Saturday, 12 February 2011

Chinese New Year - Open Houses

It didn't take us long to realise that food - or makan - is a pretty important part of Bruneian life!  That's OK, it's an important part of mine too...  but it has surprised and amused us at times to see how often people like to eat here.  When Rob was teaching on his last course he'd have breakfast at home, then get into work to find breakfast makan laid out (noodles, rice, curries, etc).  This would keep them going until mid-morning makan - not just tea and biscuits, but another entire meal.  I suppose they needed it though, as it would be another hour or so until lunch was served.  Mid-afternoon makan followed soon afterwards of course...  you've got to admire that dedication to eating!

So it really shouldn't have surprised us that when we were invited to an 'Open House' (at our colleague Vikki's home) to celebrate Chinese New Year that there would be food there.  It shouldn't have surprised us, but foolishly my friend Yvonne and I had been out to lunch just before we went along...  The food at the open house looked amazing, but sadly we just couldn't do it justice. 

However, the highlight of the afternoon was when the Lion Dance troupe turned up.  I didn't know much about this part of the celebration, but have done a little research:

Street celebrations often include a traditional lion dance which is thought to bring good luck. There are usually two dancers. One acts as the head and the other the body. They dance to a drum, cymbals and a gong. On the head of the lion is mirror so that evil spirits will be frightened away by their own reflections. The lion dancers need to be very fit. As the lion moves from place to place he looks for some green vegetables such as lettuce which are hung above the doors of houses or businesses. Hidden in the leaves is a red packet of money. The lion eats the lettuce and red packet. He then scatters lettuce leaves to symbolize a fresh start for the new year and the spreading of good luck. (Info found at

The Lions who came to dance at Vikki's were one of 3 or 4 Lion Dance groups who tour around Brunei during this Chinese New Year season.  You can book them for parties, and they can often be seen performing in shops and offices as well as homes.

We were alerted to the arrival of the group by some loud fireworks set off in the street. This brought us all running outside to watch the performers set up.

The lions' heads proved fascinating to the many small children at the party!

The dancers getting ready.  It was of course hot and humid, so I didn't envy them having to put on those heavy costumes - and then dance!

As the dance started, so did the firecrackers.  These were unbelievably loud...  the noise even set off a couple of car alarms!

As if the firecrackers weren't loud enough, there was also the band - a drum, cymbals and a gong.  Some of the parents there found that they just didn't have enough hands!!

The lions danced around the house, chasing away the evil spirits, and one stopped for several minutes at the shrine in the doorway.  He was presented with offerings of food, including oranges, pomelo and lettuce leaves.

He seemed to spend a long time there (and I couldn't help noticing that the dancers were taking the opportunity of having a well-earned cold drink whilst crouching underneath the costume!).  When the lion stood up we saw that he had created some lovely rabbits from the fruit!

Ears ringing, we went home for a couple of hours, only to head out again later in the day to an evening Open House hosted by another colleague, Yang.  Rob came along to this one too.  As we hadn't eaten since lunchtime we were slightly better prepared for this event - which was very fortunate because Yang and her husband had been preparing and cooking food for days! 

The evening started with a ritual which is supposed to bring good fortune - tossing the mackerel!  A beautiful plate of mackerel sashimi with a gorgeous sesame and lime dressing was laid out with several sets of chopsticks:

On a given signal everyone leaned in and tossed some of the food up into the air!

Of course half of it ended up all over the table - but that didn't stop us all then digging in and getting ourselves a plateful.  It was delicious!

An incredible feast was then brought out consisting of, amongst other things, beautifully moist smoked chicken, marinated duck, spicy beef salad, noodles and mixed bean salad.  There was even a dish of sliced tripe, which I helped myself too before realising what it was!  I'm fairly game when it comes to trying new foods, so I did eat a piece.  The flavour was lovely as it had been cooked in Chinese spices, but I was a little unsure about the texture!

The leaves you can see in the rear of this picture contain coconut rice and anchovy sambal.  These were gorgeous and I had to restrain myself from eating too many!

Yesterday was a great example of how food can be such a central part of any celebration in any number of different cultures.  Once again I felt privileged to be involved in these occasions - thanks Vikki and Yang, and Gong Xi Fa Cai to you and your families!


At Anna's kitchen table said...

I can't begin to express just how much I enjoy reading your blog, it really is another life, and I feel as if I'm enjoying it with you!

Kelly-Jane said...

Wow, that's so amazing to be a part of it all, love your pictures too.

snowy said...

Lovely photos. Like Anna, I feel as if I'm there with you, enjoying all the new experiences. Used to go to the CNY celebrations in Chinatown in London, and they were noisy too!