March 4, 2008

Times are a-changing…

"Chinese New Year is here again! How scary." I don't remember hearing remarks like that when I was a kid. The coming of New Year did not signify the frightening passing of time, but rather about fun times with the cousins in my grandfather's coffee shop. I don't mean the garden-variety uncle-this-and-madam-that air-conditioned Kopitiams; they didn't exist back then. Yik-Cheong café was our authentic pre-war kopitiam hangout place every Chinese New Year.

But being 'authentic' and drinking coffee wasn't particularly alluring to a child. What got me up early in the morning was the short trip down the road for 'apong'(light-fluffy-pancakes), bathing outdoors on the rooftop with pet chickens, and squeezing into a trishaw with my sister and cousins whom we shared some kind of internally evolved language; Kek Lok Si temple was called 'Galaxy' temple, and for reasons nobody knew, the trishaw was called 'lam-yuk-chea' (soft-meat-chair).

All that changed over the years. Like many others in Little India, Penang who couldn't afford the high rent when the Rent Control Act was repealed on New Year's Day 2000, my grandparents closed shop and moved to other parts. Little India became a haven for heritage enthusiasts with a maps provided on the street to 'guide' tourists on how to follow the 'heritage trail'.

Last year, I inadvertently found myself looking at the very same shop-house. While having a lunch meeting, I almost did not realize that the shop selling medicine across the road used to be Yik Cheong café. I never imagined as a child that I would come back to the same street not for any purpose related to family or New Year celebrations. While it was with a tinge of nostalgia and an unreasonable wish to have known it's significance when I was 7, I was happy to know that I had but the most precious way to experience a way of life, just as it was.

Then the biggest change in tradition happened this year, when my grandparents moved down to Kuala Lumpur for practical reasons and thus ending some 40 years of their descendents annual 'balik kampung' trip back to Penang.

Whilst reflecting on how differently I will be celebrating this Chinese New Year, it was a good reminder of how culture and traditions evolve over time. It was remarked that public protests was not a Malaysian culture, but who knows, maybe it will be if the reasons why people protest remains, and if more and more Malaysians become aware of their rights.

Change is inevitable over time; will Malaysians develop a culture that supports a healthy democracy? Will we no longer tolerate where there is blatant mis-use of our tax money? Heck, as far as making history and the changing of traditions go, 2008 seems to be an important year in regards to our nation's direction and how we will be governed.

Malaysia will continue to change for the better or worse, and like Little India, Penang, we may not realize the significance of where we are at the present. But in this case, being blissfully unaware may not be the best thing; unlike the frightening speed in which years go by for happy celebrations, it will seem too long if we vote for leaders who only serve themselves, the party, and not the people.

Happy holidays to everyone and here's hoping year 2008 will be the start towards a time when Malaysians won't be dictated as to what their culture is, but is free to explore and develop their own that are consistent with just and universal values.

No comments: