

I have seen Kuching city grow many times in size over the past half century. Most people have achieved upward social mobility in the course of the last 50 years. The secret to their success has been the tried-and-tested Chinese triumvirate of values: hard work, thrift and education.

I have seen many lives being changed for the better over the course of time, by hardworking families, dedicated to their education of their young. The kind of poverty that I witnessed during those early days among the urban Chinese is largely no more.

As they sit down to their family reunion dinner on Feb 2, or Chinese New Year’s Eve, the Chinese people of Malaysia will have a lot to celebrate. They are one of the most successful ethnic communities, and they have come far, making a life for themselves.

Let us all share their joy by wishing everyone Happy Chinese New Year.


SIM KWANG YANG can be reached at sky8hornbill@gmail.com. All comments are welcomed.


  1. All you need to win election just like a sunami is to form a Gay Boys and Paedophiless Politial Party. It will attract so much attention that you will be elected prime minister.

    Comment by kwan Tai — April 3, 2011 @ 7:52 AM | Reply

  2. i hope i’ll live to see the day when ALL Sarawakians will say we have made it by the values of hard work, thrift and education. not due to the shine of some lucky star, nor by the blood that flow in our veins, nor some wording on our identity card, nor owing to the graciousness of some masters, nor by the grace of a god, much less the generosity of any government. i’m sorry to say i am rather pessimistic…

    Comment by IamStupid — February 8, 2011 @ 2:28 PM | Reply

  3. Mr. Sim,

    Thanks for your reminiscences on CNY.

    Can’t help but to feel nostalgic about those good old simple days. Many of the traditions are no longer emulated and practised by the younger people who should be re-educated in one way another to preserve a culture that has withstood the test of time.

    Wishing you and family a blessed New Year full of good opportunities , fortune and good health.

    Comment by Li Li Fa — February 3, 2011 @ 2:47 PM | Reply

  4. gong xi fa cai

    Comment by colin — February 3, 2011 @ 7:31 AM | Reply

  5. During Gawai, Christmas – lots of Chinese visiting their Dayak friends, workers in busloads into the kampongs knowing free flows of beers, porks served

    During CNY – it’s the opposite, the Dayaks are shy to visit their Chinese towkays in busloads to town and fat hope to drink free flows of beers, porks from the stingy towkays

    During Raya – both the Chinese towkays, the Dayak workers must visit their Malay paymaster, the holder of main contracts that subcontracted to them, or else no more ali baba contract lah next year

    That’s what the festive visiting all about.

    Comment by Joagam — February 2, 2011 @ 4:03 PM | Reply


    May you live a Long & Healthful Life and Keep on your Struggle for a Better SARAWAK & Malaysia.

    2011 will be Decisive Year for Sarawakians in the coming few months towards the D-Day: Sarawak State Elections.

    Everyday will be a HAPPY NEW YEAR if the brave Sarawakians are brave enough to choose the politicians who are sincere to serve them. Choose Wisely.

    Comment by Justice&Equality — February 2, 2011 @ 11:48 AM | Reply

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