Every year, streets, homes and shopping malls are draped with the colour red to signify the coming of the Chinese or Lunar New Year. And beyond that, there are unmistakable auditory cues that let you know that the festivities have begun. It starts with the crackling blasts of fireworks that continue long past midnight, and the next day, it is often accompanied by the deep reverberating booms of the lion dance drums.

Although the firecrackers and drums still resound to this day, the more subliminal tracks to Chinese New Year have started disappearing. As the older generation inevitably pass on, the next generation continues the celebration but replaces certain cultural traditions with slightly more globalized alternatives. 

From the outside Fung Wong looks like a modern cafe, but as you step in you are transported back in time.

So, is this really the end for the things we grew up with? Perhaps not. Just as countless movies, video games and fashion trends have been adapted for modern audiences riding on the wave of nostalgia, these days there are some who are doing the same for the traditional cultural elements often associated with the Chinese New Year. In this feature story, we speak with five vanguards who are keeping tradition alive by taking something deemed old-fashioned and transforming it into something still relevant today.

Fung Wong – Traditional Chinese Pastries

Melvin Chan, 4th generation owner of Fung Wong.

Fung Wong has a history that dates back more than a century starting with Melvin’s great grandfather in China. It was in 1946 that they planted a flag in the Petaling Street area and since then, have never left. The baking of traditional Chinese pastries, Melvin describes, is a sunset industry. “The younger generation are no longer interested [in learning to bake or to eat] these pastries, instead preferring more western style cakes and desserts.” However, although it is getting increasingly difficult, he is adamant that Fung Wong must keep going because if not, he says that sooner or later the tradition and cultural significance of his pastries will be lost forever.

2021 marked a pivotal moment in the history of Fung Wong as Melvin, with the help of two business partners decided to relocate from their original address in Jalan Hang Lekir to their current home just a couple of metres away in Jalan Sultan. In the process, Fung Wong like its namesake phoenix, transformed from a retail-only establishment to a modern café setting enticing a new group of young customers to sample some of the many traditional pastries on display.

The swanky, minimalist façade of the new Fung Wong works as intended, attracting young café hunters, getting them through the door. He says many of them are surprised because instead of finding café staples like red velvet or burnt cheesecake, they are introduced to a smorgasbord of old-school delicacies like Husband biscuit (老公饼), Wife biscuit (老婆饼) and ‘Mo Mo So’ puff (莲蓉酥) among others. And it is through this experience that they learn the stories behind the pastries that perhaps would otherwise be forgotten.

Myjong – Mahjong 

For most Chinese Malaysians, it is not uncommon that visits to a grandparent or relative’s home is accompanied by loud clacking sounds as mahjong tiles get shuffled. Sometimes it becomes so commonplace that you don’t even hear it anymore, almost like a white noise machine.

Kaiyi Wong and the rummy mahjong set displayed in Tsutaya Books Malaysia

Kaiyi Wong, who graduated as an architect from a university in the United Kingdom, used this as an impetus to start the Myjong project. His initial idea was to just re-design the sets using contemporary design elements but after consulting friends and industry colleagues, he decided to infuse local elements into his sets to foster inclusivity. Sure, there has long been a gambling element associated with mahjong, but Kaiyi says if you take away the money portion of it, mahjong is just another fun traditional game that can be played among friends. His debut project was a smaller mahjong set made from plywood, exhibited alongside works from renowned Malaysian artist Red Hongyi. In it he replaced the Chinese elements with traditional Malaysian symbols and figures.

From this first project, Kaiyi was inundated with requests for a larger, more playable version of Myjong and thus, for his second project he worked with Chengal wood. Working with his project partner Adrian Lean, they spent countless hours painstakingly hand-carving the designs onto the hard wood tiles, creating a limited edition of 10 fully playable, full-sized sets. The dream Kaiyi says would be to see his three-player mahjong sets be played by players of different races on the same table.

For his latest project, Kaiyi and Adrian worked with the rummy variant of mahjong. Instead of hard wood, this time the set, also limited to only 10 units, was cast in stone. Unlike the traditional rummy sets featuring western-style suits (hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades) Kaiyi’s version of rummy uses the different languages to distinguish the suits which includes Chinese, Tamil and Malay characters. The fourth suit, however, is an amalgamation of the three languages, resulting in distinctly unique characters. This, Kaiyi says is to draw attention to Malaysia’s use of ‘lain-lain’ as a racial choice for most official identification and how this term can sometimes be seen as void of any cultural identity.

Oloiya – Dried Meats

The decision to join a family business is never easy. On the one hand, Oloiya has been well established since the 1970s, but in the same vein, it means the business and all its structure has been around for quite some time as well. Oloiya remains, to this day, very much a family enterprise. As I joined Peter Khue, the third generation of the Khue brothers, at the headquarters in Petaling Street, it was pointed out that most of the people behind the counters were family members, and even Peter’s grandmother Madam Chin, who along with her husband founded Oloiya, had her own little spot towards the back of the shop where she comes and sits almost every day.

Peter Khue and his Grandmother Madam Chin sharing a conversation at Oloiyas headquarters on Jalan Hang Lekir

About 10 years ago, Peter reached a crossroad in his life trying to decide if he should leave the United Kingdom, where he graduated from and had a comfortable job, to come back home and join Oloiya with his brother Raymond Khue. And as always with a family business, a sense of loyalty drew him back to Malaysia. 

This was the start of how Oloiya went from a traditional dried meats business to something that Peter hopes is cooler and more contemporary. The first step was a rebranding of the company. Both Peter and Raymond distilled Oloiya’s values down to three key pillars: Heritage, Innovation and Sharing. Then came Bak-Off, a hilarious play on the word Bakkwa where they transformed the traditional dried meat into small bite-sized snacks.


In the last five years, Oloiya seemed to have removed all constraints on bakkwa as a traditional product and allowed it to take on a form that is appealing to a more contemporary audience. For Peter, his philosophy is that because the Khue family are owners of the brand they are free to redefine what the brand stands for while still keeping true to its core values. 

Oloiya’s collaboration with Guinness

Interestingly enough, Peter took inspiration from the marketing initiatives found in high-fashion companies and applied it to Oloiya. This is why you see them currently collaborating with brands like Guinness and subsequently Chivas Regal, Martell, Marmite and more. Additionally, they have started working with a lot of small, local agencies for packaging design and copywriting, winning them a handful of business awards. The proof that Oloiya has genuine appeal with the younger generation of consumers is evidenced by the willingness of influencers and young celebrities to work with the brand for the recent Oloiya launches. 

Rattan Art – Rattan furniture

Tay Cek Xin, at the workshop where all of Rattan Arts creations are made

Recently, we have noticed a trend of upscale bars and hotels starting to look to rattan again for their décor. And for that, they call on Rattan Art, the oldest rattan furniture maker in Malaysia and Tay Cek Xin, the 4th generation member of the founding family that currently runs its operations. Rattan Art officially began in 1954 but Tay mentions their knowhow dates back more than a century when his Grandfather learnt to work with bamboo back in China.

Back in the day, Tay mentions that most of the rattan furniture came in standard designs where chairs and sofas followed a simple template. These days, however, the newer generation of consumers require more complex elements of design in their rattan furniture. And although Rattan Art is one of the very few companies in Malaysia that are able to customize rattan to their customer’s requests, Tay says it is only a matter of time before they have to rethink their entire business model.

The reason for this is that rattan furniture is inevitably a dying trade. Compared to the 1950s and 1960s, these days rattan is an increasingly difficult material to procure. Compared to wood which is available globally, rattan is mostly found in the South East Asian region where Indonesia is the largest exporter of the material and Malaysia coming in a close second. 


Beyond that, Tay says that the reason for the decline of rattan furniture is literally the aging of the craftsman responsible for its creation. “Some of the craftsman working with me have been here for 40 or 50 years since my father’s time. When they stop working, there is no way I can replace them,” Tay laments. This is because although the younger generation seem to have a love for vintage things like rattan furniture, they no longer have the gumption needed to work in the industry. 

For rattan furniture, automation is out of the question as each piece of rattan comes with its own set of characteristics and it takes the eye of a skilled master to extract the best out of each piece. So, for now, Tay will continue moving Rattan Art forward, and perhaps in the future as his master craftsmen retire, he will scale down his operations or find some other way of keeping this traditional art alive.

Tanah Dan Air – Chinese Tea Bar

Siow Fei (left) and Mahenbala as they set up Tanah Dan Air for the day

Nestled in its cozy home within PJ’s Happy Mansion, Tanah Dan Air, a Chinese tea bar, was created as a studio of sorts where people can learn more about Chinese tea in a less intimidating way. I spoke with Laura Siow Fei as she meticulously prepared a green tea called Duyun Maojian (都匀毛尖). As she served the tea over three brews, she explains that because different minerals in the tea leaves dissolve at different times, the taste of each brew can be different. It is clear she is passionate about Chinese tea. 

“Sometimes people come in without knowing what tea they want and so I will ask questions to determine what they are looking for. Sometimes we even pick teas based on their mood or even the weather,” Siow Fei muses. It is also her responsibility to ensure that each cup of tea tastes exactly as it is intended to. What began as a hobby, quickly turned into an obsession and today, even after reading countless books, speaking to many tea merchants, and brewing thousands of pots of tea, she still feels like she is learning something new about tea every day. 

Tanah Dan Air is set up as a tea café but Siow Fei also conducts tea classes in both mandarin and English. Traditionally, it can be quite daunting to learn about Chinese tea if you don’t speak the language as Siow Fei explains, “a lot of the terminology and knowledge about Chinese tea is stuck within the Chinese language.” At Tanah Dan Air, speaking a common tongue has helped expand the Chinese tea drinking culture to other ethnicities as well.



Opening their doors in 2018 was a big risk for Siow Fei and Mahenbala as at the time, the concept of a Chinese tea bar was something that didn’t quite exist. However, the reception for the space was so encouraging that when the pandemic hit, they decided to take on even more risk and double down by expanding to the space next door. According to Mahenbala, “today, people are looking for a more focused experience in terms of consumption.” 


Words & Photography by Daniel Goh

written by.
Chinese New Year: Old Habits Die Hard
Never miss an update

Subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest updates.

No Thanks
You’re all set

Thank you for your subscription.