A Mualaf Celebrates Chinese New Year

loading Chinese-Muslim convert Muhammad Shamel Mirza Lam Abdullah and his family.

For the millions of ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, Chinese New Year is a huge occasion – hundreds or even thousands of ringgit are set aside for angpao, house decorations and reunion dinners.

It is a celebration deeply rooted in culture and tradition – one that Muhammad Shamel Mirza Lam Abdullah looks forward to each year. Shamel is a 40-year-old MalaysianChinese Muslim convert, a mualaf.

“My parents were supportive of my decision to embrace Islam. Growing up, I had more Malay friends, and I was more drawn to their religion and culture. I spoke Bahasa Malaysia as though it were my mother tongue. People were very confused about my ethnicity – I was often asked if I am a Malay or Chinese.

“So my parents somehow had an inkling that I would eventually marry a Malay and embrace Islam. I believe they were prepared for it,” Shamel says.

According to Shamel’s father, Lam Su Hin, the Lams began hosting halal open house parties in the 1980s. “Every time we hosted a Chinese New Year open house, our guests were mainly Malays because Shamel was extremely popular with the neighbourhood Malay boys."

When asked about the usual dishes served during reunion dinner, Lam says, “My wife, Rosie, will cook curry chicken, mixed vegetables and fried fish. Since it’s Chinese New Year, we indulge in big-sized prawns and squid for steamboats.

Food should unite, not divide. For reunion dinner, we still serve halal dishes. Essentially, reunion dinners are about the gathering of family members, near or far, under one roof – and not about the type of dishes that must be on the table.

“The halal industry has made halal Chinese food accessible. It’s very easy to get ingredients for steamboats, such as dumplings and fish balls,” says Lam. “I have siblings who are converts too, so a halal reunion dinner is not new to my family.”

For Shamel, nothing is more important than family and togetherness. “Food should unite, not divide. For reunion dinner, we still serve halal dishes. Essentially, reunion dinners are about the gathering of family members, near or far, under one roof – and not about the type of dishes that must be on the table. So far, no one has declined our invitation just because pork is missing from the menu,” he jokes.


Reunion dinner dishes. Thanks to the burgeoning halal industry, it's much easier to prepare halal food at home now.

For Shamel and many other Chinese Muslims, Chinese New Year is a cultural celebration and has nothing to do with religion.

He still follows customs and traditions that are not against the teachings of Islam, and says that his sons and wife look forward to the Chinese New Year tea ceremony. Much like the traditional Chinese tea ceremony at weddings, the younger generation would offer sweet tea to their elders and ask for forgiveness as well as offer well-wishes for the coming year. In return, they would receive an angpao that symbolises luck and prosperity.

Shamel still sets off firecrackers on the first day of Chinese New Year. It is traditionally done to usher in the new year with a bang – the louder the bang, the more luck for business during the coming year.

However, he admits that separating custom and religion is not always easy: “When I took my shahadah (testimony of faith), I took it with all my heart. Ash‐hadu anlaa ilaaha ill‐Allah – ‘I bear witness that there is no God except Allah.’ So I no longer participate in customs that appear to be a form of worshipping.”

Shamel is referring to the greeting Zhao Chun (Kitchen God) ritual, a special prayer held on the fourth day of the Lunar New Year to welcome the Kitchen God back into the household by burning incense and “paper money”, setting off firecrackers and giving offerings of meat and fruits.

Similarly, he no longer celebrates Phai Thi Kong. Literally meaning “worshipping the God of Heaven”, the Hokkiens hold a special prayer on the ninth day of Chinese New Year to give thanks to the Jade Emperor (Thi Kong), who protected their ancestors during a time of war in ancient China.

When asked about challenges in negotiating his ethnic and religious boundaries during the Lunar New Year, Shamel said he did get criticised by conservative Muslim friends who expected him to abandon his Chinese identity when he converted.

Angpao are usually given out during Chinese New Year for good luck.

“I was told not to be in my parent’s house. Malaikat tak masuk rumah yang ada patung. Some even suggested that I should not eat with chopsticks anymore because it would mean that I am still Chinese. One friend hinted that I should not celebrate Chinese New Year because it is perayaan orang kafir. I just think it’s really strange that they have no problems accepting angpao,” he says with a laugh.

Although converting to Islam is socially understood by both the Malay and Chinese communities as “masuk Melayu”, or “becoming Malay”, conversion does not mean that they are accepted as Malay. These converts may be considered “saudara baru”, or “new brothers and sisters/associates converted to Islam”. As a result, for the Malay community, Chinese converts are only fully recognised if they adopt the Malay way of life upon conversion.1

But this is why Shamel feels strongly about celebrating Chinese New Year as a mualaf – to build a more diverse understanding of the small community.

“My ustaz told me that embracing Islam does not mean I have to abandon my parents and my culture. You can change your religion, but you cannot change your race. It’s your identity, your roots. So celebrate it.”

1http://scholarbank.nus.edu.sg/ bitstream/10635/15282/1/LamYYJ.pdf.

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