Tuesday, February 10, 2009

CNY in Sibu (Pt. 3 of 3)

Pictured above is just a regular ol' neighborhood house, right? So I thought as we drove up, stopping here on our Chinese New Year's Eve errands. But the garage of this particular house was actually a bustling slaughterhouse.

Warning: Graphic photos below.

The sight of Wilbur's snout in that plastic bag is pretty grisly, but these guys provided us with some of the essential ingredients for any good CNY 'reunion dinner'.

It was Sunday, so the five of us who'd come from Samarahan went to the Sibu branch of Hope Church. Then we joined Valerie's older brother Bill's family at their house where the fireworks and karaoke had already begun. Unfortunately they had no English disks, so I had no opportunity to show off my voice.

From Sunday on, Valerie's street and many other low-lying areas in Sibu were flooded, making her house accessible only by walking a short distance through a foot of smelly water. Car after car would come down her street, approach the water, pause as if considering taking the risk, and then three-point turn right on out of there. The day after we left Sibu the water rose high enough to enter Valerie's ground floor, forcing them to move their furniture upstairs like they had to do last year. Last year's flood was worse, forcing many families in badly affected areas to leave their homes when the water level reached waist-high. A few thousand motorcycles ended up in repair shops as a result. The flooding is caused by the "king tide" combined with heavy rainfall.

Back at Valerie's house we waited for Chinese New Year to officially commence. One corner of her living room was occupied by a Buddhist/ancestor worship altar consisting of candles and incense, fruit and cakes, cups of tea and small Buddhist statues. After the candles and incense are burned and time is allowed for the spirits of ancestors to come and dine, family members eat the fruit and cakes, taking in good fortune. On the wall directly above the altar hung a large picture of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddhism's founder), other Buddhist pictures, and framed Chinese characters representing the names of ancestors – all encircled by a red rope of lights. The counterclockwise swastika (at the center of a blinking light decoration topping the altar) signifies good luck in Buddhism. Another miniature altar – this one for a god of the sky – hung from the fence out in the carport. Valerie became a Christian during her first year at UNIMAS and brought the gospel to her family; only her dad retains the traditional Buddhist/ancestor worship beliefs.

We'd been hearing fireworks since the very hour we arrived in Sibu, but around 6PM the strings of firecrackers began going off constantly and the mortar shells started exploding high in the sky. Leading up to midnight the booms and bangs and flashes became so frenzied that our neighborhood near the center of this peaceful Borneo city must have resembled a war zone. After twelve huge clouds of smoke drifted down the street and the smell of sulfur was strong. The fireworks continued past 1AM.

The following morning we rose just in time for the arrival of the highly anticipated "lion dance" team. The pair of female lions came at 8AM and began stalking outside the front door, shaking with the rhythm of the clanging cymbals and crouching during rolls on the barrel drum. Traditionally their purpose is to chase away any evil spirits in the house and to keep away menacing creatures which would typically show up this time of year, clearing the way for a happy and prosperous new year. (Though the lion dance and other CNY traditions – like fireworks, red lanterns outside the home, and wearing red clothes – have adopted a more celebratory meaning in modern times, they all originally had the same function: to scare away evil.) The lions' handlers led them into the living room, through the kitchen, and even up the stairs into the bedrooms. No room could be skipped lest any evil spirits remain. When they came back out front we rewarded them each first with a mandarin orange (ubiquitous during CNY) and then finally ang pow, their payment inside red envelopes (which some families actually hang from a string up high, requiring the lions to perform a great leap to retrieve their pay). The lions somehow managed to peel the oranges inside their mouths and then arrange the slices on the ground in the shape of Chinese characters meaning "luck" and "prosperity."

An hour later – and this time without warning to us – a second lion dance team, this time featuring a male (the horn gives it away), showed up and carried out its own routine. After they left some members of the family with keen 'lion dance' eyes explained to me what the second team had done better than the first. I learned from Bill that there are lion dance competitions in many countries, and it's not only Chinese who participate. Later we watched videos of some truly unbelievable 'lion' feats on Youtube. One lion is made up of two men who must be incredibly strong and coordinated to make the lion do things like jump real high, stand up on its hind legs, and run along tiny platforms.

Valerie's family is part of Sibu's Hakka (a Chinese subgroup) Association. We visited their building and sat in on their New Years meeting where local politicians and businessmen briefly spoke and then happily each drew a Chinese character. Seon, Min Sun, and I were invited to stand and be recognized as honored guests by Valerie's brother Bill who chaired the meeting.

Monday and Tuesday were days for 'visitations'. We drove to several homes of friends and family and stayed long enough to chat, eat some snacks, and ask for ang pow. At every house was a short table stacked with plastic containers full of all kinds of snacks. My favorite was the soft and colorful layer cake. Altogether I collected six ang pows, though one came with my Prosperity Burger from McDonalds and, alas, had no money inside.
Tuesday afternoon, day two of the Year of the Ox, we saw some sights around Sibu including the longest bridge in Sarawak (which crosses Malaysia's longest river, the Rejang), the largest public square in Sarawak (where we found some Malays playing a French game resembling Bache Ball), and another of Sibu's swan statues (this one floating on its own little island off of a waterfront park).

The only other white folks I can recall seeing during my time in Sibu were at the bus station while we waited for our midnight departure back to Kuching Tuesday night. They were Irish and had just finished traveling for five months in South America and now were beginning another five months in Asia!

Yesterday was Chap Goh Mei, the fifteenth and final day of the Chinese New Year festival. Traditionally there is an activity or meaning assigned to each of the fifteen days. For example the seventh day is everyone's birthday – the birthday of humanity! On the fifteenth day single girls will throw mandarin oranges into lakes or rivers, and single boys standing below or in boats will try to catch as many as possible to increase their chances of finding a good wife. It's bad luck to have any fireworks left over at the end of the festival, so in the evening from the University Square I could see mortars exploding above the nearby towns.

Last night Allamanda College hosted a Chap Goh Mei celebration with more lion dances and mandarin oranges, and they raffled off baskets of junk food. It made for a nice conclusion to my first Chinese New Year celebration.