Chinese New Year – blending old and new traditions

by Forager on February 11, 2011

Gong xi fa cai! Wishing you:

  • The vitality of dragons and horses (龙马精神, long ma jing shen)  >  good health
  • A dragon’s vision and a tiger’s power (龙精虎猛, long jing hu meng)  >  good health
  • Safety when going to and fro (出入平安, chu ru ping an)  >  safety and good health
  • A long Centurian’s life (长命百岁, chang ming bai sui)  >  good health
  • Incidental wealth in hand (横财就手, heng cai jiu shou)  >  prosperity
  • New heights scaled with each step (步步高升, bu bu gao sheng) >  career and study success
  • Cleverness and an astute tongue (聪明伶俐, cong ming ling li)  > study success
  • Good business prospects (生意兴隆, sheng yi ying long)  >  business success
  • Smooth executions in all you do (一切顺利, yi qie shun li)  >  general success
  • Strong winds behind your sails (一帆风顺, yi fan feng shun)  >  general success
  • Eternal heavens and earth (天长地久, tian chang di jiu) >  longevity in love
  • Endurance till your hair turns white (白头到老, bai tou dao lao)  >  longevity in love
  • Great luck and great fortune (大吉大利, da ji da li)  >  good luck
  • Youthfulness forever (青春常驻, qing chun chang zhu)  >  beauty
  • Youth and beauty (青春美丽, qing chun mei li)  >  beauty
  • Frequent smiles (笑口常开, xiao ko chang kai)  >  happiness

Feeling buoyed and super-human yet?

These are just some of the many Cantonese-style Chinese New Year blessings that we say to each other (although admittedly, with the pinyin displayed throughout this post are in Mandarin). These blessings are actually Chinese poetic couplets or idioms called chengyu in Mandarin, singyu in Cantonese and are typically 4 Chinese character phrases that cover luck, love, prosperity, success, studies, happiness, youth, longevity, good health and more. Even the standard new year greeting of “gong xi fa cai” translates to “congratulations and be prosperous“! We tend to pile on the idioms and say as many to each other as possible – perhaps with the reasonsing that more blessings makes it easier for family and relatives to part with their cash-filled red packets called hong bao in Mandarin or lei see in Cantonese. And as mentioned in my last post, for the majority of Chinese people, the food eaten at this time is of great significance and traditionally is carefully planned to symbolically represent auspicious things. So this is how my Chinese New Year has panned out this year.

Pre-Chinese New Year

The lead up to Chinese New Year is filled with as much excitement and preparation as theperiod itself. Having cleaned the house, bought a new outfit and cut my hair I was well prepared for the arrival of Chinese New Year, but no year can end without the Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner. As always the dinner was a bubbly affair at home with my family and my uncle’s family – and as the name suggests it is normally held on new year’s eve, which is great in countries like China, Hong Kong, Macau and many others that have one or more national public holidays, not so handy though in Western countries when new year’s eve falls on a Wednesday and you have to work the next day. So we celebrated the proverbial new Year’s Eve dinner on the preceding weekend to New Year and if you were following my Twitter feed that day, you would have known that they hounded me with the usual awkward questions and the new year blessings they bestowed on me were very much of the success in marriage and babies persuasion. Ah, family – they never cease to amaze me with their tactless persistence at creating uncomfortable, awkward situations.

Traditions and customs for Chinese during this period will obviously differ from country to country as evidenced by the popular “yee sang” raw fish salad tradition that is popular in Singapore and Malaysia. Whilst this isn’t practiced in our family who are from Guang Dong in Southern China or reflective of traditions in China, Hong Kong or Macau, customs will differ from province to province or even village to village so there isn’t a right or wrong tradition per se.

Our Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner is generally a feast that will include multiple dishes and always includes meat and seafood, a tradition stemming from the Chinese couplet “grand fish, grand meat” (大鱼大肉, da yu  da ro) which signifies wealth and plenty.

CNY eve dinner abalone chicken pork prawn duck

The great Chinese New Year's Eve feast! L to R on top row: Pork san choi bao; prawn and melon salad; steamed pacific oysters with soy, ginger and shallots. Middle row: abalone and chicken soup; sliced abalone, stewed shiitake mushroom and black hair moss; and duck's tongues. Bottom: soy sauce chicken and roast pork; tofu stuffed with minced prawn and periwinkles with perilla and black bean sauce.

The Chinese love of word play extends beyond the couplets and spills out on the dishes we eat too. There were oysters to symbolise luck as their Chinese name sounds homophonic to “good things” (牡蠣, ho xi); lettuce in the san choi bao as lettuce in Chinese sounds like “growing in prosperity” (生菜 vs. 生财, sheng cai); abalone as it is both an expensive luxury reflecting the wealth of the people indulging in it and its Chinese name sounds like “parcel of luck” (鲍鱼, bao yu); black hair moss (which is incorrectly termed a moss as it is actually a type of algae or terrestrial cyanobacteria) as it sounds like “expansion in prosperity” (发菜 vs. 发财, fa cai) and tofu as it sounds like “bringing in fortune” (豆腐 dou fu vs. 到福 dao fu).

Included in the feast was a small mountain of duck’s tongues. Their unmistakable tongue-shaped form looked daunting and left nothing to the imagination but my aunt insisted we all at least have one, to symbolically bite the tongues of the petty gossipers around us. I ate a fair few – not because I have issues with gossipers but because the crunchy cartilaginous texture was most intriguing.

As it is a time of happiness and family feasting, special dish requests will be catered for and this time my choice was the periwinkles. I’d been eyeing them at fishmongers in Cabramatta for quite some time and reasoning that their Chinese name (螺, luo) sounded like “basket” or “grabbing” I convinced my mother to buy and cook them. They were as interesting as they looked but fiddly to eat, requiring patience, a dexterous hand and a sturdy skewer.

Periwinkle shellfish

The alien-like soft periwinkle removed from its hard, protective shell

Periwinkle shellfish body gut sand

A closeup of the periwinkle. Not a lot of muscle abundant foot, but lots of dark grey gut content matter.

They yielded a very low meat reward to effort ratio and most disturbingly, the vast majority of the periwinkle seemed to be darkly veined gut and stomach contents. The doubt escalated with a mouthful of unappetising muddy “sand” or more likely, faeces and my family chatised the choice of periwinkles, and indirectly me, as it had them eating poo for Chinese New Year. Definitely an inauspicious act by anyone’s standards. I think I’ve had my special dish requests rights revoked for all future feasts.

Chinese New Year’s Day

As mentioned before, Chinese New Year fell on a Thursday this year so I didn’t have the traditional auspicious Chinese vegetarian breakfast I usually have with my parents. Feeling slightly uneasy about not partaking in the festivities, I bought a New Year candy wheel – the contents of which are not random though they appear to be – they are specific sweetened items that all represent auspicious things. Surprised at the ongoing Chinese obsession with auspiciousness? No, I didn’t think so.

CNY candy wheel

A typical New Year candy wheel filled with sweet auspicious treats

New year candy wheel ginger coconut water chestnuts lotsu seeds marrow gourd

New Year candy wheel, clockwise from top: marrow (sweetness); ginger (longevity); coconut (fertility and family); lotus seeds (fertility) and in the middle water chestnuts (health and vitality)

Each of the items supposedly refers again to those omnipresent Chinese couplets where one or more of the characters in the couplet sounds like the items in the candy wheel. Ginger (姜, jiang) represents a couplet about longevity that has a character that sounds like ginger (寿无疆, wan shou wu jiang); the name for water chestnuts sounds like “horse’s hooves” (马蹄, ma ti) and is eaten as many couplets mention horses for their vitality (e.g. 龙马精神, long ma jing shen), strength and endurance; the Chinese name for coconut sounds like the words for “grandfather” and “son” (椰子, ye zi) so is obviously auspicious for fertility and the love for sons, as are lotus seeds (莲子, lian zi) the characters of which are used in a couplet blessing one with continuous production of sons (连生贵子, lian sheng gui zi). Also included in the wheel are batons of candied winter melon (糖冬瓜, dong gua) which to my mind are controversial in their inclusion as I’ve always been told that melons (瓜, gua) aren’t eaten on New Year’s day because in Cantonese it sounds like the colloquial term for “death”. Conveniently to bypass this logic trap, we avoid using the term melon on New Year’s day and simply call it a “sweet baton” (糖条, tang tiao).

Despite not having my parents around to enforce the mandatory vegetarian breakfast, I still felt compelled to observe a day of vegetarian dining anyway, but my good intentions started off on a bad note when I ordered banana bread with my ritual morning coffee. Banana (蕉, jiao) sounds like the Cantonese colloquial term for “trap” or “weapon” – so to tell a Cantonese person to “eat a banana” (吖蕉, ya jiao) is a derogatory way of telling them they’re stupid. In a case of instant self fulfilling prophecy, I was feeling rather stupid as I scrutinised my still toasty warm banana bread. Whilst the traditional Chinese girl inside me pointed and chortled, the logical scientist in me tried to reason that it was all silly superstition and there was no way to prove either way that any of these auspicious deeds made a lick of difference.

Eventually superstition won out and I gave my banana bread to a colleague and went to buy a tasty hot hash brown instead. But halfway through my hash brown, a small snickering voice in my head whispered “psst… potato means stupid in Cantonese too” (薯, shu). I can’t win, even my own brain is colluding against me. First poo and now this. I guess I’m destined to have a slow year devoid of intellectual rigour.

Once the New Year starts, it is not uncommon to see lion dancing in the streets or at least hear their distance clamour of drums, cymbals, gongs and ear deafening fire crackers, visiting retailers with a flamboyant captivating show and collecting their dues via the head of lettuce posted above the shopfront door. The noise and vibrancy is thought to be lucky as it scares away evil spirits and bad luck, which apparently are perceived to be timid of light and loud noises and when put that way, doesn’t sound like a force to be reckoned with. Here’s a video of the Jin Wu Koon martial arts troupe, an Australian outfit that performed at World Square on Chinese New Year’s Eve and I have to say, I was mesmerised.


Post Chinese New Year’s Day

The second day of Chinese New Year is the day that the year officially “launches”, families are allowed to visit one another bearing gifts, fruit, red packets and blessings – and of course to celebrate this, we have yet another feast to kick off the year, typically called the “Chinese New Year launch dinner”.

CNY launch dinner 2011 fish maw, fish, lobster, abalone, pipis,

The Chinese New Year launch dinner featuring (left to right from top row): fish maw and conpoy soup; stewed whole abalone; steamed whole fish with ginger and shallot; pipis in XO sauce on a bed of rice vermicelli and lobster in ginger and shallot sauce

There is less of a need for the specific dishes that feature during this meal to be auspicious and as our meal shows – it is just another indulgent meal of delicious goodies. Ours included my favourites of lobster and pipis; a whole fish where whoever requests the head gets the mandatory tail (to represent a beginning and an end); gelatinous, warming bowls of fish maw and conpoy (dried scallop) soup and extravagantly, whole abalone – the tastiest I’ve ever had – one that had been reduced to marshmallow softness by stewing for two whole days with plenty of chicken bones to infuse it with flavour and sweetness.

These are the old Chinese New Year traditions that I dutifully observe with my family and relatives and as I grow older, they are becoming increasingly important to me. Equally important are the new traditions that the Co-pilot and I have started during this period. Three years ago, after one particularly excessive New Year feast with my family, the Co-pilot and I found ourselves with an obscene amount of delicious leftovers and as much as we strategised, not enough stomach space to store it. So we started the inaugural CNY Leftovers Party with fellow New Year celebrants, the Artist and the Muse. This year we were in the unusual position of being left with next to no leftovers so I decided to make some pork and prawn gow gee dumplings. These aren’t specific new year dumplings, but were inspired by the tradition of many Northern Chinese people of making special gow gee on New Year’s Day.

Pork and prawn gow gee new year dumplings Chinese New Year

Handmade pork and prawn gow gee - our contribution for the CNY leftover party

The Artist and the Muse assured us that the dumplings were enough as they had more than enough leftovers. And they weren’t kidding! We supped on copious amounts of barbequed quails, spring rolls, Vietnamese sour soup, noodles, prawn salad, garlic water spinach and caramelised drunken chicken.

CNY Leftovers Party

The CNY Leftovers Party with The Artist and his Muse. A feast of barbequed quails, spring rolls, soup, noodles, salads, stir fries and dumplings.

So feast again we did – a common recurring theme during the New Year period. Three years on and I am very thankful to have started new traditions with my generation to add to the old traditions of my heritage.

And in case you missed it, I was invited onto Simon Marnie’s Weekends shows on ABC 702AM last Sunday with Thang of Noodlies to speak about typical Chinese customs and traditions during the period and he about Vietnamese customs and areas around Sydney partaking in the new year festivities. I was nervous as it was my first time in the studio, but Simon is a natural conversationalist and led the flow of words with ease until 30 minutes had passed, I realised I hadn’t sworn on air (or worse) and I could breathe a sweet sigh of relief. And you can see some of the new Year products I brought onto the show via the program’s official Twitter feed. This activity certainly wasn’t part of my usual new year festivities but an added bit of fun and excitement to my start of the year.

A key message from the program was finding out about a burgeoning campaign to change the rather exclusive naming of “Chinese New Year” to “Lunar New Year” to include the other cultures that celebrate their new year during this period, namely the Vietnamese and Koreans. I’ve always perceived Chinese New Year as a time of happiness, peace, family and tolerance. As a child I could really push the boundaries during this period in the knowledge that my elders would turn a blind eye for the sake of peace. So in that spirit, if tolerance and inclusion results in happier people then a very happy Lunar New Year to you!

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 penny aka jeroxie February 11, 2011 at 3:38 pm

What a great post! Very informative and yes, happy lunar new year to you!
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2 mademoiselle délicieuse February 11, 2011 at 5:27 pm

Loved your post, Trina, because all the Chinese traditions and taboos around the new year period that you mentioned were all echoes my my childhood. My mother typically boils water and turns on the fan on the morning of each new year (風生水起). She also leaves her new year’s cake to mould before removing the mouldy bits to fry and eat the rest – and this is something I’ve adopted this year.
mademoiselle délicieuse recently posted..Chinese New Year 2011My Profile

3 joey@FoodiePop February 11, 2011 at 9:26 pm

Love the post! The blessings are great as are the food and their meanings. And I didn’t catch you on radio; I hope you both had fun!

4 Christine@Christine's Recipes February 11, 2011 at 11:29 pm

What a great post on CNY. You’ve explained everything about the foods, customs and languages. It’s very informative. I’ve bookmarked this post just in case any of my Aussie friends ask me about CNY, I can send them to read this post.
Christine@Christine’s Recipes recently posted..Stir Fried Bean Sprouts- Carrots &amp Wood Ear Fungus Post Chinese New YearMy Profile

5 pigpigscorner February 12, 2011 at 3:09 am

Happy Chinese New Year! My favourite part of CNY – grand fish, grand meat =)
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6 Melissa February 12, 2011 at 10:42 am

wow what a detailed post of chinese traditions! thanks alot for that cause i don’t think i know all of them! hah! but i have to agree that chinese new year is a time to feast with all good food. :) happy cny to you and your family!
Melissa recently posted..Chilli CrabMy Profile

7 Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella February 12, 2011 at 5:33 pm

I’ve always loved CNY for the food and the red packets. Sadly I am no longer the recipient of red packets but I guess that had to end sometime! :P

8 Three-Cookies February 13, 2011 at 6:31 am

Excellent explanation. Would love to be at one of those feasts, amazing looking food.
Three-Cookies recently posted..Beetroot risotto- peanut butter jelly and flanMy Profile

9 Ellie (Almost Bourdain) February 13, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Happy New Year, Trina. Love this post. Great info on CNY :)
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10 foodie and the chef February 13, 2011 at 10:22 pm

Oh my goodness duck’s tongue ? I’ve never ever tried that – haven’t tried quite a few of these ! What a fab post, you’ve inspired me to search out some more traditional Chinese delicacies :)
foodie and the chef recently posted..be my valentine- sour cream- beetroot- white chocolate trufflesMy Profile

11 Rosa February 14, 2011 at 2:50 am

What splendid food! Those dumplings look particularly good. Happy belated New Year.

Cheers,

Rosa

12 nic@diningwithastud February 14, 2011 at 8:23 am

Happy CNY :) your dumplings look fab!
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13 Tori @ eat-tori February 14, 2011 at 9:20 pm

This is such a beautiful post! What amazing celebrations. I’m so sorry to hear how the periwinkles let you down…..surely you’ll be allowed to choose again in the future- surely??
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14 Obesbaby February 15, 2011 at 11:12 pm

the dumplings looks really nice and yummy. happy CNY!
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15 The Food Sage February 16, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Excellent post, wonderful tribute to your family and culture. Soooh much food!
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16 Bren February 17, 2011 at 10:09 am

i have Chinese in my blood (pretty close) but never honor the new year! :( I always intend to do a fabulous dish and just don’t. But, you’ve just inspired me to make a change!

17 Iron Chef Shellie February 17, 2011 at 1:56 pm

I missed out on our CNY feast… but luckily we are having another one tomorrow night (a bit late)

18 thatssoron February 18, 2011 at 1:16 pm

happy new year! gong xi fa chai!

19 Adrian in Food Rehab February 19, 2011 at 10:40 am

haha, don’t you love those awkward discussion with family about your personal life. I always say the same thing “Not at the dinner table…”

BTW- looks like you had a mega of a banquet
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20 Vivienne February 20, 2011 at 6:54 pm

hahah you’re so superstitious girl!
enjoyed reading this very comprehensive entry about CNY (even tho its long gone!)
you def ate more than i did! oh and congrats on getting on the radio program…must be so nerve wrecking!
Vivienne recently posted..Whats for dinner this weekMy Profile

21 Bonnibella February 23, 2011 at 11:46 am

A little late but Happy Lunar New Year. I love how you write out so many of the sayings. I agree as one gets older the traditions become more important which leads to your superstition of the “banana” issue. I was laughing like silly. I love how you celebrate Chinese leftover with friends.
Bonnibella recently posted..Foodbuzz 24×24- Roast Duck – 3 different coursesMy Profile

22 Forager February 28, 2011 at 9:14 am

Hey Penny – And a belated lunar new year to you.

Hey Mademoiselle Delicieuse – Yes I imagine it would be very similar for Cantonese families. My mum never did the fan and water thing, but can very much see the “sense” in that! Oh dear.. I’m going to end up doing these things I can tell..

Hey Joey – Thanks – shows there is some method to the madness during new year.

Hey Christine – Thanks, a little way towards explaining our customs and oddities!

Hey pigpigscorner – I think that would have to be my favourite too! Not surprisingly I guess – I’m a bit of a pigpig myself :)

Hey Melissa – A good list of lucky phrases to memorise for next year! I have to say, whenever I’m put on the spot, I can only come up with 3 or 4 max!

Hey Lorraine – Ah, that is one tradition I am digging my heels in about. Thankfully in my family, parents have to give their kids red packets for the rest of their lives! Hooray!

Hey Threecookies – I’m salivating over those feasts too, though my waistline thinks less of it! Thanks for dropping by!

Hey Ellie – And another belated blessing to you too!

Hey foodie and the chef – A little literal in our translations of auspiciousness huh?

Hey Rosa – Thank you and thanks for dropping by!

Hey Nic – they were – and so easy to make and devour!

Hey Tori – Such a disappointment for all. I think I only get to choose safe foods from now on – no more new challenges allowed from me!

Hey Obesebaby – Thanks and wishing you a great year too!

Hey Food Sage – Thank you! I really took these feasts for granted growing up and now know to take advantage of these – and thanks for dropping by!

Hey Bren – Never to late to start the discovery and not a bad excuse to indulge in some Chinese food and cooking!

Hey Iron Chef Shellie – Missed out – travesty! Well, better late than never and I hope its doubly big to make up for the lateness!

Hey Thatsoron – And to you too – hope it’s an awesome year for you!

Hey Adrian – And that stops them? Mine just ignore my complaints and plough through with more questions. Tact is not their strong point!

Hey Vivienne – Yes. Sadly superstitious. Not an attractive trait. As for the radio interview I was nervous to begin with, but Simon was great and calmed all my nerves.

Hey Bonnibella – Such well doctrinated supertitions that now I form ny own superstitions. Ridiculous! And celebrating with friends is one of my favourite new traditions now – a much better habit to have taken on than superstiousness!

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