A crash course guide to ten Chinese New Year traditions
Gung hay fat choy, dear VO readers, or best wishes and congratulations. By now, you may have clued in as to why there is a peculiar increase in Chinese food products at your local grocery store and as to why three of last week's flyers were red-themed and advertised heavily by Chinese products with a lot of 8's in the price markdowns.
Tomorrow is the first day of the Chinese New Year, which makes today, Chinese New Year's Eve.
Needlefelted Rabbit photo by TinyApartmentCrafts via creative commons
2011 marks the year of the rabbit. Under the rabbit zodiac, it is predicted that this year will bring in a lot of luck for everyone. Especially for those born under the rabbit zodiac (1915, 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011).
According to canada.com, the Chinese Year of the Rabbit promises to bring political upheaval from restless youth and sex scandals for the amorous.
For those who are not familiar with some of the traditions that surround Chinese New Year, feed your curiosities and head down to T&T Supermarket to be immersed in the festive specials and strange foods.
I identify myself more as Canadian than Chinese because I was born in Canada. But I regard this time of year as the one day that all Chinese, new immigrants to first-, second-, third-, and fourth generation Canadians of Chinese heritage, can bond despite linguistic and cultural differences.
So behold, dear reader, here is a guide for you. A guide to familiarize you with ten Chinese New Year traditions that have been passed onto me from the matriarchs of my family and now, to you.
1. Clean the home.
mr. clean photo by D'Arcy Norman via creative commons
One of the better excuses my mother had to get my brother and I to help her clean the house was the new year. Forget the other 364 days. Having a clean home ready for the first day of the New Year is a superstition to abide by, if you want to scrub away last year's bad luck from your house to make way for luck and prosperity in the new year. As the superstition goes, doing any sort of cleaning tomorrow is bad because the good energy and luck may be accidently washed away.
2. Wear some red.
Chinese New Year Gang photo by Josh Evnin via creative commons
Red is the colour of choice this time of year. Every conversation I've been having with my mother on the phone for the past two weeks always ends with, "Don't forget to wear some new red cloths" or, "Don't forget to buy some new red clothes". Wearing red clothes on the first day of the new year is regarded as a highly symbolic way to ensure that the rest of the year will be full of good fortune and joy. In Chinese folklore, red has positive connotations and is symbolic of success, happiness, loyalty, honour, and love. For those who were born under the dragon zodiac, like me, it is regarded as good fortune to wear new red clothes, because next year is the year of the dragon.
3. Pomelos, tangerines, mandarins, oh my.
Goldilocks photo by John Loo via creative commons
Pomelos are great. Its Chinese name roughly translates to "big fruit". Tangerines and mandarins are symbolic of wealth and luck and they are passed to family and friends as a symbol of sharing wealth and prosperity. Suitably, pomelos are symbolic of abundance. Because of their size, they aren't usually passed around as often as their smaller citrus cousins.
For those who haven't enjoyed a pomelo, I suggest you try one. They are about three dollars each and you can find them throughout Vancouver around this time of year. Pick yellower ones and ones that feel heavy for their size.
pomelo photo by John Loo via creative commons
Peeling one can be tricky for those who haven't opened one before. To open one, you slice off the top part of the pomelo, score around the sides five or six times, then peel back. Note that a pomelo does not peel as nicely as a tangerine or clementine. It may take some patience before you enjoy the fruit of your labour.
After the peel is removed, the actual fruit is about the size of a grapefruit. To peel the fruit apart, you may need some extra muscle. Unlike a an orange, the white "skin" part isn't eaten. So peel back the skin, remove the seeds, and enjoy.
4. Buy some traditional Chinese "candies".
Chinese New Year's candy box photo by Denise Chan via creative commons
I use "candies" very loosely because I don't want to mislead readers with the thought of exotic fruit flavoured gummies and sugary hard-candies. "Candies" in this Chinese New Year's context means lotus and melon seeds and dried and candied lotus root, coconut, water chestnuts, ginger, and lotus seed. They are usually contained in a laquerware candy box, though plastic ones are a more popular choice today.
5. For the more adventurous, buy a nian gao and fry it
nian gao photo by Zi-Ann Lum
It just so happens that the chinese character for nian can have one of two meanings: "sticky" or "year". So, nian gao can translate to either "sticky cake" or "year cake". Fitting, since this sweet new year's treat is one more on the chewy side.
Making one is not hard if your kitchen is equipped with a steamer basket. Recipes are all over the internet. All you need is a bag of glutenous rice flour, brown sugar, water and a pie dish. But if the prospect of making a new strange food turns you off, you can head to T&T and buy a commercially made one for $3-5.
pan fried nian gao photo by avlxyz via creative commons
Eating nian gao or any glutenous rice derivative is considered to be good luck around this time of year. Eating it straight from the package can be quite plain and tough to chew. Try cutting pieces of nian gao and pan frying it in a little bit of oil until both sides are lightly browned and crispy for a delicious variation of this traditional treat.
6. Eat noodles
longevity noodles photo by Meng He via creative commons
The longer the better. The reason behind this is because long noodles represent longevity in one's life. Cutting them to a manageable size that won't slap your cheeks is frowned upon as the cutting action is interpreted as one that is symbolic of cutting one's life short. Noodles are usually a popular lunchtime choice during Chinese New Year.
7. Include a whole fish in your meal
Chinese New Year Pomfret and pork photo by Zi-Ann Lum
Traditionally, preparing and eating a whole fish is a symbol of prosperity. Pomfret is usually the fish of choice in my family. To prepare Chinese-style pomfret at home is incredibly easy. You buy your fish, place it in a baking dish, chop up green onion and sprinkle it on top with a couple chilli peppers, and bake it for 15-20 minutes (depending on the size) at 357 degrees. While that's baking, in a separate bowl, combine some shredded ginger (amount depends on personal preference) with one part vegetable oil to two parts soy sauce and a splash of sesame oil. When the fish is done, whisk the sauce and pour over the whole fish. Exact measurements for recipes are nearly impossible to get from the cooks in my family as dishes are just made from memory and intuition.
8. Share meals with family and friends
chinese family dinner table photo by xiaocaopla via creative commons
Like Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas dinner, and Passover seders, the Chinese New Year dinner is no different with its emphasis of gathering the family at dinnertime. Restaurants will fill up fast so many prefer to gather family at home over pot-luck style meals.
Allotting a seat for everyone at the family table can be somewhat of a logistical nightmare if your entire extended family is expected to show up at dinnertime. I remember Chinese New Year as one the few days of the year where it was acceptable to sit on the floor, stairs, or in front of the TV after chairs and couches were occupied. Having appropriate seating is not important as the event of your extended family being gathered in one place enjoying a meal together.
9. Spread some lai-see
red pockets photo by Bill So via creative commons
Lai-see is the name of the custom of giving money as gifts in hong-bao. roughly translates to "red pockets" or "red envelopes" in English. Money goes into these pockets. I once received a penny from my elementary school principal and I have sometimes received crisp hundred dollar bills from aunts and uncles. The amount that goes into each pocket is usually correlated with the intimacy of the relationship and how many cousins you have. The more cousins you have, the hong-baos will be more reasonable coming from each relative.
Traditionally, it is a one-way intergenerational exchange with older generations (with jobs or pensions) give these red pockets to the younger generation. The general rule-of-thumb is that you give hong-baos if you are either married, have children, or if you are a bachelor/bachelorette by choice with a full-time job. Typically, you receive hong-baos if you are a child, youth, or a single and unmarried adult.
You can buy hong-baos at various shops throughout Chinatown or you can get them at banks.
10. Go to Chinatown and take part in the Chinese New Year parade
Chinese New Year parade photo by Hubert Figuière via creative commons
This year's Chinese New Year parade will happen this Sunday, February 6th at 12 noon. The two-hour long parade will start at the Millennium Gate on Pender Street and will proceed east along Pender Street, turn south onto Gore Street, turn west onto Keefer Street and end when the parade reaches Columbia Street.
Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu attended last year's parade and so did Michael Ignatieff.
Michael Ignatieff in Vancouver photo by Brian G. Rice via creative commons