The shortest day in the year is the Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere.
The Foochow Christians since 1903 have merged two important festivals into one. Most of them would celebrate the two festivals when children come home and eat a meal together with the parents. The Tern Chek or Winter Festival usually falls on 22nd Dec and a lunch or dinner is prepared. On Christmas day, the family goes to church.
However the Winter Solstice can be celebrated with just the making of simple Sii Yang or Chek, which is actually glutinous rice balls coated in sweet sugary, crushed peanuts and powdered roasted soy beans. This is the Ming Chiang's version. My Methodist, Foochow ancestors come from the Ming Chiang District of Fujian, China in the 1900's to Sibu. The other dialectic groups call these little rice dumplings Tong Yuen.
My grandfather Tiong Kung Ping was a fastidious eater but he was fortunate to live out his final days with Grandmother Siew who was a good cook and a good carer, with the help of two adopted daughters, Ah Hiong Koo and Mee Hiong Koo.
One special point about Grandfather is very dear to my heart. Grandfather, from the point of view of a young girl, under 10 years of age then. He was a very far sighted man who believed in adopting of girls for the family, especially when very poor farmers came to his door and offered their daughters for adoption in the 1940's. Thus came to our Tiong family 6 wonderful adopted "daughters" who were really good to my grandparents and their adopted sisters and brothers, my aunties and uncles. They all turned out to be excellent women of substance with good fate and good marriages.
I was eager as a child to visit my grandparents in Sungei Merah . A good Winter Solstice Festival in Sungei Merah would start early in the morning when my grandfather would asked Aunty Ah Hiong to cycle to the Sungei Merah market to buy some pork and a local chicken. The Sungei Merah market would be busy selling all the special items for the festival.
Grandmother Siew would then prepare a good meal for grandfather, putting a good wood fire in the Foochow stove and heating up the huge kuali. Those were the days when wood was used for cooking and gas was unheard of. Fire wood came in two ways. It could come from one of the felled rubber trees which would be cut up by a long saw and then axe. Or pieces of ramin "cast offs" would be purchased from the sawmills in Sungei Merah. I remember these would be already bundled up in good pieces, which Aunty Ah Hiong would splice into smaller pieces for the stove. These would come in a small lorry, and they would be tied by a strong wire.
A stir fried lean pork dish and a chicken soup served with mee sua would be the favourite for my grandfather. The vegetable would either be a leek or a cabbage dish or both. I remember, my grandmother was good in frying up a good Foochow Char Mien or Fried Noodles with thick black soy sauce and some yew chai or mustard greens.
Before the festival, in those days, some of my uncles and aunties who lived near by .would bring live chickens to my grandfather to "pass the festival". That was the kind of token respect a Foochow son or daughter would have for his parents in the 50's and 60's. In return, fruits, a slice of fresh pork,or a dozen eggs would be placed at the bottom of the basket for the son/daughter to take home. Most of my married aunties would come to send the presents a few days before the festival. This would make my grandparents really happy.These exchanges of gifts need not be on the exact day of the festival. The exchange could be done one or two weeks ahead, at the convenience of the giver.
The house would be very very "loud and hot" meaning "now yek" in Foochow. We kids would have a good time running up and down the stair cases and making a lot of noise on the wooden floor.
The huge balcony upstairs would be a very "happy" place to hang out. One year, the Christmas tree was outside and the Carollers came around mid night and enjoyed a star lit Christmas Carolling time. Rev Ho Siew Liong said a very special blessing for the Tiong family that year. As kids we all believed that Rev Ho was the "image of Jesus Christ".
I had spent only two or three Christmases with Grandfather in Sungei Merah, especially when Aunty Pick Sieng and Aunty Gie Sieng were in Sibu. The first Christmas with Grandfather in Sungei Merah also gave me my first experience with a nice Christmas tree decorated by my two pretty aunties. (Grandfather passed away when I was 14 years old and I believed then that he had really lived a very good life and was very very old at 85.)
That special year also saw all of us enjoying some really good Sii Yang. Grandmother Siew made very small sii yang, and we all helped with the stone grinder, to grind out the rice batter and later in the day, when the stone grinder was drier, we ground the soy bean powder and crushed peanut. This was our practice before the coming of the electric blender in the 1960's.
|Photo of a toothless old Hakka Man by Kirsty Mitchell (Google)|
Another memorable point about my grandfather was his careful grooming. Besides being careful with his dressing, he was particular about his teeth, and later about his dentures. I gathered this from my various aunts. Grandfather was blessed by the services of Dr. Pok Ai (I might have the wrong name here though) who made special dentures for him. With his dentures, he was able to enjoy good food for many more years than other men who started having bad dental health even when they were in their 40's. He was fortunate that Grandmother Siew cooked wonderful food for him. Many older men, friends with him, were less fortunate because they were toothless and passed a simple "porridge as meals" kind of life for many years. Sometimes their conversation touched on toothlessness in a very humourous manner.
My aunt and I had a good laugh this Winter Solstice. It is not easy to eat sii yang without a good set of teeth...Praise God we have good dental health care now.
Today Winter Solstice and Christmas are two festivals that Christian Foochows would often celebrate together and not really separately in Sibu in particular and in Sarawak in general.