Chinese New Year (Feb. 19 this year – it’s a lunar thing) is a big deal in Batam. There is a large Chinese community here, primarily due to the proximity of Singapore. Many, if not most, of the non-Western companies on Batam are owned and operated by people of Chinese descent.
When CNY arrives, much of the business community closes its doors, perhaps for a week or more. The ferries are filled to capacity as people come and go to Singapore, maybe to visit relatives there, or perhaps to catch a flight to somewhere in China to visit family there. Think Christmas in the U.S.
But in more than three years on Batam, I’ve never had the opportunity to participate in this ritual. Friday, that changed.
It started innocently enough. I was at a meeting with a new client for AIM Communications, whose office happened to sit across the street from PT Great Dynamics, a Chinese-owned company whose family members own a number of companies here. At the end of our meeting, my new client mentioned he was going to Great Dynamics’ annual CNY dinner for staff and customers. Was I going? he asked. Not invited, I replied.
But as we exited the building, the general manager/owner of Great Dynamics happened to be walking across the street. It turns out I knew him from Goodies Restaurant, where he was often a customer. But I had never actually talked to him and did not know what he did for work.
Before I knew it, I had an invitation to attend the dinner that night at Planet Holiday Hotel, about two blocks from my apartment. The GM even reserved a seat at his table. Besides being able to observe how such activities are conducted, this was also an excellent venue for networking.
The dinner was held in a huge ballroom on the third floor of the hotel, with seating for maybe 250 people. Most of the guests were Chinese or Indonesian, with a smattering of Western expats like myself sprinkled among the tables. My table, however, was all expats – from Australia and the UK.
At the front of the room, aside a stage for the performances that night, were all the prizes that would be given away – motorbikes, flat-screen TVs, laptops, iPhones and more. This was the company’s end-of-year celebration for its employees and their families, and the dinner prizes were their rewards for their work during the year.
What was especially interesting was the food and the food presentation. It was a first for me.
There were 8-10 people at each round table, with a circular serving tray in the center of the table where the food would be presented – one dish at a time. If you wanted to eat, you dug in to take your fair share, and on the first dish you participated as a group to finish its preparations. Here is a description I found on the Internet for Yang See:
“Yee Sang is often served as part of a multi-dish dinner, usually as the appetizer due to its symbolism of “good luck” for the new year. It is usually served on a round platter, with an assortment of shredded raw and pickled vegetables and fruits, each with a different symbolism. Carrots signify blessings of good luck, while the white radish or daikon symbolises promotion and prosperity of work, and the green radish is added to represent eternal youthfulness.
“The base ingredients are served first (for us, a pile of daigon and carrots, both slivered). The host amongst the diners proceeds to add ingredients such as the raw fish, the crackers and the sauces while saying “auspicious wishes” as each ingredient is added, typically related to the specific ingredient being added. Blessings such as Nian Nian You Yu are uttered as the fish is added, which means ‘abundance throughout the year’. The word Yu, which means “surplus” or “abundance”, sounds similar to the Chinese word for fish (yu).
“Next, the lemon or lime is squeezed on to the fish, adding luck and auspicious value, with the blessing of Da Ji Da Li meaning “Good luck and smooth sailing.”
“Pepper is then dashed over the mixture in the hope of attracting more money and valuables. After which a sweet sauce (usually plum) is drizzled over the mixture to indicate a sweet life; after which the oil is poured all over the dish , circling the ingredients and encouraging an inflow of wealth from all directions.
“Finally, the condiments are added. Crushed peanuts are sprinkled on the dish, symbolizing a household filled with treasures, with the addition of sesame seeds symbolizing a flourishing business, while crackers are sprinkled to indicate wealth and fortune.
“All diners at the table then stand up and, on cue, proceed to toss the shredded ingredients into the air with chopsticks while saying various “auspicious wishes” out loud. It is believed that the height of the toss reflects the height of the diner’s growth in fortunes, thus diners are expected to toss enthusiastically!
“A vibrant and colourful salad of julienned vegetables, raw fish and condiments, Yee Sang is unique to the Chinese New Year celebrations in Malaysia and Singapore and is believed to have originated on our shores. Partaking of Yee Sang during Chinese New Year is a common cultural activity for the ethnic Chinese living in Singapore and Malaysia, but not so much in other Chinese-populated countries such as China and Taiwan, where the practice is almost unheard of.”
I couldn’t have described it better. You can only imagine the bewilderment from our table, a group of Westerners who had never seen the Yang See ritual. Most of us weren’t that proficient with chopsticks but we tossed the pile as much as possible. There was a huge mess when we were done, but then everyone dug in with their chopsticks to try the tasty appetizer. Kind of like a pickled salad, and very tasty.
What followed was one dish after another, each served when we had devoured the previous offering. There was steamed whole fish (better with soy), pork in a sweet soy sauce (delicious), lightly fried large prawns, a whole steamed chicken complete with head and feet (excellent, although I didn’t mess with the head), and abalone of all things. Turns out you would be insulting your host if you didn’t eat the abalone, even though it was boiled and rubbery. For dessert there was a clear sweet liquid with a popular white-fleshed fruit floating inside.
We all agreed at the table that we had experienced a truly unique (for us) dining experience. Or maybe it was just the free-flowing red wine and beer.