The director of Coca Restaurant shares why she always looks forward to the Chinese New Year celebrations

As a restaurateur and mother of two young kids, Elizabeth Thea leads a busy life. But when Chinese New Year rolls around, nothing is more important than family. During the festive period, she makes it a point to spend time with those close and dear to her, and she does it by observing time-cherished traditions. 

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When and where would you usually have your reunion dinner?

We follow the norm and have our reunion dinner on the eve of Chinese New Year. In terms of where, we like to do something different every year. It could be in our home, my in-laws' place or dine out at Coca Restaurant or a new restaurant. We always discuss our reunion dinner plans as a family.

Now that we have kids (Riley Eljan, 6, and Alessandra Skye, 2), I prefer organising reunion dinner in our home so the kids can experience a family gathering in their own home without having to rush through dinner within an allocated time at a restaurant. Since I married 14 years ago, reunion dinner has always involved both sides of our family, and I'm quite grateful for that. 

What are the must-have dishes on the table?

Yee sang, of course. We will also always have a traditional poon choi with abalone, tiger prawns and other seafoods served with premium shiitake and broccoli. Both yee sang and poon choi are ordered from Coca Restaurant.

The rest of the meal will be made up of a combination of Nonya and Cantonese dishes. I will cook Kiam Chai Boey (mustard green stew), Jiu Hu Char (fried jicama with cuttlefish) served with Chinese lettuce and sambal belacan, steamed cod fish, fried or roast chicken, Fish Gulai Tumis and Chap Chye (stir fry mixed vegetables). 

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Why is reunion dinner important to your family?

Reunion dinner has been a tradition since my childhood days when my parents would return to my paternal grandparents' home. I still remember the joy and happiness when meeting my cousins and extended family members during Chinese New Year.

Even though we are separated by borders now, the tradition of reunion dinner means that everyone makes the extra effort to gather as a family at least once a year. This is one tradition that I hope to pass down to my kids and the generations to come.

What do the kids love about Chinese New Year? 

Riley is the most excited about receiving angpow and the endless festive treats. He's very excited to watch lion dance performances because he knows that it can only be experienced once a year during the festive period.

He also loved driving his mini truck around the neighbourhood to deliver angpow and oranges to the guards who look after our home. This teaches him the value of giving back and to always have compassion for others.

And if not for the pandemic, Riley looks forward to having his cousins (who live in Australia) back for Chinese New Year.

What would the family do on the first day of Chinese New Year?

We're quite traditional in the sense that we start the day with the exchange of angpow and a well-wishes ceremony. This is followed by lunch with the family. In the afternoon, we will relax with our immediate family before dinner with extended family members.

We didn’t get to have a celebration last year due to Covid. What did you miss most?

My dad was stuck in Penang last year and it was the very first time that he did not celebrate Chinese New Year with us. My siblings are not living in Malaysia, so naturally I took the lead to ensure he was taken care of during the festive season. I have also not seen my sisters and her family for more than two years now; I have not even met my youngest nephew! I definitely miss the feeling of being with the whole family.

What are some of the no-nos during the festive period?

There will be no sweeping and washing in the house on Day 1. 

What are some of the must-have decorations in the house?

I like to keep it simple. Red paper cuttings for the front door and the windows, hanging lanterns, and placing orchids, oranges and bamboo plants around the house.

Are there any new traditions that you started since you started your own family?

Coordinating my outfits with the children on the first day of Chinese New Year. I insist on taking a lot of family pictures on the first day.

What are the other traditions do you usually observe?

Wearing new clothes are a MUST on the first day.

Are you strict in observing these traditions?

Yes, I am. I believe you are responsible for setting the right example for your kids and these are the values you'd hope that your kids will continue to practise. 

What are your wishes for the Year of the Tiger?

I wish for a blessed Year of the Tiger that brings good health, and immense joy and prosperity. May all our dreams come true in the new year!

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