It’s been four years since Ah Chor (my great grandmother) passed away and I think my maternal side of the family has finally gotten into the rhythm of celebrating Chinese New Year without her. I had a really enjoyable but short trip this year. Touching down at KLIA, it felt like I still had four whole days ahead of me but walking through the gates to head back to Sydney felt like no time had passed at all.
For me, Chinese New Year is still synonymous with Ipoh, my mother’s hometown. We would leave the house relatively early in the morning to get a quick bite from a local coffee shop before my mom would drive us two hours to Ah Chor’s house. Two hours can feel like two years when you’re a kid, but as soon as I picked up binge reading, I was able to stop annoying my mom and focus on reading the whole way. I read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to completion one trip.The car rides here clearly set the tone for the rest of the trip, I would be lying to say I enjoyed our time there when I was younger, Ipoh can be pretty boring. I liked playing with my cousins and warming up to relatives again. But even the incredible food we have there was lost on me at the time, even the promise of money in the form of red packets wasn’t all that appealing. It’s a very different place now (and I’m also a lot older) so I would recommend you visit, as my friend Sarah did last year.
Ah Chor lived in a two-storey house at the end of a road. Her upstairs area had four bedrooms and two bathrooms. The house didn’t have showers, only a mini well/large tiled basin that would collect water from the taps located just above it and a hand-held pail to douse yourself with water. When the well was full, you could see the pail bobbing around on the surface ready for the next use. Sometimes there wouldn’t be any heating but icy cold water is delicious against the Ipoh afternoon heat. We were doing the ice bucket challenge out of necessity before it was cool.
Downstairs she had cool-to-touch terrazzo flooring (only the steps were carpeted to prevent slipping) and a living room with chairs lined up on both sides. She had a small TV with no cable. I ended up watching a lot of Tamil movies on my yearly visits to Ipoh because these were the only shows that had English subtitles. Just outside her front door, she had a generous driveway which suited her large family as people began to arrive, car after car. Double and triple parking often ensued. To the left was a big white swing, also known as the only piece of entertainment around besides the TV. I’m sure I spent hours here, trying to read, trying to fall asleep, trying to take it as high as it would let me without the rusty hinges giving way. I have one vivid memory sitting on the swing with a granduncle who has also passed, talking to me about why gambling with cards isn’t such a big deal when living is the biggest gamble of all.
The best thing of Ah Chor’s house wasn’t the parts but the summation of what it meant to all of us in our giant family. It wasn’t just my mom and I who piled into our car to drive to her simple home, it was all of our relatives (well over 100 of us in total now) near or far, sometimes flying from overseas. The house was a neon sign and we were tiny insects who were inexplicably drawn to it once a year.
When Ah Chor moved to KL to be closer to her children, we no longer had to drive to Ipoh nor take up a room in her house. Some of the bonding we had, sharing rooms with family we hadn’t seen all year, camaraderie in the face of boredom in an old sleepy town, was lost. With circumstance no longer pushing us together, our family stayed the same distance all year round, even though we had never been closer physically.
I probably didn’t notice or care as much at the time as having my maternal side stay in KL for Chinese New Year meant I could now also spend time with my paternal side on the crucial first few days of Chinese New Year.
Ah Chor went on to have a stroke a few years later one day which spiralled into years of extended hospital stays, stints of living at home with a full-time carer, and eventually moving into a nursing home for the last years of her life. She had lost almost all of her mobility and at the end, could barely see, speak or recognise us. Ah Chor loved food more than anyone I’ve ever known, so the most heartbreaking to see was for her to be fed through a tube sticking out of her nose.
She passed away on the 13th day of Chinese New Year in 2013 which actually makes today the anniversary of her death, something I had no idea of at all when I started to write this and only found out when I messaged my interior designer mom to ask her what kind of floor Ah Chor had in the house. Chinese tradition dictates that if you have a death in the family around the new year, you generally don’t participate in any of the celebrations. Hence why my mom always said that Ah Chor had waited a few days so we could go visit her as customary, and to allow us to enjoy the season for a little while before she passed on. I remember thinking that year that I had hardly seen anyone on my mother’s side of the family and then seeing everyone at once in the last two days at her funeral parlour.
I never spoke Hokkien then and barely understood it, although I am marginally better now. This got in the way of us every communicating because it was her first language. The only phrase she ever taught me was ‘ciak pnui’ which literally means to eat rice, which is what you say around the table to your elders as a sign of respect before a meal. The only other language she spoke was Malay, which we did on occasion but the embarrassment of not knowing any Chinese dialect that could facilitate a conversation meant I often chose to not speak at all. Ah Chor was a huge WWE fan because it reminded her of her late husband. At some point in my early adolescence I became a fan as well. One summer, we spent an entire day binge watching RAW vs Smackdown. No one, not even us really understood this but it’s a memory I’ll always keep with me.