Friday, February 26, 2010

My Memories of Chinese New Year

The typical greeting at Chinese New Year is "Kung Hei Fat Choi" (Kung pronounced "Gung") and often this is done with one hand made as a fist and the other hand clasping over it almost like you are going to punch the palm of the other hand, or you can also "fit" the fist into the other hand that is clasping over; this is the symbol and old time respect. Nowadays, just saying it will suffice.

As kids, we want to get lots of red packets (filled with money), also known as "Lai-cee"; so if we want to be naughty, or irreverent about it, we say "Kung hei fat choi, lai-see do lai", which means to give me lots and lots of lai-cee. It’s looked at as a joke, but the more old timers will get quite angry if you say this.

I remember that we always had a week off of school for the holiday, and it was at this time that Hong Kong was its most quiet as many people would go back to China to visit family there. For many, it was the only time of the year that they would be able to go back.

After the second day of Chinese New Year, we would get lots and lots of visitors, from people who worked for my Dad at OOCL as well as the staff from our family business. It was a sign of respect to come and visit, to give me (and my brother and sister) Lai-cee, and bring gifts. This was a time when there was no business discussed and it was when the employees would tell about their latest, joyous, news; babies being born, marriage proposals, etc. Often, we’d be quite surprised to learn of this “news” as it seemed their colleagues already did; but such is the distinction in Hong Kong between the employee and employer.

Weeks prior to Chinese New Year, we would have a day which was for the "Kitchen God". I remember we took everything out of the cabinets, we dusted and cleaned (mainly our Ah-mah "maid" did) and lit incense and laid out special sweets and oranges. This was the day he would make his annual report to the Gods about how we were doing and we wanted to make sure he was appeased. The sweet was for him to say sweet things, the oranges were like offerings of gold (money) so that we will get more in the coming year, and the incense was to help him find his way there and back.

Also, at this time of year, in Hong Kong, all the markets have pots and pots of little orange trees (kumquat). Every home would have these trees, and many people would give these as gifts. The more oranges the tree had (and the more trees one had) the more prosperous the year would be. So many people would buy the trees with many little blossoms on them and the trees were treated SO carefully to allow for the blossoms to remain and turn into oranges.

I remember being fascinated with the oranges and each year I would pick an orange to "try", but each year was spitting it out because they are SO sour and can even be bitter. My family laughed each year because I SO wanted to eat them, so enticing they are; and the smell of citrus is wonderful.

One year after Chinese New Year, I was with my Mum outside of my primary school (which was just down the hill from my house), and she was talking with a friend when suddenly this orange hit me very hard on the back. I looked up and saw a head duck back. Of course, my Mum was furious because of how dangerous it could be from such a height to hit me on the head could have killed me. But it was a little orange from the trees. For many, many years I wondered who would have thrown that orange at me, why, and who was that girl with the dark hair (the hair was long enough to know it was a girl).

Then, a couple of years ago, I “met” her… On Facebook. It turned out she was the daughter of my school principal at the time who was living in the flats (apartments) at the top of the school. She wanted to wish me lots of money, and so she threw it at me… and it was supposed to signify a money bag. We are very good friends now, but a little orange thrown so many years ago connected us.

Also at this time of year, it is tradition to have blossoms in the house. This too signifies money, and people would even buy the fake blossom plants to use year after year and ensure that the blossoms don't die.

In our home, Mum would buy flowers weekly from the flower man, almost all year long; but at Chinese New Year, our flowers she would buy would include long branches of blossoms, and catkins, ginger flowers, and these beautiful yellow flowers which were like orchids, but were not. From the long stems of catkins, Mum would hang lai-cee envelopes to signify more money for the year.

Red and orange really is a significant colour during this festival, and NO white or blues are really allowed to be displayed. White and blue, in Chinese are traditional death and funeral colours.

Prior to Chinese New Year, people would do some mega “house cleaning”, where they would throw out furniture and things which they had used that previous year to make way for new things, and with those new things, hopes for better Feng Shui in the New Year. We had a place where all the garbage was collected from the entire neighbourhood and then picked up by the garbage men, and at Chinese New Year time, it was really difficult not to pick up a thing or two.

I remember one year, I found a lovely rocking chair and brought it home. My Dad and sister went crazy when they saw it because I had brought someone else’s bad joss (luck) into our home. I had to get rid of it immediately, and then the Feng Shui man was called to help restore balance to the home.

In Hong Kong, prior to Chinese New Year, you can find the most beautiful items thrown onto the garbage heap, and most of these items are brand new and hardly used; but no one with any good sense would pick it up and take it home. You see, the people who have thrown these items out have generally had a very bad year, either financially, or health, or otherwise and so they throw these items out to get rid of this bad joss. Then they will buy all new things to restore better joss for the coming year.

Call it superstition or manifestation, but generally it always did work.

The foods we ate were also very important and each was also significant. We would eat long, unbroken noodles to signify long life and unbroken luck for the coming year. We would have whole fish (usually steamed) as “Yu” (fish in Chinese) is similar sounding to the word for money. Shrimp in tomato sauce, a vegetarian dish with specific items and number of items in it, chicken, sharks fin soup, abalone, meat dumpling called sui jao or gwo tia (either cooked in soup water, or fried) which signified the Yuan Bao (old gold nuggets which was currency), special desserts, many items that one would not ordinarily eat during the year, including many items which were more expensive than normal but the idea is that when you eat these expensive items, you will ingest that which will bring more money, prosperity to the person that year, also good health, good luck, and happiness.

During Chinese New Year, it is tradition to not cry, for to cry means that the year will be filled with tears and sorrow.

One also does not cut their hair and the first few days, to not even wash the hair for fear that the good joss will be cut or washed out. So before Chinese New Year starts, all the salons and barber shops in Hong Kong will be booked and packed with people (especially ladies) beautifying themselves.

Anything to do with cutting is not advisable at this time, so no cutting of toe nails or finger nails either, and also no shaving.

Of course, many of these traditions has died away with the new generations, but for those of us who grew up in the old customs, there is still a part of us that holds on… just in case.

This time of year was very important, and being a Eurasian child, with a full Chinese sister who still held all the traditions, it was even more important for me to know, learn, and live. As a woman with my own household, I still maintain many of the traditions I grew up with and plan to pass these on to my own children when they come.

As I am now living in Arizona, many are harder to come by… Things that I miss most are my family, and having all of us gathered around the family dinner table; my sister having cooked up a mega storm. These days, that task has fallen on my shoulders, and I still will cook up a mega Chinese storm at New Years.

I miss the visitors coming and telling us about their latest joys and just the company of having them over. It was never an imposition because we knew they would come. Even though they only stayed a short time, most of the day was taken with one wave after another of people visiting their “Lao Ban” (Big Boss).

I miss the little orange trees, the blossoms, the smells, the energy of excitement that filters through the air. The little traditions in offerings, and incense, and observing which is more tradition than anything. I miss seeing the open trucks driving past filled with orange trees for delivery, and the big fireworks over the harbour with the crowd’s collective “WAAA’s”.

While I miss home most of the year, at this time I miss it just a little more. The pull to go back gets stronger and stronger the longer I have been away, and each year as I sit at my fully laden table of traditional delights, I think quietly to myself the old Jewish saying reserved for Passover, with words rewritten; “Next year, in Hong Kong”.

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