Revd Gemma Birt
My father is Chinese, and so celebrating Chinese New Year is an important part of my family’s tradition. This year it falls on 1 February, and as its precise date depends on the moon’s cycle, it is also called Lunar New Year.
Most of my Chinese family live in Singapore and that is where I grew up, so my experience of it is a particularly Singaporean one. The Chinese diaspora is truly global and so there will be subtle differences in how Chinese New Year is celebrated depending on particular contexts and local traditions. Perhaps the biggest differences will be in the types of dishes that will be enjoyed! So in Singapore, Chinese New Year cookies will often have things like pineapple, cloves and coconut in them as these are ingredients that are grown in South East Asia.
This year we are entering the Year of the Tiger. This little statue is typical of the sort of thing you might find decorating a home this year. Notice how the tigers are eating Gold, and I think they have rather female looking eyes! The gold is symbolic and represents the hope that the year of the Tiger will bring abundance, good health, and prosperity to everyone.
The marking of the beginning of the “countdown” to the new year, in our family tradition anyway, begins on the night of the winter solstice (21 December). This was when we used to go to my Aunty Margaret’s house to eat a special meal together, and have some special dishes that we only eat on this day.
One of these sweet dishes is called “Tang Yuan”. They are little dumplings made of glutinous rice flour
that are filled with a sweet toasted black sesame paste. They are simmered in a home made sweet ginger soup. They are made in white and pink; and this year, I made them at home in London for the first time. They were very easy to make, and delicious, chewy, and really quite pretty floating in the sweet ginger broth.
The main celebrations begin on Chinese New Year’s Eve when families gather together for a Reunion dinner. This is a really important and joyful gathering, much like we gather with family at Christmas. I am glad that having missed Christmas with my parents, it looks like we will be able to gather this year for Chinese New Year!
At Reunion dinner, lots of special and auspicious food is prepared and consumed, like noodles to symbolise long life, and dumplings to symbolise abundance and prosperity. Most families have their own traditions, and in ours eating a dish made out of seaweed, dried mushrooms and dried oysters is one. Because noodles are eaten to bring a long and healthy life for the year ahead, we were always taught that they were not to be cut in any way. So you had to have very long arms and be very nimble with chopsticks!
This is a photo of our family sharing a special Chinese New Year salad, made up of raw fish, lots of vegetables, and plum sauce, crackers, peanuts and special spices. It is called “Lo Hei” or in Singapore we also call it “Yusheng”. Everything is ceremoniously added by everyone at the table, and then with chopsticks, everyone lifts the ingredients up from the plate as high as they can and wishes each other a Happy New Year! It is the ritual of tossing the salad up and saying “Lo Hei” that is really important!
Just as we have seasonal and liturgical colours to mark our festivals, the use of bright colours is a really important part of marking Chinese New Year. The most important colours used at Chinese New Year are Red and Gold. Red because it was believed that this colour scared away evil and bad fortune, and Gold because it symbolises prosperity.
Most Chinese homes will be decorated with lots of bowls of oranges, mandarins, fresh flowers and red and gold banners. Here are some photos of how my family have decorated the outside and inside of their home in Singapore this year. You can see the little red banner with Chinese calligraphy and a tiger on it, a “Good luck and welcome to the Year of the Tiger” sign. Can you spot the little orange Calamsi lime trees?
Do you notice how there is a pair of banners and also a pair of Calamsi lime trees? Numbers have a special significance in Chinese culture, and odd numbers are sometimes considered bad luck, whereas even numbers are auspicious. It is traditional to gift money at Chinese New Year, and this is done in red packets or envelopes, known as a “Hong Bao”. The amount will always be an even number. So, you are unlikely to receive £3 or £15 but might instead receive £6 or £10. Interestingly, I was always taught that the number 8 is particularly auspicious (because spoken it sounds like “good fortune”), whereas the number 4 is not (because spoken is sounds like the word for “death”).
On the first day of the Lunar New Year (which is a public holiday in Singapore), we as children would wake up excited for the day ahead. We would start by putting on a complete set of new clothes that would have been bought to mark the fresh start the new year offers. The clothes would always be in bright colours, if possible red! We would then find my parents and say “Kong Hei Fat Choi” ("Happy New Year" in Cantonese). We would give them each a pair of mandarin oranges and my parents, in return would give us red packets.
After that we would start our day of visiting relatives to wish them a happy new year, exchange mandarin oranges and, as children, would receive more Hong Baos! At the same time, my mother’s handbag would be full of Hong Baos to hand out. First, we would visit my grandmother and grandfather, who would have special Chinese New Year sweets laid
out for us, such as dried red dates, watermelon seeds, and pineapple tarts. There would be Fanta orange for us, and Chinese tea for my parents. At the house we would meet more relatives who would all be visiting my grandparents as they were the most “senior” in the family.
We would also visit our Aunties and Uncles, as a sign of respect and love for them. One of my Aunties would have an “open house” so that anyone was welcome, and there we often encountered a very noisy, traditional lion dance.
My sister and I used to be thrilled, and at the same time absolutely terrified, at the lion dance. The lion’s bright colours and enormous eyes, as well as the deafening sound of the drums that accompany it, were overwhelming for a small child! We would try to find places in the house to hide from the lion as it traditionally visits every part of the house to “chase” away any bad spirits and, as I understand it now, effectively bless it for the year ahead. The whole dance culminates in the lion finding a parcel of lettuce hanging from the ceiling, which it reaches by the acrobats in the costume jumping on each other’s shoulders and one of them reaching up, through the head of the lion, to grab the lettuce and “eat it”. It was a hugely exciting experience but I was always glad when the lion found his lettuce!
Every year at Chinese New Year we would also visit the Buddhist temple, where my father’s nanny’s ashes are kept and where my Grandmother worshipped. Special prayers would be said (in fact, this is where I first encountered the smell of incense!) and we would then be invited to join the nuns who looked after the temple for a delicious vegan meal.
Chinese New Year was, for many years, my favourite time of the year because it was the time that everything really did stop and we spent time with family, repeating traditions again and again, and there was a real and intentional focus on being joyful, eating together, being positive and putting the past year behind us.
This year, we will have a very quiet Chinese New Year time together, giving thanks first and foremost for that which we have been able to do – see my parents again, after nearly two years apart because of the pandemic. I will get some Fanta orange for the children, and we have bought some new dresses. And there will be noodles, pineapple tarts and plenty of tea.