My big fat Chinese New Year dinners

By Clara How, Jan 23, 2020

There are some traditions that are synonymous with Chinese New Year: spring cleaning, reunion dinners, and the exchange of red packets (angpaos). But there are also traditions that are unique to each family. 

For Si Ying and Alethia, their families started traditions because of their size: we’re talking gatherings of 100 family members. They are loud, boisterous and take a lot of planning, but they’re worth the effort for both of their families. 

They share with us why these traditions were started, how they bring joy in different ways, and why it’s important to them that they continue. Si Ying, 32, begins the story with her family’s take on giving out angpaos.

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With my sisters (I’m in the back row, extreme left), parents and grandmother

With my sisters (I’m in the back row, extreme left), parents and grandmother

Whenever anyone in my family brings a plus one to visit during Chinese New Year, their first reaction is to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of people and the noise. It starts from arriving at the door and seeing more than a hundred pairs of shoes outside! 

My maternal family consists of slightly over 100 people. My grandmother had 12 children, all who are married, and a number of them have children. Because of the size, we’ve come up with an informal angpao giving ceremony.

On Lunar New Year’s Eve, we don’t gather at full strength for our reunion dinner. For the family members (like myself) who have to attend dinner with their in-laws, we head over to our maternal uncle’s home after our meal to exchange angpaos

Our angpao ceremony started at least ten years ago. When I was a child, angpao giving was done the usual, haphazard way — you give an angpao when you see someone. But our family is so large and as more generations were introduced over the years, it was confusing to remember who you had given an angpao to. So that’s why we give out our angpaos on New Year’s Eve, when everything can be settled at one go and there is no confusion.

Here’s what takes place: the women in the family sit in a circle according to generation and rank (my grandmother first, followed by the aunts, including my mum, and following which the married members of my generation). There will be at least 20 people sitting on chairs, while the husbands take care of the children and take photos. Everyone then goes around in the circle to receive angpaos.

It can take quite some time to finish because there are so many of us, and it’s a rowdy affair. All you hear are multiple conversations, like the seated aunties asking the angpao receivers when they are getting married, cousins saying new year wishes… all at the same time. At the end, we take our family photo, which of course, is another noisy undertaking because everyone is screaming at each other to get in place!

Last year, we were told that it could be the last reunion dinner on such a large scale. My parents’ generation is getting older, and it was increasingly taxing for them to organise such a large event. Even though reunion dinner is a potluck, there’s still a lot to do with the setting up and cleaning. Of course, we can go to a restaurant for dinner, but we wouldn’t have the same ‘homely’ feel. We also wouldn’t be able to do our angpao circle because of how much space we would take up.

A typical scene at one of our potluck dinners.

A typical scene at one of our potluck dinners.

My cousins and I feel that this Chinese New Year tradition is important and we don’t want it to end, so we’re doing things a little differently this year. We have booked an event space, rented tables and have catered food from hotpot chain Beauty in a Pot. That way, the venue clean-up and food will be taken off the hands of my uncles and aunts. 

I contacted quite a few steamboat restaurants to enquire about catering before deciding on Beauty in a Pot. Midway through the organising with my cousins, it occured to me: I won’t even be attending the reunion dinner that I’m organising, because I will be with my in-laws!

But to me, it doesn’t matter whether I am physically there for the dinner portion of the night. It’s more important that my family will still be able to have this time together, and we can continue our angpao circle.

The reason why this is so important to me is because I love Chinese New Year, even when I was a child. My mother bakes tubs of almond cookies from scratch for the family for as long as I can remember, and it’s something that my sisters and I have been helping my mum with every year.

We don’t even use a whisk or standing mixers — everything is done by hand!

We don’t even use a whisk or standing mixers — everything is done by hand!

Chinese New Year was a time for me to play with my cousins, whom I have always been close to. When we were kids, my older cousin would drive all of us in my uncle’s lorry. There would be 15 to 20 children piled in the back, and it was so much fun to feel the wind through our hair during the drive.

He would drive us to the cinema, where we would book two rows worth of movie tickets. In other years, we would all head for karaoke sessions. 

Over the years, we have grown up and have our own families now. It’s normal that we have grown a little apart. But we still have fond memories of this time, and we are still a close-knit family. For example, even though I’m not there for the reunion dinner, I will still make it down for the angpao ceremony and attend dinner with my maternal family on the second and 15th day (chap goh mei) of Chinese New Year. 

These dinners are usually potluck, and can be a mix of dishes — it can range from home-cooked dishes to restaurant-bought sushi. My mum and her siblings have a group chat to keep track of what everyone is bringing. Because we know who the cooks of the family are, we usually pester them to point out what they’ve cooked, so we can ‘attack’ their plate first. We don’t stand on ceremony: when it is time to eat we all rush for the food and shout for everyone to join us or to eat this dish — anyone who comes for the first time might be deafened. 

With this being the first year that we are trying a new system of celebrating New Year’s Eve, whether this continues would have to depend on how it turns out. I joke that we have to report to a ‘board of directors’ of 24 adults (my 12 aunts and uncles, and their spouses), because they are the ones who will make the final call. 

But for my cousins and I, we still hope to continue with our angpao circle, because it’s something specific to our family. We still want to have this time of family bonding and closeness.

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Like Si Ying, Alethia, 33, also has a large family gathering during Chinese New Year — 100 family members on average. But unlike the former, new traditions were formed in an attempt to bring this large family closer together. She paints a realistic picture of what it means to belong to a family that you don’t often see, and why it’s important that things are changing.

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We are one of those families who believes that everything we wear absolutely has to be new, and that we have to wear as much bling as possible — every Chinese New Year, I’m always afraid that someone might rob me!

There was one year where I wore costume jewellery, and was chastised by my mother. It’s the belief that it’s the new year, so we need to start the new year properly — as the older generation says, we should be as “huat” as possible. 

We have quite a hectic visiting schedule, where we try to visit at least three houses per day. As a child, visiting could go up to four to five houses a day. I remember there was one year during the economic crisis where we only visited one or two houses because not everyone wanted to open their homes, and I was left feeling out of sorts. 

So when I hear from friends or colleagues that their Chinese New Year is boring, it makes me a little sad because it’s a time that’s so important for my family.

My feelings about Chinese New Year stem from my childhood. My maternal grandmother lived in an attap house in Lorong Buangkok (one of Singapore’s last remaining kampungs). It was the simple life where the toilet was outside of the home, and she took water from the well, but she loved living there and that’s where we would go every Chinese New Year. I have memories of my cousins and I running around and screaming, whether it was at a relative’s house or my grandma’s attap house. We would play hide and seek and Blind Man’s Bluff.

We would take a family photograph outside the attap house, with the longkang (drain) in the background. She eventually moved out in the early 2000s, but no matter where she moved, we would have dinner at her home.

Till today, 30 plus of us will squeeze into her one-room flat to enjoy a home-cooked dinner that she would have spent days preparing in advance.

While I’m close to my small maternal family, the paternal side of the family is extremely large. My father is one of 10 children, so on average, every gathering numbers close to 100 people — inevitably, not everyone is close. 

In the past, our gatherings were more informal. Someone would open their home (usually a function room), and people would stream in and out throughout the day. Because of this, you wouldn’t always see everyone, or end up eating with the people whom you are more familiar with.

In the last five years or so, this has changed. One of my uncles decided to take the opportunity of Chinese New Year to bring the family closer, and new traditions have been started. 

A committee was formed, where one cousin from each family was in charge of rallying their other family members, discussing logistics and sharing details. For our family, this would be my elder sister. 

On the day itself, there will be a short Christian worship session followed by a time of sharing where four or five members speak about how the previous year has been for them. This is also the time to inform everyone about upcoming family news like wedding dates, and to introduce new people like plus ones. It’s usually ‘chaired’ by one of my uncles or an older cousin whom everyone gets along with. With this schedule of events, we all now make it a point to arrive at the same time, so we can see everyone. 

Because of our family’s size, food would usually be catered, and depending on the space we get, there could also be activities. One year, my cousin managed to book the tennis courts of his condominium, so there were games of frisbee and futsal. Depending on the time we choose to meet, we might also gather around tables and lou hei.

It’s also the time for us to give angpaos. During my first Chinese New Year as a married woman, I was so overwhelmed because there were so many people to give angpaos to! There are at least 40 recipients, and even if you give the bare minimum of $6, it’s a significant amount of money — and just on one side of the family. I have a list from my aunt to keep track of every single family member who needs an angpao (and extras for the plus ones). 

As a child, I was shy around my paternal family members, because I felt like I didn’t know them. As an adult, I didn’t really look forward to these gatherings because we don’t speak frequently. But now that these changes have taken place, I feel like we are better able to communicate with one another.

Realistically speaking, these new traditions can’t immediately bring 100 people close together, but I appreciate that they have started and I do feel like relationships have improved these recent years.

During the sharing sessions, you find out more about what these members have gone through, and it does help us to bond a little closer together. We’ve also started following more family members on social media, and this also helps us to share more with one another when we meet. I find that I’m able to have more conversations with the cousins whom I seldom speak with.

At the end of the day, Chinese New Year is a time for family — including those whom we hardly get to see.

I have two children who are still young (my sons are two and four), so they don’t fully comprehend the meaning behind the holiday, but what I want for them in the future is to have the same enthusiasm and joy that I experienced when I was a child, and to know that above all, family comes first.

Photos provided by Si Ying and Alethia. 

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