Just as Christmas is the most important festival on the Western calendar, Chinese New Year is the most important on the Chinese one. It’s about the family coming together to feast on New Year Eve, honour their ancestors and wish for prosperity.
Unlike the Western Christmas and New Year, it doesn’t fall on a set day, but follows the lunar calendar; the first day being the new moon, when the moon still isn’t visible, and ending on the 15th day – the Lantern Festival.
While this New Year is the Year of the Rabbit, it is a contentious issue in Vietnam, where the celebration is known as Tet. Some say rabbit was a mistranslation and that it should actually be the Year of the Cat.
There are variations depending on the region of China, from Hong Kong to Chengdu, and across Asia from Singapore to Malaysia, and Western countries such as Australia.
In parts of China, the full 15 days may be celebrated, while Vietnam celebrates for seven days, and, in the West, businesses are only closed for New Year’s Day.
New Year’s Eve
The time leading up to New Year is a time to clean out the house and settle debts. Patrick Pow, managing director of Asian food company Chang’s in Sydney, who has lived in Taiwan and Hong Kong, says that on the eve, like most Chinese, he has a family reunion dinner. “It’s very much like the Western Christmas lunch,” he says. The family always eats chicken and fish, and the Cantonese tend to serve foods that have a symbolism, usually for prosperity.
He says people from north of the Yangtze River always have handmade boiled dumplings called jiaozi, which are shaped like gold ingots (tael), and which symbolise prosperity (often eaten on the fifth day).
While many restaurants will serve pork and duck on New Year, it is not special to the occasion; pork is a Chinese staple and duck is symbolic of fidelity (and commonly served at weddings).
As it is a once-a-year celebration, many luxurious foods are served. Karen Gieng from Miracle Supermarket at World Square in Sydney says her family dinner includes sea cucumber, crab and roast duck. She says the younger people often eat out and the elders stay at home.
Nian gao, or New Year cake, is served. It’s a sticky sweet made from glutinous rice and its name is a homonym for “higher year” – the symbolism being that the cake will help raise oneself in the coming year. Chef Li Teoh from Chillipadi in Melbourne says it is hoped the gods will eat the sticky cakes too, which will glue shut their mouths and prevent them from telling tales.
Towards midnight, there is lion dancing, and firecrackers are let off to ward off evil spirits. Following this, people visit the temple to honour ancestors before returning home to play card games.
Teoh says that the first day of the New Year celebration is often strictly vegetarian, especially for Buddhists. It is also the day when people visit their eldest and more senior family members. Snacks are served, ranging from peanuts to small cakes.
As well as a time for married daughters, the second day is the birthday of dogs. Today is a good day to feed one’s four legged friends. Pow says this is a time to also visit friends and socialise. Red packets – literally red paper packets filled with cash – are given to younger family members over the next few days.
Jiaozi golden dumplings shaped like gold ingots are eaten in northern China.
In China, the New Year event takes place in winter, while in South East Asia, it’s much hotter. Therefore, salads and lighter dishes are more popular, particularly Yusheng – a salad of raw fish, shredded carrot, daikon and green papaya, which is served on the seventh day, or renri. According to Chinese customs, this is the day human beings were created.
According to Teoh, who has provided this guide to Yusheng, the dish is prepared on the table in eight steps, in an effort to bring more wealth:
1. When it is placed on the table, the diner says: Gong Xi Fa Cai (happiness and prosperity) and Wan Shi Ru Yi (smooth sailing)
2. As lime juice is added to the ingredients: Da Ji Da Li (luck and prosperity)
3. Adding the shredded vegetables: Nian Nian You Yu (to have surplus every year) and Long Ma Jing Shen (to enjoy great health)
4. Sprinkling pepper and five-spice powder: Yi Ben Wan Li (business to flourish)
5. Adding sauces and golden cooking oil: You Shui Duo Duo (fortune to keep rolling)
6. Sprinkling crushed peanuts: Jin Yin Man Wu (abundant wealth to fill home)
7. Sprinkling sesame powder: Sheng Yi Xing Long (business to flourish)
8. Adding the fried wonton wrappers: Man Di Huang Jin (abundant wealth to line your floors)
This is another day when vegetarian food will be eaten to help cleanse the system of all the excesses of the previous 12 days.
The last day is the Lantern Festival and people walk on the streets holding lanterns. Pow says that some will end the celebrations with another large reunion-style dinner. Teoh says that, on this day, the girls will toss mandarins or cumquats in the river. Both fruits are considered prosperous because of their golden colour and nugget shape.