Thc Chinese celebrate the Lunar New Year over 15 days. During this period, traditions hold that certain days are auspicious for opening a business while other days are not. Tradition also would have special celebrations on certain days out of the 15 days of celebration. The 15th Day or “Chap Goh Meh” is celebrated in many forms but amongst the immigrant Chinese in South East Asia and especially in Malaysia, two interesting traditions are followed.
The first one, not surprisingly is about food. During the Lunar New Year celebrations, a certain dish called “yee sang” may be served at the start of any gathering for a meal. Chap Goh Meh is the last day to eat it and many hold special dinners on this day for that purpose. “Yee Sang” literarily means “raw fish” and the dish is essentially a salad which comprises of strips of raw seafood (ranging from salmon to jellyfish), various freshly shredded vegetables as well as candied and pickled vegetables. Spices are added and then finally plum sauce and oil.
Family and friends who are gathered for the meal are expected to use their chopsticks and together toss the salad which is referred to as the act of “loh sang”. This act is supposed to bring good fortune to everyone collectively. The higher you toss or mix the ingredients, the greater the measure of good fortune. I personally suspect from my research that this tradition is not an ancient one but one that came about only in the last thirty years. It is possible that this was started as a promotional ploy by a local restaurant but has now been adopted as a tradition.
A much older tradition for Chap Goh Meh has to do with romance. The Perankan Chinese in Malaysia were generally very rich merchants during the 18-19th centuries. They developed a sophisticated and complicated set of rules for social etiquette. Young maidens were, for example, not seen by non-family members. They would normally be sequestered at home and seldom ventured out. Even when a visitor comes to the house, the visitor would be entertained in the front parlor while the young maidens are expected to remain hidden behind an ornamental screen in a second parlor room.
This level of modesty made it difficult for the young men to decide who they would pursue in a formal courtship. Their opportunity comes on Chap Goh Meh, when the maidens are allowed out under escort by an older aunt to take a trishaw and roam the town, essentially to display herself. Potential suitors will wait near the girl’s home or at strategic locations to get glimpses of her and if lucky steal a conversation or a moment if the chaperone was distracted. The girls end the night by going to a bridge and throwing tangerines into the river or to the beach and throw tangerines into the sea. As they do this, they make a wish for what they want in their future husband.
It is very romantic and some call it the Chinese Valentine’s Day. Naughty boys, demonstrating more entrepreneurship than romance were known to use long handled scoops or nets to retrieve the tangerines from the river or sea for sale or consumption. Although still observed, sadly more and more young people celebrate it today with a date at McDonalds.