Memories of Chinese New Year ‘love letters’ and ang pow

Although the Chinese community still preserves much of the traditions associated with the lunar new year, some relaxation is seen in modern Malaysia.

A red packet/ ang pow usually given during Chinese New Year and a few Malaysian ringgit notes.
The act of giving an "ang pow" is one of the most important traditions during Chinese New Year celebrations. (Photo: Getty Images)

One of the most important Chinese New Year traditions is the giving of the “ang pow” or red packet. Most Malaysians, I’m sure, have either given or received the ang pow.

Today, the act of giving and receiving ang pow has crossed over to the cultures of other Malaysian communities, with many Muslims and Hindus handing out “duit raya” and “Deepavali kaasu” respectively during Hari Raya Puasa and Deepavali in similar packets.

Except that the Muslims go for green-coloured packets while the Hindus are okay with any colour, although, these days, they mostly come in purple or yellow.

I suppose this is because banks print such envelopes during the major festive seasons in Malaysia and offer them free to their clients; and it is so much neater to give money in an envelope.

Growing up with Chinese New Year goodies and festivities

During my childhood, both my immediate neighbours were Chinese and so I would receive red packets from them. They would also bring over to my house trays or plates filled with food such as “love letters” or “kuih kapit”, “kuih bangkit”, which would come in shapes such as fish and flower, mooncakes and cookies made from peanuts.

There was also the soft, star-shaped “kuih bahulu”, which I’m told was borrowed from the Malays. Which is well and good, as it, again, demonstrates that we share many things in common after living together in Malaysia for a couple of centuries or more.

My favourite was the crispy, crunchy “love letters”, and I would go to my neighbour Lee Choo Lai’s house to taste them as his family members were making them.

I loved the aroma emanating from them as Ah Hai’s (that was his house name) mother cooked or rather baked them in hot iron moulds over charcoal braziers assisted by a few women. They would fold the “love letters” and place them in tin containers.

Ah Hai’s mother was kind enough to let us taste the “love letters” fresh from the oven, so to speak. She was very particular about the hue of the “love letters” and would discard the darker coloured ones, which young ones like me were more than delighted to dispose of in our cavernous mouths.

Later, I found out that these were called “love letters” because there was a time when young women would send messages to their lovers or boyfriends via these folded pastries.

It was felt that by eating it, the message would go right to the heart. Also, there would be no evidence of the message once the “love letter” was consumed.

What clever women, I thought when I first heard this story. I still don’t know if this story is historically accurate.

I would also visit my other immediate neighbour, one of whose sons, Ong Chin Aun, was my age.

When I was in secondary school, I would visit the houses of classmates Jeff Lee Fook Leng and Ong Kim Beng, where I would be treated to lots of food and loads of friendship.

It was during these visits that I noted the penchant among the Chinese to gamble during the Chinese New Year period, whether playing mahjong or cards.

In fact, I would join in and place bets of five cents or 10 cents at the most at Kim Beng’s place, as I found out that it was not about the money but about the fun and camaraderie generated.

In Form 6, several friends and I – including Jamil, Aziz, Masood and Manavalan - would cycle to the houses of classmates Chuah Hooi Hooi, Chin Seow Si and Ooi Seok Cheng, among others, to personally wish them and enjoy their company and food.

My eyes would light up whenever I saw the “love letters” being served. These are so thin that you can consume quite a lot at one time and still not feel full.

As I was writing this, I rang up to ask Hooi Hooi if there was any difference in the way Chinese New Year was celebrated when she was a child and now when she is a grandmother of three.

She said the tradition was largely well-preserved, except that most families bought food from outside and did not cook at home as in the past.

Even Yee Sang ingredients are bought ready-made and mixed and tossed for the new year eve compulsory family dinner.

She said people from different parts of China – and who spoke different dialects – had different ways of starting the new day.

For instance, the Hokkiens usually start the new year morning by eating mee sua soup with hard-boiled egg to signify longevity while the Cantonese usually go vegetarian for the first half of the day. The Teow Chew community also has mee sua soup as the first item of the day but they cook it a little differently.

In the past, the daughter-in-law was required to come to the husband’s family home and participate in the reunion dinner and only leave for her parent’s house after lunch on the second day of Chinese New Year.

Although this tradition is largely relaxed these days, most Cantonese still adhere to it.

The ang pow was a big thing then, as it still is now. But to get the ang pow, the children had to serve tea made of red dates and longan to their elders. This was an act of respect for elder members of the family.

Two asian children holding up red packets
Children had to serve tea made of red dates and longan to their elders to get an ang pow. (Photo: Getty Images)

Hooi Hooi remembers getting 20 cents in her ang pow packet. Over the years, however, the amount increased and today most people place RM5 in the red packet. But how much one gets depends on how close one is to the giver.

You would naturally give more to your children than your neighbour’s children.

Older adults and married couples have to give ang pow to the younger ones as a gesture of blessing while working adults are required to give ang pow to their parents as an act of filial piety.

In this digital age, some people give e-ang pow but I’m told that this is frowned upon by the traditionalists as there is no human contact and the act of blessing or showing respect is lost.

According to Chinese belief, the red colour of the packet symbolises not only good luck, energy and happiness, but also serves to ward off evil. The packet is usually decorated with beautiful Chinese characters and symbols.

When someone gives the ang pow, it means he or she is wishing you another safe, happy, prosperous and peaceful year.

So, Kong Hee Fatt Choy everyone. May the Year of the Dragon bring plenty of blessings.

A.Kathirasen is a veteran Malaysian journalist/editor who has been writing columns, with breaks, in newspapers and online since 1981. All views expressed are the writer's own.

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