When I was a kid, I used to live with my Koo Ma, my father’s only older sister, at her saloon on Yau Tet Shin street in Ipoh town. She practically raised my sister and me because my parents had been working out of town.

Some of my happiest memories were of of the Chinese New Year festivities held on that street at that time, which was circa the late 70s and early 80s. In fact, most of what I feel today, and know, and want to share with kids about the Lunar New Year (which falls on the 18th of this month, this year, by the way), were forged at Lee Lee Hair Waving Saloon.

I remember that on CNY eve, we never had reunion dinner, but instead, opened shop until 10 or 11pm as was the tradition for all the businesses in Ipoh, so that the ladies in town could come get their hair washed and coiffed to usher in the new year. You see, there is a well-known Chinese belief that you must never wash your hair or clean your house during the new year, for fear of washing away all your New Year prosperity and luck. As such, you must do any sort of cleaning, including that of various bodily parts, the day before.

It was such a wonderful time. All the shophouses that lined Yau Tet Shin street, from mahjong parlours to coffee shops to wholesalers of liquor or rice, to even a brothel or two, their doors were thrown open for business until late. The streets came alive with people, music and food stalls, whipping up a variety of Malaysian Chinese dishes from fried kuay teow to won ton noodles, teo chew porridge and ‘big fry’ dishes. The loud clanging of Chinese New Year music would fill the streets from various sources, often clashing with the more ‘modern’ soulful sounds of female singers belting out Mandarin or Cantonese ballads from the then-ubiquitous ‘Redifussion’ radio boxes mounted to a wall in every Chinese home.

My aunt’s bright blue double doors (it was an authentic ‘cowboy’ saloon, except for the bright blue part!) would swing all day as ladies young and old walked through them with flat, unwashed and often greying hair that were soon shampooed, blow-dried, spun, re-blackened, gelled, moussed, hair-pinned and sprayed to represent the town’s finest, most voluminous coiffeurs, reputed to last all of the 15 days of CNY. Similarly, the shop would stink of hairspray, bleach and shampoo for as long. And by mid morning, the bright orange cement floor of the saloon would blacken with chopped-off tresses.

I was everywhere those days: helping to wash and dry soiled ‘Good Morning’ towels; clipping tiny black hairpins on my little fingers to hand them out to my aunt and her hairstylists so that they could save time on pinning down hair on cylindrical wheels for making curls; sweeping hair off the floors whenever it became too much (have you ever walked on a floor filled with human hair? slippery!). It was such a magical time, to be able to watch the miracles my aunt and her helpers could work on even the most hopeless of hairstyles.

At the end of the day, after the last customer left, we would embark on a MAJOR spring-cleaning. Every chair and table, every surface, every corner, every cart, every comb and brush, was scrubbed clean with soap and bleach. At 2am in the morning, exhausted from the work, my sister and I would lie on our backs on the sparkling clean cement floor and watch, giggling, as the ceiling fans spun high above us, drying everything in the shop. In a corner, the Redifussion would be playing some happy CNY ditty, and in the kitchen at the back, my aunt and the helpers would be preparing what would be our CNY reunion lunch the next day. It was the middle of the night, and nobody slept.

It was glorious.

Today, as I slipped CNY cards into envelopes, humming the familiar dungdungdungchang ditty, all I can think of is how far I’ve come from my aunt’s saloon and the simple joy of preparing for the new year, in years and in miles. Here in the US, the day will most probably pass unceremoniously. We will have a reunion dinner on the eve, with friends, and that will be it. My girls will probably grow up not knowing much of what it means. It is a sad realisation, really.

So my dear Chinese friends, I wish you Gong Xi Fa Cai. And tell me: What does Chinese New Year mean to you?