Two tales of Chinese New Year

福到-Happiness is here!

福到-Happiness is here

Christmas and New Year are barely behind, my Christmas decors are still up, and I am already thinking about Chinese New Year or Spring Festival (春节) as it is referred to in China. But yes, the year of Rat is going out and year of Ox will ring in the 26 of this month.

With the last Chinese New Year still so vivid in my mind, it is hard to believe almost a whole year’s time has passed since then. It feels as if it was not that long ago when I, my husband and son celebrated Chinese New Year 2008 in Guangzhou, China with my family and had the best Chinese New Year holiday in a long, long time.

Over almost 20 years that I’ve lived in the states, I went back to Guangzhou for Chinese New Year twice, 1995 and 2008, and I visited over the summer of 1997 and 2004. While I found changes from every visit, this longer visit in 2008 revealed stupendous changes China’s thriving economy has brought to the city of Guangzhou and the affect it has on my family and friends’ lives and the customs around Chinese New Year.

Chinese New Year 1995
Chinese New Year 1995 was spent at my parents’ place, housing provided by the provincial bureau that my Baba had worked for before he retired, a plain but cozy apartment with cement floor, white walls, metal casement windows and its four bedrooms, one full bath, a kitchen, dinning room, living room and a balcony all snuggly fitted onto an area of about 1100 square feet. Built in the mid 1980’s with no AC or heating, it was top rank in those days and where I had lived with my parents and sister before coming to the states in 1989. After a five and half years’ separation, I was exceedingly happy to be back and again with my family, which has expanded with the additions of my good brother in law and my beautiful niece Tina who was born 12 days before that Chinese New Year. Apart from the extraordinary joy and excitement of being with my family, rituals of the holiday remained almost the same as ones in the past years, as if I had not been away.

We decorated the house in the same fashion with a 3 feet tall Kumquat tree in a nice planter (a Cantonese customary décor for the New Year where Kumquat fruits resembles the ancient gold ingots and symbolize luck and fortunate), white water Narcissus and a large flower bouquet. In addition, a poster of a large, solitary Chinese character “福” (Happiness) hung upside down on the front door; using posters with auspicious messages to decorate a place is a thousands year old tradition for Chinese New Year and hanging the character 福 upside down sounds like “Happiness is here” in Chinese and that is what it symbolizes to Chinese people.

On New Year’s Eve, we had our dinner at home as we had always done in the past. The dinner was a combination of Mama’s cooking and take-outs from the cafeteria on the compound, compound of the provincial bureau that my Baba had worked for before he retired and on which their condo was located. The dishes were ones that I had always loved but had not come even close to for five years and I savored everything. Among others, were 芋头扣肉 (A stripe pork dish with taro root), 白切鸡(Boiled chicken with a special dip, a mixing of grated ginger, garlic, green onions and soy sauce fried in veggie oil), 八宝饭(Eight delicious rice, a dish with sticky rice and eight other diced ingredients), a sautéed shrimp dish, 长长久久(A platter of various sausages-a Cantonese customary dish for the New Year wishing the long lasting of everything dear to your heart, especially love and happiness), 年年有余(A whole fish steamed-a Cantonese customary dish for the New Year wishing superabundance year after year), and 发菜 soup( Fortune soup made with the broth from boiling the chicken, Fat Choy or Fortune Veggie and other veggie-a Cantonese customary dish for the New Year wishing good fortunate in the coming year).

After dinner, we sat around in the living room and watched 春节联欢晚会 on TV, the annual Chinese New Year’s celebration broadcasted by CCTV, a ceremonious bash of entertaining numbers by prized singers, dancers, comedians and other distinguished performers. The show first aired on Feb 12, 1983 and has become an integral part of Chinese New Year’s celebration since. During the four hour show, we drank tea and had abundant snack to munch on, a variety of dried fruits snacks, 油饺 (Yojiao, a snack with sweetened nutty filling in a dumpling wrap deep fried to crispy and golden brown) and 旦散 (Dansan, slightly salted fried noodles shaped like bowties) that Mama made, red and black melon seeds and sun flower seeds, kumquats and tangerines which, along with tea, were believed to be good for purging greasy food. The show ended at midnight Jan 31, 1995 when the year of boar blasted in with the din of firecrackers that lasted for a long hour or maybe two.

Before heading to bed, I gave Mama and Baba 利是 or 压岁钱 (New Year money in red envelope, traditional present for Chinese New Year), also a 利是 for Tina, which my sister laid underneath Tina’s baby pillow, in light of an old fashion of giving children their New Year’s money, leaving it underneath their pillow the night before for them to find it in the morning.

On New Year’s Day, Mama severed 年糕 (New Year’s Cake) for breakfast. New Year’s Cake, a sweet, round cake made of sticky rice flour with brown or white sugar, is a traditional snack for New Year. Mama bought them from the stores. They dry up easily in cold weather. To sever, Mama would slice the cake up and heat them up on a cooking pan with little veggie oil and low fire. Sometimes she would first dip them in beaten eggs before the heating. I love it with hot tea and I like it best when it is cool down enough and harden up just a tiny little bit but still soft, sticky and chewy all at once.

Chinese New Year 2008

With my family on the promenade by Pearl River

With my family on the promenade by Pearl River


Fast forward to 2008, 13 years later, I was back to Guangzhou for Chinese New Year with my husband and son. This time, we all gathered at my sister’s place, a condo of 2200 square feet located in the gated community Star River and elegantly finished with impressive ceiling treatments, moldings, marble and hardwood floor, marble counter tops, custom hardwood cabinetries, wrought iron rails and Chrystal Chandeliers. It has plenty of rooms, 4 balconies, 3 full baths and yes, AC and heating, too. Star River, sprawled on the bank of Pearl River, is kept meticulously clean and its ground plush by beautiful landscaping. Take a few glimpses of Star River below.

My sister, Angela’s dining room

My sister, Angela’s dining room

Swimming pool at Star River

Swimming pool at Star River

Gardens, playgrounds, plants and stone pathways cover the entire ground at Star River

Gardens, playgrounds, plants and stone pathways cover the entire ground at Star River

Among the myriad new developments in China, upscale communities for the nouveau rich of China have been sprouting up the past two decade and only getting more posh and forward-looking. Start River, a development started in the early 21st century in the suburb of Guangzhou, is one of the best in the city. With its own five star hotel, restaurant, grocery store, car wash, dry cleaner and shuttle buses to some destinations in town at $1 each person, it is a peaceful retreat away from the bustle and hustle of metropolitan Guangzhou.

The third largest in China, the city of Guangzhou itself has been, over the past two decades, transformed by state of the art high ways and bridges, new world class international airport and subway system, numerous contemporarily designed new high rises, large trendy shopping malls, bevy of international hotels and chains, tens of thousands more automobiles on the road, etc. In the same period of time, Guangzhou has increased its population by 50% to a whopping 9.943 million residents and expanded its territory by incorporating the adjoining towns.

McDonald is as popular with kids in China as in U.S.A.

McDonald is as popular with kids in China as in U.S.A.

Haizhu (海珠) bridge astride Pearl River is near Haizhu Square

Haizhu (海珠) bridge astride Pearl River is near Haizhu Square

A subway train moving away

A subway train moving away

At days before Chinese New Year of 2008, it was cold and gray and news of the blizzards affecting other southern and central regions of the country appeared regularly on the TV, nonetheless the entire city of Guangzhou by and large was immersed in a jovial and warm ambience, with many busy cleaning, decorating and shopping in anticipation of the holiday…

Jusco crowded with shoppers picking up 年货(seasonal food for New Year)

Jusco crowded with shoppers picking up 年货(seasonal food for New Year)

四海一家(A stupendous buffet restaurant) adorned by red lanterns and Kumquat trees by its door

四海一家(A stupendous buffet restaurant) adorned by red lanterns and Kumquat trees by its door

In front of Friendship Store is a Band of Rats around a giant red lantern featuring an upside down 福(Happiness) in the center

In front of Friendship Store is a Band of Rats around a giant red lantern featuring an upside down 福(Happiness) in the center

Lanterns, posters and more

Yide(一德) bazaar had lots New Year’s decors on sale: Lanterns, posters and more

Flourishing peach blossom with red bags decked the entrance way of a friend’s condo building

Flourishing peach blossom with red bags decked the entrance way of a friend’s condo building

Kumquat with red bags surrounded by Chrysanthemums at 朝富 Tea Firm of Zhongshan city

Kumquat with red bags surrounded by Chrysanthemums at 朝富 Tea Firm of Zhongshan city

People of Guangzhou love flowers and successfully avail the subtropical climate to the cultivation of flowers. Consequently, Guangzhou and its flowers have delighted its visitors from as early as the Xihan (西汉) Dynasty (206 BC – 8 AD) and the city has long won the nick name and reputation of Flower City (花城). Raising its fame is its unique tradition for Chinese New Year, Spring Festival Flower Market (迎春花市), a flower fair that opens for three days before Chinese New Year. A tradition started from the mid period of Qing Dynasty (1616-1911), it has gained popularity and expanded from one flower market to the present eight flower markets through out the city. The flower markets open the morning of the 28th and end early morning on New Year’s Day. For many, it is a family tradition to come out after dinner on New Year’s Eve and visit a flower market together. We visited 天河花市 (Tianhe Flower Market) on the 29th, 2 days before New Year, where my brother in law bought white water Narcissus, Roses and Sword Lilies(Gladiolus).

Tianhe Flower Market at Tianhe Sport Complex

Tianhe Flower Market at Tianhe Sport Complex

Kumquat bonsais

Kumquat bonsais

Orchids

Orchids

“Five generation family” is the name of this plant

“Five generation family” is the name of this plant

I forgot this one’s name

I forgot this one’s name

New Year’s Eve (年三十) is when all the preparation for the holiday culminates; beginning the celebration, the whole family gathers together and has Reunion Dinner (团园饭), usually a lavish meal, and everyone who is coming home for the holiday makes all the effort to come back in time for Reunion Dinner. It has become popular in the recent years to have dinner on New Year’s Eve out at a restaurant. One of driving forces behind the trend is that people are able to and more willing to spend, to pay a little extra to have a fantastic meal occasionally and avoid having to labor for it and with so many restaurants available and offering special family meals for New Year’s Eve at a wide price range, it is accessible to many.

“Yu Min Xin Cun” Hotel and Restaurant

“Yu Min Xin Cun” Hotel and Restaurant


We had our Reunion Dinner at Yu Min Xin Cun (渔民新村) where my sister had booked several weeks ahead of time for a private room at the 6pm seating. The place is incredible. A six or seven storey, u-shape building, its upper levels is the hotel and the first two floors make the largest restaurant I’ve ever seen, where the private rooms are located on quiet second floor and dining halls are spread out on both levels. Its first floor was rambunctious at the time, while the middle section was an open car gallery displaying a couple of posh sport cars, a Porsche and a Ferrari, the right section of the first floor was an amazing conjunction of seafood tanks with all sorts of fresh marine lives, fruit and veggie stands and scores of open kitchens, through which eager customers were browsing, picking ingredient and making orders.

One of the dinning halls

One of the dinning halls

Samples of side dishes

Samples of side dishes

Available choices of fruits

Available choices of fruits

The soup kitchen looked like a factory

The soup kitchen looked like a factory

Emperor Crabs

Emperor Crabs

Yes alligators were available

Yes alligators were available

Cantonese people love seafood and fresh seafood has always been one much admired feature of Cantonese cuisine. The economic boom has boosted the seafood market and the variety that is available has grown to an incredible magnitude. While my sister was making order down stair, the rest of us nibbled on some appetizers, boiled and slightly salted peanuts, platter of various pickled veggies diced and a crunchy noodle sticks glazed with sugar. About ten minutes after my sister joined us in our private room, our orders started to stream in and we had a marvelous seafood feast. Among others, we had Lobster (sautéed with ginger and green onions), Abalone in tomato sauce, Scallops on the shells garnished with vermicelli and green onions, A steamed whole fish, Shrimps boiled to be severed with soy sauce, A platter of chicken and A platter of Cantonese BBQ. While the kids had Coke Cola and my parents had hot tea, my husband, I, my sister and brother in law washed down the wonderful dishes with wine that my sister brought to the restaurant, which is allowed.

We stayed home for the rest of New Year’s Eve. My dad turned on the TV as soon as we got home and started watching CCTV’s New Year Celebration. The kids have more important things in mind. They started warming up about New Year money while my sister laid out hot tea and the snacks. The older ones chanted jocosely: “恭喜发财,红包拿来” (Wish you lots of fortune, give me a red bag), and the 3 year old Karen joined in, hence commenced the New Year’s money ceremony. Angela bade the kids line up in order of age. Tina who had gone through the drill before led the way and she started showering Angela with auspicious New Year messages till she got her red bag. My son, who had gotten red bags since he was born but not in this kind of ritual and whose Chinese is not as sharp as Tina’s, stammered and stuttered a little with his New Year wishes but he managed and got his red bag too. Little Karen put up the best performance; she put her hands together in front of her, bowed her head and repeated the messages. Grandma, my Mama, who jokingly joined the kid’s line and brought out a guffaw, got her red bag too. After Angela, it was my turn to give red bags so the ritual continued with another round of loud hilarity. I gave red bags to the kids and my parents. The tradition is for kids to recieve red bags from parents, grandparents and maybe other adult relatives and married children to give red bags to parents and grandparents and maybe other elder relatives. After the ritual, the kids cheered and rejoice; and Karen followed and danced. Then the older kids went into to a room to count their money which did not disappoint them. As for Karen, she dropped her red bag and went on playing with other things.

Everyone including the kids stayed up for the year of Rat which was blazed in at midnight of Feb. 7, 2008 by a whole slew of dazzling fireworks whistling and swooshing around and between the buildings for a along while.

On New Years day, Mama was the first one to get up. She made some sunny side up eggs and breakfast sausages. She also severed New Year’s cake with eggs and laid out my favorites snacks: Yojiao and Dansan which Angela bought from a store. Mama stopped making those once they became available on the market. Angela bought out fruits and some other things. For my husband Jay’s sake, just in case he didn’t like the other Chinese things, Angela also bought things like peanut butter, jam, bread, crackers and a truffle paste. And Jay, lucky for him and us, loved them all.

The rest of the holiday passed between a little shopping, not too much, only a little because it was crowded most of the places, and meeting up with friends and a few other relatives at restaurants and at their homes. We ate and ate…We ate a lot of wonderful and luckily pretty healthy food. MMM, YUMMY! I wish I was going home for the holiday…

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