Yee sang, bak kwa and family bonding are some of film star Joey Leong’s favourite things when celebrating the Lunar New Year.

“Yee sang is the most important. We must have at least once a year. Sometimes, we have up to seven or eight times when we have dinner with different people. I like it every time I eat it. We can only eat it during Chinese New Year,” says Leong.

Yee sang or Cantonese-style raw fish salad was also the one item that cheered her up when her friend brought a pack while visiting her in London in 2016. “She wasn’t studying with me at the same university but she came over to London just to meet me for Chinese New Year. She brought me yee sang. I was so touched,” says Leong, who also loves the sweet Chinese pork jerky known locally as bak kwa but restricts herself because it causes heatiness to the body.

Having been in the entertainment industry since she was five, Leong, now 24 years old, has starred in over 40 movies, dramas and advertisements. She has also earned a Best Actress nomination at the 2009 Asian Festival of First Films through her chilling portrayal of a demon-possessed girl in the movie Blood Ties. Her other Asian blockbuster movies include Twisted Love (2012), The Second Coming (2013) and Our Sister Mambo (2015).

Being a celebrity has not changed the way she celebrates the Lunar New Year. “I started as a child actor when I was five. So, it is the same every year,” laughs Leong, who comes from a close-knit family. Same means shopping for gifts of food for relatives about two weeks prior to the new year. She often joins her parents when they are shopping but will miss out this year as she is in the middle of filming a 25-episode television drama.

“On Chinese New Year’s eve, we will have a reunion dinner with my father’s side of the family. We usually go to a restaurant. After dinner, we sometimes visit our relatives but sometimes, we just go home because we need to pray. We need to welcome the God of Prosperity to our house. That’s what my parents do,” explains Leong, who also observes superstitions such as no washing of hair on the first day of the Lunar New Year for fear of washing away good fortune. She also generally wears brightly coloured clothes.

The first day of the new year is spent at her father’s twin brother’s home where the extended family will gather. Leong and her younger brother start the new year by extending good wishes to their parent, after which they will receive angpows (red packets filled with money for good luck and traditionally given out during Lunar New Year, at weddings or birthdays). The family also heads to the temple for prayers and observes a vegetarian diet on the first day of the lunar year.

The Leongs will host the unique Malaysian tradition of open house on the second day of the new year, when relatives and friends visit to exchange greetings over a meal or a game of cards. “My dad cooks better than my mum but he rarely spends time in the kitchen so we seldom have the chance to eat what he cooks. But on the second day of Chinese New Year, they will both show their magic in the kitchen. That is the day when our house is really buzzing, from morning until night,” laughs Leong.

The recipient of a scholarship to study at Coventry University London where she graduated in 2016 with First Class Honours in Global Business, Leong says celebrating the new year away from the family really stood out for her. “I appreciate it a lot more when I spend it with my family, not just the four of us, but with the extended family. I am always very happy when I am with them and we laugh a lot when we are all together. That’s why when I was in London, I felt a little empty because I was not with them,” she says.

Leong got a bit emotional when recalling a funny incident at her late aunt’s house last year during Lunar New Year, which involved her aunt giving her dog, Vera, an 18-month-old Pomeranian, an angpow. Vera finally picked up the angpow after being enticed with treats, much to the amusement of everyone. “My aunt (mother’s sister) was the one who laughed the loudest. It was a simple moment but memorable. My aunt was the closest to our family. My mum is the most important woman in my life. My aunt is second. She was a cheerful person and brought a lot of happiness to all of us,” says Leong.

Having wrapped up a drama due to be released in February, Leong is now deep in portraying her most challenging role to date – that of a woman distraught over the death of her boyfriend in a car accident. “I am actually looking forward to the drama that I am doing right now. I have always wanted to act as a physically challenged person and for over 400 scenes in the show, I sit in a wheelchair or walk with crutches. There are many scenes where she (the character) has to release her emotions as well.

“The character also has some mental problems because her boyfriend died in the car accident. She was in the car with him and it happened on her birthday,” explains Leong, adding that the character became very obsessed in solving the mystery surrounding the accident. The drama titled Turning Point 2 will wrap up by the end of March, after which Leong will have a break before tackling her next project.

“I normally would take a short break after a drama as I need to get out of the character. Before I get into the next role, I need to refresh myself. I would normally take a break for weeks but sometimes, up to three to four months before I get into my next character. During that time, I would do other things,” says Leong, who is also an accomplished singer with hopes of launching an album. “I want to give more meaning to the songs and the album. So, it needs time and the right person to produce.”