22.1 A Very Chinese New Year

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Now that Valentine’s Day and what we here in China call Yuan Xiao or “元宵”  have come to a close, it’s time to look back on those 15 days of Spring Festival and reminisce the days of feasts, hellish firecrackers, and family reunions.

I’m back everyone! My sincerest apologies for the long absence. But when in China, vacation as the Chinese do!

I have a few interesting cultural observations to share about this holiday. They will help you if you are ever planning to witness, experience or DIY your own Chinese New Year celebrations.

Below are the ingredients you’ll need for a Chinese Lunar New Year Celebration of your own, the Southern China (more specifically, Guangzhou) style:

  1. Egg dumplings: These are not your traditional flour-based-and-wrapped dumplings. The outer wrapping is made from raw eggs that have been beaten into submission. Using a large soup spoon over fire (for a truly traditional New Years Eve, cook over coal), pouring a small amount of egg liquid into the heated spoon and then swirling it until it becomes a thin layer. Then, add a teaspoon-full of stuffing (composed mainly of minced meat and veggies), gently move half the fragile egg-layer over the other to seal the deal. Repeat 50-60 more times. Then steam cook it into a dish of three layers: chicken at the bottom, dates and other assorted healthy nuts in the middle, and these lovely egg dumplings covering the top. This dish is a must, must, MUST-HAVE.
  2. Dumplings. Before the clock strikes midnight, make sure to have enough time to make these and cook them so when the time comes, you can enjoy it with merriment. These have flour-based skins, making it much easier and less fragile to handle than the previous kind.
  3. Red Pockets of Cash. If you are married or working, prepare lots and lots of these to hand out to your nieces, nephews, unmarried, unemployed, still-student cousins and whatnots. The acceptable amount for kids around your neighbourhood is 5-10 kuai. For family and friends, you’ll need to cash out a lot more. Distant relatives and acquaintances cost around 100-200. Close relatives and friends can get as high as 1000.
  4. An Orange Bush. These are waist-high potted bushes that have little mandarin oranges hanging off them. They are like the Christmas trees to the Chinese New Year. Once the traditional trip to the local flowers market have been made, and these potted creatures have been purchased, make sure to stick a whole bunch of red pockets onto them for full traditional effects. Just like Christmas trees, they need decorations as well. Recently, flashing lights have also been added to the mix. Caution: do not try to eat these oranges, because that would be cruel and unusual self-punishment.
  5. Door Decorations. Think of these like the tradition of decorating the house and yard before Christmas. You do it with a close relative or two. Usually, two long red slips hang on either side of the door. On them are written corresponding Chinese blessings. They always come in pairs. Then, a four-character blessing is taped above the door. Finally, a big old Fu or “福” is nailed to the upper centre of the door. Some like to hang this character upside down for more effective calling of fortune and happiness.
  6. CCTV. Not the surveillance camera systems you are thinking of. That is a mere unfortunate coincidence. No matter how strenuous and extremely boring the show might be, watching the Chinese Lunar New Year Gala is a tradition. Usually, the speculation (think of Red Carpet before the Oscars) begins at around 7pm. The actual show arrives at 8 and goes on for 4 hours until the 4-5 hosts plus the hundreds of performers, can countdown with you through the TV screen. More often than not, people tend to do either one of two things: make previously mentioned dumplings to eat at midnight or fall asleep (see some hilarity here). However, I find that every year, there are at least 1-2 performances that dazzle. This year, it was the shadow performance by the foreign dance group and the three magicians by three guys lying on an approximately-30 degrees slated floor to perform a skit.
  7. Firecrackers. No Chinese New Year is complete without the midnight celebration of noise. If you missed it, don’t worry, it comes around again at 6am in the morning. These little red combustibles are feisty, so don’t go near them when they go off. Not only will your eardrums ring for days on end, it won’t feel too good on the skin either. Try to avoid at all costs. Unless, you like that sort of noise.
  8. Family. Of course none of it matters unless you are with family. This is why every Spring Festival, the largest migration on Earth occurs as millions of migrant workers head home for the holidays. The trains are crammed within milli-meters of their lives. Ticket systems crash and burn. Buses topple off the sides of highways and streets as drivers stubbornly try to make it through the exhaustion. It is chaos. So try to avoid traveling during the extreme high tides unless it’s for family.

There is nothing quite like this holiday. For those who haven’t had the luxury of experiencing such Chinese traditions, just think of Christmas, except with a lot of red, money, and Chinese food.

Happy Year of the Horse everyone!

May you gallop into a wall of success and fortune.

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