New Year family drama

Dear First Auntie,

I am writing to give you one year's advance notice that I may not be attending your annual Chinese New Year Second Day dinner next year.

I know that it has been a big tradition in our family and I have never missed one ever since I was born.

And your Peranakan food is always something to look forward to, especially your assam prawns and itek sioh which no restaurant in Singapore can ever come close to.

But Melvyn and I really cannot stomach another year of pretending to be nice to Cousin Doris, who has become snooty beyond words.

We almost got into a fight this year. Maybe you didn't notice because you were too busy in the kitchen.

If you remember, Melvyn brought his dog - a shih tzu - to the gathering last year. And this year, Doris decided to bring her new dog, a shiba inu.

Now I know that a shiba inu costs a lot more than a shih tzu, probably more than double. But is that good reason to be so sarcastic about the difference between her salary and Melvyn's?

Everyone knows that she is the most successful cousin in the extended family. She is an auditor in a big firm and her husband owns a graphic design business. So what if she lives in a big condo unit and can afford to have two maids?

She always has some stupid complaint about your cooking - the meat is too hard, her daughter doesn't like this type of fish. I wonder why she even bothers to show up at all.

This year, you know what she said to Melvyn, who happens right now to be in-between jobs and is slightly depressed?

"Do you still have your dog, Melvyn? Dogs are quite expensive to upkeep, you know. I would have thought you would have given it away by now."

She then went on her usual tirade, which we hear year after year without fail. The biggest regret Melvyn and I have these days is the fact that when we were young, we were tutored by her.

"Sigh, when I was teaching you guys, I could see all that potential. What happened?"

I felt like smacking her, even though she is 10 years my senior. I should have been like that K-pop contest finalist Stephanie Koh - who cares if someone is your aunt? Seniority in the family is no excuse for bad behaviour.

Talking about being sarcastic, I think Dad also wants to avoid Second Auntie. Did you see how they could not even look at each other this year?

I don't know if you know this, but Second Auntie and Dad used to be fairly close. Recently, however, they have had a tiff over the watering of plants.

Mum and him live quite close to Second Auntie as you know, and Dad wanted her to help water the plants when they were away on a long holiday.

She absolutely refused, and according to Dad, then unleashed a torrent of hurtful remarks about his house being so messy and full of old junk, like a "storeroom", so there was no need to take care of the garden.

Now Second Auntie is richer than Dad, and at some point, even lent him money for the house. I think she doesn't realise that these sensitivities persist through the years and never quite go away.

Anyway, Dad remarked on the way home from your place the other night that maybe you could create different time "slots" for dinner from next year onwards.

Then maybe he and Mum could come at an earlier or later time so they never have to meet Second Auntie at all.

In any case, I think this is probably a good system given the other long-time sensitivities in our family, which you probably have heard about.

Ever since Cousin Evan - Third Auntie's son - ran into trouble with his business and asked around for a loan years ago, the dinner has never been quite the same.

Cousin Alice, who said no to him, now doesn't come to the dinner because she feels bad and wants to avoid him.

Second Uncle, who said yes to him, still hasn't gotten his money back and now he also doesn't come so often to dinner, to avoid the social awkwardness of meeting a debtor who doesn't pay up.

Meanwhile, time is passing and if I may be so bold as to say this: As you uncles and aunties, as us cousins, get older, we have become more set in our ways.

We bear grudges more heavily and we are less and less inclined to forgive and forget.

The only person I truly enjoy meeting each year is Fourth Uncle. Maybe it is because he is much younger than our other uncles and aunties but he is always so full of jokes and interesting stories and opinions.

It has been an unspoken secret that he is gay but did you see that recent Health Promotion Board website article that's been in the news?

Maybe next year, he will be bold enough to bring his partner.

For me, that would be an interesting reason to attend the dinner. Then again, it could also create yet more bad feeling in our family.

First Auntie, I wish for the good old days when all of us cousins were in school and we looked forward to seeing each other every year at Chinese New Year.

Remember how we used to sit down and play board games such as Payday, Risk and Cluedo? And when we were older, we had our own little mahjong session right next to the adults'?

I know that this is a cycle that every extended family goes through. After Grandma died, people didn't feel the need to come to the dinner anymore.

This was the second or third year now that First Uncle's entire family didn't turn up. This time, they went off to Kuala Lumpur I think - the ringgit is so low now, they said.

I also know that this type of large gathering will eventually die out in Singapore anyway. Married couples now have fewer children and in our family there is just Melvyn and me.

Maybe things will get better and we can have a happier time next year. I hope so, anyway. Whatever happens, I have one request - that you continue to make itek sioh and keep some for me.

For me, Chinese New Year wouldn't be the same without it.

Your loving niece,


This fictional letter is based on real life stories told to Ignatius Low. If you have your own stories about family tensions at Chinese New Year, write to

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