It started with an ancient legend. On the first day of the New Year, a mythical lion-like beast called the Nian would maraud through the countryside – eating livestock, crops, villagers and, in particular children. Terrified villagers began putting food outside their doors to sate the Nian’s appetite. Then they discovered that the Nian was scared of a small child wearing red, so they hung red lanterns and scrolls on windows and doors and let off firecrackers to scare away the beast. Sure enough, the Nian never visited their village again.
While the Nian was conquered millennia ago, his defeat is still celebrated every Chinese New Year with food, the colour red and many fireworks. For Jim Teoh and his family, the New Year is a time when ancient traditions are honoured in a very non-traditional setting. “The Chinese culture is traditionally very agrarian,” explains Jim, who moved to Australia with his wife Lye 31 years ago from Malaysia. “New Year marks the end of winter [in China] so people have lots of time to relax, pork has become ham; vegetables have become pickles. We celebrate the New Year by eating and that’s when the family comes together.” While it is a spring festival in China, here in Australia, it’s
a 43-degree day that begins with a precisely laid out offering of food to the family’s ancestors. “A lot of the New Year traditions are based on Chinese beliefs and it’s quite religious,” says Jim, who is Buddhist. The family worship their ancestors by creating an altar and offering food to their spirits – “remembering ancestors is very important to us,” Jim explains. The offering “must be done precisely and in an orderly manner” and consists of eight different dishes, many of which are family recipes that are more than 200 years old.
The celebration continues later that afternoon when family and friends arrive through the heat haze to share in the abundance that has been prepared by Jim and Lye. Before the feasting begins however, there are more offerings to be made – this time to passing spirits who don’t have children and grandchildren to look after them. To conclude the ceremony, family members light golden joss papers as offerings, before throwing them into a decidedly non-traditional wheelbarrow that’s parked in the spacious backyard – home to numerous herbs and vegetables that the Teohs make use of in their cooking.
The meal itself is plentiful – the table is laden with plates and bowls of fried pork rolls, roast duck and pork, pig’s trotters and a wide array of fruits, cakes and biscuits. The flavours are rich and many of the recipes have been handed down through the families for generations. Though the dishes are traditional, Jim does add a modern Australian twist here and there – like the tinned fruit salad that he adds to the dessert of pandan jelly, longans and lychees.
Following the meal, the family prepares to visit the temple at 11pm (the beginning of the new day in Chinese culture), but before that, there is the traditional tea ceremony. Although this is customarily performed the next day, the Teohs will often have the ceremony on New Year’s Eve, to fit around the schedules of their family. Jim and his wife, as the elders, take their seats and are presented with cups of sweet tea by their children and grandchildren as a sign of respect, along with wishes for good health and happiness. In return, the younger members of the family are given their blessings, as well as red envelopes (hong bao) containing money.
As the family leaves for the temple, the heat of the day has begun to dissipate and a warm night breeze rustles the leaves of the backyard banana tree. The burnt fragments of joss papers linger in the wheelbarrow – a fitting symbol of an ancient tradition blended into modern suburban Australia.
Photography by Anson Smart.