28th January 2017 marks the first day of Chinese New Year. Following the lunar calendar, it doesn’t always fall on the same day on the Gregorian calendar. Also called the Spring Festival (although it’s weeks away from spring) it signifies new beginnings. Traditionally starting with a reunion dinner on the eve of CNY, family members try to get home to celebrate. There’s pushing and shoving at Chinese airports and train stations as an estimated 414 million Chinese return home. New clothes, usually red in colour for good luck, feasting on food that not only taste good but sound good (more of this later), firecrackers, hung pao (red packets with money), and a lion dance or two. Sounds like a commercial opportunity! Postal services in several countries are also commemorating CNY. The featured photo is the first Chinese Lunar New Year stamp, issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 1992.
Any comparisons with the Western New Year?
There are some comparisons. When I was little, because my father worked 7/11, it was the only chance for us to take a holiday, so the family always made for the hill stations in Malaysia to get a few days of cool weather. We were too busy eating special treats that grandma had made, and playing mahjong to think about new year resolutions. Lose 5 lbs? That’s sooo not Chinese. If you read accounts of Chinese of the Cultural Revolution and prior, you’d see that most families in China could only have chicken or pork once a week so it was very special to have more protein at New Year.
So, is chicken on the menu?
What’s this about the year of the Rooster? Is chicken on the menu? There’re 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, a result of a popular myth that 12 animals raced to meet with Buddha when he arrived from the West, and the cycle starts with the lineup of the fastest. The Ox nearly won the race except the rat took a free ride on the ox, and leapt to the finish line to finish ahead by a whisker. That’s why the cycle starts with the Rat, moves to the Ox and ends with the Pig. That story doesn’t resonate with me – how on earth would the Ox beat the Tiger in a race? My mother in law had a more prosaic explanation – that in an uneducated agrarian society the system allowed people to keep count of years. Rat, a small animal was contrasted with a large animal, the Ox with similar pairings.
If you are Chinese, every celebration begins and ends with food. Fish is especially auspicious to South East Asian Chinese and there’s a raw fish salad tossed high by everyone around the table with their chopsticks. The action of tossing is called “loh hei” which sounds like “increasing good fortune”.
More sounds and food or homonyms: fish yue sounds like “having a surplus” implying ending the previous year on a good note; glutinous rice cake niang-gao sounds like stepping up to a higher position in life. Chinese were obsessed with prosperity, good health longevity …not surprising as most people were very poor.
What does it mean for grandbabies born this year?
Chinese New Year 2017 is the Year of the Fire Rooster. The 12 year cycle are attached to five overarching elements in the Chinese culture – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. The current cycle is in the element Fire. The element representing the year in which a person is born determines the lucky element of the person. Each element is associated with colour, direction as well as energy:
Wood: Green, east, life (process of renewing life)
Fire: Red, south, passion (enthusiasm)
Earth: yellow, centre, sympathetic (nurturing)
Metal: white, west, guarded (private)
Water: black, north, flexible (fluid)
Superstitious Chinese people would not try and plan for babies born this year. Please note – roosters are confident, self-assured, perfectionists, proud and also a little eccentric. They are not only hard-working but also punctual. They are always eager to learn new things in life. Element Fire represents warmth, passion and brilliance. Why wouldn’t you want a rooster grandbaby?
Some funny stories
Chinese New Year is a joyful time for all except for … the younger generation thought to be on the shelf. Think of singles working in far away cities, above the “normal” marrying age, year after year returning home to face questions from family about their single status. Some singles are driven to rent a date for the New Year! Hmm, I wonder what happens the following year.
We all know you need to wear red to all Chinese festive occasions, to ward off bad luck and misfortune to the extent that some people believe in wearing red underwear ! In China red underwear sold at supermarkets and street markets. For people born in a year of the Rooster, red underwear is a must for 2017!
So, if you want to adopt more Chinese customs this CNY, be sure to give a hung pao to a little kiddy, not just your grand baby. All married people are qualified to be givers, and all kiddies are overjoyed to be recipients. There’s 15 days of celebration, be prepared!
Xīnnián kuàilè (Happy New Year)! Gong Xi Fa Chai!