When I say the words, “watermelon seeds,” what comes to mind? Summers in the backyard? Spitting out seeds to see how far they fly? For me, watermelon seeds conjures up the winds of winter, and me, sitting politely on a stuffy couch of an elderly relative living in Chinatown. It is Chinese New Year in January. She is holding out to me and my brother a circular lacquer tray with eight sections. This is the traditional Tray of Togetherness where Number 8 symbolizes wealth and prosperity. Each one is filled with a Chinese New Year treat, and one of them is red watermelon seeds. I only know now that these represent joy, happiness, and truth.
I cannot begin to tell you how many times the thin hulls got stuck in between my teeth. Or how many times I would watch the older folks crack, eat, and toss; crack, eat, and toss. A community pile mounted up on the coffee table on a napkin and would be gathered up by the hostess before the shells toppled. The other delicacies would be easier to consume such as the dried coconut and the chewy white Rabbit-brand candy.
Raised in San Francisco’s Sunset district, on weekdays I was just an average American kid going to Parkside Elementary School playing kickball, but on weekends when we went to Chinatown, I became that quiet little Chinese girl with tight braids tied off with red ribbons. And during Chinese New Year, the mother of all holidays, my cultural upbringing was brought up front and center. There were many do’s and don’ts during Chinese New Year, and I could never remember which was which. I would always be reminded never, never to wash my hair on Chinese New Year (or on any auspicious day), or I would wash my luck down the drain. Never, never wear blue or white ribbons because they were funeral or bad luck colors.
Slogging through Grant Avenue amid the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, Mom would squeeze my hand so as not to lose me on the way to pay yearly tributes. The 16-day season meant visits to all our relatives and acquaintances: grandmothers, aunts, uncles, distant second cousins, parents’ friends.
Not only were there visits where we would dress up in our finest clothes, there were preparations. My mother would be fastidious, taking time to find the most beautiful hung bao or red envelopes embossed with Chinese characters in gold ink. Some packets were even scented. At the bank she would have the tellers get her stacks of fresh, crisp one dollar bills and also shiny quarters.
Family members who were single, and nieces and nephews she knew really well would get a pair of dollar bills in two envelopes. “Always give two!” she would remind me. “That is for double happiness!” Random children, kids of friends, for instance, would receive red envelopes with coins.
With every visit, Mom would giddily dispense hung bao to little ones, pulling endless red envelopes out of her purse like rabbits out of a magician’s hat. She generously bestowed extra-large oranges with stems and leaves. The stems and leaves represent harmony while the oranges or tangerines signify gold. Of course, it is traditional to bring a sweet treat for a sweet life. It was, and still is, customary for the hostess to open the pink bakery box and serve everyone the custard tarts, wife cake, and whatever goodies lay within.
Like other Chinese women who specialized in particular Chinese New Year dishes and desserts, my mother was famous for her gok chai, a special deep fried dumpling treat. She taught me how to roll out a ping pong-sized ball of dough and fold it into a dumpling, filling it with spoons of shredded coconut, sugar, and peanuts. She meticulously twisted the edges with perfect uniformity resulting in a braided crescent. Mom artistically created these treasures in volume, packaged them in Folger’s coffee canisters, and gifted them to our teachers, neighbors, friends, and relatives.
Each memory of Chinese New Year is equated with my mother, Susie Chin. An immigrant from Hong Kong, she set forth the cultural tone in our household, ensuring we upheld family honor and Chinese values. Mom made sure we respected elders, followed through with responsibilities, and obeyed our teachers. By the time I had children, I relied on her to pass on Chinese New Year traditions and its many blessings. When my daughter Gwen and son Aaron were preschoolers, she delighted in dressing them in matching silk red outfits for the holiday. Several times she was invited to speak to my son’s class. Students gazed in amazement as she wrote the Happy New Year greeting “Gung Hay Fat Choy” in Chinese on the whiteboard and generously handed out hung bao to all the students.
Now that she’s in her 80s, maintaining the roster of rituals is not as important to her as before. Mom, now known as Popo, is happy enough to be coddled by her children and grandchildren, and to see them often. This week as I host our Chinese New Year dinner, I plan to purchase a Tray of Togetherness and to share the meaning of its contents and hand out pairs of red envelopes just as my mother did for all of us. And I cannot wait to again make gok chai with Popo in my kitchen.