TIMES must be really bad. I have not seen many "yee sang" (raw fish dish) banners at Chinese restaurants in Jalan Pahang, Setapak. In years past, the banner war would begin as early as a month before Chinese New Year, each shop trying to outdo the other with all sorts of "Hidangan Ikan Berwarna-warni" (colourful fish dishes).
And I think I could be right about the hard times as you can still find festive food items at reasonable prices. Just last week, I was pleasantly surprised by the price of banana prawns (or "meng har" in Cantonese, the king-size prawns that are synonymous with Chinese New Year).
The price of this giant marine prawn used to hit RM80 per kilogramme during the festive season and I was delighted to find that it was going for only RM35 per kilogramme at the Pasar Tani Mega in Taman Danau Kota, Genting Kelang.
In the late 1990s, if you want to serve "meng har" on your reunion table for that price, you had to drive 70 km from Kuala Lumpur to Sekinchan or even Sungai Besar at least a month before Chinese New Year. Otherwise, the prices would climb higher as the big day drew nearer.
I have also not seen white pomfret ("tow tai" in Cantonese or "bawal tambak" in Malay) at the wet markets these past two weeks. I wonder how much they cost now. One Chinese New Year not too long ago, the fish cost a ridiculous RM108 per kg when demand exceeded supply.
You wonder why people are willing to spend so much on fish, prawns and other festive fare. Well, I think festive seasons lower our guard and make us vulnerable to seasonal spending. We become more gullible to sales pitches and in the frenzy to show our opulence, we end up trapped with huge credit card bills when the celebration is over.
I must confess that I have also been guilty when it comes to festive shopping, usually spending too much on too many things bought from the heart and not by the head. Not just food and clothes but also festive décor such as lanterns, running lights, greeting banners, etc -- which I now recycle from previous years.
It takes some guts to put up recycled decorations, especially when you notice your neighbours putting up brand new ones around their houses. It can be quite challenging to answer the inevitable questions from your kids like: "Papa, why didn't we change our old red lanterns?" or "Mama, why can't we get a pot of golden lime like the auntie next door?"
It took quite a while for my wife and I to teach them about prudence. From the time they were young, we tried to drum into their minds that Chinese New Year Day is only one day of the year, and there are another 364 days to contend with.
I don't know if our explanations worked but I am thankful that my children do not question me when I put up the lanterns, running lights and door trimmings that have been used last year and the year before. Perhaps they have understood that it is easier to save a sen than to try and earn the same.
This is especially important with the current economic downturn when many of us do not know if we will still have our jobs by the middle of the year.
Of course, some of us will throw caution to the wind and live for the moment and hope to reach the end of the year unscathed. Others will seek the wise counsel of soothsayers and feng shui masters to chart their course through these troubled times. Depending on the depth of their pockets, they could even arm themselves with good luck charms only to find out at the end of the year that the only ones laughing all the way to the banks are the makers of the products.
I am willing to bet that those who continue to plough on like the ox, relying on hard work and diligence rather than luck, will end the year most profitably. And if they are prudent, they just might make the celebration last a little bit longer.