A Community that Eats Together Grows Together
Boisterous chatters resounded as I approached the cordoned area of the streets in Old Town Ipoh. Long tables were assembled for a community dining to celebrate the Chinese New Year. This is the third time The Heritage Appreciation & Prosperity Reunion Dinner is held since it was first organised in 2018. From 40 tables lining Second Concubine Street, it had grown over the years to 188 tables that spanned 4 blocks of houses.
The tables, draped in red table cloths, lined four roads against a backdrop of pre-war shophouses. These building which had stood the test of time since the turn of the 20th century lends a nostalgic charm of the old days. The scene recaptured the essence of an era where the community of labourers and miners who had landed in Ipoh for the prospect of tin ore. Just before the Chinese New Year, they would have their reunion dinners by sharing traditional dishes and delicacies with their neighbours on tables set outside their home.
Familiar Cantonese greetings of Kong Hei Fatt Choy (May you prosper in Cantonese) and San Lin Fai Lok (Happy New Year) fill the air as friends and strangers greeted each other as they took their seats at the allocated tables.
The clanging of cymbals and resounding drumbeat signalled the arrival of the lion dancers. As the performers manoeuvred between the rows of tables, guests took the chance to have their photos taken with the lions.
A sudden flurry of excitement drew my attention to a group of people clamouring to take photograph with ‘Choy Sun Ye’ (the god of prosperity), a performer dressed in costume resembling the mythical figure associated with wealth and prosperity. It is believed that ‘he’ brings windfall luck and prosperity into a household. It tickled me to see so many eagerly accepting the chocolate gold nuggets that he was distributing.
The highlight of the evening was the food that was served. A vegetarian yee sang gave everyone a merry time to ‘lou hei’, a Prosperity Toss of the multi-coloured ingredients of shredded carrots, cucumber, radish, picked ginger and pomelo. I struggled to spew up the various auspicious wishes to complement the toss of yee sang and decided to just repeat what was heard from the table next to us!
Thought was put into ensuring that dishes from different dialect group were represented in this banquet. Teochew crispy prawn rolls and Hokkien bean curd spring roll were featured as appetizer. Almost similar in taste, one is lightly spiced with minced prawns while the other is heavier spiced with the chinese 5 spice powder with minced pork wrapped in bean curd skin.
Everyone welcomed the Hakka style of braised pork trotters with vinegar while similar as how the Cantonese would do cook this dish, the vinegar used is a little stronger with a hint of spiciness in the broth. The Cantonese contribution to the menu were steam prawns and stir-fried vegetable and no one leaves Ipoh without savouring some poached chicken, Hainanese style with rice. To round up this banquet of food, Teochew ‘orh nee’ or sweet yam paste for dessert was served. This smooth and creamy paste topped with gingko nuts was served with ‘tong yuan’, glutinous rice balls in a ginger infused sweet soup.
This amazing effort to bring a community to sit, eat and enjoy food and company was the brainchild of Tan Kai Lek who felt that he needed to build the community spirit of sharing and to promote cohesiveness. Together with a small team, they organized the entertainment, food and most importantly obtaining the cooperation and participation from the shop owners where tables were placed at each shop front.
To ensure good weather, Mr Tan and his team would bring offerings of chilli, banana and onions to pray at the oldest temple in Ipoh. According to him, they played on the homonym of ‘chiu yong’ (banana – Kung Chiu and Onion- Yong chung ) to mean ‘welcome sunlight’ which is pronounce the same in Cantonse. I guess it worked as it was predicted to rain that evening, but the weather held out. The spurt and splatter of dazzling light from fireworks marked the end of the event and I am already looking forward to the next big community get together with the Ipoh clan.