My mother made me wear a Cheongsam last Chinese New Year. It’s customary, she said, creases disappearing as an expert hand smoothened out the bits that didn’t even out in its careful, not-too-hot ironing process. It’s colourful too, she added, not at all helpful, my mouth twisted in a grimace sort of smile, me trying my best to look agreeable.
I’m pleasantly plump so you can only imagine how ridiculous a Cheongsam must look on me. There were spillages everywhere! Every time I bent down to pick something up, there would be a meshed screech that felt like masking tape pulling against fabric and perspiring thighs. Awkward bits that shouldn’t show would take in fresh air and a healthy dosage of onlookers giving tight, uncomfortable smiles seemed to say, you should have known better! My hair was done up in the usual bun thingamajig that made you look like a seamstress from the eighties. It was so tight that my scalp was near begging me for mercy. Every strand of loose hair was structured immaculately behind my ear and into a melded mesh of pins and hairspray. I had indestructible hair. Rock solid.
The house was unbearably hot. The sun was making human pineapple tarts of us all and I was salty with sweat, my armpits now disgusting and damp. I could see my Aunts and Uncles wiping furiously at their brows in frustration. One particularly hum-sup, balding and bespectacled uncle had planted his unyielding self in front of the fan, moving along with it as it revolved. Folds of fat that made up his belly were hardly restrained in his cotton-white collared shirt, hints of a translucent thin singlet visible to everyone else. He was the loud kind that picked and ate his snort. Hated him, what an idiot. My mother looked slightly frazzled too in her Shanghai Tang two-piece skirt suit, much too grand for a gathering of relatives at tea. After an hour, we decided to shut the windows and turn on the air-conditioner.
We had these ginormous, cerise red lanterns that we always put up come Chinese New Year and it was always a great distraction for kids under three. Look up, look up! Splendour. Beneath said lanterns, an amazing spread of food prepared by my relatives were lined up side-by-side, buffet style. Curry chicken, kueh pie tee, fried noodles, sambal eggs and tamarind fish – shiok! Usually, the older folks start eating first and the young ones would stand in a row and wish them well (one by one) before helping themselves to the food. I have sixteen grand relatives, twenty-eight uncles and aunties, and thirty-one cousins. This, as you can only imagine, was a nightmare for end-of-the-line Timmy.
The kids started mucking about after tea was done. My not-quite-a-baby anymore cousin (how quickly they grow - It’s like welcome-to-this-world! Aww, what a cutie pie, say what? Itty-bitty toddler, handsome boy ah - boom, teenager! Time, you’re such a bitch) Leon, was hit by a reckless van driver whilst I was working outfield in Ethiopia. He’s been in and out of hospital enduring countless surgeries and this was his first familial get-together since the accident. Brave kid. I can’t even begin telling you how angry I was with said driver. It felt like shkblqjbjb#@5#$3@!!(* - Something like that.
And so Leon wheeled in, dressed in his favourite, now-faded one-size-too-small Manchester United jersey, his leg held nimbly in a cast, not the thick calcium sulphur oxide sort but the nurses gone wild with bandages kind. He was smiling shyly, his glasses slipping off his nose bridge slightly as he used a semi-scarred hand to push it up. He didn’t have much hair, most of it shaved off to facilitate repair work done on his skull. I ran up to my room and brought down a folded, brown paper bag. I had to do alternate tugs to the sides of my Cheongsam as I climbed the stairs to avoid zaogeng-ing.
He sat there lonely, watching his cousins play catch, wrestling each other aimlessly as they tumbled into a clammy heap. Nosy aunties were bombarding him with insensitive questions, his face scrunched up into a polite smile, obviously wanting to be anywhere else but here. I walked up and plonked myself on the lounger next to him. He greeted me with a sad grin and I could tell that he missed Hulk Hogan-ing with the boys.
I placed the bag in his lap and said cheekily, “You’d never guess who I met on my last posting to London.”
He looked at me curiously as he started unpacking its contents. As he drew out a new Manchester United jersey, signed by Paul Scholes, his eyes welled up in tears as he thanked me profusely, clutching it to his chest as envious cousins strolled up to him in admiration. I hugged him and whispered into his ear,
“See, I kept my promise.”
Traditional toga-ish body-con kind of one-piece Chinese dress for women that unfortunately accentuates curves or the lack thereof.
 Super popular Peranakan dish – a thin, flour tart shell filled with sliced radish, prawns, chili and a sweet black sauce
 Chili mixed with slivers of silver fish, very delicious.
 World Wrestling Federation ace wrestler
 A Manchester United legend, mad good English footballer, now retired, known for his calm, effective, skilled passing style of play. Also, Leon’s favorite player EVER.