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Year of the Rat
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    Year of the Rat

    Chinese New Year has become somewhat of a culinary event in some parts of Chachoengsao

    YVONNE BOHWONGRPASERT
    Bangkok Post
    February 07, 2008


    If you happen to be visiting Chachoengsao province during the Chinese New Year holiday don't forget to drop by Rong Jae Wat Sothon - a Chinese shrine with a vegetarian food hall by the Bang Pakong River - for a sumptuous buffet.


    According to the assistant abbot, Phra Khru Sunthon Kitprayut, a considerable effort has been made this year to offer a wider variety of mouth-watering dishes to appeal to younger visitors who, it seems, have become more choosy in their eating habits.


    "I believe food is one way to attract young people to come and pray more often at the shrine," enthused the veteran monk.


    "If the buffet we serve leaves them with a good impression, I'm confident that they'll return. Let's not forget that food is a pivotal part of celebrating the occasion and the Year of the Rat is no exception. This year we'll be offering 10 types of vegetarian food and desserts that I guarantee will be both tasty and filling. The menu will consist of fried rice and rice porridge, noodle soup plus Chinese and Thai delicacies."


    The vegetarian food hall will be open from 7am to 5pm and there's enough adjacent parking space to accommodate 400 cars.


    The monk noted that the eating habits of worshippers have changed considerably in recent years. In the past, he recalled, most people weren't choosy, eating basically anything offered to them. Nowadays, the younger generation is more selective and expects more variety and flavours.


    There has also been a marked increase in the number of Thais visiting the shrine; in its earlier days worshippers were almost exclusively of ethnic-Chinese origin.


    Most visitors are from nearby provinces, although the shrine does attract a sizeable number of ethnic-Chinese tourists from Singapore and Malaysia, who arrive by train and tour bus.


    Every lunar new year Chinese people visit shrines and temples and pray for good luck. At Rong Jae Wat Sothon they can wish for anything - from prosperity and good health to a spouse. Built in 1976, the place hosts a large collection of Chinese deities which are revered because they are said to answer one's prayers, hence its popularity, which led to the construction of another two-storey structure to accommodate the rising number of visitors.


    Another temple Chinese worshippers flock to is Wat Chin Pracha Samosorn, aka Wat Leng Hok Yi, in Ban Mai, Muang district. It was built over a century ago during the reign of King Rama V by an abbot named Luang Chin Chok Heng. Its current abbot, Phra Athikarn Yen Joong, told us that the temple houses statues representing no less than 34 Chinese deities, each famous in its own right.


    "The main event will take place on the night before New Year's Day," he explained, "when prayers will be said to usher in the Year of the Rat. So come and pray for a prosperous year and good health for family and friends."


    Wat Chin is a Mahayana Buddhist temple which houses statues made from papier-ma{aci}che sourced from Shanghai. On its altar are three images, resembling Buddha images, that are believed to ward off disease and illness.


    In a separate section, the temple showcases the preserved remains of two of its former abbots; reposing in meditative posture, they are covered in gold foil.


    For success in business, go to the Goddess of Luck and for a bright future, the Goddess of Destiny, I was told. Their presence underscores the strong cultural affinity that exists between Thai and Chinese people.


    Visitors with a sweet tooth must sample the famed khanom pia pastry made by Tang Sheng Jua, a bakery that's been operating in Bang Khla district for around 70 years now.


    "For this Chinese New Year we've prepared well; there'll be enough for everyone," said Chuangchai Tankongkarat, its managing director. "Our pastries are popular not just in Chachoengsao, but around the country, for their soft texture. And they come with 20 different fillings."


    A word of advice, though: He recommends that the pastries be eaten within two weeks of purchase for maximum freshness.


    Before heading back, I stopped by Brass Handicraft Baskets & Souvenirs in Tha Takiab district which sells elegant vases and jewellery made from nickel and brass by master craftsmen, whom I also got to watch at work.
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    Re: Year of the Rat

    New Year - then and now

    YVONNE BOHWONGPRASERT
    Bangkok Post
    February 07, 2008


    Chinese New Year is by far Vitri Jorkunopakorn's favourite festival.


    The 61-year-old is a respected elder in Talat Ban Mai, the community which has grown up around a century-old market on the banks of the Bang Pakong River in Chachoengsao. Here, where most of the older residents speak a dialect of Chinese called Taechieu, this most genial woman is known simply as Ja Hong.


    For close to four years now the market has been a popular weekend destination for out-of-towners who come to sample its Thai and Chinese culinary delights and get a taste of the unhurried pace of life here.


    "I'm hoping that the Year of the Rat will bring happiness, good health and prosperity to everybody in the neighbourhood," enthused the ever-talkative Ja Hong.


    "I believe that celebrating Chinese New Year is more than just about praying to the gods and getting a chance to savour mouth-watering delicacies; it's about reaching out to make others happy. My late father - he was a Chinese cook - had a big heart; he always had time for people. And it probably runs in the blood [laughs]. We're a close-knit community here, so we always look out for each other.


    While most of her family have moved to Bangkok, Ja Hong still finds great solace in living here, next to the river. Her sprucely decorated wooden house pretty much doubles as a pit-stop for visitors. A huge sign in Thai welcomes passers-by, inviting them to come in, relax and make themselves at home.


    How will you be celebrating this Chinese New Year?


    Well, since it falls on a Wednesday, I suppose we'll try to do something special the following weekend. We haven't had time to prepare anything spectacular, but I'm looking into arranging a dragon dance or a few skits in front of the old Chinese shrine to liven up the mood. On New Year's Day itself most of the families here will likely be offering food to their ancestors and spending time with relatives. So I don't think we'll be organising anything special that day.


    How have New Year celebrations changed over the years?


    They've become more low key over the last couple of decades, but otherwise nothing much has changed. As a child I recall how happy we used to be in the lead-up to New Year. Everybody would be busy giving their house a thorough cleaning, hoping to sweep away any ill fortune that might have been dogging the family in order to make way for the good luck they were all wishing for. Back then we used to give our doors and window frames a new coat of red paint and then hang up paper decorations to attract happiness, prosperity, longevity and happy marriages with lots of kids. Various kinds of special food were then offered to the ancestors. But hiring dragon dancers to put on a performance was considered an extravagance.


    When you were a child, how did your family mark New Year's Day?


    Apart from observing the rituals and customs ... well, I'd wake up early that morning to greet my parents and receive their ang pao [traditional gift of cash in a red envelope]. Back then we kids were very happy to get a 10- or 20-baht note; 100 baht was an absolute fortune! The day would start with relatives of ours paying us a visit, followed by the neighbours. My father always used to say that New Year was a great time for reconciliation; old grudges between family member or friends were easily settled at these gatherings. All that day and for several days afterwards people would visit each other's houses. There was a great deal of gift-exchanging, too - that was the fun part of it!


    The tasty food sold here is definitely a big draw but where does the market's real charm lie?


    Its appeal probably has to do with the simple lifestyle we have here and the fact that most of us share the same Taechieu ancestry. I think the Thai and foreign tourists enjoy visiting because our houses are unique; we've kept the traditional style which was popular during the reign of King Rama V [1868-1910]. That's also one of the reasons why the television people come here to shoot period dramas depicting the Chinese way of life.


    What could be done to make things more convenient for the tourists?


    Our biggest problem at the moment is the lack of road signs. People coming by car from the direction of Wat Sothon Wararamworawiharn often get lost. I wish the district office would hurry up and do something about it.


    Could you recommend three other places in Chachoengsao that are worth a visit?


    Well, I think you might be charmed by Talat Klong Suan [a market about 17km from here, in Ban Pho district]. It's a real mix of cultures; Thai Buddhists and Muslims and Thai-Chinese have been living in harmony there for the past century or more.


    If you're feeling more adventurous you should drop by Wat Pho Bang Khla. It's a really old temple - I think it was built during the reign of King Taksin [1767-82] - and there's a lovely reclining Buddha in the sermon hall. You'll see lots of bats, too, hanging from the trees in the compound. It's about 500 metres from the King Taksin Monument. Or if it's scenic views you're after, go to the Klong Si Yad Reservoir. It's in Tha Takiab district.

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    Re: Year of the Rat

    My wife and I had a get together for Chinese New Year's Eve morning with some friends on Sukhumvit 107, and it was a very culinary event.
    Our host was an elderly guy, his two wives, and assorted sons, daughters, cousins and his elderly friends and neighbours.
    There were lots of the usual CNY dishes with chicken and pork, but what surprised me most - arriving at 10am - was that the guys were already drinking beer.
    In the front room they had lined up a row of 10 or more black-and-white photos of deceased relatives. In front of the photos were two rows of small glasses in which the hosts poured Chinese tea and whisky. In front of that the floor was full of dishes; and finally in front of that space to kneel, light incense and pay respects.
    Paper money was burned then some firecrackers lit to ward off any bad spirits to let the new year in.
    Then it was all drinking and one of the old guys produced a clay pot of moonshine brewed from sticky rice.
    By the time I left at 12.30 - afternoon that is - I was ready for a few hours sleep, but a good time was had by all.
    I used to wonder why Sino-Thais still celebrated Chinese New Year when their families have been Thai nationals for generations, but now I see that honouring your ancestors is so ingrained in Chinese culture that nationality doesn't come into it.

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